November 29, 2004


Evolutionary Psychology and Its True Believers (Andrew Ferguson, March 19, 2001, Weekly Standard)

It's become commonplace to point out that of modernity's three most influential thinkers—Marx, Freud, and Darwin—only Darwin enters the twenty-first century with his reputation intact. But Darwin has troubles of his own. The troubles come not only from the right, where creationists and other religiously minded conservatives nip around the ankles of evolutionary theory, but also from the left, where social scientists, and even some real scientists, worry about the ends to which Darwin's great idea might be put.

It's a particular kind of Darwinism that has the left-wingers worried. Twenty-five years ago it ran under the name sociobiology; since then it has been slightly modified and rechristened "evolutionary psychology." Under either name it is an ambitious enterprise that claims to explain the patterns of human behavior—everything from child-rearing practices to religion to shopping habits—as a consequence of Darwinian natural selection. Sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, or neo-Darwinism; we can use the terms interchangeably) has become a favorite of such conservative polemicists as Charles Murray, James Q. Wilson, Tom Wolfe, and Francis Fukuyama. At the same time, polemicists on the left compare it to Nazism (polemicists on the left compare lots of things to Nazism, of course, but now they seem to mean it).

Right-wingers suddenly embracing Darwin, while left-wingers try furiously to contain him—we've come a long way from the Scopes monkey trial. This makes for one of the more unexpected disputes in recent intellectual history, though it's hard to keep the sides straight without a program. Luckily, a spate of recent books helps the layman put the bickering in perspective. And as good a place as any to begin is with Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, a collection of essays edited by Hilary and Steven Rose and published late last year.

Hilary is a sociologist, Steven a biologist, but both, more pertinently, are grizzled veterans of the 1960s New Left. So are their contributors, among them the postmodern theorist and architect Charles Jencks and the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Alas, Poor Darwin is merely the latest in a series of essay collections, going back to the late 1970s, that Steven Rose has edited for the purpose of placing sociobiology beyond the bounds of polite society. One of his earlier collections, Not in Our Genes (1984), drew such a blistering review from the sociobiologist Richard Dawkins that Rose threatened to sue for libel. These scientists don't fool around.

Rose sums up the sociobiological view neatly: "It claims to explain all aspects of human behavior, and then culture and society, on the basis of universal features of human nature that found their final evolutionary form during the infancy of our species some 100,000-600,000 years ago." Roaming the African savanna for thousands of centuries, homo sapiens adapted to environmental challenges through the process of natural selection, developing the genetic tendencies that shape our behavior today. The application of this view knows no limit. As Rose points out, sociobiology has got into our "cultural drinking water." It's not at all unusual to switch on, say, the Today show—if you're the sort of person who switches on the Today show—and see one or another pop psychologist tracing, say, the American male's love for golf to the evolutionary development of the species: The golf course's rolling landscape, dotted with water and clumps of trees, appeals to our genetic memories of the long-ago savanna.

"It is the argument of the authors of this book," writes Rose in his introduction, "that the claims of [sociobiology] in the fields of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and philosophy are for the most part not merely mistaken, but culturally pernicious"—not just bad science but bad politics, too: right-wing politics. Roughly half the essays in the book are explicitly political, though the political objections bubble unmistakably through the others. [...]

As several essayists note in Alas, Poor Darwin, the ascendancy of evolutionary psychology in the late 1970s and 1980s coincided with the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism in our politics. "The political agenda," writes Rose, "is transparently part of a right-wing libertarian attack on collectivity, above all the welfare state."

Some of the essayists have another beef: Far worse than playing politics, sociobiologists are practicing religion . Perhaps the most amusing feature of the debates between sociobiologists and their critics is the ferocity with which each side accuses the other of harboring religious sentiments, as though nothing could be more contemptible. When they get really mad the combatants hurl imprecations like "true believer" and "choirmaster." Stephen Jay Gould calls sociobiologists "Darwinian fundamentalists." His opposite number, Richard Dawkins, says that critics like Gould are "demonological theologians." Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist from New York University, is on Gould's side. She devotes her essay in Alas, Poor Darwin to arguing that sociobiology is merely religion in disguise and, for that reason (though she doesn't have to say so explicitly), illegitimate as either science or philosophy.

