Gould and Lewontin on Evolutionary Psychology

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The paper is focused on finding an answer to the philosophical question concerning whether science can tell us what it means to be human. The paper provides a philosophical analysis of the article written by Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. In addition, aspects of evolutionary psychology and adaptationism are taken into consideration to get better involvement in the issue. Despite the progress made, science still has more questions than answers and the issue regarding human nature is one of the most multifaceted and difficult to grasp. Philosophical ideas represented in the paper contribute to a better understanding of the topic and aim to highlight the relationship between humans, animals, and scientific predictions.

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As a matter of fact, the scientists stressed that people are different. Although the human DNA is very close to one of the chimpanzees, there are not so many similarities between an animal and a human being, and it is not only about the erect posture or the size of the brain, it is more about the unique human ability to make a decision and take actions (Rochat, 2006). Society has already achieved progress and impressive advance in technology, space programs; however, how much do we know about a human being? What science can tell us about what it means to be a human? Providing the answer to this question by analyzing the work of Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin regarding the critique of adaptationism is the fundamental objective of the paper. In spite of the fact that there are a lot of approaches to answer the question regarding what science can tell us about what it means to be human, it is possible to identify scientists, Gould and Lewontin, who provide new insights on the issue, and their point of view should be taken into consideration.

First of all, it should be stated that science throws the spotlight, which is used to search for knowledge, very selective. In other words, what science decides to consider or to explain in scientific terms is quite limited and quite biased. Evolutionary psychology is centered on the study of the significance of adaptive behavior and attempts to explain how behavioral patterns changed over time. Darwin’s words, written more than a hundred years ago, emphasized that each level of cognitive and behavioral complexity is achieved slowly, gradually, generation after generation, for huge periods of time.

It is as difficult to reconstruct evolutionary events chronologically as it is difficult to imagine the future. When scientists aim to reconstruct such events, it deals more with theories, not with evidence. There are too many assumptions in such explanations. Unfortunately, scientists do not have enough data to determine the ancestors of Homo sapiens. All the attempts to explain the development of humankind are based on the linear representation of evolution, which is characterized by the development in a particular order. However, in the reality, there is no linear development. Thus, there were a lot of different branches of evolutionary development; however, only one exists now.

Evolutionary psychology provides interesting ideas regarding the development of human nature and that is, is relevant for philosophical understanding of the topic. This type of psychology aims to examine the past and analyze the present and future (Cosmides & Tooby, 1997). Evolutionary psychology provides some insights into what human nature means and how it changes, and that is, is essential to be taken into account while finding an answer regarding what it means to be human. All the data regarding human development and peculiarities are not always described as a causal relationship. Those things that Darwin’s approach explains as a result might be the reason.

All people are the same, and yet they are all different (Dupre, 2004). There is a really amazing similarity between all people that is striking. This similarity can be considered as human nature that unites all people and distinguishes us from other living beings (Hull, 1980). Walking upright, thin skin and a relative lack of hair on the body set us apart from all other mammals. All living things change to some extent the environment in which they live, but we are unique as we radically transform the world according to our needs (Hacking, 2006). This is human power, and it should be directed to the improvement of the world but not on selfish and mercantile objectives.

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One of the exclusion peculiarities of humankind is that society is divided into five major races. However, evolutionary biology claims that the question regarding race has no relation to biology. Recent research proved that knowing the human race no conclusions can be drawn concerning his gene make-up as different people of one race have different sets of genes (Kaplan, 2010). It is the consequence of the adaptation process of humans to environmental conditions. Understanding the origin, scientists can draw the conclusion; however, it is impossible to create a reliable theory without the understanding of origin. However, even the popular theory does not mean that it is a fundamental truth.

There is hardly a person in the world that will deny some similarities between a human being and an animal. Due to the process of evolution, a human being has changed appearance, body, and mind. Although there are some similarities, there is a huge gap between human nature and animals. The debates centered on the question concerning the ability of science to explain human nature are not new and demand further investigation.

