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53 of 60 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2002
This book is both a great read, and an informative one, for anyone interested in human behavior, evolutionary theory, and the links between the two. The area of potential evolutionary bases to human behavior has traditionally been filled with much controversy, some fighting, scattered irresponsible speculations and pronouncements that at times have produced tragic effects, and quite often, more heat than light. Laland and Brown have produced a book that is truly a breath of fresh air. One of the things I liked most about Sense and Nonsense is that Laland and Brown had actually sat down to talk with--and listen to--many of the leading proponents of different "schools" of thought. They work hard in Sense and Nonsense to give a fair presentation of each different approach, before moving on in each chapter to provide their own analysis of the approach presented from their own perspective as working scientists. In the midst of an area in which some researchers have been prone to simply shout louder--often literally--at those they disagree with, Laland and Brown have truly taken the time to listen, reflect, and form considered and thoughtful judgements. This is a service to all of us: After reading their book, I know that I will always look reflect differently on researchers' claims of evolutionary bases of human behavior, whether that's hearing them at a conference, or reading a journal article, or the latest best-selling book or TV interview. If you want to improve your understanding of evolution and human behavior, get a guided tour through the area and its controversies by two thoughtful experts, and come out with a changed perspective that will likely always stay with you, then read Sense and Nonsense. Great book.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2008
Sense and Nonsense is a clear, lucid explication of the current landscape of the research on how evolutionary theories are applied to the social sciences. By their own admission often oversimplifying for clarity's sake, they break down the different ways in which evolutionary ideas are used in the social sciences into four categories--human behaiourial ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics and gene-culture coevolution--and show how these descended, with modification, from sociobiology, and from Darwinian evolution itself.

The book clearly and succinctly describes the methodologies and underlying assumptions that define each approach, and no less clearly do they identify their perceptions of the relevant strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches. Although, as another reviewer states, it might be more interesting in a dramatic sense to see them take a more polemical position, it is difficult to argue with them that each of the approaches has its merits and defects, and that, in a new religion, as it were, no one is served by internecine warfare.

I have two reservations, however. My first is something between a quibble and a small problem: Laland uses primarily gene-culture coevolution models himself, and although he is generally balanced in his assessments, one cannot but come out of the book feeling that gene-culture coevolution is first among equals in the authors' minds. They don't hide their sympathies, exactly, but if you don't know of them up front, you have to be paying pretty close attention to find them out.

My second concern has to do with audience. Whom is supposed to read this? If it is directed toward people in the field (that is, people who apply evolutionary models to the social sciences), another commenter is spot on in saying that it is written at too simple a level. If it is directed toward hostile social scientists who think the whole idea of evolutionary study of the social sciences to be debased, or worse, it isn't going to reach them; the book does not duck the fact that social scientists in general despise evolutionary models, but it makes no real effort to respond to those criticisms directly. As an introduction to the subject to someone outside the field entirely, it suits reasonably well. The authors say in the preface that they are going after all these audiences, but I don't think the same book can do all those things well; they would have been better to narrow down whom they were really speaking to.
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38 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2005
Kevin Laland is a prominent researcher in gene-culture coevolution, niche construction (the study of how organisms modify their social and physical environment, and thereby modify their own gene pool) and animal social learning. Gillian Brown is a primatologist who studies parenting behavior. Their book is a study of six strands of evolutionary theory as applied to human behavior: (a) Darwin and his pre-sociobiology followers (including Galton, Spencer, Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch, and Ardrey); (b) the founders of sociobiology, including Dawkins, Trivers, Hamilton, Maynard Smith, and E. O. Wilson; and three offshoots of sociobiology, (c) behavioral ecology (including Hill, Kaplan, Hawkes, and Chagnon); (d) evolutionary psychology (including Cosmides, Tooby, Daly, Margo Wilson, Pinker, Buss); (e) memetics; and (f) gene-culture coevolution (including Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, and Laland himself).

The title is inspired by the authors' impression that, despite the fact that the academic social sciences have virtually ignored evolutionary approaches, the public finds them very sexy and provocative, to the point where evolutionary research is continually influenced by political and journalistic concerns, and the science tends to be overwhelmed by the junk and the hype. I fully share this impression, and I think they have done a fine job in extracting the "sense" from the "nonsense." They even manage to treat memetics seriously, despite the fact that memetics' attempt to detach culture from reproduction, production, cooperation, conflict, and the other basic activities of social life cannot possibly succeed.

