The chapter I read was a reprint of an article by Daniel Lehrman originally published in 1953 critiquing Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior (the link opens a PDF to the full article, which is excerpted in the chapter in Cycles of Contingency). I would like to touch on a couple of things in response to reading the chapter: The relevance of Lehrman’s critique to current approaches, especially in evolutionary psychology, and the odd reluctance to adopt systems approaches.
Lehrman provides some interesting examples from animal studies that call into question Lorenz’s claim to innate behavior. His approach lends itself to generalization in answering the question: How do we want to explain the origins of behavior? And his critique seems to echo some of the concerns with evolutionary psychology. His approach can be gleaned from his example on the pecking behavior of chicks. Lorenz attributed this behavior to innate forces: The chicks are born with the tendency to peck; it might require just a bit of maturation. Lehrman points out that research by Kuo provides an explanation based on the embryonic development of the chick. The pecking behavior can actually be traced back to movements that developed while the chick was still unhatched. Hardly innate! The main point Lehrman makes: If we claim that something is innate, we stop the scientific investigation without fully understanding the origin of the behavior. This leaves out important – and fascinating – parts of the explanation because we think we’ve answered the question. As he puts it: “the statement “It is innate” adds nothing to an understanding of the developmental process involved” (30). I think this is also the danger of genetic/evolutionary explanations: If we explain mating behavior, for example, by tracing it back to supposedly genetic origins, we ignore potentially richer explanations that capture all the influences on the development of certain behaviors. I mentioned the development of lactose tolerance in adults briefly in a comment. Lactose tolerance is genetically driven but if we stop with the gene, we would miss that the tolerance in human adults developed only after agriculture became part of our culture. And apparently, it developed independently in several places – in some places with the same genetic change in others with different. Why? Again, the “genes did it” answer misses this question. The answer might be fascinating (I don’t know if scientists have figured this out yet…). Similarly with mating behavior: Maybe monogamy is not innate but so many humans live monogamous (or at least try to), there are obviously forces at play that go beyond the innate tendency. And even with genes themselves: What triggers certain genes to become active while others don’t? This is also very important for understanding certain diseases, such as hypothyroidism, which have a genetic component. But just having a genetic predisposition is not enough. Something must trigger the gene to start acting. It is very important to realize that neither Lehrman nor DST advocate “nurture” explanations. The key is to move beyond the nature-nurture schema, which includes giving up figuring out the percentage contribution of each, but to look for explanations of behavior that integrate all influences.
Lehrman’s article was originally published in 1953. And as Timothy Johnston points out in his introduction to the article, it largely fell on deaf ears. Researchers responding to Lehrman thought he just switched sides by contributing all explanatory power for behavior to learning (aka “nurture”). He does not: Again, he advocates leaving the innate/learning dichotomy behind. It’s not either-or; it’s always both. Similar patterns of reactions to systems advocates can be found in other areas as well. Anne Fausto-Sterling has called for using systems approaches since the mid-1980s. Then again very obviously in her 2006 Bare Bones articles. She suggests that we cannot understand the development of bones if we only look at genes, for example. She identifies seven systems that influence bone development, some biological/genetic, some environmental, all interacting. It is as if nobody heeded her call and she threw up her hands and decided to do the research herself because she is now actively doing research, following her proposal (of course, she might have planned this all along and I might be reading frustration into her “Bare Bones” article but…). A similar thing seemed to have happened with system-justification theory, an approach to explaining internalized stereotypes proposed by John Jost and Mahzarin Banaji in 1994. Their follow-up article written 10-years later reads just as much as a call for using systems-justification theory as the original article. It seems like the systems approach had not taken off. Why this reluctance to adopt systems theories? Systems approaches tend to be more complicated. It’s not just genes (with a little bit of environment or culture thrown in) or ego-justification (with some group-justification added). It is an interplay of various forces that combine to develop certain behaviors and/or traits. Maybe this complication makes these theories less attractive. They seem to make a lot more sense, though, at least to me. System-justification, for example, explains the “weird” phenomenon of people acting against their own self-interest: Even lower status groups, people discriminated against, act to maintain the status quo. System-justification captures this (maintaining the status quo requires that we justify the system). Of course, explaining that behavior pulls in the other systems theory: We need to look at the interplay of cognitive biases, such as resistance to change, and cultural forces, such as pressures to maintain a system, including oppression.