Problems with Wilson's Ladder--Level 5

Level 5: IF there are differences in the genetic makeup of the present group from its prehistoric ancestors, THEN the genetically adaptive behavior will be difficult to modify by social engineering.

The straightforward problem with level 5 is that even if we know that genes plus environment_1 produce a behavior, we don't know that genes plus environment_2 produce the same behavior. There are at least two possible responses to this problem. First, some human behavioral dispositions may predate the evolution of humans' prodigious cognitive abilities; therefore, those dispositions cannot be changed using those abilities. The rejoinder to this response is that special environmental sensitivity would seem, on the surface, to be a selective advantage (Kitcher, 1987).

Second, certain human behavioral phenotypes may remain constant under diverse conditions (behavioral universals). The rejoinders to this response are two: (1) the previous rejoinder also applies in this case; (2) we must recognize the role of society in human development (Kitcher, 1987).


Kitcher, P. (1987). Précis of Vaulting ambition: Sociobiology and the quest for human nature. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10, 61-100.

Last modified May 1998
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