Given that every prominent sociobiologist, from Pinker to Dawkins to Wilson, has ardently declared his atheism, you might think Nelkin has a difficult case to make. Dawkins, who is the most outspoken in this regard, calls religious belief a "virus of the mind" and says that anyone who believes that the existence of the universe implies the existence of a creator is by definition "scientifically illiterate." Wilson is emphatic that religion and science are incompatible, and that the practical achievements of science make religion intellectually untenable. Sociobiology routinely dismisses religious belief as a delusion that long ago may have had some "adaptive function," helping humans to survive and flourish, but which is no longer necessary.

In what sense, then, is evolutionary psychology a religion? "Scientists who call themselves evolutionary psychologists," Nelkin writes, "are addressing questions about meaning, about why things happen, about the ultimate ground of nature. . . . More than a scientific theory, evolutionary psychology is a quasi-religious narrative, providing a simple and compelling answer to complex and enduring questions concerning the case of good and evil, the basis of moral responsibility and age-old questions about the nature of human nature."

Anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology will see her point. One of the first things a layman notices upon wading into the literature is the grandiosity of its claims. The titles of the books, by both popularizers and scientists, are spectacular. Wilson himself has written On Human Nature and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge; Robert Wright, who used to be a journalist before he moved on to much, much larger things, writes books with such subtitles as Why We Are the Way We Are and The Logic of Human Destiny. Other sociobiology titles: The Web of Life, Evolution and the Meaning of Life, The Origins of Virtue, and The Biology of Morality. The hyperbole is more than a publisher's marketing ploy. This is really the way sociobiologists think.

So of course the immodesty extends beyond the titles. "If the theory of natural selection is correct," Wright wrote, "then essentially everything about the human mind should be intelligible in these [Darwinian] terms. . . . Slowly but unmistakably, a new world view is emerging," he went on. "Once truly grasped . . . it can entirely alter one's perception of social reality." Laura Betzig, editor of a collection of sociobiology essays called, typically enough, Human Nature, introduces the book like so: "It's happened. We have finally figured out where we come from, why we're here, and who we are."

Sociobiology is a theory of simply everything. Darwin's original version of natural selection was already comprehensive, claiming to account for almost all the physical attributes of the planet's animal and vegetable life. But evolutionary psychologists extend Darwin's principle to bear on the mental life and cultural practices of human beings. Like most religions, evolutionary psychology tells a story—a myth, in the sociological sense of the word. [...]

Here's an example of how difficult it is to keep the sides straight in the sociobiology debates. Dawkins is the scourge of sociobiology's left-wing critics. But he is also a self-described man of the "liberal left." The same goes for Robert Trivers, a founder of sociobiology, and for two of the most prominent neo-Darwinian popularizers—the socialist economist Robert Frank and Peter Singer, the "controversial bioethicist," as the newspapers like to describe him. Together they constitute a left-wing rump of the sociobiology movement. And it seems they understand the ramifications of their creed far better than its enthusiasts on the right.

This is especially true of Singer, whose 1999 monograph A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation, offers a fitting note on which to close this survey of sociobiology and its critics. "Can the left swap Marx for Darwin?" Singer catchily asked. His answer is a resounding: You bet. "The left needs a new paradigm," he wrote, in a mirror image of Arnhart's assertion that "conservatives need Charles Darwin." And the new paradigm is sociobiology (though he rejects the term itself, presumably because it is ideologically fraught). "It is time," Singer goes on, "for the Left to take seriously the fact that we are evolved animals, and that we bear the evidence of our inheritance, not only in our anatomy and our DNA, but in our behavior too."

This fact, says Singer, demands that leftists make a few concessions. They should acknowledge that certain kinds of behavior—sex roles in child-rearing, for example—are cross-cultural and probably arise from a fixed human nature. They should abandon their belief in the perfectibility of man and other utopian schemes. But once these concessions to science are granted, Singer makes clear, the old socialist agenda can advance unimpeded. His Darwinian argument for the redistribution of wealth and the equalization of incomes is too elaborate to be recounted here, but it is no more implausible than the arguments made by right-wing Darwinians for, say, the free market.

