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TVOL1000 Profile: Michael Price

Michael Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolution at Brunel University London. Most of his research has been in the specific areas of evolutionary social and moral psychology, but he’s also very interested in how general evolutionary principles—especially, selection and adaptation—can be applied in other fields. He suspects we’re only just beginning to appreciate the incredible power of the evolutionary framework, for explaining what exists not just biologically but culturally, and maybe even cosmologically.

The fact that “nothing in biology makes any sense except in the light of evolution” [1], noted 44 years ago by Theodosius Dobzhansky, is as true now as ever. If we want to understand the nature of organisms, and why they are the way they are, evolutionary theory is the only game in town and we’d be hopelessly lost without it.  Thank you, Darwin, for showing us the light.

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In truth, however, evolutionary theory isn’t as important now as it ever has been. It’s more important than ever, and becoming increasingly important every day. Because in the years since Darwin and Dobzhansky, and particularly over the past three decades, it’s become increasingly obvious that it’s not just biology in general that makes sense only in light of evolution. There are also some very important and specific aspects of human biology, that have traditionally been considered off-limits to evolutionary analyses, that also make sense only in this light.

One of these aspects is human psychology [2]: if we want to understand the genetically-encoded psychological devices that compose the mind of humans (or any species), our only hope is to discover the functions for which natural, sexual, or kin selection designed these devices.

Another of these aspects is human culture [3]. Culture is 100% biological, in the sense that it is 100% generated by biologically-evolved psychological mechanisms. However, culture itself can evolve according to an evolutionary process that is distinct from biological evolution. Compared to biological evolution, cultural evolution is much less dependent on changes in gene frequencies and can therefore occur much faster. And cultural practices, just like biological and psychological traits, are incomprehensible unless we understand their evolutionary origins and raisons d’être. If we want to know whether a particular moral rule or cultural institution, for example, has in the past fulfilled some useful social function—such as advantaging a society in competition with other societies—a cultural evolutionary analysis is our only way to find out.

The evolutionary framework, then, has proven itself to be fundamental and indispensable for explaining all biologically-based phenomena, including psychology and culture. Even more impressively, however, we may have only just begun to appreciate the incredible power of the evolutionary framework. Physicists like Lee Smolin [4] have speculated that the characteristics of our universe itself may be best explained by a theory of cosmological natural selection, which regards universes as self-replicating entities, competing for representation in a population of other universes (i.e., a multiverse). Although vastly more speculative than theories of biological and cultural evolution, this theory raises an intriguing possibility: someday, the phrase “nothing in physics makes any sense except in the light of evolution” may not seem extraordinary at all.

For more on Michael:
Personal site at Brunel University
Posts at This View of Life
Posts at Psychology Today
Facebook

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References

  1. Dobzhansky, T. (1973). Nothing in biology makes any sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher 35: 125-29.
  2. Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992).The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  Oxford University Press.
  3. Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (1988).Culture and the Evolutionary Process. University of Chicago
  4. Smolin, L. (1997).The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford University Press.
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