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  • Whither Evolutionary Psychology?

    Posted on April 9th, 2016 Helian 6 comments

    Back in the day when the Blank Slaters were putting the finishing touches on the greatest scientific debacle of all time, there was much wringing of hands about “aggression.”  The “evolutionary psychologists” of the day, who were bold enough even then to insist that there actually is such a thing as human nature, were suggesting that, in certain circumstances, human beings were predisposed to act aggressively.  Not only that, but the warfare that has been such a ubiquitous aspect of our history since the dawn of recorded time might not be just an unfortunate cultural artifact of the transition to agricultural economies.  Rather, it might be the predictable manifestation of innate behavioral traits.  They suggested that, instead of hoping the traits in question would disappear if we just pretended they didn’t exist, it might be wiser to seek to understand them.  If we understood the problem, we might actually be able to take reasonable steps to do something about it.

    Fast forward to the present, and the Blank Slate is still with us, but only as a pale shadow of its former self.  References to human nature are commonly found in both the popular and academic literature, as if the subject had never been the least bit controversial.  The fact that innate predispositions have a significant impact on human behavior is accepted as a matter of course.  However, it turns out that the assumption that if only the power of the Blank Slate orthodoxy could be broken, we could start to seriously address problems, such as warfare, that are a threat to our security and perhaps our very survival, was a bit premature.  In retrospect, it seems the Blank Slaters should have learned to stop worrying and love human nature.

    What has happened in evolutionary psychology and the other scientific disciplines that address human behavior may be described by a term that was fashionable during the Third Reich – Gleichschaltung.  Literally translated it means “equal switching,” or, in plain English, something like “getting in step.”  The Blank Slate was a brute force attempt to sweep undesirable traits under the rug, and portray human behavior as almost perfectly malleable through brainwashing (or “education” and “culture” as it was more delicately put at the time).  Such “ideal” creatures would be infinitely adaptable as future denizens of the utopias crafted by the ideological Left.  In spite of the manifest absurdity of the Blank Slate dogmas, and the failure over and over again of actual human beings to behave as the Blank Slaters claimed they should, the Blank Slate orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences over a period of many decades.  It turns out that the whole charade may have been completely unnecessary.

    In retrospect, the solution was obvious; Gleichschaltung.  Today we find the process in full swing.  The number of papers currently appearing in the academic journals that take even a sideways glance at “ungood” human behaviors like aggression is vanishingly small.  Rather, most of the papers that are published may be broadly grouped into two “safe” subject areas; 1) sex, always good for attracting at least a few of those citations that look so good on academic CVs, and 2) “approved” forms of behavior, such as altruism.

    Examples are not hard to find.  For example, glance through the articles in recent editions of the journal, Evolutionary Psychology.  They include such titles as “Are Women’s Mate Preferences for Altruism Also Influenced by Physical Attractiveness?,” “Male and Female Perception of Physical Attractiveness; An Eye Movement Study,” “The Young Male Cigarette and Alcohol Syndrome; Smoking and Drinking as a Short-Term Mating Strategy,” “Effects of Humor Production, Humor Receptivity, and Physical Attractiveness on Partner Desirability,” and “Mating and Memory; Can Mating Cues Enhance Cognitive Performance?”  So much for sex.  There is also a plentiful supply of papers in the second broad area mentioned above, generally with impeccably politically correct titles that signal the virtue of the authors, such as “Empowering Women; The Next Step in Human Evolution?,” “Upset in Response to a Sibling’s Partner’s Infidelity; A Study With Siblings of Gays and Lesbians, From an Evolutionary Perspective,” and “Western Europe, State Formation, and Genetic Pacification.”  The last of these suggests the very rapid evolution of “peaceful” individuals thanks to the fortuitous effects of culture during the last thousand years or so.  Occasionally one even finds titles that mix the two categories, such as “Sexual Selection and Humor in Courtship; A Case for Warmth and Extroversion.”  The point here is not that the authors of these papers are wrong, but that their findings and theories tend to be “in step.”

