March 12, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Humans as Lab Rats, or, Can an Evolved Brain Reason?

Evolutionary biologists and neurologists use their fellow humans as guinea pigs, performing experiments and drawing conclusions about their evolutionary past.  One question rarely asked is how reliable are conclusions drawn from the biologist’s brain that is presumably just as evolved as that of its lab subject.
    Everyone does philosophy, but some do it better than others.  Philosophers both professional and amateur may wish to cogitate on the reasoning process used in a couple of recent studies, particularly as it relates to inductive reasoning, assumptions, and explanatory inference.

  1. The evolution of punishment:  Science published results of economic game experiments by European researchers using human subjects.1  They wanted to explore the incidence of “antisocial punishment,” in which non-cooperators retaliate against cooperators.  They devised games that college students played and measured the behaviors of cooperators and non-cooperators.
        How does a researcher select human subjects to be able to draw conclusions about human society in general?  They realized their choice of question presented methodological challenges.  “To minimize sociodemographic variability,” they said, “we conducted all experiments with university undergraduates (n = 1120) who were similar in age, shared an (upper) middle class background, and usually did not know each other.”  Their goal, however, was to explain universal human behavior – even animal behavior.
        In support of their choice of guinea pigs, they said, “Because both indicators [metrics used in the experiment] reflect the views of the average citizen in a given society, it is likely that our participants, through various forms of cultural transmission, have been exposed to the prevalent social norms and have perceptions of the quality of the rule of law in their respective societies.”  From their results, they drew broad conclusions that could impact legal and economic policy: “The detrimental effects of antisocial punishment on cooperation (and efficiency) also provide a further rationale why modern societies shun revenge and centralize punishment in the hands of the state.”
        In the same issue of Science,2 Herbert Gintis did not question the validity of the experiments.  He also asserted that this and other studies shed light on the evolution of the human condition: “This reservoir of moral predispositions is based on an innate prosociality that is a product of our evolution as a species, as well as the uniquely human capacity to internalize norms of social behavior.  Both forces predispose individuals to behave morally even when this conflicts with their material interests.”  The explanatory inference was thus extended into the realm of moral philosophy.
        Gintis appeared satisfied with the use of games to shed light on human moral behavior.  He did not question the choice of experimental subjects, or if they could be trusted to act during a contrived game the same way they would in other social contexts.  He did not consider the roles of human language, abstract reasoning and moral judgments on the decisions made by people before considering whether they are applicable to animals.  And he did not ask if morality is really moral if it is an inherited predisposition toward certain behaviors from an animal past.
  2. Bee logical:  “We are interested in how brains evolve in concert with social evolution,” said Sean O’Donnell at University of Washington, reported Science Daily.   That’s why he is studying wasps.
        “There is the intriguing possibility that there are similar patterns across wide spans of evolutionary time,” he said.  Apparently, to O’Donnell at least, if shrew Katherine is capable of waspish behavior, that implies a kind of convergent evolution across millions of years.
        O’Donnell’s thesis was stated succinctly in paragraph one: “brainpower required to be dominant drives brain capacity.”  Can this hypothesis, even if demonstrable for insects, be applicable to human beings?  He realizes that humans and wasps are “super-distant animals” in evolutionary terms.  Nevertheless, he feels, random evolutionary forces can be trusted to generate discernible patterns.  Here’s how he put it:

    Increased brainpower may be part of being social, no matter who you are,” What makes this exciting is we see some common patterns in how brains change as societies evolve.  As we see changes in social complexity, there are changes in brain structure.  If it is good for people it should be good for wolves, dolphins and paper wasps.” 

    Science Daily ended with this quote, apparently satisfied with its logic.  There was no mention of whether any attempt was made to demonstrate the pattern elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  No one seemed to question the explanatory inference involved, nor the consequences: for instance, could the idea lead to discrimination against small-brained people?  Another possibility not considered was whether the drive to dominance might be expressed in other ways: speed, agility, defense, coloration, body size, or any number of other phenotypic manifestations, brain size being held constant.  Also, might not quality of a brain be more important than size?  Crows are said to be smarter than chimpanzees (02/23/2007).
        Even though O’Donnell acknowledged unanswered questions and the need for more work, the article begged many questions about the approach and the explanation that a philosopher of science might interject.  It just assumed: if evolution gave wasps bigger brains because they somehow were on a path to dominance, the big brains of humans must have emerged by the same process.  What is meant by dominance?  Does a big brain necessarily correlate with dominance?  Exceptions could probably be multiplied: could mosquitoes be said to dominate the caribou they drive into the mountains?  Did not small-brained dinosaurs dominate larger-brained mammals for millions of years, according to widely-held evolutionary beliefs?  Evolution was used simultaneously as an assumption and an explanation, and that at a gross morphological level.  The title stated in stark either-or terms: “Which Came First, Social Dominance Or Big Brains?  Wasps May Tell.” 

But if human reasoning be waspish, best beware its sting.  The first article undermined morality and called human behavior an innate, evolved predisposition toward certain kinds of behavior.  Does that not apply just as much to scientific reasoning?  The second article drew parallels between wasp brain power and human brain power.  But if brains are mere artifacts of social evolution, to what standard would the biologist appeal for drawing rational conclusions?


1.  Hermann et al, “Antisocial Punishment Across Societies,” Science, 7 March 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5868, pp. 1362-1367, DOI: 10.1126/science.1153808.
2.  Herbert Gintis, “Behavior: Punishment and Cooperation,” Science, 7 March 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5868, pp. 1345-1346, DOI: 10.1126/science.1155333.

Does anyone think for a minute that college undergrads playing games are going to provide some universal principle that will apply to all human societies for all time?  Or that the behavior of wasps tells us anything about human rationality?  These ideas are checkmated by the fact that they undermine the scientist’s own reasoning – thus, they are self-refuting.
    Evolutionists do this all the time and get away with it.  Their reasoning stings itself dead.  They undermine their own arguments and end up spouting nonsense.  Where, O where, are the logic cops?  Philosophers are supposed to criticize bad reasoning and draw distinctions.  They are supposed to eliminate the weeds and pests in the garden of reasoning so that knowledge can flourish.  Why are they scared to death to cross the Darwin Party caretakers who have let the weeds strangle the fruit? 

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, Human Body

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