Great shades of the is-ought divide! Once upon a time, the “progressive Left” considered the mere belief that such a thing as human nature exists a sure sign of a weakness for fascism, racism, and right wing moral turpitude in general. Now, if we are to believe Dennis Prager at National Review Online, the world has been stood on its head. In an essay entitled “Science Demands Big Government,” he claims to have discovered, based on an opinion piece in the New York Times by Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, that,
…something held to be indisputably scientific — evolution — is offered as the Left’s explanation for virtually everything.
As I’ve pointed out before, there has been a paradigm shift touching on the matter of human nature and the evolutionary origin of human behavioral traits. Not long ago one could reliably expect an allergic reaction from the Left the moment the subject was raised. While the shift is far from complete, that’s no longer the case. To date, at least, no confirmed leftists have been observed dousing E. O. Wilson with water on account of his latest book, as they did after he published Sociobiology, albeit it certainly left some readers with indigestion. Be that as it may, practitioners in the field are still constantly harassed by leftists, and for the same reasons that prevailed during the heyday of the Blank Slate. It seems to them that any suggestion that there might be a biological basis to human behavior is a direct assault on their ideological sacred cows. Copious examples, including this latest one, may be found on the blog of the journal Evolutionary Psychology. In this case, blogger Robert Kurzban addresses the hoary accusation by John Horgan, who blogs for Scientific American, that evolutionary psychology is equivalent to “social Darwinism,” pointing out for the umpteenth time that the goal of evolutionary psychology is to discover that which “is”, not that which “ought” to be. As Kurzban recalled, Horgan had earlier leveled a similar accusation at participants in the annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) in Santa Barbara as long ago as 1995, in an essay entitled The New Social Darwinists. Referring back to that earlier piece, Kurzban writes,
Probably the most obviously incorrect aspect of the piece is the title, “The New Social Darwinists.” Social Darwinism is, of course, a political ideology, a set of ideas about values, or political oughts; HBES is, of course, a scientific society, and presenters at the conferences were making positive claims, about what is. Interestingly, in the body of the piece, Horgan explicitly acknowledges the is/ought barrier, writing of the attendees that “[m]ost shun the naturalistic fallacy, the conflation of what is with what should and must be.” His choice of title might, one could generously suppose, be intended as a play on words of some kind.
If Prager will read Horgan’s latest, he will see that the accusations therein are a mirror image of his own. Just as Prager accuses evolutionary psychologists of manipulating science to condone the nanny state, a bête noire of the Right, Horgan accuses it of condoning warfare, a bête noire of the Left. While Prager probably doesn’t realize it, the attacks from the Left have been coming for decades. It hardly seems fair that evolutionary psychology should now be attacked from the right as well. For example, again quoting Prager’s essay,
Evolution explains love, altruism, morality, economic behavior, God, religion, intelligence. Indeed, it explains everything but music. For some reason, the evolutionists have not come up with an evolution-based explanation for why human beings react so powerfully to music. But surely they will.
Now, along comes Professor Lieberman not merely to use evolution to explain human behavior, but to justify coercive left-wing social policy.
In other words, not only is the Left progressive when it coerces citizens to act in ways the Left deems appropriate, science itself — through evolution — inexorably leads to government coercion on behalf of such policies.
Alas, dear reader, there is actually is some truth in what Mr. Prager says. Little does he know that what he calls the progressive Left once worked itself into a fine fit of virtuous indignation and hurled down anathemas on the very same science with a fury no less imposing than his own. Of late, however, a good many of them have finally stopped kicking against the goad. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” they are now busily engaged in cobbling their ideological “oughts” onto the “is” of evolved human behavioral traits. Read through Professor Lieberman’s opinion piece, for example, and you’ll find enough “oughts” to put a religious tract to shame.
In hopes of mollifying Mr. Prager, I can only point out once again that the science of human nature has been sufficiently beaten up by the left over the last several decades, and doesn’t need any more brickbats from the right. If he doubts it, I suggest he consult books like Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu, or Not in our Genes, by Richard Lewontin. Beyond that, there are a good many honest practitioners in the field who are well aware of the difference between “is” and “ought,” and are more interested in uncovering the truth than in scoring ideological points. As we learned from the Blank Slate episode, the Left is perfectly capable of inventing comfortable fantasies to replace those truths, no matter how obvious, if they happen to be ideologically inconvenient. One must hope that the Right doesn’t prove just as adept at doing the same thing.