Grand Dad and Psychological Adaptations: Is There a Universal Human Nature? (1)
If we accept that behavioral similarities can occur within families as more than a methodological artifact, we look next for some mechanism or analogy that brings the observations into presently existing scientific models. One such possibility is that of "Adapted Systems," adaptations, or psychological adaptations, as described by Tooby & Cosmides (1992).
Adapted Systems are said to consist of muscular, chemical, endocrine, cognitive, and sensory elements that work in a unified manner to solve a particular survival problem such as mating, getting food, rearing children, managing property, avoiding incest, and so forth. Adapted Systems are thought to have been refined during the Pleistocene and to be universal across human cultures. Indeed, if the behavior patterns are not universal, then they are assigned a cultural derivation (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Symonds, 1992).
However, there are some problems in drawing upon Adapted Systems as an underpinning for the observations in Here Comes Grand Dad Again (Brody, 1997). Aside from academic and popular reactions (2), Adapted Systems as defined by Barkow, et al. (1992) may not fit the data at a variety of levels. The Universality Rule is probably not valid for individuals. (3)
There are high degrees of client variability in behaviors that are plausible expressions of Adapted Systems and, therefore, should be invariant across people and peoples. But, some of my clients are skilled tool users (even at age 6), others are not. Some of them excel growing plants; others kill them easily. Baby sitting is second nature to some; alien to others. Some are skilled readers of people's feelings; others appear to be brain damaged with respect to social empathy. Some of my young patients could duplicate an F16 jet with Leggos and probably make it fly; others have little skill at building things. A few of them are expert when catching a cold football on an icy field; others cannot make a catch in any conditions. Still others read, calculate, and remember baseball or hockey standings even though they have problems with academic math.(4)
Even within The Adapted Mind, the notion of the "universality" of Adapted Systems is highly suspect. In one chapter, Profet (1992) discusses pregnancy sickness as an adapted system, yet many women do not get pregnancy sickness. Certainly, these mechanisms are sufficiently helpful for survival that they likely occur in many members of every culture; but, they probably are not phenotypically expressed with equal intensity, if at all, in every member of those cultures.
On still another level, Dawkins (1982) discusses behavior programs in individual wasps, assumed to be expressions of competing genes. There are competing programs for (a) digging a new nest or (b) entering and using an old nest. As the proportion of Diggers increases, the proportion of Enterers decreases until the point at which there is an abundance of previously occupied, empty nests. At that point, the Enterers have an advantage and begin to increase. Thus both tactics are relatively constant across generations. It would be wrong to insist that there is a Universal Wasp Nature with constant adaptations for digging that apply to every individual. Even with wasps, Dawkins talks about the "average" performance in the population.(5)
Aside from arbitrary philosophical reasons or even tactical ones, we may conceive that Adapted Systems vary in their expression across individuals. If so, then the events noted in Grand Dad no longer belong in a conceptually unique arena. Both Adapted Systems and familial behavior traits appear relatively stereotyped in form, repetitive, and performed with little planning or concentration. Both sets of behaviors seem to unfold with development or come very easily with little modeling or instruction required, again "with all other things being equal."
Variability in Adapted Systems could occur in many ways. For example:
a) Pennington (1991) suggests that more newly evolved mechanisms, such as those underlying Executive Functions, are more easily disrupted by unusual events during pregnancy or infancy. A similar analysis may hold true for Adapted Systems in that newer ones depend on a more complex foundation of earlier Adapted Systems. The Adapted Systems for hunting depend heavily on Adapted Systems for breathing and for heartbeat as well as those for tracking and throwing objects. Genetic and ontogenetic variability may account for the different intensities with which Adapted Systems are expressed in different people.
b) It could be that some Adapted Systems, because of newness or complexity, are more easily disrupted by varying recessive and dominant combinations within the genes of different people (6). Thus, differences in genotype could affect the expression of the genes underlying particular skills.
c) As in the case of language acquisition and use, some Adapted Systems could heavily depend upon early experience for their expression; others could vanish if not used early (Gazzaniga, 1992).
d) It may be in the nature of Adapted Systems that they simply are not present in every individual; that they are as variable as hair color or the shape of our noses.
Unfortunately, some of the phenomena may be too detailed for even Adapted System foundations. One of my associates is a journalist who has had an "urge" for years to work with stone. She was puzzled by this inclination until she heard "Grand Dad" and recalled that her own grandfather was a stone mason. Her yearning seems too detailed for an Adapted System as we now understand them. Another acquaintance was extremely embarrassed and guilty about his fascination for watching children, particularly their legs. I suggested that so powerful a trait may also occur in some of his relatives. Despite initial skepticism, he found similar behavior troubled his brother and was exhibited by his father. It appears that none of these gentlemen had ever discussed, modeled, or reinforced the interests for one other.(7)
One role of culture:
People, and sometimes our brothers, the chimpanzee, have "culture," which allows the members with intact Adaptive Systems in one domain, e.g., hunting, to share the methods with us laggards. Likewise, the gifted with childcare may coach the mothers who are inept, aloof, or scattered. Elaboration of (perhaps) altruism leads to culture which helps all of us get awkins (1982) discusses behavior programs in individual wasps, assumed to be expressions of competing genes. There are competing programs for (a) digging a new nest or (b) entering and using an old nest. As the proportion of Diggers increases, the proportion of Enterers decreases until the point at which there is an abundance of previously occupied, empty nests. At that point, the Enterers have an advantage and begin to increase. Thus both tactics are relatively constant across ect of suppressing alternative behaviors and the survival of some members. The phenomenon of lateral inhibition comes to play such that established methods and ideas inhibit refinements. In these latter instances, we can imagine "speciation events" such as a sudden loss of food, changes in climate, or new, hostile neighbors that force changes in diet, weapons, child rearing, housing, and all the other things we do to get to the next generation (8).
