The Magazine

Evolutionary Psychology and Its True Believers

Mar 19, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 26 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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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.

From the progressives' point of view, the objections are perfectly understandable. Sociobiology aims to identify human nature: genetic, irreversible, "hard-wired" in the current cliche. Essential to the progressive world view, however, is the belief that such an intractable human nature doesn't exist. Culture, not stubborn nature, determines behavior; change the culture, and human behavior will change along with it. Sociobiology, in other words, strikes at the heart of every large-scale progressive project to remake society.