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The challenges of a Darwinian approach to anything

Posted on December 4, 2012 by James Kohl.

Book review
Lalumière, M. L., and Dawson, S. J. (2012). The challenges of a Darwinian approach to psychological disorders: A review of Peter R. Adriaens and Andreas De Block (Eds.), Maladapting Minds: Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Evolutionary Theory. Evolutionary Psychology, 10(4): 727-730.

Excerpt: “Roe and Murphy (Chapter 8) close this section with a somewhat puzzling argument. They state that medicine does not care about evolved function, instead suggesting that medicine and psychiatry should be concerned with mechanistic (proximal) function only. They argue that we don’t know much about reproductive success associated with many mental disorders, something that is clearly not true (and something that might not be relevant in the first place). They further write, “We suggest that homeostasis, not survival value, is what guides physiological answers to questions about causal explanations of biological systems” (p. 227). A thorough reading of Tinbergen (1963) might be beneficial here.”

My comment: In the context of what appears to be sarcasm (above), I note that Tinbergen and other early ethologists did not, to my knowledge,  ever think to check if birds used their sense of smell for anything. It’s not just the fact that olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans. The problem is now and always has been — as suggested by Roe and Murphythe issue of homeostasis, which seems to have been casually dismissed.

Would reading Tinbergen tell us anything about cause and effect in the context of the homeostasis required for adaptive evolution via the ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction? Clearly homeostasis is required to link the stability of evolved functions to medicine and psychiatry. Tinbergen might tell us, instead, that birds are visual and auditory creatures, which would lead us to studies that incorporate that misconception into current theories about human olfactory acuity and specificity. Just dismiss that; we’re more like birds, right? (Sarcasm intended)

That legacy is what led many of us to misconceptualize the relative incentive salience of sensory stimuli from our environment during the past 50 years. Thus, when someone suggests a new approach in a book chapter, which we now know incorporates the fine tuning of the microRNA / messenger RNA balance that is required for homeostasis, the comment about reading Tinbergen becomes one of the most ridiculous I have seen made in the context of evolutionary theory. It exemplifies why facts about the role of food odors and human pheromones have been dismissed — if only because we all believed that what Tinbergen observed made sense in the context of adaptive evolution — in this case — of either physical or mental disorders.

Given his four questions, shall we all go looking for food that’s visually appealing or that sounds good to eat? What if the food doesn’t smell right? (with my emphasis)


Four ways of explaining visual perception:

  • Function: To find food and avoid danger.
  • Phylogeny: The vertebrate eye initially developed with a blind spot, but the lack of adaptive intermediate forms prevented the loss of the blind spot.
  • Causation: The lens of the eye focuses light on the retina.
  • Development: Neurons need the stimulation of light to wire the eye to the brain (Moore, 2001:98–99).

It’s been more than 2 decades since the work of Axel and Buck replaced the ridiculous misrepresentations of those who appear to have never once thought about olfaction for finding food in birds. And despite that thoughtlessness, we now have Nobel Laureates (Physiology and/or Medicine) from 2004 who may move evolutionary theorists into the current century, albeit kicking and screaming all the way: READ TINBERGAN (1963); it’s not the biological facts about homeostasis that count; it’s his theory and the four questions.



James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl

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