2) Adapted Systems is a relatively new concept and, therefore, suspect. Zealous application of this promising concept could possibly discredit both the observations and the concept itself. Adapted Systems is a sharp contrast to much psychological theory for the past 5 decades, there's almost a thrill in using the idea. It's as if we are breaking some really big rules by considering biological foundations for phenomena that once rested on early rearing, Pavlov, Skinner, Dollard and Miller. Unfortunately, if we have too much fun with the idea, it may have greater difficulty in gaining acceptance within the scientific and academic communities, the settings from where refinement and verification are most likely to come. Reactions from the general public also present other difficulties. None of us want an item on the 6 P.M. news that "it's all genetic." Ideas already roll through our culture every couple of months, many of them about genetics. We don't need any more bad ones. Barkley (1996) detailed well the underlying reasons for this intense, high turnover of ideas about ADHD. He analyzed the prior 18 months of largely negative media attention to ADHD and to the use of psychostimulants for children and adults. His analysis is equally valid for genetics. For example, we value rapid information after an event and in compressed form (perhaps an expression of Adapted Systems for detection and avoidance of danger!). There is often an adversarial nature to news presentations of ideas in that only two possibilities are considered and one of them must "win." Presentations are in the active voice and done within a few seconds; a few minutes is a comparative eternity. Media presentations are shaped by rapid feedback about audience share, and by implication, the number of people exposed to an advertiser's product information. Frightening and unnecessary polarizations can occur about genetics; polarizations with respect to Free Will, our patterns of rearing our children, racial issues, and religious views. Indeed, the greater the polarization, the more likely there will be media attention. It's a mixed blessing that we no longer have small villages wherein we personally know whomever is generating an idea and where time is allotted for careful thought. New thoughts are not buffered (encouraged or suppressed!) by coherent, traditional views and practices. Alexander (1996) reviews some of these matters in the February issue of the HBES newsletter in a discussion of evolutionary thought, popular culture, and religion; they apparently were a factor in Darwin's time as well (Eiseley, 1979).
3) There are a number of ways around the Universality Problem. (a) Not all of us are human given that we don't all share the essentials of Human Nature, (b) every one of us has all of the Adapted Systems by genotype but may not express them because of quirks in our development, (c) "true" and universal Adapted Systems exist but make possible all the confusing variability we see in talents for child care, building, growing food, hunting, mate chasing, and peer bashing. Believing in (a) implies a need for therapy and perhaps a missing Adaptive System for humor while (b) seems like a prayer for the choir members but could have a lot of merit (see Goodwin, 1994). If you're not bored with Plato, then choose (c)!
4) A similar problem exists concerning medication effects in different people. There is great variability across people with respect to the adsorption and longevity of medication in the bloodstream as well as behavioral responses to the medication. Zoloft, for example, alerts many people but sedates others. It calms some but makes others of them jumpy. Haldol minimizes tics in many people but exaggerates them in others. A large percentage of people has difficulty sleeping after taking methylphenidate, a small group, however, has no problem whatever. Overall, it appears that our responses to medications (and our underlying chemical systems) may be just as variable as our faces.
5) Dawkins, 1982, p. 118.
6) Imagine a "personals" notice that says, "Wanted, partner with all Adapted Systems intact." Further qualifying language would mention clear skin, high energy level, and symmetrical features (Buss, 1994).
7) Some of the twin studies report high levels of behavioral similarities for twins reared apart. If it can happen for twins, why not for the rest of us?
8) There is thought to be an inverse relation between altruism and competition as a function of population density (although there are some reports of chimps being more altruistic as their numbers increase). It's tempting to compare the altruism/competition balance in the same language that Dawkins (1982) used for the Digger/Enterer programs in wasps. Some of the altruistic features of our society, features created after a time of cheap fuel, little external threat, lower population, and abundant resources, seem to be fading. Competition and self interest seem to be increasing. Is there a genuine trend or a local spasm of highly variable data? Will the altruists become more strident and maintain their proportion in our culture? If there is a change in the percentages of each, is it a function of population density or fading resources? Or a third factor? Or even a hundred other factors?
Alexander, R. (1996) The view from the president's window. Human behavior and evolution society newsletter. Feb., 1996, pp. 1-4 as posted at "news96a.htm at psyuch.lmu.edu."
Barkley, R. (1996) Medication controversy: Why now? Presentation at the 8th Annual ChADD Conference, Chicago, IL, 11/15/96.
Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992) The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford.
Brody, J. (1997) Here comes granddad again. Unpublished manuscript. Posted on Behavior OnLine at http://www.behavior.net/forumfront.html.
Buss, D. (1994) The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.
Dawkins, R. (1982) The extended phenotype. New York: Oxford.
Eiseley, L. (1979) Darwin and the mysterious mr. x. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Gazzaniga, M. (1992) Nature's mind. New York: Basic Books.
Goodwin, B. How the leopard changed its spots: The evolution of complexity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Pennington, B. (1991) Diagnosing learning disorders: A neuropsychological framework. New York: Guilford.
Profet, M. (1992) Pregnancy sickness as an adaptation: A deterrent to maternal ingestion of teratogens. In Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.) (1992) The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford, pp. 327-366.
Symonds, D. On the use and (a) implies a need for therapy and perhaps a missing Adaptive System for humor while (b) seems like a prayer for the choir members but could have a lot of merit (see Goodwin, 1994). If you're not bored with Plato, then choose (c)!
4) A similar problem exists concerning medication effects in different people. There is great variability across people with respect to the adsorption and longevity of medication in the bloodstream as well as behavioral responses to the medformat