More Worries at Edge: The Rejection of Evolved Human Nature

The 155 intellectuals chosen by Edge.org to answer their annual question, (What *Should” we be Worried About?), were worried about a number of other interesting things besides Geoffrey Miller’s Chinese eugenics, discussed in my last post.  One of these, which turned up in the contribution of philosopher Helena Cronin was the continuing rejection of evolved human nature, a subject I’ve also often discussed.  Her worry is not overblown.  The Blank Slaters may be in retreat, but they have hardly disappeared.  One still often finds them grumbling on the sidelines of evolutionary psychology.  Cronin refers to the phenomenon as a scientific “asymmetry,” which she describes as, “the discrepancy between the objective status of the science and its denigration by a clamorous crowd of latter-day Blakes.”  (Painter and printmaker William Blake was a furious opponent of the Enlightenment whose famous print of Newton, shown below, depicts him as the embodiment of “desiccated rationality and soulless materialism.”)  Her “worry” is worth quoting at length:

Generally, the public reception of a scientific theory concurs by and large with the judgement of the objective world of ideas. Not, however, in the case of the scientific understanding of our evolved human nature and, above all, male and female natures. If the arguments against the evolutionary science of human nature were conducted in the world of the objective content of ideas, there would be no contest; evolutionary theory would win hands down. But, as a sociological fact, in the public market-place it loses disastrously against its vociferous critics.

How? Because, in a complete reversal of the objective relationship between the science and these critics, all the asymmetries are reversed.

First, the burden of ‘proof’, the burden of argument, is transferred from the criticisms onto the science; it is Darwinism that’s on trial. Meanwhile, anti-Darwinian attitudes don’t have to defend themselves—they are accepted uncritically; the standards for judgement of these views involve all-too-ready credibility and suspensions of disbelief.

Second, adding insult to injury, a plethora of home-made alternatives is conjured up to fill the gap where the real science should be. This DIY-science includes: pseudo-methodological denunciations, where mere name-callings suffice—essentialist, reductivist, teleological, Panglossian (all very bad) and politically incorrect (very bad indeed); the immutable ‘entanglement’ of nature and nurture, which renders nature impenetrable—thereby freeing ‘pure nurture’ to be discussed at length; a cavalier disregard for hard-won empirical evidence—though with a penchant for bits of brains lighting up (no; I don’t know either); the magical potency of ‘stereotyping’ (bad) and ‘role models’ (good); a logic-defying power to work miracles on tabula-rasa psychologies, as in ‘socialisation’ (bad) and ’empowerment’ (good); made-up mechanisms, even though discredited—multi-tasking, self-esteem, stereotype threat; complaints of ‘controversial’ and ‘tendentious’ – which are true sociologically but false scientifically (a case of raising the dust and then complaining they cannot see). The science-free policy that this generates is epitomised by the ‘women into science’ lobby, which is posited on a ‘bias and barriers’ assumption and an a priori rejection of—yes, the science of sex differences.

This mish-mash is low on scientific merit. But it is not treated as opinion versus science. On the contrary, psychologically and sociologically, it has a voice far more influential and persuasive than its objective status warrants.

This double standard applied to evolutionary psychology, or “asymmetry,” as Cronin puts it, is hardly a figment of her imagination. It’s obvious to anyone not wearing blinkers. See, for example, evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban’s blog, where he is constantly fending off just such “asymmetrical” attacks as Cronin describes.  The obscurantist “not in our genes” orthodoxy the Blank Slaters managed to prop up for so many decades in the behavioral sciences may have been broken, but they are still around.  I suspect we will continue to detect their stench from the sidelines for some time, along with that of the old Marxists who spawned them.

There were some related comments in the bit submitted by anthropologist John Tooby.  Tooby is described by Edge, without batting an eye, as “the founder of the field of evolutionary psychology.”  Apparently the ever-fluid “history” of the field has been revised again, and I didn’t even notice.  One can only speculate that the last “founder of the field of evolutionary psychology,” E. O. Wilson, has been deposed because of his embrace of group selection.  Be that as it may, in his contribution, embellished with the catchy title, “Unfriendly Physics, Monsters From The Id, And Self-Organizing Collective Delusions,” Tooby cites a number of existential threats to the survival of mankind, and suggests that we may be ill-equipped to deal with them because of the way we do science.   As he puts it, scientists are no more immune than anyone else to “the self-organizing collective delusions that we all participate in, and mistake for reality.”  Elaborating on this theme, he writes,

Because intellectuals are densely networked in self-selecting groups whose members’ prestige is linked (for example, in disciplines, departments, theoretical schools, universities, foundations, media, political/moral movements, and other guilds), we incubate endless, self-serving elite superstitions, with baleful effects: Biofuel initiatives starve millions of the planet’s poorest. Economies around the world still apply epically costly Keynesian remedies despite the decisive falsification of Keynesian theory by the post-war boom (government spending was cut by 2/3, 10 million veterans dumped into the labor force, while Samuelson predicted “the greatest period of unemployment and industrial dislocation which any economy has ever faced”). I personally have been astonished over the last four decades by the fierce resistance of the social sciences to abandoning the blank slate model in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is false. As Feynman pithily put it, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

I heartily concur.  Behavioral scientists, in particular, would do well to turn their gaze inward for a change, and explain to the rest of us how they could have been so wrong about something so critical to us all for so long as human nature.

Blake Print of Newton

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