What’s Wrong with Evolutionary Psychology? is a mini-essay that lives up nicely to its title, with a quick overview of some of the mines in the minefield that is Ev Psych.
This (or something like it) should be required reading for anyone who (like me) thinks there’s much to be learned by studying and thinking about human psychology as a product of evolution. I still think that’s true, but there are lots and lots and lots and lots of pitfalls involved in that kind of thinking, so we have to be really careful when we do it.
Ev Psych deals with the “nature/nurture” controversy — are we (individually or as a species) a product of our genes, or of our environment? I think it’s obvious that the answer is “both,” and Ev Psych doesn’t contradict that view, but it does emphasize (for obvious reasons) the “nature” part of the equation.
But as long as we don’t adopt some ludicrous form of strict biological determinism, and acknowledge that the debate isn’t “nature vs. nurture” but “nature and nurture vs. nurture alone,” it’s a lot easier to see that millions of years of evolution, based on biological imperatives of survival and reproduction, have surely shaped the human mind just as they’ve shaped the human body.
And no fair crying that Ev Psych provides fodder for reactionary racists and sexists — everything provides fodder for those idiots. Saying we shouldn’t think about X, because bad people might be encouraged by it, is tantamount to saying we shouldn’t think at all.
For me, the best thing about Ev Psych has been the humility it’s given me. It’s helped me to understand that maybe I’m not “all that,” and that maybe other people are cooler than I’ve tended to give them credit for.
In strictly Darwinian terms, I’m a loser — I’ve never much wanted to reproduce, and I’ve behaved in some self-destructive ways that call into question my commitment even to my own survival. And growing up, I always had a certain disdain for other people who behaved in ways that I considered utterly illogical.
But understanding Ev Psych has made me realize that even if I don’t have very strong biological programming, other people do, and that programming is behind a lot of the behavior that I find so perplexing. And I realize that just because a certain kind of behavior is stupid in non-evolutionary terms, that doesn’t mean people who behave that way are actually stupid. They may just be so strongly under the influence of their biological programming that they can’t escape it, and should really be given credit for being able to resist it as much as they have.
I’ve always prided myself on being tolerant and non-judgmental (a throwback to my religious phase), but if I’m honest with myself, I’ve been better at valuing tolerance than at actually practicing it. Understanding Ev Psych has made me a more tolerant, more understanding person.
Even if somehow it should turn out to be totally bogus, I think that will stay with me, and I’ll still be grateful to people like Stephen Pinker and Robert Wright for what they’ve given me (just as I’m still grateful to people like Jesus and Gandhi for what they gave me during my religious phase).