July 10, 2007

evolutionary psychology and its discontents

There's an article in Psychology Today titled Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature. Echidne of the Snakes spent some time doing a point by point refutation, which I suggest you read if you're interested in that sort of thing. Basically, the article itself is a particularly genius example of how Evolutionary Psychology as most people use the term is basically a collection of speculation about the lives of early humans, most of which gets used to justify sexism and crappy appearance politics. Refuting it requires slightly less work than shooting fish in a barrel. You don't even need a gun!

My sister studied bioanthropology (basically, the study of humans using biology, which includes quite a bit of evo-psych) in college, and I remember vividly two conversations about it that I had with her. When she was a sophomore and deciding to study bioanth, she argued that I was just wrong not to accept that differences between men and women were biologically based, and that my feminism was blinding me to the strong evidence for it. Two years later, as a senior, she called me up while I was driving through Utah and asked what she should do. She needed to write a senior paper - like a small thesis - to get honors, which she very much wanted, but she felt like she couldn't in conscience write a paper on any of the bioanth subjects she'd studied because the standards of evidence were so unutterably lame and unconvincing. Two years of study brought her to the conclusion that even at a fancy-pants research university, most evolutionary psychology is a collection of speculation about the lives of early humans.

I have a similar problem with a great deal of political theory, including all social contract theory. These theories rely on some kind of imagined history of early humans: life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," then we all got together, signed the social contract, and turned our power over to the state. Hobbes is one of the most honest about this kind of thing (he doesn't make up rights without explaining where they come from) but still. Wasn't it great when we all signed the social contract? What a great party! No wait, no one was there. IT NEVER HAPPENED. (One of the things I like about Aristotelian political theory is that, while there's a theory of human nature, there's no just-so story about how we came to be this way.)

We know a little more about the lives of early humans in a factual sense than we used to, but we still have essentially zip about social structure. Among other things, it's pretty unreasonable to argue that social evolution just stopped at some point (which is what you have to say for evo-psych to still be relevant, or to use modern hunter-gatherers to learn about ancient hunter-gatherers), when we have very clear evidence that lactose tolerance evolved in some places as recently as 3,000 years ago. Humans continue, however, to be very good at coming up with reasons to justify whatever it is we want to justify right now, including rights, greed, censorship, free speech, monogamy, polygamy, etc.

Evolutionary psychology and political theory share one gigantic missed opportunity. Yes, it would be very very interesting to know more about how human brains really work and have evolved, and yes, it would be very very interesting to know how the social structure of early human societies developed, and think about what implications those have for our ideas about politics and community. Aristotle assumes that humans are by nature social - he doesn't even really imagine an isolated state of being human - and that seems likely to have some foundation (unlike, for example, his transparently bad justification for slavery). There's some serious work to be done matching up science and archeology about early humans with theories about human nature and society. But political theorists (who have some excuse, since they're not scientists or historians) and evolutionary psychologists (who have none, since they claim to be both) have done a pretty dreadful job of it. Too bad!

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