    When it comes to economic behavior, a subject near and dear to the hearts of those on the ideological Left, recent discoveries about our innate traits are equally reassuring.  Ample confirmation may be found at the website of Evonomics, where one finds the following in the “about” blurb; “Orthodox economics is quickly being replaced by the latest science of human behavior and how social systems work. Evonomics is the home for thinkers who are applying the ground-breaking science to their lives and who want to see their ideas influence society.”  Here one may find such encouraging titles as “Traditional Economics Failed. Here’s a New Blueprint; Why true self-interest is mutual interest,” “Does Behavioral Economics Undermine the Welfare State?” (of course not!  As the author hopefully if somewhat diffidently opines, “Like any field, behavioral economics gives you lots of opportunity to pick and choose, and if you’re willing to be superficial or unscrupulous, you can justify lots of policy positions with it. But on balance I think it cuts in favor of the welfare state.”), and “Why the Economics of ‘Me’ Can’t Replace the Economics of ‘We.'”  It turns out that “evolved behavior” deals Conservative and Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand an especially severe smackdown.  The author of one article, entitled “What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory,” concludes that, “Our very survival as a species depended on cooperation, and humans excel at cooperative effort. Rather than keeping knowledge, skills and goods ourselves, early humans exchanged them freely across cultural groups.”  According to other papers, “science says” that evolved human behavior promotes altruism, not selfishness, and Rand must therefore be all wet.  See, for example, “What Ayn Rand Got Wrong About Human Nature and Free Markets; When altruism trumps selfishness” and “Ayn Rand Was Wrong about Human Nature; Rand would be surprised by the new science of selfishness and altruism.”  Indeed, the “evonomicists” seem obsessed by Rand, going so far as to suggest that a Soviet style cure might have been called for to treat her ideologically suspect notions.  The author of the last article mentioned above asks the rhetorical question, “I believe a strong case could be made that Ayn Rand was projecting her own sense of reality into the mind’s of her fictional protagonists. Does this mean that Rand was a sociopath?,” adding remarks in the remainder of the paragraph that leave the reader with the impression that she almost certainly was.  In an article entitled, “Let’s Take Objectivism Back From Ayn Rand,” group selection stalwart David Sloan Wilson piles on with, “…it is no secret that the Ayn Rand movement had all the earmarks of a cult.”

    Far be it for me to retrospectively assess the mental health of Ayn Rand one way or the other.  My point is that, when it comes to innate behavior, the process of Gleichschaltung is well underway.  One can already predict with a fair degree of certainly what most of the “discoveries” about innate human behavior will look like for the foreseeable future.  Be that as it may, one still detects glimmers of light here and there.  As yet, no such “iron curtain” shrouds thought and theory in the behavioral sciences as prevailed during the darkest days of the Blank Slate.  One occasionally finds articles that are “noch nicht gleichgeschaltet” (still not in step), in both Evolutionary Psychology and at Evonomics.  In the former, for example, see “Book Review: What Men Endure to Be Men: A review of Jonathan Gottschall, The professor in the cage: Why men fight, and why we like to watch,” and in the latter a article by Michael Shermer entitled Would Darwin be a Socialist or a Libertarian? that actually has some nice things to say about Friedrich Hayek.  It would seem, then that the process of Gleichschaltung is not yet quite complete, although, given the almost universal lack of ideological diversity in academia, there is no telling how long those few who persist in being “out of step” will still be tolerated.

    Perhaps the greatest cause for optimism is the simple fact that the Blank Slate has been crushed.  There is no longer a serious debate about whether innate human nature exists.  If its existence is accepted as a fact, then psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists may continue to publish papers portraying it as universally benign and dovetailing perfectly with leftist ideological shibboleths until they are blue in the face.  Neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists will still be out there investigating how these innate processes actually work at the microscopic level in the brain.  With luck, they may eventually be able to discover ways to isolate a few kernels of truth from the chaff of “just so stories” that are inevitable in the publish or perish world of academia.  One must hope they will sooner rather than later, because it is likely that our very survival will depend on acquiring an accurate knowledge of exactly what kind of creatures we are.

    In a world full of nuclear weapons, it is probably more important for us to learn what innate aspects of our nature have contributed to the incessant warfare that has plagued our species since before the dawn of recorded time than it is to know how male eye movements influence female sexual receptiveness.  Similarly, it is important for us to be familiar, not just with the “good” innate behaviors commonly found within ingroups, but also with the “ungood” innate behaviors we exhibit towards outgroups, and for that matter, the mere fact that there actually are such things as ingroups and outgroups.  One hardly needs the services of a professional evolutionary psychologist to observe the latter.  Just read the comments at any liberal or conservative website.  There one will find ample documentation of the fact that members of the outgroup are not just wrong, but evil, hateful, and deserving severe punishment which is not infrequently imagined in the form of beating, killing, or, as was recently called for in the case of Sarah Palin, gang rape and other forms of sexual assault.  In other words, “aggression” is still out there, and it isn’t going anywhere.  It might be useful for us to learn how to deal with it without either annihilating ourselves or destroying the planet we live on.  Behavioral scientists might want to keep that in mind while they’re composing their next paper on the “nice” aspects of human behavior.

     

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