June 10, 2022


Hard Wired: How evolutionary psychology ended up at the heart of the culture wars (Hari Kunzru, Yale Review)

According to evolutionary psychology, the brain is an information-processing system designed by natural selection in response to feedback from the environment. Individual behavioral adaptations are generated by specialized programs, or "modules," rather than emerging from some general-purpose, infinitely plastic architecture. So instead of the mind being a tabula rasa on which culture can write its many and varied scripts, culture is constrained and channeled by the process of natural selection that has created the evolved brain. And importantly, because evolution takes place over long time scales, the "Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness" for which the brain is supposedly optimized is an ancient one--namely, the savannah that exerted selection pressures on our ancestors.

This perspective is, among other things, a direct challenge to the idea, common in the social sciences, that culture occupies a realm separate from psychology and biology. In one of the landmark documents of evolutionary psychology, the 1992 essay "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," the psychologist Leda Cosmides and her anthropologist husband, John Tooby, briskly stated their opposition to this assumption. "Human minds, human behavior, human artifacts, and human culture are all biological phenomena," they insisted, "aspects of the phenotypes of humans."

A founding gesture of sociology, one of the things made it emerge as a coherent field at the end of the nineteenth century, was Émile Durkheim's characterization of "social facts" as a separate object of study from "those that form the subject matter of other sciences of nature." Cosmides and Tooby were claiming that "social facts" were not so distinct after all. If they were part of the human phenotype, an expression of genes interacting with the environment, then maybe they ought to be studied using of biology. The social sciences, they claimed, were suffering from "endemic failure," "malaise," and a "failure to thrive" brought on by their unwillingness to "locate their objects of study inside the larger network of scientific knowledge."

In the years after Cosmides and Tooby issued their challenge, evolutionary psychology has been on the frontlines of the American culture wars. Though its particular model of the evolved brain is contested by other research traditions, it might as well be the only game in town for consumers of popular media. Magazines and websites now feature a constant stream of headlines drawn from EvoPsych papers: a recent news search brought up stories about what men think of other men's beards, gay men's responsiveness to fertility cues, and whether men or women fall asleep faster after sex. Celebrity "pick-up artists" such as Destiny draw on what might be called "pop EvoPsych" to teach young men how to maximize dating success--in a video of one of his popular seminars, Destiny tells his students that "our attraction mechanism has been evolutionarily microcalibrated...by millions and millions of generations of both success stories and failure stories.... Your design is prepared for an ancient environment." And the EvoPsych approach to intimacy gets distilled into violent misogyny as it percolates through the "Manosphere," the internet milieu of men's rights activists, MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), and Incels, a subculture that has produced a number of mass murderers and is now widely recognized as a terrorist threat.

As its perspective has spread out into popular culture, pop EvoPsych has inflected highly charged debates about gender, race, violence, and social class. It has also permeated a receptive Silicon Valley culture that shares much of its intellectual DNA, particularly with regard to theories about information, feedback, and control. James Damore is far from the first young male engineer who has used EvoPsych to push back against the liberal ideology of diversity, to question postmodernist theories about the social construction of knowledge, or to provide a simple account of human nature that could help him steer a path through the unquantifiable complexities of the social world.

Evolutionary psychology's attack on social and cultural modes of explanation has obvious ramifications for left-wing political projects that derive their legitimacy from that tradition. Much of its popularity on the North American Right is because it provides ammunition in political gunfights that have little or nothing to do with theories about the evolution of the brain or the extent to which culture ought to be understood in terms of biology. When the psychologist and self-help writer Jordan Peterson talks about a "dominance hierarchy" that "however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years," he is making an appeal to evolution as an iron law, an absolute constraint on political and social possibility: opposing this dominance hierarchy, or trying to mitigate it, is going against nature. And this dream of a social order founded in nature has deep roots in the American political imagination.

Darwinism has never been anything more nor less than an attempt to justify oppression by white males (British Imperialism at its origins) as simply the natural scientific order. 

Posted by at June 10, 2022 8:55 AM