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Evolutionary biology and the law

June 11, 2009

For a number of years (2004-’09) I was the interdisciplinary officer for the Society for Evolutionary Analysis in Law (SEAL), a group of scholars who take seriously the implications that findings in evolutionary and behavioral biology may have for the law. The group has – however – not being without its detractors, one being Brian Leiter who has announced a paper (with philosopher Michael Weisberg) titled “Why evolutionary biology is (so far) irrelevant to legal regulation” to appear in Law and Philosophy later this year. As I have not, as yet, read the paper, suffice that I post the abstract here:

Evolutionary biology – or, more precisely, two (purported) applications of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, namely, evolutionary psychology and what has been called human behavioral biology – is on the cusp of becoming the new rage among legal scholars looking for interdisciplinary insights into the law. We argue that as the actual science stands today, evolutionary biology offers nothing to help with questions about legal regulation of behavior. 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. 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 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.

Update: John Wilkins makes some thoughtful comments here.

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  1. John Jackson
    June 12, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    John you can download a working version of the Leiter/Weisberg paper here:

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=892881

    I’ve read it for a paper I have under review on evolutionary psychology and their so-called “Standard Social Science Model.” If you think you’d be interested in my paper, I’d send you a copy.

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