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historians and anthropologists

Beautiful and rigorous work in human behavioral ecology has been done, specifically in the construction of precise models and the measurement of contributions to reproductive success. But there is a tendency to inflate its conclusions, to think that the Darwinian part of the story is now in place and “cultural influences” can be left to mop up the rest. To draw such a conclusion is to overlook the fact that claims about adaptation presuppose a genetic basis for the relevant forms of behavior, and to assume that the case in question is one of those in which cultural transmission makes no difference. In effect, human behavioral ecologists simplify the Big Model in certain ways, and there is no advance reason to hold that what they have retained is more significant than what they have left out. Scientific analysis in this area would do better to proceed more symmetrically, to consider a variety of ways of simplifying an intractable Big Model, and to postpone firm conclusions about the operation of natural selection until a diversity of approaches has been explored. Welcome the precise studies, but propose conclusions tentatively. The political ramifications of conclusions about human beings only reinforce the demand for modesty.

For a variety of reasons, then, human inquiry needs a synthesis, in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts. But there is still a deeper reason for the enduring importance of the humanities. Many scientists and commentators on science have been led to view the sciences as a value-free zone, and it is easy to understand why. When the researcher enters the lab, many features of the social world seem to have been left behind. The day’s work goes on without the need for confronting large questions about how human lives can or should go. Research is insulated because the lab is a purpose-built place, within which the rules of operation are relatively clear and well-known. Yet on a broader view, which explores the purposes and their origins, it becomes clear that judgments of the significance of particular questions profoundly affect the work done and the environments in which it is done. Behind the complex and often strikingly successful practices of contemporary science stands a history of selecting specific aspects of the world for investigation. Bits of nature do not shout out “Examine me!” Throughout history, instead, innovative scientists have built a number of lampposts under which their successors can look. It is always worth considering whether the questions that now seem most significant demand looking elsewhere for new sources of illumination.