In memoriam, Karen Neander (1954-2020)

Photo credit: David Braddon-Mitchell

I just learned today, fortuitously, while looking up a reference to her work, that my former PhD advisor Karen Neander died on 6 May. I am sorry to say I had not been in touch recently. I suppose I thought that there would still be time. I miss her dearly. I wish I could have at least been able to say goodbye.

The brilliance of her intellect always made others’ shine brighter, an enormous feat in a discipline so often practiced as blood sport. She is one of those rare individuals in any academic discipline whose PhD thesis advanced the field in one giant step, so that she is probably best known for that work, even more so than subsequent publications.

In colloquia or in seminars, when she made a contribution, one would have the sense that something enormously sensible had just been said, and, digesting it, feel a dawning awareness that something complex, confusing, and rare would have just been made clear. As one might imagine, she was an extraordinary advisor.

Visiting her home office, one could always find where she was last working: a cup of tea next to the laptop on the floor, encircled by a broad fan of photocopied papers several wide, the outermost of them just beyond arm’s reach.

Karen was a gentle soul in an ungentle world. Nonetheless, she had a fighting spirit, independent, and cosmopolitan. An Australian, she made the remark that of course, in the US, she never felt completely at home, and, with her accent, was known immediately to be an outsider, but that in Australia, her friends and family often said that she no longer sounded like a native. “I suppose once you’ve been gone long enough, you’re not really at home anywhere,” she noted. Yet I have hardly ever felt more welcome myself in anyone’s home or office.

The photo is from

The continuing relevance of David Hull’s “On Human Nature”

I am honored and pleased to have been asked to select the reading for this week’s meeting of the Lewis and Clark philosophy reading group, and I wanted to make sure to select a paper that’s relevant, a good read, and that fits with the group’s interests. I have been wanting to re-read David Hull’s “On Human Nature” [PDF] for some months now. I think most people would agree that it’s well-written: although there’s some science, and although it’s pretty tightly argued, a start-to-finish first read is profitable and enjoyable. The group’s interests are broad; moreover, “On Human Nature” dovetails with last week’s reading, Bloomfield’s “Tracking Eudaimonia,” for some of the same reasons the Hull paper remains relevant, or is perhaps even more so, since its initial publication in 1986.

To elaborate concerning the paper’s continued relevance: Hull considers the concept of human nature from the point of view of biological taxonomy and the nature of biological species, foregrounding diversity and variation in his account. This stands in contrast to those who foreground adaptation and natural selection. Bloomfield, for instance, emphasizes adaptation and proper function in a biological reconstruction of the classical notion of eudaimonia. Steven Pinker is another prominent advocate of the view that adaptation, also seen as establishing some traits as innate or instinctive, is the biological basis for human nature. I get the sense that both Bloomfield and Pinker see grounding human nature in evolution by natural selection as a way of resisting what they might see as a pernicious kind of social constructionism or relativism, or, worse yet (from their point of view) nihilism about human nature. I would think that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, considered broadly, also represent points of view according to which what human beings are adapted for is the basis for our nature, rather than their membership in the species simpliciter.

Our cultural and political moment requires that we tease apart the roles of evolution, variation, and natural selection in our conception of human nature. Earlier this Spring, I attended a training seminar on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with a special focus on intersectionality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and transgender issues. This is the occasion on which it occurred to me that it would be worth looking at “On Human Nature” once more. At the training seminar, at a major cultural institution and visitor attraction in Portland, the presenter boldly declared that the existence of variation in gender identification was to be promoted because variation as such is always good for the species. The presenter seemed to have the view that any variants of a trait present in the human population must have some history of natural selection, and the view that traits with a history of natural selection should be preserved; and, I got the sense that the presenter also thought that natural selection, in general, works to preserve the species. Together, these claims seemed intended to inform the following line of thought: variation is worth preserving, if all variation is due to natural selection, because natural selection works to preserve the species; and, preserving the species is intrinsically worthwhile. Clearly, these premises cannot stand in justification of promoting or protecting variation among people. At least, I hope this much is clear to those who consider themselves well-informed about evolutionary biology: not all variation is adaptive; not all variation results from natural selection; and natural selection does not, in general, work to preserve a species. We will need to do better, if we are going to look to evolutionary biology in our argument that diversity in the human population is worth preserving. Indeed, perhaps there is no such argument to be made.

All this just points to the continued relevance of Hull’s paper. I’m excited about the discussion at this week’s meeting.

A quick question about evolutionary psychology

I recently read Paul Bloomfield’s “Tracking Eudaimonia,” in which that argument is made that evolutionary biology, by means of the concept of proper function, can provide an empirical basis for the semantics and knowledge of virtues. A key element of the argument is that human beings have the genetic endowment, due to natural selection, for capacities for behavior and cognitive life, that explain why we are able to act in virtuous ways. For instance, our ancestors acted in certain ways we now identify as virtuous, such as exhibiting other-regarding behavior, which contributed to their success in natural selection; this is why we have these capacities nowadays; and so the portions of our genome have the proper function of encoding for those aspects of our physiology, etc., which form the basis for those capacities.

Evolutionary psychology plays a central role in filling in details of Bloomfield’s proposal, because the discipline is devoted to discovering psychological and behavioral adaptations. In considering how evolutionary psychology might be used in the service of virtue ethics, the following question occurred to me. If behavioral capacities for virtues evolved by natural selection in the ancestral environment of the human species, as is a central principle of evolutionary psychology generally about behavioral adaptations, what maintains them, now that we are no longer in that environment? In general, adaptations will decay, when selection is relaxed; or adaptive traits will change, in response to changing environments. Now that our environment has changed significantly, shouldn’t our psychological adaptations be expected to decay or change, in our new environment?