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By Workman L., Reader W.

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1921, p. 184) Many students of psychology know of William James’s work on memory, attention, consciousness and learning, but his views on instincts are less widely known. In fact, the concept of instinct was dropped from social scientists’ terminology in the twentieth century partly because it was considered too imprecise a term to be scientifically meaningful (see Bateson, 2000). Furthermore, many so-called instinctive behaviours are capable of being modified by experience, in which case it is difficult to see where an instinct finishes and learning begins.

He proposed that a policy of segregation should be implemented whereby the fit were separated from the unfit. ‘Compulsion is now permitted if applying to criminals, lunatics, and mental defectives; and this principle must be extended to all who, by having offspring, would seriously damage future generations’ (L. Darwin, 1925). In the early part of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of people were sterilised worldwide on the grounds that they were deemed psychologically unfit. In the United States alone it was reported that by 1960 almost 60,000 individuals had undergone involuntary sterilisation (Reilly, 1991).

Furthermore, evolutionary thinking can be useful even if we know little about the evolutionary history of a trait. Take two facts about bipolar depression (see chapter 12). First, it is a debilitating disease that appears to reduce fitness (resulting in, in some cases, suicide); second, it is heritable. Only with knowledge of natural selection can we see that these two statements lead to a contradiction: if something is heritable and harmful it should be selected out of the gene pool. The fact that it is still with us suggests either that it is a relatively recent illness (but historical evidence suggests that it isn’t) or that it has some hidden benefits to inclusive fitness that outweigh its obvious costs.

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