Laland and Brown vigorously defend the early Darwinists and sociobiologists against the many politically motivated attacks against them (they do not deal with religious critiques). While the authors recognize that their ideas have often eclipsed by more contemporary research, they find no major fault in the constitution of these two schools. I think this is a bad mistake. In the century from Darwin to E. O. Wilson, evolutionary researchers managed to isolate themselves from every mainstream social science, including economics, sociology, psychology, political science, and to a lesser extent, anthropology. It is futile to blame this on the mainstream. The fault lies squarely with the evolutionary theorists, who failed to make a convincing case for the position.

This is quite unforgivable, because mainstream social science has made many central contributions that must be integrated into evolutionary theory to provide a solid, scientific body of knowledge concerning human behavior. Laland and Brown give no reason for this isolation of evolutionary theory, except the trivial commonplaces mouthed by virtually everyone in this tradition (traditional social science is ideology, the mainstream is afraid of being tainted with the sins of eugenics and racist genetic determinism, and so on). The major problem facing evolutionary theory today is not to shuck the nonsense, but to account for its failure to become part of the mainstream, I believe, and Laland and Brown do not recognize this.

The very idea of forming schools of thought, such as behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, and gene-culture coevolution is an indication of the inability of evolutionary theory to consider itself a science. Scientists seek integration, not fragmentation. Behavioral ecologists, for instance, are anthropologists who study simple societies, while evolutionary psychologists are psychologists who study commonalities in human behavior across all societies. How could they possibly consider themselves "alternative" theories? They very idea is absurd, a capitulation to the natural human tendency to congregate in small groups of "insiders" whose major motivation is to triumph over the many groups of "outsiders" whose strange ways are threatening and unsettling.

This one issue aside, I find Laland and Brown very convincing in adjudicating among the various approaches, and in their plea for tolerance and exchange of information among them. Like the authors, I believe that gene-culture coevolution is the overarching principle that includes the others as subclasses. I also believe that gene-culture coevolution is the most promising basis for the integration of evolutionary with mainstream social science. The authors' only critique of gene-culture coevolution is that it tends to be highly mathematical and does not generate many empirical studies. I do not agree with this critique. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, as well as Boyd and Richerson, have done admirable empirical work, and with the use of experimental game theory in recent years, we will have much more such research in the near future. The true critique of gene-culture coevolutionary theory, in my view, is its ignorance of and contempt for traditional social science. Unless this is overcome, evolutionary social theory will remain marginalized for the foreseeable future.

Of course, most potential readers of this book will have the same prejudices concerning the traditional disciplines as do the authors, and they should find this book a welcome and incisive corrective to the disarray within evolutionary social theory.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2012
Sense and Nonsense is a great book. It covers a range of evolutionary approaches to human behaviour. The key concepts of each approach are treated in turn in separate chapters and then the authors describe case studies and then offer a critical evaluation for each one.

The approaches considered are: sociobiology, human behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics and gene-culture coevolution.

There's also an introductory chapter, a chapter covering the history of the field prior to 1975 and a final chapter that wraps up.

I read the last three chapters first. These are the ones on memetics, gene-culture coevolution and the last chapter on "comparing and integrating approaches". I did this because Memetics and gene-culture coevolution are really the only remaining attempts at a proper study of human evolution, and that matches my own particular interests.

The authors are mostly in the "gene-culture coevolution" camp. They seem to be mostly looking at the other approaches to see where they went wrong. Their descriptions of the other approaches are pretty fair, but they do go out of their way sometimes to make then look stupid.

Despite this, their coverage of memetics is mostly accurate, sympathetic and good, though some of their criticisms appear to be straw-man attacks.

The authors claim that memetics: "denies any substantive filtering role for evolved psychological mechanisms". I am very sceptical about this. I've never come across any author who has said anything remotely like it. I suspect this is down to some kind of misunderstanding.

The next chapter is about gene-culture coevolution. The authors use the term "meme" throughout this chapter. They claim that "genetic inheritance is exclusively vertical" - and so isn't like cultural inheritance. However, this is completely untrue. Organic entities can be transmitted down the generations horizontally and obliquely too. This happens with parasites and mutualists. This is in fact a deep similarity between organic and cultural evolution - rather than grounds for treating them differently.

I felt the authors were rather soft on Boyd and Richerson's Cultural Group Selection concept. They use the concept to support the thesis that: "when cultural transmission is included into evolutionary models, the nature of the evolutionary process may be quite dramaticallly different."