What is most interesting is the depth of Singer's devotion to sociobiology, to the "Darwinian paradigm." It is interesting, but not surprising. He believes that the enduring value of sociobiology will be its use in the "debunking or discrediting of politically influential, non-Darwinian beliefs and ideas." Prominent among these is the distinction that has traditionally been made between human beings and animals. "Speciesism" is a word that Peter Singer, like many sociobiologists, takes seriously and employs liberally as an imprecation. "Darwinian thinking," he writes, "tells us that we have been too ready to assume a fundamental difference in kind between human beings and nonhuman animals." With Darwin as our guide to understanding human beings, we are prepared for a "revolution in our attitudes."

Students of Singer will be familiar with this argument, and where it leads. The reason the newspapers nowadays tag Singer as a "controversial bioethicist" is that he is—to put it more plainly—the world's most celebrated advocate of infanticide. "Killing Babies Isn't Always Wrong" was the title of a famous essay he published in the London Spectator in 1995. Singer's line of reasoning goes roughly like this: If we leave aside the arbitrary bias of speciesism, we see that moral respect is owed to organisms on the basis of their attributes. We agree that any being that can reason, that can recognize others, that possesses some form of self-consciousness is a being worthy of moral respect.

Singer believes, with good reason, that sociobiology validates his new, non-speciesist understanding. That understanding has both philosophical and practical effects. One philosophical consequence is to elevate the moral status of animals, like cats and dogs, who possess some form of self-consciousness and can recognize others over time. Another is to lower the moral status of human beings, like Alzheimer's victims, newborn infants, and the mentally disabled, who may not possess such attributes. He worries about "granting every member of our own species—psychopaths, infants, and the profoundly intellectually disabled included—a moral status superior to that of dogs, pigs, chimpanzees, and dolphins." The practical consequences are just as direct. Singer has no trouble advocating euthanasia for old people with reduced mental capacities. He has no trouble advocating a twenty-eight-day waiting period for parents to assess the mental and biological health of a newborn, before deciding whether to let it live.

Nothing in sociobiology requires an acceptance of infanticide or euthanasia, needless to say, any more than it requires political conservatism or liberalism. But Peter Singer is the real thing: a True Believer in the new Darwinian faith.

And it isn't hard to see why sociobiology is Singer's religion of choice. Subtly and quietly, it removes the barriers that have traditionally stood in the way of "controversial" views like his—barriers put in place by other, older religions. The new Darwinism may tell us nothing about whether women should serve in the military, or whether family-friendly tax credits are a good idea, or how much income should be redistributed to whom and why. But it does try to tell us what a human being is—and isn't. And before too long, after a few more years in the drinking water, its "controversial" views won't seem controversial at all.

Thanks to Ed Driscoll for showing us the immensely cool Wayback Machine.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 29, 2004 12:17 PM

Sociobiology is only part of the explanation. Of course human genesis has had a role in the forming of the human mind; is that not what we mean by Natural Law?

More relevant to this discussion than the genesis of the mind, which is, after all, a "done deal," and not amenible to transformation in historical time, is the transformation of society. It is here, in the realm of values and idea, that the operation of evolution--i.e., variation and selection--comes into play.

Ways of thinking and ways of acting can and do evolve, but not genetically. Rather they so so qua ideas, spiritually, if you will, and with great rapidity. The ultimate survival trait in this regard is adaptability. Stagnation is death, progress is victory. Progress, however, means the opposite of what the self-proclaimed "progressives" pretend it to be. Rather, it is progress toward more and more freedom in conformity with reason, not collapse into primitivism.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 29, 2004 4:04 PM

Natural Law isn't natural.

Posted by: oj at November 29, 2004 4:22 PM

oj: As a creationist, how could one not hold that Natural Law is natural?

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 29, 2004 6:31 PM

oj: As a creationist, how could one not hold that Natural Law is natural?

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 29, 2004 6:32 PM

God is Supernatural. The Law is a function of God, not of Nature.

