Coming of age in the evolutionary behavioral sciences
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English

Coming of age in the evolutionary behavioral sciences

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From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 11 issue 2 : 347-349.

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Published 01 January 2013
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Language English
Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net2013. 11(2): 347349
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Book Review
Coming of Age in the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences A review of Nicholas B. Davies, John R. Krebs, and Stuart A. West,An Introduction to th Behavioural Ecology, 4 Edition.WileyBlackwell, 2012, 520 pp., US$61.72, ISBN #978 1405114165 (paperback). H. Clark Barrett, Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture, Department of Anthropology , University of California, Los Angeles, USA. Email:baanrtrhett@cla.ro.udeuWhen it comes to studying behavior from an evolutionary point of view for as most things in life, perhapsyou’ve got your GlassHalfEmpty people and your Glass HalfFull people. The GHE crowd likes to point to the uncertainties in our understanding of evolution, to the many things about the evolutionary past that are difficult or impossible to know, and to the hubris of mere humans who think they can figure it out with a little model building and hypothesis testing. Famously, this camp includes many prominent biologists, such as Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, known for equating evolutionary hypotheses with children’s fairytales that can be made up at whim and bent to any purpose. The collective message of this growing mob of biologists, philosophers, and social scientists appears to be that we ought to just stay away from the evolutionary study of mind, brain, and behavior if we know what’s good for us. To them, it’s a noman’sland where all hypotheses are equally plausible, evidence can be used any way you like, and whatever facts we might need in order to do real science are lost in the mists of time. Then there are the GHFers, a camp in which I’d include Davies, Krebs, and West (hereafter, DKW) and their new book,An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology. This is a thoroughly revised and uptodate fourth edition of what has been, since 1981, a classic introductory text in behavioral ecology. As the authors state on the book’s first page, it “celebrates a maturing and flourishing field, with exciting new links being forged with other disciplines” (p. x) –among which they mention parasitology, medicine, conservation, agriculture, microbiology, and the social and human sciences. Indeed, so comprehensive is this text in the scope and breadth of what it covers that it could be used as a text for any class on evolution, mind, and behavior. Reading it from cover to cover makes you realize two things: first, that our field is flourishing, sprouting many new branches and becoming ever more rigorously grounded in basic science; and second, that the GHEers must not have read very much of this stuff. Indeed, it’s hard to read even a few pages of the book without realizing that the whole field is about developing rigorous hypotheses and then, well, testing them.
Coming of age
Nor are the kinds of hypotheses being tested here radically different than what Gould and Lewontin had in mind when they coined the somewhat sinister sounding term “the adaptationist program.” On the contrary, the book is a smorgasbord ofadtptaoiintsa hypotheses, developed and put to the test. As DKW put it, “Behavioural ecology is about functional explanations (the answers to ‘why?’ questions) of behavior” (p. 436). In fact, so widespread is this functionalist approach that it encompasses all of the socalled “branches” of current evolutionary behavioral science, including evolutionary psychology and culture gene coevolution. These fields aren’t covered in depth in the book, nor are humans per se, as most of the case studies come from nonhuman animals. However, the book makes clear  in my view refreshingly, fundamental unity between all fields studying evolution the and behavior, grounded as they all are in the impressive and stillgrowing body of formal evolutionary theory. What the book also makes clear, and what is often not apparent to nonpractitioners of evolutionary behavioral science, is what a unique body of theory evolutionary theory is. We call it “formal” theory because it is rooted deeply in mathematicsbased models, and modeling techniques such as evolutionary game theory play a central role in the book. But just as formal models in physics and chemistry must remain true to the idiosyncratic properties of the physical stuff they are modeling, so too must evolutionary models be uniquely tailored to investigate specific phenomena; there are no “allpurpose” evolutionary models. As a result, evolutionary theory as we know it today is full of bizarre and sometimes counterintuitive findings that arise from