The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ

Edward H. Hagen, Institute for Theoretical Biology, Berlin

What about 'plasticity'?

Behavior is often referred to as 'plastic,' a relatively vague and unhelpful term which usually means that behavior changes. The real question is why and how behavior can change in such seemingly useful ways. The descriptor 'plastic' contributes NOTHING to an understanding of either the why or the how of behavioral responses to environmental conditions. Useful behavioral change must come from a structured psychology that is generating the behavior. Even describing real plastics (i.e., various types of organic polymers) as 'plastic' reveals nothing about the nature of their 'plasticity'. The plasticity of plastic is a consequence of very specific and hierarchical microscopic properties of the polymer chains, including the types of chemical bonds found on the polymer backbone, the length of the chains, and the number and nature of links between polymer chains, just to mention a few. Similarly, the 'plastic' (i.e., changeable) nature of behavior results from very specific and hierarchical properties of the nervous system generating the behavior, and it is the latter which are of interest. At best, the term 'plastic' vaguely *describes* a property of behavior (that it can change in response to environmental change); it does NOT *explain* it. It is long past time to junk the term 'plasticity'.

Copyright 1999-2002 Edward H. Hagen