Adaptationist Programme, Natural & Sexual Selection, & Misunderstandings

Critical Discussions Concerning Natural Selection

Adaptationist Programme, Natural & Sexual Selection, & Misunderstandings

Criticism of Gould and Lewontin (1979) “adaptationist programme.”

According to Gould and Lewontin, (1979), the adaptationist programme, is the belief that natural selection is a fundamental and vital force in controlling human behavior. Adaptationist programme works on the basis of separating traits within an organism into what they refer to as “unitary traits” and then assigning an adaptive story to each trait (Gould & Lewontin, 1979). Gould and Lewontin argue that this adaptionist programme fails because it studies organisms in terms of separate traits which diminishes the overall understanding of the organism:

We criticize this approach and attempt to reassert a competing notion (long popular in continental Europe) that organisms must be analysed as integrated wholes, with Bauplane so constrained by phyletic heritage, pathways of development and general architecture that the constraints themselves become more interesting and more important in delimiting pathways of change than the selective force that may mediate change when it occurs (Gould & Lewontin, 1979).

Sociobiologists apply adaptationist programme by studying Darwinian concepts such as natural selection as it applies with behavior. These researchers believe that, similar to animals with evolve patterns of behavior which are advantageous to their survival, so to do humans. Opponents such as Gould and Lewontin argue that adaptationists formulate narratives around traits or theories which provide an evidence which is not substantive. For this reason, opponents view sociobiology as a form of adaptaionist programme.

Natural and Sexual Selection

Sexual selection presents an interesting version or mode of natural selection. Sexual selection is the practices, behaviors, physical traits which have evolved exclusively for satisfying the urge to copulate and procreate (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). As an independent process, natural selection takes the form of a variety of evolutionary elements. For example, peacocks grow elaborate tails which appear to serve no purpose other than for mating. Likewise, elephant seals will fight over territories in order to gain favor with females for mating. Fireflies use their glowing tales to attract mates (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). Within these examples it is possible to see sexual selection as a separate evolutionary process. However, it is more likely that this process is just part of the natural selection process.

Within the context of natural selection, sexual selection can be seen as a mode of natural selection since its purpose is based on the most advantageous behaviors or traits which lead to survival or procreation. For instance, a firefly glows to attract a mate. However, when predators eat a firefly the tale is filled with a toxic substance which teaches the predator not to eat the glowing bugs. Finding a mate is a process that occurred alongside of the survival process (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010).

One could look at the mating process as part of survival. If animals do not mate, they will not survive. In some cases, mating may appear to be a separate process because it can cut against the grain of survival. For example, the firefly attracts predators while simultaneously attracting mates (Simon, Reece, & Dickey, 2010). This would appear counterproductive to survival but this is only at the individual level. Insects often act in methods which are collective in nature. For example, bees are highly social creatures and bumble bees in particular die when they sting a predator. They do this in order to preserve the colony. So while the plume of a peacock may also attract predators it is likely that the need to procreate was pressured to take this form of selection due to environmental forces which allowed the species as a whole to survive.

The Confusing area of Natural Selection and Genetics

Evolutionary theory, in terms of natural selection and genetics, is a large area of confusion for the layperson. This area of confusion is highly problematic because it is often used to justify notions such as race theory or selective breeding. Eugenics, Nazism, and race theory were born out of this misunderstanding. Prior to WWII eugenics or selective breeding and sterilization were already practiced in the US. The concept that some groups are inferior to others became a powerful motivation for trying to control the breeding of the inferior groups. Eugenics as a field of study was also widely taught at Universities throughout the US. Eugenics was a primary reason for the continued and pervasive racism that took almost another 100 years to deal with after the Civil War. The belief that some people are inferior gave license to degrade and mistreat groups. What is interesting about this is that most of the so called science involved in eugenics was easily dismissed. Charles Darwin himself opposed these ideas and was not a proponent of slavery because he believed that humans were too similar to be classified in specific taxonomies.

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him (Darwin, 1859).

Areas of study such as sociobiology can easily be misinterpreted to show that natural selection has impacted specific groups in less beneficial ways than others. The idea of applying traits with natural selection is evolving science and one that is sure to provide a large benefit to understanding. However, many of the controversies and confusions in these areas appear to be the result of arguments concerning nature vs nurture in which one group argues for one side over another. This argument is not truly valid because they two forces are too intrinsically tied together. It would be like trying to separate a drop of ink from a pool of water. Anthropologists and biologists need to continue examining evolutionary theory in terms of how it interconnects with both environment and with genetics.


Darwin, C. (1859). On The Origin of Species: Including Darwins Notes. New York, NY: Signet Classics.

Gould, S., & Lewontin, R. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 205(1161), 581–598.

Simon, E. J., Reece, J. B., & Dickey, J. L. (2010). Essential biology with physiology. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings.


Vincent Triola. Mon, Feb 01, 2021. Adaptationist Programme, Natural & Sexual Selection, & Misunderstandings Retrieved from

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