Posted by: oj at November 29, 2004 6:33 PM

Whether one agrees with it or not (I find it persuasive when it comes to discussing common-mode behaviors, but nowhere else), sociobiology is profoundly conservative.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at November 29, 2004 7:08 PM


No, it's fascist.

Posted by: oj at November 29, 2004 7:29 PM

I love it when people cherry pick only what they want to from the bible!

Posted by: at November 29, 2004 7:55 PM

sociobiology is profoundly conservative.


Sometimes it is, sometimes it ain't.

When it ain't: Kurzban, Tooby, and Cosmides have shown that a stunningly effective way to decrease racism is to put people into mixed "coalition groups." A coalition group is something like a sports team, work group, etc.
The ev psych argument is that there is (prima facie)no evolutionary pressure to adhere to someone because of their race. Close kinship, yes, race, no, at least because you would be around those of the same race virtually all the time--competing with them. When society enforces a type of coalition group segregated by race, the confusion of race with coalition leads people to use the race (easily spotted, it is) as a proxy for coalition. Result: racism.

On sex and age preferences, though, you'd have to go with ev psych as conservative. They seem pretty wired in.

Posted by: Social Scientist at November 29, 2004 9:04 PM

Yes, they work together as a team, as sports teams do, but demix immediately after work, as sports teams do.

Posted by: oj at November 29, 2004 11:08 PM

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

Sociobiology has never entered the mainstream of darwinism.

One reason, probably, is that for every human behavior that a sociobiologist can lay to some asserted evolutionary mandate, I can find a group equally human that does the opposite.

There are very few exceptions. We all eat, is one.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 30, 2004 1:48 AM

> Singer

Will no one rid me of this troublesome ethicist???

Relax, Peter, just joking--but could you sucessfully explain, if we all find you too troublesome to bear, why we couldn't just as easily dispose of you as we could dispose of Grandma or Junior under your philosophy?

Posted by: at November 30, 2004 3:28 AM


Yes, it's the manner in which Sociobiology refutes the notion of Natural Selection that makes it the death of Darwinism. In carrying the theory to its logical conclusion it destroys Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at November 30, 2004 8:55 AM

Given Singer's appelation as an "ethics" guy, I find myself wondering whether I was mistaken about the meaning of the word ethics.

Posted by: AML at November 30, 2004 11:45 AM

Here's where Spencerian cultural evolution comes to the rescue. Yes, you can almost always find some bizarre maladaptation such as incest, human sacrifice or Marxism being tried out sometime, somewhere. The point is that these are failure, evolutionary dead ends.

The curtural survival trait, par excellance, is ordered liberty, the freedom to experiment and adapt, tempered by respect for tradition, law on order, and what we call charity.. If it sounds like a balancing act, it is, just as biological success is.

Posted by: Lou Gots` at November 30, 2004 3:46 PM


Yes, they work together as a team, as sports teams do, but demix immediately after work, as sports teams do.

As society dictates.

Posted by: Social Scientist at November 30, 2004 5:47 PM


There are no societies and never have been where ethnicity hasn't mattered.

Posted by: oj at November 30, 2004 5:57 PM


Why can every adaptation of the species thrive in the same system?

Posted by: oj at November 30, 2004 8:12 PM

Sociobiology fails for the same reason that your contention that atheists hate their fathers fails, Orrin.

It's silly.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 30, 2004 10:24 PM


Of course it is, it's Darwinism.

Posted by: oj at November 30, 2004 11:28 PM

Though, oddly enough, most darwinists reject it.

It didn't get to be controversial for nothing.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 1, 2004 2:08 AM

It's always going to be controversial to openly state where applied Darwinism loeads you, but all Darwinists believe to one degree or another in evolutionary psychology/sociobiology.

Posted by: oj at December 1, 2004 8:31 AM

Darwinism does not require application, any more than chemistry does.

Whether, or how, darwinism is used to support arguments has nothing whatever to do with darwinism. If we were all to experience the Rapture, darwinism would go one without us.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 2, 2004 2:42 PM


Agreed. So long as Darwinism remains just a textbook philosophy and is not applied in the real world it should be tolerated.

Posted by: oj at December 2, 2004 2:45 PM