Ruminations

An Evolutionary Explanation for Research Misconduct?

The answers become more numerous and the population more divided, however, when we turn to questions about ourselves. If you ask why human beings hurt each other, you will be directed to a hundred different sources, and a hundred different suggestions for alleviating these societal ills. Turn to the Bible, turn inward, turn to the Qu'ran, turn to. . . evolutionary theory

A growing number of people believe that evolution can help us understand not just the "natural" world, but ourselves. There are evolutionary explanations for nearly every human behavior, hoping to provide insight on everything from why we're social to why we're asocial. While I think there is a limit to the practicality of these explanations, they are incredibly compelling, so last quarter I took a crack at explaining the potential evolutionary origins of research misconduct. 

Research misconduct is defined by law as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism of data. Scientists are trusted to deliver the results of their experiments to the public honestly and without deception, but that doesn't always happen. While many have set about to determine the extent of the problem, and have analyzed the effects misconduct has on the scientific establishment at large, no one has been able to determine with any certainty what prompts researchers to cheat. 

Many of us take cooperation for granted. We expect others, even complete strangers, to help us when we are in need. It is only when these expectations are not met -- when a door is slammed in our face or when we see news reports of Shanghai residents fleeing a subway car where a man has passed out without offering help -- that we become aware of the self-centered attitudes we all harbor. 

Evolutionists, however, are always acutely aware of the unusually cooperative nature of the human species and see these breaches, these turns towards selfishness, as part of an elaborate evolutionary puzzle. One theory, posited by notable evolutionists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, suggests that cooperative social groups are selected for by forces of nature. Their famous example is of the "happy hen" experiment of the 1980s. One group of hens was made up of the most productive egg-laying hen of each of a number of groups; these hens killed each other, for they had become incredibly competitive over time. A second group of hens was selected for as a group; they produced an inordinate number of eggs, and not one was murdered. Since then, all of America's egg farms have bred their chickens under the pressures of group selection. Wilson and Wilson extrapolated and wrote a compelling theory of group selection of humans.

The argument goes that we humans have evolved a cooperative dynamic over the eons by creating social structures and keeping them in place with methods of retribution, or punishment, and morality. Over time, people who cheated didn't have as many children, whereas the moral members of a society procreated with great abandon. This led to our current crop of homo sapiens, the descendants of the moralists, who act altogether rather kindly. 

But if we all have a tendency towards goodness, then why are people still acting badly? 

Sure there are psychopaths, but they are thought to exist in such small numbers one cannot possibly blame the whole of research misconduct, which is broad and wide, on them. Instead, it is best to point the finger at a combination of social factors, namely social learning and war theories. 

Social learning theory states that all of our actions are influenced by the actions of those around us. We fold our pizza down the middle because our dad did and we tell a certain joke because it always made us laugh when grandma told us. In the practice of science, social learning is even more intense, because researchers train according to an ages-old workbench model, where they literally spend years watching an older and wiser researcher, with the hopes that they can one day copy their mentor and create success for themselves. If the mentor in question is cheating, then it makes sense that their apprentice would cheat as well. 

The burning question then becomes, what drives the mentor to cheat? 

Scientific research has become an increasing competitive discipline in recent decades. Funding has been cut at the same time that the need for scientific advancement, and subsequently the push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, has dramatically increased. This has driven researchers into a war-like environment, with limit resources being fought over by an ever-larger number of competitors. 

This argument is augmented by work of behavioral science researchers, who have shown that people are compelled to cheat when rules are flexible or when there is a direct conflict of interest between the goals of the group and the goals of the individual. Finally, there is evidence that suggests risky behaviors, like the decision to cheat, are more prevalent in harsh environments, for humankind is, for better or worse, absolutely superb at adapting to our environment. 

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