2000s >> 2001 >> no-1158-january-2001

Evolutionary pseudo-psychology

Is competition, leadership, aggression, possessiveness, and social and sexual inequality inevitable? Are they part of our biologically-determined human nature?

Socialists have seen it all before. First it was the Social Darwinists, then it was the Nazis, then in the 1960s books appeared with such titles as The Territorial Imperative, On Aggression and The Naked Ape, then there was sociobiology, now there’s “evolutionary psychology”. All put over the same basic message: competition, leadership, aggression, possessiveness, social and sexual inequality are inevitable; you can never have a society without them as they’re part of biologically-determined human nature.

In reply, socialists have pointed out that the people concerned were not writing as competent scientists but as ideologists serving privileged interests and/or pandering to popular prejudice. In fact the real scientific evidence proved the opposite: humans were of course the product of biological evolution but their particular evolutionary inheritance in the form of a complex brain allowed them to learn and live out a great variety of different behaviour patterns; one key feature of human biological nature was precisely this capacity for flexible behaviour, the capacity to adapt human behaviour to cope with the challenges presented by the natural and the social environments which humans had to live in. Humans can be competitive, aggressive, possessive, etc but we can also be—and are—co-operative, friendly and sharing. Groups of humans have lived in conditions of social equality in the past and so could do so again.

The basic position of the so-called evolutionary psychologists is put by one of their gurus, Steven Pinker, in his book, How The Mind Works:

“For ninety-nine percent of human existence, people lived as foragers in small nomadic herds. Our brains are adapted to that long-vanished way of life, not to brand-new agricultural and industrial civilisations. They are not wired to cope with anonymous crowds, schooling, written language, government, police, courts, armies, modern medicine, formal social institutions, high technology, and other newcomers to the human experience”

If this figure of 99 percent is meant to be taken literally, and assuming that human societies practising agriculture first came into being 10,000 years ago, the “people” Pinker is talking about would be those living about 1 million years ago. These were certainly members of the genus homo, but of the long-extinct species homo erectus rather than our own species homo sapiens. In fact modern humans are generally regarded as not having evolved until some 100,000 or perhaps 150,000 years ago.

The argument is not that the human brain is not a biological adaptation that better fitted humans for surviving, but whether this adaptation was just best for living as foragers on the African savannah or whether it was a more general capacity to adjust to whatever environment humans found themselves living in.

The fact that even homo erectus left Africa to settle and survive in different environments suggests the latter. This is strengthened by the fact that the evolutionary psychologists have failed to come up with any credible theory as to how complicated behaviour patterns such as they speak of could be governed by genes. For that’s what their argument amounts to—that the behaviour pattern appropriate to a foraging life on the African savannah somehow got imprinted on the brains of the species that immediately preceded us and which we modern humans have inherited through our (and their) genes. In fact, it amounts to a revival, with regard to mental characteristics, of the long-discredited theory that acquired characteristics can be inherited.

As a number of contributors to Alas, Poor Darwin. Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (ed. Hilary and Steven Rose, Jonathan Cape) show, this is not how the brain works. It has long been known that the 18th century materialist view such as that of Robert Owen of the mind as a blank sheet on which the environment can imprint anything is wrong; the brain plays a much more active role in the learning process. We also know, thanks to recent advances in genetics and neuroscience, that some capacities (such as the ability to distinguish faces or to tell distance and perspective) correspond to certain parts of the brain. It is this that the evolutionary psychologists—and others who believe that complex behaviour patterns are innate and that there is, for instance, a gene for aggression or for homosexuality—latch on to, but what they ignore is that the brain is not fully “wired up” (to use one of their favourite metaphors) at birth but that this “wiring up” is a process that takes place as we grow up and learn and in fact continues throughout our lives. We are not born with pre-programmed patterns of behaviour. We learn how to behave after we are born (indeed, this starts while we are still in the womb) and in so doing “programme” or “wire up”, or whatever metaphor you want to use, our brains. We are animals that are capable of adopting a great variety of behaviour patterns. The nature of our brain allows us, as participants in a particular system of society, to “programme” ourselves, in ways that neuroscience is beginning to understand in more detail, for living in that society.

This means that it is just as natural for us humans to live in a society with written language, formal social institutions and high technology as on the African savannah. If Pinker and his followers really believe that they are better adapted genetically to living on the African savannah than in contemporary capitalism or future socialist society then there is an easy way to test this: dump them naked in East Africa and see whether or not the “basic instincts” they suppose themselves to have allow them to survive better there than in Boston or Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, Alas, Poor Darwin cannot be recommended as a fully effective presentation of the case against evolutionary psychology. Some of the contributors do set out cogently enough the points made in the previous paragraphs but, unfortunately, some of the other “arguments against evolutionary psychology” are trivial or wrong. For instance, the first contributor merely criticises the form in which evolutionary psychologists present their arguments while the second (a raving postmodernist) criticises not just biological determinism but all determinisms including therefore social determinisms such as the materialist conception of history. Even Steven Rose himself questions the reasonable assumption—in fact the only reasonable assumption of evolutionary psychology—that humans won’t have changed genetically since we modern humans first evolved some 100,000 years ago. And a contribution from a physical anthropologist is a glaring omission.. Someone like Richard Leakey could have delivered a knock-out blow against the evolutionary psychologists in the first round.


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