the peculiar quirks, tradeoffs and constraints of phenomena like sexual reproduction, gene replication, and the mechanics of development. The book covers a variety of branches of evolutionary theory that require models specially tailored to the phenomenon at hand, including arms races, cooperation, sexual conflict, parental care, and signaling. It shows the reader the logic of these formal models and how they arise from the causal constraints and dynamics of the underlying systemsoften drawn from multiple studies, that hasand then presents empirical evidence, been used to assess the models. The book will be of use to any student or scholar seeking to understand how evolutionary thinking can be used to build rigorous models which can then be tested, often with a large dose of empirical ingenuity, against the world. In evolutionary biology, modelers are sometimes held to be the high priests, and perhaps rightly so. But this book makes clear that the ability to strike out into the unruly world of living things and come back with just the right data to test a hypothesis is also a high art, without which the models would be mostly pretty pictures. The book also offers a variety of historical case studies in which what was once thought to be true has since been revised in the light of new theory and datatuobcafaesthat might lead some towards skepticism and others towards optimism about the field. After all, such revisions should never occur if Gould and Lewontin are right: data don’t matter for justso stories. But DKW describe several areas in which recent progress has been made, overturning old ideas. For example, it was once thought that sex ratio at birth in vertebrate taxa such as birds and mammals was constrained by chromosomal sex determination mechanisms, and could not be facultatively adjusted by a parent. New evidence suggests that this might not be true and that some vertebrate taxa do facultatively adjust sex ratios, though the mechanism by which this happens is still not understood. To
Evolutionary PsychologyISSN 14747049 348Volume 11(2). 2013.
Coming of age
GHFers, this is good news: more mechanisms yet to discover, more things to study under the evolutionary lens. While the book paints an impressive, positive portrait of the state of the field, it is not without controversies and caveats. In most cases, DKW seem to offer relatively balanced depictions of existing consensus in the field, but the re are exceptions. One area where some readers might take issue is in their discussion of levels of selection, which has for decades been one of the most contentious topics in evolutionary biology. Here, DKW acknowledge the resurgence of “new” group selection models and other kinds of multi level and structuredpopulation models, only to suggest that these models offer, in essence, nothing new. They suggest that these models make “the same predictions as Hamilton’s rule” (p. 428), a claim that is currently the focus of substantial debate. They suggest that group selection models are mathematically equivalent to inclusive fitness models, are less easy to develop, harder to test, more confusing, and move the focus from adaptation. Not all readers would agree with these claims, and teachers using the text might take care to explain to their students aspects of this debate that are still not agreed upon in the literature. DKW end the book on this final, GlassHalfFull note: Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that we would be able to study sexual conflict at the molecular level; or that we would be using experiments with robotic fish to model human crowd control; or that microbes would become wonderful experimental models for studying the evolution ofsocial behaviour; or that Hamilton’s kin selection ideas could be applied to our understanding of human diseases? With the advent of these exciting ideas, and the use of new experimental and analytical techniques, it seems to us that these are the very best of times to be a behavioural ecologist. (p. 440). After reading this book, it’s hard not to agree. For those of us who study humans this view of the future is particularly refreshing, because the mantra of the GHEers seems to be that we’re pretty much done: everything we’re going to know about human evolution is either already known, or never will be. As DKW point out, the technological and theoretical advances we’re witnessing across the sciences make this pessimism seem particularly unwarranted. Moreover, the book points to the merging of knowledge that is occurring across the many branches of the life and social sciences. This suggests that the intellectual landscape that my generation grew up in with strong sociological one boundaries between subfields such as evolutionary psychology, culturegene coevolution theory and behavioral ecologyis shifting. With some luck, those that come of age in the new generation of evolutionary behavioral science won’t recognize these distinctions, and will instead consider themselves members of a single, but remarkably diverse, field.
Evolutionary PsychologyISSN 14747049 349Volume 11(2). 2013.