Home » The Design of Life » From the academic literature: Fred Flintstone vs. the law

From the academic literature: Fred Flintstone vs. the law

Here are some thoughts from law profs Brian Leiter (University of Texas at Austin – School of Law & Department of Philosophy) and Michael Weisberg of the University of Pennsylvania on why evolutionary biology is so far irrelevant to law. Note in particular,

We argue, in particular, that (a) evolutionary psychology is not entitled to assume selectionist accounts of human behaviors, (b) the assumptions necessary for the selectionist accounts to be true are not warranted by standard criteria for theory choice, and (c) only confusions about levels of explanation of human behavior create the appearance that understanding the biology of behavior is important.

What they are saying, I suspect, is that we are not entitled to assume that whatever we do is governed by an attempt on the part of our selfish genes to replicate themselves (for which we bear no responsibility). In short, I could steal your new car and take it for a wild spin on a freeway and crash it up for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with Darwin’s theory or how many grandchildren I end up with. But why did anyone ever doubt that?

The whole abstract is here:

Evolutionary accounts are etiological accounts of how a trait evolved. We argue that an account of causal etiology could be relevant to law if (1) the account of causal etiology is scientifically well-confirmed, and (2) there is an explanation of how the well-confirmed etiology bears on questions of development (what we call the Environmental Gap Objection). We then show that the accounts of causal etiology that might be relevant are not remotely well-confirmed by scientific standards. We argue, in particular, that (a) evolutionary psychology is not entitled to assume selectionist accounts of human behaviors, (b) the assumptions necessary for the selectionist accounts to be true are not warranted by standard criteria for theory choice, and (c) only confusions about levels of explanation of human behavior create the appearance that understanding the biology of behavior is important. We also note that no response to the Environmental Gap Objection has been proffered. In the concluding section of the article, we turn directly to the work of Professor Owen Jones, a leading proponent of the relevance of evolutionary biology to law, and show that he does not come to terms with any of the fundamental problems identified in this article.

The papers, dated October 17, 2007, are here.

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8 Responses to From the academic literature: Fred Flintstone vs. the law

  1. Most interesting. Good post.

  2. From footnote ten of the paper:

    We shall use “creationists” in what follows as a term of art to mean both those committed to the
    literal truth of the Book of Genesis as well as the proponents of “Intelligent Design.” Intelligent Design is simply creationism for those who have consulted a lawyer and a public relations firm; it has nothing to do with science, since the criticisms of evolutionary biology are without merit and the positing of “intelligent design” as an explanatory hypothesis is on a par, epistemically, with the positing of turtles on whose back the universe rests. The Intelligent Design Creationists have stated no empirically testable hypothesis, and posit mechanisms that satisfy none of the standard desiderata of scientific theory construction, like ontological parsimony or methodological conservatism.

    Also, from footnote 6:

    Unfortunately for Professor Zywicki, while it is not reasonable, given what we know, to express doubts about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, it is extremely reasonable, given what we know, to express doubts about evolutionary psychology and its selectionist hypotheses about certain cognitive and mental differences between the human sexes. That Professor Zywicki thinks these claims are on an epistemic par just reveals that he has no notion of the actual state of the scientific evidence or of the relevant scientific
    standards for confirming hypotheses.

  3. “Etiological” means “the study of causes or origins.” Thus the phrase “causal etiology” in the second sentence seems to be redundant.

    O’Leary asks: “But why did anyone ever doubt that?” [“that” being the notion that we are free moral agents who cannot avoid responsibility for our actions by sloughing them off as merely the pre-determined outcome of a materialistic process over which we have no control]

    The answer is that many in the law have been preaching that very thing for nearly a century. Clarrance Darrow, famous as the Scopes trial attorney for the defense, actually argued this to juries in murder trials. Thankfully, the juries did not buy it.

  4. Further to my post at [3], Evolution News recently posted this:
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2......html#more

  5. “Intelligent Design is simply creationism for those who have consulted a lawyer and a public relations firm; it has nothing to do with science”

    Them’s fightin’ words.

    Maybe they need a little learnin’ in this area.

  6. Slightly off topic, but wondering if anyone here has had a chance to read MikeGene’s Design Matrix yet?

  7. From the (unposted first paragraph) of the abstract:

    “Only systematic misrepresentations or lack of understanding of the relevant biology, together with far-reaching analytical and philosophical confusions, have led anyone to think otherwise.”

    The irony, it hurts.

  8. The abstract looks like a lot of high-falutin gobbledygook to me. I don’t see how anyone can make any sense out of it.

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