The question regarding the determinacy of humankind is hidden in illusive simplicity on the one side and versatility of approaches from another. The method used by Darwin claims that humankind is the result of long processes on the way to survival. Natural selection and genetic drift contributed to evolution. It means that all people have a unique and universal ability to adapt. However, Gould and Lewontin argue the significance of natural selection in their famous work The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.

The article aims to discover and highlight the way the species evolved (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). The authors of the work point out that the process of development should not be undervalued while analyzing the evolution. According to the researchers, constraints of various types played a significant role in the evolution and contributed to the development of traits and species (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Different species experience similar stages of development, however, the constraints determine the way of evolution, and that is, in particular, is significant. The development of different species is related to the phenomena of diversification. Constraints determine diversification.

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Another point to take into account is the theory of biological determinism. Biological determinism is the theory that highlights the dependence of the behavior of human beings to genes. However, these traits are not determined by genes (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Violation of rights and abusive behavior was justified by the theory, claiming that some nations tend to have poor intellect or aggressiveness. Because of the popularity of the theory, a number of people were sterilized as the government aimed to prevent the reproduction of people with abusive behavior or aggressiveness (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Having enough scientific data and discoveries a human being takes too much responsibility and decides who should live or die. Society is uncontrolled in the question, and it results in racial conflicts and wars. A human should be responsible for actions and the usage of force and face consequences.

The question regarding the ability of science to express and evaluate human nature seems important to discuss as it contributes to self-perception and self-understanding. Every living being has a particular shape due to the process of natural selection. Supporters of the adaptationism movement develop their theories based on no evidence regarding the evolution of traits. An intense critique of adaptationism is understandable as it is based only on theories and not on scientific data. In contrast to adaptationism, the theory of constraints provides relevant information.

As a matter of fact, statements provided by Lewontin and Gould are very similar to the ones made by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. However, there are not so many similarities with adaptationism. Selection is not the only process that consequently leads to the adaptation of the trait. Genetic drift is an example of the evolutionary process that occurs without selection and adaptation as well. The most difficult thing is to understand the origin of the part that was adapted. In some cases, the part could have been adapted for a totally different function. However, due to the process of adaptation, it re-adapted. Multiple adaptations are not a new phenomenon; however, it makes it difficult to see the origin and without an understanding of the origin it is almost impossible to develop a theory that will be considered right.

Gould and Lewontin accused biologists that they ignore alternative powers and thinking too much of natural selection. They ridiculed an explanation provided by other scientists, supporters of determinism, calling their arguments “just-so stories” – an allusion to Kipling’s tales (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Thus, pluralism should be the guiding power in research as natural selection is not the only phenomenon that influenced the process of evolution. People became dominant in the world; however, it will not be forever. The process of evolution did not stop, and everyone is an integral part of it. Society has already substituted natural selection and decides itself who is going to live or die.

What does it mean to be a human being? This question is probably the most controversial in the whole world. Although people are all different, we are similar at the same time. A number of scientists and Phillip Rochat as well stress that the fundamental guiding power for a human is public opinion. The biggest reason for concern is what other people think of us. According to the researcher, being a human means taking care of reputation and prestige. Being excluded from the group can be considered as the biggest fear that a person has. Rochas compares it to the “psychological death” (Rochat, 2006). Rejection is most cases is taken very painfully. It is worth highlighting that negative public opinion is usually felt as personal tragedy (Rochat, 2006).

The philosophical understanding of what it means to be a human is highly dependent on the evolutionary stages. Although Gould undoubtedly belonged to the supporters of neo-Darwinism, his views on some aspects of the theory of evolution are different from the classic. For example, according to Gould, the role of natural selection in the evolution of living beings is overvalued, and the importance of alternative mechanisms of evolution was wrongly downplayed. In addition, he sharply criticized many aspects of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

It is commonly believed that Darwin was radical in his ideas regarding natural selection. The majority was sure that the scientists referred to other mechanisms that stimulated evolution only for a concession as people were not aware of the mechanisms of heredity (Gould& Lewontin, 1979). However, it is significant to state that in reality, Darwin had another opinion that unfortunately was not heard by the majority. Although Darwin considered natural selection as one of the most influential forces that stimulated the process of evolution, it is worth highlighting that the scientist was shocked by the attempts of his opponents to trivialize his theory claiming that the theory is based exclusively on natural selection (Gould & Lewontin, 1979).