However, this is not a very reasonable conclusion. Parasites also act so as to rapidly produce and maintain differences between groups of humans. Parasites have very similar dynamics to culture in this respect. Like culture, they involve horizontal spread between hosts, short lifecycles and rapid evolution. As with culture, migrants tend to adopt the parasites of their new population. We have empirical data on the relative influence of parasites and culture when it comes to death as a result of humans invading other groups of humans - since there have been many invasions in recorded history - for example in America, Australia and Africa. Organic parasites (such as smallpox) did a large proportion of the work in producing fitness differences between groups of humans in many of the cases studied - accounting for more than half the deaths in some cases. Culture does some of this sort of thing as well - but the organic and cultural realms are not so different here.

Next, the chapter on evolutionary psychology. This chapter is excellent. I especially appreciated the idea that the popularity of evolutionary psychology is partly due to its manifest lack of racism. However, the authors don't mention the biggest criticism of evolutionary psychology until the very end of their chapter. That criticism is that - as currently practiced - evolutionary psychology only deals with human universals and says little about cultural evolution. I feel that this point needs to be emphasised at least a little. While evolutionary psychology only deals with human universals it will remain a folorn and useless endeavour. Culture is just too important a force to ignore. Ignoring it has produced a substantial mountain of evolutionary psychology-based junk science. To become relevant, evolutionary psychology must reform itself - or attempt to fuse with memetics and/or gene-culture coevolution.

The chapter on human behavioural ecology is again of fine quality. However, human behavioural ecology isn't really a seriopus attempt to model human evolution. It is a small piece of the puzzle.

The chapter on sociobiology was excellent as well. Controversy makes for readability, and this chapter was quite a page-turner. Sociobiology was a nice idea but it became rather tarred by association with Wilson's presentation of it - which had both theoretical and political shortcomings. Wilson went on to try and fuse sociobiology with his own version of gene-culture coevolution - an attempt which met with only rather limited success. These days sociobiology seems to have mostly become a dirty word - which is a bit of a shame.

Lastly the history chapter. This covers Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, Francis Galton, Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris - and many others. I thought this was the worst chapter in the book - and recommend readers read it last - so they are not put off. One of the chapter's themes is that people believed in progressive evolution - which led to all manner of social evils - whereas now we know that evolution has no direction. However, progressive evolution is a perfectly reasonable concept, and it is clearly evident in the world. The authors apparently criticise it without even trying very hard to understand it. Social evolution is a politically-charged subject. I appreciate that it is hard to cover the subject objectively - but I felt that the authors failed to keep their own political perspective out of the picture.

The book has dated rather little in the 10 years since 2002 - though I believe the work has been republished recently. Gene-culture coevolution is now on a much firmer footing. The author's call for more experimental work has been met in the mean time with a substantial volume of work demonstrating cultural evolution under laboratory conditions, and probing the properties of cultural transmission processes.

The authors manage to make themselves look pretty smart in the book, by poking holes in practically all the existing theories. That is not unreasonable - the authors are obviously pretty smart people - but I found it a little grating. From time to time, I noticed that the criticised theories were getting bent out of shape a little - in ways which helped to give the authors some corrective work to do.

The book is very broad and ambitious in scope. Alas, that means it inevitably lacks depth. I would have much preferred a book about the topic covered in the last three chapters. Having said that, several of the other chapters were mostly high-quality entertaining content containing material which I was less familiar with - so I learned more from them.

Anyway, overall a great book, I expect that most readers will learn a considerable amount of interesting things about how evolution applies and has been applied to humans from it.
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12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2004
The final chapter of E O Wilson's Sociobiology was a bombshell whose shockwaves reverberate today. Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown set out to sift through the morass of evolutionary approaches to human nature that is has spawned.
This is a useful review of the various schools of research, although I would have liked a firmer conclusion than 'a pluralistic approach is best'. Sometimes the authors could be a little less polite and have a little more bite.
Good stuff overall though, probably most helpful for those new to the area, or for students looking for an introduction. The book is a little light in content, concentrating on methodology, but the emphasis on cultural processes, absent from many evolutionary discussions, is most refreshing.
Do Laland and Brown successfully separate the sense from the nonsense? No. But they do equip the reader with some of the tools to do it for herself.
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on May 27, 2013
Not in this field but really good introduction to the topic and easy read! Would recommend to get a general overview.
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on February 15, 2013
I held a professional development seminar for high school science teachers about the topic of human evolution. I elected to have the teachers read this book for discussion during the seminar. We had an excellent discussion and found this book a great framework to build discussion around. I feel it was pitched at the right level for a science-experienced but not necessarily science-expert audience and was provocative enough to keep us talking for two days.
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on November 19, 2009
I recommend this book not just to human behavior researchers but also to any curious science reader.
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