G. Barker (Columbia University Press), October 10th, 2015

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Beyond biofatalism cover outline

Award Winning Publication

Evolutionary psychology applies the ideas and methods of evolutionary science to increase understanding of how people act and think. Leading thinkers in evolutionary psychology recently have weighed in on questions of social reform. In particular they have argued that some efforts to make societies more peaceful, inclusive, cooperative, democratic, and egalitarian are unrealistic because they go against qualities of human nature that have been instilled by the process of evolution. They draw on the science of evolution to warn that the pursuit of such "utopian" goals may well do more harm than good. Their warning is particularly telling at a time when climate scientists and demographers are explaining how pressures of climate change, population growth, and other environmental changes threaten new conflicts, inequalities and oppressions, threats that seem to make reforms imperative. But does evolutionary science really support their warnings?

This book argues that it does not. It undertakes a careful and critical analysis of the reasoning and evidence supporting these warnings and it surveys creative recent work on evolution, development and behavior. Together these studies yield a more optimistic picture of a human nature capable of responsive change at both the individual and the social level. It also points to a new conception both of the scope of human evolutionary psychology and its role in discussions of social goals and policies.

The new conception of evolutionary psychology and the growing understanding of the mechanisms of change will ground a well-informed discussion of the moral and political aspects of change. I begin this discussion in the final chapter of the book. While the well-known values of freedom, justice, and equality remain crucial, they must now be understood in new ways that take account of the capacity of humans for responsive change in relation to their environments. This book shows how evolutionary thinking about human behavior–evolutionary psychology properly understood–can be a useful and vital part of the crucial discussion about what kinds of social change are feasible and what paths of change are good to pursue.

Reception of Beyond Biofatalism

"Gillian Barker's Beyond Biofatalism is an indispensable antidote to dangerous complaisance about contemporary social institutions, and to unwarranted resignation about our powers to improve them, both fostered by a superficial Darwinism. All of us committed to employing Darwin's insights about adaptation to understanding and ameliorating social life need to read this book." -Alexander Rosenberg, Duke University

"Barker’s focus on the conjunction of plasticity and stability, on viewing adaptations as a space of alternatively realizable equilibria between phenotypic distributions and environmental states, is as unique as it is insightful." -Bruce Glymour, Kansas State University