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Carter Phipps

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Evolutionary Psychology Under Attack?

Posted: 07/14/09 12:02 PM ET

The hot new field of evolutionary psychology is coming under attack from all sides. Let's just make sure we don't throw the baby of evolutionary thinking out with the bathwater of questionable science.

evo-psychThe war over evolutionary psychology seems to be escalating these days. And from the pages of The Nation to a recent article in Newsweek, evolutionary psychology, once the darling of pop media, seems to be taking it on the chin. Now remember that evolutionary psychology is the popular new field of science that suggests that human psychology is written in our genes and in our brains. It suggests that certain psychological impulses that we experience today are the result of adaptations that were selected hundreds of thousands of years ago in the lives of our ancestors. Evolutionary psychology also dovetails with brain science in the sense that proponents argue that the record of these psychological predilections given to us by our ancestors are largely writ in the structure and workings of our brain. On the surface, the idea makes a lot of sense. We love sex, and all the romantic accouterments that go along with it, because of its importance in the evolutionary scheme of things. We tend to over-indulge in sweet foods because that's what best served our survival and reproductive needs thousands of years ago. We get jealous, not because of our fundamental relationship with our parents, as Freud might say, but because infidelity threatens our need to pass on our genes to the next generation. We band together in close-knit groups because the tight bonds of such relationships would have conferred survival advantages to our Stone Age predecessors. And the latest popular assertion is that humans have an evolutionarily hard-wired predilection for religious belief. Faith is part of our genetic make-up, so goes this argument, because of the advantages it once gave us in terms of the creation of tight-knit, highly loyal social bonds that helped us survive the slings and arrows of life among the Flintstones. These are overly simplified examples, but you get the basic idea.

Now I've always liked evo-psych as a general notion; it can be interesting, informative, even revelatory at times. And it can make a kind of intuitive sense. It also adds one more important dimension to the multidimensional complexity of the human self. However, as is often the case, proponents of exciting new fields tend to overreach, and evo-psych is no exception. As people once did with the new field of Freudian psychology, when everything under the sun was explained in terms of the Oedipal complex and childhood experiences, suddenly it's in vogue to explain all of human psychology and even sociology (this similar but related field is called sociobiology) by appealing to Darwinian processes -- including religion, morality, altruism, love, evil, marriage, infidelity, music, poetry and even literature.

dont-blameNeedless to say, there are many problems with this. First, there is the question of whether or not all of this is really the best of science. After all, it's one thing to assert that something is true because it's written in our genes from hundreds of thousands of years ago. And it's another thing to demonstrate it or test for it in the same way we might test for say, genetic inheritance. The recent article in Newsweek by science editor Sharon Begley, "Don't Blame the Caveman", took evo-psych to the cleaners for exactly this issue. She quotes Massimo Pigliucci of Stony Brook University saying that, "Evolutionary stories of human behavior make for a good narrative, but not good science." In fact, some of the early assumptions of evolutionary psychology, like the idea that men prefer hourglass figures because of something hard-wired in our brains, may not be as universally true as once believed. Some evo-psych theories have suggested that promiscuity and even rape were once an adaptive advantage, and thus explain their common prevalence today. In fact, it is the idea that such behavioral tendencies might be "hard-wired" into our brains by evolution that is especially controversial. Some feel that allowing an evolutionary basis for bad behavior is akin to making a Stone Age excuse for current moral failures. Of course, the uproar seems a little overheated. Just because an impulse might be present somewhere in our psychological structure doesn't mean we have to act on that impulse. That's common wisdom, not to mention the most basic teaching of all religious traditions. It just goes to show the kind of problems we inevitably create when we hitch our morality to the temporary ebbs and flows of science.

There is also sort of academic version of survival of the fittest being played out here. As The Nation put it in yet another scathing article about evo-psych recently:

"...evolutionary thinking is, at present, an aggressively expansive species within the academic world...outcompeting the old school Neanderthals across a wide swath of intellectual territory. Having colonized the social sciences, it now sets it sights on the humanities, the last area of resistance. To subdue it would mean...the unification of the domains of knowledge, from physics all the way up to aesthetics, on the basis of a single set of principles."

This is all part of an ongoing struggle in the academy between science and the humanities. And evolutionary thinking is making advances, seeking to influence the domains of art and literature. (We wrote about his trend recently in EnlightenNext, an article by Ross Robertson called "Can Darwin save Dartmouth from Derrida?") Again, this is just a quick overview of a complex subject, but you can understand how this perceived colonization of psychology, sociology, and the humanities by biology would ruffle more than a few feathers. In fact, it has ignited quite a conflict. (For those of you versed in Spiral Dynamics or Integral Philosophy, this could also be framed as another front in the struggle between modernism and postmodernism).

David Sloan WilsonFinally, there is the issue closest to my heart, which is the development of evolution itself as the context for a new worldview, as a frame in which to radically rethink and deepen our understanding of so much of human life. Many of the proponents of evolutionary psychology like David Sloan Wilson support this as a general goal as well. They see the extraordinary potential in evolutionary thought, and sense its power to provide a higher context for contemporary life, one that lifts us out of the fragmentation and relativism so endemic to our current society, and in the academy. But the big question is: What do we mean by evolution? How big and broad is our understanding of that term? Are we just talking about the mechanisms of biology? Perhaps, but I would like to suggest that the idea of evolution far transcends the current science of evolution.

Evolution is about more than genes and natural selection. It's about a rich, new way of understanding the development of everything from the farthest reaches of the human psyche to the outer edges of the universe. It's about the hidden structures deep in the interiors of the brain, but also about the hidden structures deep in the interiors of culture. Yes, it's about the birds and the bees, but it's also about The Axial Age and the Age of Enlightenment. Yes, it's about Darwin and Mendel, but it's also about Habermas and Hegel, Whitehead and Piaget, Gebser and Aurobindo.

So where does that leave us with evo-psych? Well, there are those who may understandably fear the dominion of the overly narrow assertions of this new science, but we must not let them throw the baby of evolutionary thinking out with the bathwater of questionable science. Evolution itself is not the problem here. And there are those on the other side of the fence who see the exciting potential of a new unifying context for understanding so much of human life. This world is pregnant with a new evolutionary worldview; it is gestating below the surface of culture, emerging slowly on the edges, just beginning to receive attention from the mainstream media. But here again, we must be careful. We don't want the vast potential of a new evolutionary worldview hijacked by an unwinnable culture war. Focusing exclusively on Darwinian mechanisms as the primary instruments for understanding the evolution of consciousness (psychology) and culture (sociology) is like using a magnifying glass to look at the Mona Lisa. It does reveal something interesting, but sooner or later, we are going to realize that there is a lot more to the big picture.

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