That inimitable patron of felines the world over, Prof. Jerry Coyne, recently posted a piece entitled, “Evolutionary psychology for the tyro” at his “Why Evolution is True” website. It summarizes a defense of the field in a series of four essays (here, here, here and here) by Prof. Laith Al-Shawaf of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The attacks on the field he addresses are the usual Blank Slate canards about “just so stories,” “genetic determinism,” etc. that have long been familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the field. They have never risen above the level of strawman arguments, but Al-Shawaf does a more thorough job of demolishing them then I have seen elsewhere.
Why these singular attacks on a particular branch of psychology? Prof. Coyne summarizes the reason nicely in his final paragraph:
So there’s your evolutionary psychology primer. The articles are short; I’d recommend reading one at bedtime each night. They will serve as your Pasteur-ian inoculation against the nipping of rabid dogs who know nothing about modern evolutionary psychology but oppose it on ideological grounds. And those grounds must surely involve the “progressive” idea that humans are infinitely malleable in behavior. Unfortunately, as the Communist experiment revealed, that’s not true.
To really understand what’s going on here, you need some historical background. Evolutionary psychology is the field most closely associated with the study of innate genetic influences on human behavior, or “human nature,” if you will. For a period of more than half a century the academic and professional “experts” in psychology denied the very existence of human nature, substituting ideological dogmas of the type alluded to by Prof. Coyne for science. In the process they raised an insuperable barrier to any attempt by our species to achieve self-understanding. This episode is commonly referred to as the “Blank Slate.”
This “crude” version of the Blank Slate finally collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity, thanks largely to the efforts of an outsider, a “mere playwright” by the name of Robert Ardrey, who wrote a series of popular books revealing to lay people what was going on in the behavioral “sciences,” making the behavioral “scientists” a laughingstock in the process. Ardrey’s role is a salient fact of the history of the affair that will never be recorded in the standard textbooks. It is too embarrassing to the academic tribe to admit the truth. Be that as it may, it is one of the few instances in the last half a century in which the “woke” Left suffered a major defeat. Of course, that hardly means they’ve given up. They’ve been forced to admit that innate human behavioral traits do exist, but according to the new, “revised” version of the Blank Slate, it doesn’t matter. Our species is still sufficiently “malleable” to be a perfect fit for whatever utopia happens to strike their fancy.
In large measure, the field of evolutionary psychology has “adapted” to the prevailing ideological winds. After all, the woke Left has virtually absolute control of the academy, and can deny tenure, professional advancement, and even continued employment to anyone who defies them. As a result, the relevant journals have all kinds of articles about human sexual behavior, as if we were in danger of forgetting how to reproduce, and other subjects that don’t tread on the toes of those in power, but little on matters of somewhat greater relevance to the survival of our species such as the influence of ingroup/outgroup behavior on warfare and ideological conflict, territoriality, and the darker aspects of human moral behavior. In spite of that, the Left remains deeply suspicious of the field, and continues to attack it with the same old, debunked arguments they’ve been trotting out for the last fifty years. The series of articles alluded to by Prof. Coyne “pounds the rubble” of these arguments and is certainly useful to anyone with an open mind on the subject.
However, anyone who thinks that the scales will suddenly fall from the eyes of the Blank Slaters themselves on reading them is dreaming. The fantasy that rational argument is all that’s necessary to defeat the Blank Slaters and Woke leftists in general is a major reason why our conservatives have lost every major battle with these master manipulators of moral emotions for decades. They have never been influenced by rational argument, and the very attacks that Prof. Al-Shawaf alludes to were never advanced in good faith to begin with. All of the old, familiar canards he mentions in the first of the four papers and addresses in detail in the other three were never anything more than attacks on strawmen. They are directed at imaginary opinions that no serious evolutionary psychologist ever had to begin with.
Perhaps the most hackneyed strawman of all is the claim that evolutionary psychology is just a collection of “just so stories.” This pet argument of such high priests of the Blank Slate as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould is absurd on the face of it. The question the debate is actually about is the very existence of what is commonly referred to as “human nature,” or innate behavioral traits that have a significant influence on human behavior. The fact of its existence has been documented in human history and described in our literature for the last five thousand years. Darwin himself explored it in detail in his “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,” a book that the Blank Slaters were always careful not to mention. The claim that the common aspects of human behavior that, as Darwin noted, can be observed in diverse cultures across the entire planet, are due to innate mental traits is the only rational argument that has been advanced to explain them. It is anything but a “just so story.”
