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Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World

By: Gillian Barker(Author)

Columbia University Press

Hardback | Oct 2015 | #224782 | ISBN-13: 9780231171885
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NHBS Price: £19.99 $26/€22 approx

About this book

Beyond Biofatalism is a spirited response to the pessimism of mainstream evolutionary psychology, which argues that human beings are incapable of building a more inclusive, cooperative, and egalitarian society. Considering the pressures of climate change, unsustainable population growth, increasing income inequality, and religious extremism, this attitude promises to bury us before we even try to meet these threats.

Beyond Biofatalism provides the perspective we need to understand that better societies are not only possible but actively enabled by human nature. Though she takes issue with the pessimism of evolutionary psychologists, Gillian Barker appreciates their methods and findings. She considers their work against a broader background to show human nature is surprisingly open to social change. Like other organisms, we possess an active plasticity that allows us to respond dramatically to certain kinds of environmental variation, and we engage in niche construction, modifying our environment to affect others and ourselves. Related research in social psychology, developmental biology, ecology, and economics reinforces this expanded view of evolved human nature, while philosophical exploration reveals its broader implications. The result is an encouraging foundation on which to build better approaches to social, political, and other institutional changes that could enhance our well-being and chances for survival.

"Barker's focus on the conjunction of plasticity and stability, on viewing adaptations as a space of alternatively realizable equilibria between phenotypic distributions and environmental states, is as unique as it is insightful."
– Bruce Glymour, Kansas State University

"Gillian Barker's Beyond Biofatalism is an indispensable antidote to dangerous complaisance about contemporary social institutions, and to unwarranted resignation about our powers to improve them, both fostered by a superficial Darwinism. All of us committed to employing Darwin's insights about adaptation to understanding and ameliorating social life need to read this book."
– Alex Rosenberg, Duke University

"Deeply informed, cogently argued, and lucidly written, Beyond Biofatalism offers the most constructive discussion of evolutionary psychology currently available. If the evolutionary understanding of human thought and action is ever to fulfill its promise, it will be through absorbing Gillian Barker's wise counsel."
– Philip Kitcher, Columbia University

"So many popularizers of evolutionary psychology focus on what they take to be biologically based constraints on the possibility for social change that you might be forgiven for thinking that the message about human potential from evolutionary theory is grim. Barker, in this succinct and well-written book, shows that current research in evolution, social psychology, and behavioral ecology – evolutionary psychology writ large, if you will – offers a radically different perspective. By surveying a wide range of specific findings on behavioral plasticity and sensitivity to environmental conditions and making a few key conceptual corrections, for example, urging us not to confuse social arrangements for natural environments, Barker shows that human biology, as biology more generally, is open to more varied social futures than is commonly thought."
– Helen Longino, Stanford University



1. Human Nature and the Limits of Human Possibility
2. The Cost of Change
3. Thinking About Change and Stability in Living Systems
4. Lessons from Development, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology
5. Human Possibilities
6. Valuing Change
7. Choosing Environments
8. What Is Feasible?
9. Evolutionary Psychology and Human Possibilities


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Gillian Barker is assistant professor in the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. She has also taught at Indiana University, Simon Fraser University, and Bucknell University. She is the author, with Philip Kitcher, of Philosophy of Science: A New Introduction, and editor, with Eric Desjardins and Trevor Pearce, of Entangled Life: Organism and Environment in the Biological and Social Sciences.

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