Darwin’s findings were misinterpreted; some researchers claimed that Darwin attributes the modification of species exclusively to the process of natural selection. Nevertheless, it seems important to note that the scientist was convinced that natural selection was the main, however, not an exclusive factor of modification and evolution.

Darwin’s pluralism is essential to be taken into consideration while representing a hierarchy of alternatives to explain the form, function, and behavior through the direct adaptation process. What does science know regarding the adaptation and the alternative variants that influenced the process of evolution and contributed to the development of a human being? Adaptation is the process when individuals adapt to the environment to survive. Natural selection can definitely occur without the process of adaptation. The example that proves the stated above argument is a mutation of the reproductive system when it contributes to the rapid spread of the population. In case there is a lack of resources, an extra number of animals will die. So, there will be the same quantity of animals despite mutation in the reproductive system.

Science knows for sure that the existence of humankind is not eternal. It is almost impossible to make any forecast regarding the future of the world and further evolution as it is highly dependent on the culture and processes that occur in the world. Humankind will consequently experience the strength of similarity. It is significantly important to highlight that the power of natural selection will have even less effective in the future as social institutes protect people from the external forces, from natural selection (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). A human being that is not adaptive to the modern world will be helped, and he will have offspring. The modern level of technological development and improvement provides sufficient protection from the process of natural selection.

Demographical changes will substitute natural selection. Earlier people died because it was too difficult to survive, however, the modern world provides a human being with an excellent opportunity to enjoy progress and live longer. Desire not to have children, cultural peculiarities, and migration will substitute natural selection. It is possible to determine the future of the human race only theoretically. Scientists cannot provide people with the answer as there are a lot of factors that constrain them. It is as much impossible to talk about the future as it is impossible to talk about the past. In addition, less than a hundred generations ago, the human race invented social norms and laws. Fifty generations ago people changed the vector of development dramatically and created democratic states. Two generations ago, the society itself almost destroyed the human race by nuclear power. Human nature is as unpredictable as the future of the human race. Science cannot provide us with an explanation of what a human being is as there is a lack of facts and evidence.

In conclusion, it should be pointed out that despite the progress the human being has already made and the evolution process, science still has more questions than answers on the issue regarding what means to be a human. As a matter of fact, scientists develop different theories and try to prove them; however, new researchers question their theories, provide critiques, and aim to find an acceptable answer to the question. Lewontin and Gould wrote the article The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme that provides a critique of the theory of adaptationism. They stress that supporters of adaptationism invent stories, and there is no scientific proof to the facts that they provide. People are all similar and different at the same time, human nature, the ability to think, take actions, and make decisions is the dominant feature that distinguishes human beings from animals. The evolutionary approach helps to understand and explain the most profound phenomena of human behavior, namely love and jealousy, anger and compassion, friendship and aggressiveness, leadership and altruism. Evolutionary psychology is a modern scientific discipline that studies the adaptive significance of human behavior in different social contexts. The theories by Lewontin and Gould influenced the development of the movement in a significant way and contributed to the development of evolutionary psychology.


Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1997). Evolutionary psychology is a primer. Santa Barbara, CA: Center for Evolutionary Psychology, Santa Barbara.

Dupre, J. (2004). Human kinds and biological kinds: Some similarities and differences. Philosophy of Science, 71(5), 892-900.

Gould, S., & Lewontin, R. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist program. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 205(1161), 581-598.

Hacking, I. (2006). Making up people. Web.

Hull, D. (1980). On human nature. Environmental Ethics, 2(1), 81-88.

Kaplan, J. (2010). When socially determined categories make biological realities. Monist, 93(2), 281-297.

Rochat, P. (2006). What does it mean to be human? Anthropological Psychology, 17(1), 48-51.

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