Let us consider the kind of “scientific” arguments the Blank Slaters themselves advanced against this “just so story.” Blank Slate stalwart Ashley Montagu was the self-appointed “voice of science” back in the sixties and seventies. He appeared on the Johnny Carson show and was celebrated in many other public and academic venues. Here’s what he had to say about the subject:
…man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.
In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts. On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do. The capacities for learning are simply more limited than those of Homo sapiens.
Anyone who thinks that such Blank Slate imbecilities were limited to Montagu is invited to read “In Search of Human Nature,” by Carl Degler, or “The Blank Slate,” by Steven Pinker. As documented by Degler, they even believed that sex was purely a “learned behavior.”
So much for the claim that the very existence of human nature is a “just so story.” What about the various theories that have been advanced suggesting how the various aspects of it may have evolved. In every other branch of science one can mention these are referred to as hypotheses. They are a fundamental aspect of all science, and serve as a starting point for the experimental and theoretical investigations designed to determine whether they are accurate or not. The claim that, when it comes to evolutionary psychology, they are “just so stories” is dishonest on the face of it.
Al-Shawaf also mentions that old chestnut, “genetic determinism,” in the first paper. According to this favorite conceit of the Blank Slaters, advocates of the existence of human nature are all supposed to believe that human beings are as rigidly programmed by their “instincts” as if they were so many ants or bees. Another obvious strawman argument, it attacks a nonexistent opponent. I’ve read a great deal of the relevant literature, and have never run across a genuine “genetic determinist.” If they exist at all, they must be as rare as hen’s teeth.
Also mentioned in the first paper is the canard that evolutionary psychologists believe that everything is an adaptation. Supposedly, they ignore such things as “spandrels” and “exaptations.” To grasp the absurdity of this claim, a bit of historical background is necessary. See, for example, the chapter in Ullica Segerstrale’s “Defenders of the Truth” entitled, “Assault on Adaptationism.” Originally concocted by Gould and Lewontin in a paper entitled, “The Spandrels of San Marco,” it was never anything more substantial than an attempt to throw dust in the eyes of their opponents. As with the other arguments described above, it was irrelevant to the central thesis of evolutionary psychology, the very existence of innate behavioral traits. Rather, it was an attempt to discredit that thesis by association by advancing the claim that the advocates of human nature were guilty of “bad science.”
The term “spandrels” in biology refers to features that did not arise as adaptations through natural selection but rather as side effects of adaptive processes and that have been co-opted for a biological function. As such, their existence has been noted and taken for granted by biologists since Darwin’s day. Another classic strawman, no serious evolutionary psychologist ever disputed their existence. If a trait that exists by virtue of natural selection promotes the survival and reproduction of the species involved, it will continue to exist regardless of whether one chooses to call it an adaptation, a spandrel, or an exaptation, and vice versa. One can count the fact that Gould and Lewontin got such mileage out of this non-argument as one of the more remarkable absurdities of scientific history.
So much for the credibility of the arguments addressed by Prof. Al-Shawaf. Prof. Coyne has it right. In the end they are nothing but, “…the nipping of rabid dogs who know nothing about modern evolutionary psychology but oppose it on ideological grounds. And those grounds must surely involve the ‘progressive’ idea that humans are infinitely malleable in behavior. Unfortunately, as the Communist experiment revealed, that’s not true.” It’s unfortunate that the advocates of evolutionary psychology are so timid about pointing this out, but understandable, nonetheless. The woke Left controls the academy and is quite capable of derailing the career of anyone who defies them.
In short, the Blank Slate is still with us. Its advocates have just become a bit more circumspect than they were in the day of such “scientists” as Ashley Montagu. Instead of blatantly denying the existence of something any child is aware of, they just keep the field on a tight leash. However, good work continues to slip through the cracks on subjects more relevant to the human condition than abstruse aspects of our sexual behavior. It just takes a little effort to find it.