A Theory of Everything

Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology

Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, editors. 2001. Vintage Books, London. 292 pages.

What comes to mind when you hear the term evolutionary psychology?

It seems just about as far removed from the daily lives and concerns of most people as it can possibly be. Simply put, evolutionary psychology means that all human behavior can be explained on the basis of evolution and natural selection—Darwinian survival of the fittest.

But the editors of the 14 essays that make up Alas, Poor Darwin warn that “‘Darwinian’ and ‘evolutionary’ have become adjectives to attach to almost anything.” In fact, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), philosopher Daniel C. Dennett goes so far as to describe Darwinism as a “universal acid” eating through whatever it comes in contact with.

Editors Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, together with the other writers of the 14 essays, argue that the mistaken and pernicious claims of evolutionary psychology (EP) have seeped into the cultural drinking water through the varied fields of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy. This all-encompassing theory directly informs social and public policy and thus has a powerful political dimension.

The 14 contributors, who are professors and leaders in such fields as anthropology, ethnology, genetics, philosophy, psychology and sociology, are apparently all confirmed believers in evolution. Contesting Darwin’s theory is therefore not the purpose of this book, but contesting Darwinism’s extrapolation as a universal acid most certainly is.

All in the Genes

Alas, Poor Darwin argues that at the root of evolutionary psychology is a disturbing biological determinism, the notion that our choices and our actions as humans are somehow caused or predetermined by natural laws. For instance, central to the immensely popular 1976 book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is the idea that everything we do is dictated by our genes; that is, by evolutionary preprogramming.

In a favorite analogy, EP proponents liken a newborn baby’s brain to a Swiss army knife, equipped with numerous modules inherited down the evolutionary tree from hunter-gatherer ancestors in order to solve specific challenges he or she will encounter throughout life. This is the thrust of Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works (1997). In functions such as speech and grammar, for example, the developing individual is guided by a genetically predetermined program, and the development of a specific native language is no more than a fixed blueprint finding its expression under a different set of circumstances. Real-life developmental experiences find no place in this schema.

This determinism has led to some extreme concepts, including a serious proposal that rape is an adaptive strategy triggered by an evolved, inherent, genetic preprogram that allows unattractive men to mate. This apparently replaces an age-old pseudoreligious excuse, “The devil made me do it,” with a modern-day pseudoscientific equivalent, “Don’t blame me; it’s in my genetic code.”

Even if we factor for such extreme perspectives, it is not difficult to see the devastating effect that the determinism of evolutionary psychology has on concepts of morality, spiritual values and standards of behavior: we are biologically driven by our selfish genes, and all seemingly altruistic motivations are merely survival strategies in disguise.

Is Psychology Science?

Such ideas are nothing new. Claims of biological predestination in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, led to concepts of race, class, gender and ethnicity. These in turn led to philosophical and then political policies that resulted in such horrors as the Nazi genocide of Jews, gypsies and others. The theories were never seriously questioned or resisted until the awful result was all too apparent.

Social sciences, touching as they inevitably do on such sensitive subjects as race, have had a hard time since then, particularly after a famous UNESCO-commissioned statement in 1950 rejected the notion of race as a scientific concept. Thus a seemingly impermeable barrier was erected between social and biological sciences, with the greater authority being conferred on the latter.

Sociobiology has therefore met with resistance in the late 20th century, having been labeled as merely updated Social Darwinism. Enter the psychologists. New so-called evolutionary insights have provided powerful tools to justify the claim of the successors to the sociobiologists—the evolutionary psychologists—that theirs is a sound, biologically based discipline. Yet EP’s modus operandi is as reductionist (and therefore simplistic) as earlier sociobiology, claim the Roses. Nonetheless it seems to have been accepted by authors of TV scripts, newspaper reviews and university syllabuses without critical evaluation or comment.

A point-by-point refutation of EP’s scientific claims and of its zealous, indiscriminate overapplication of evolutionary theory forms the basis of Alas, Poor Darwin.

Because each essay covers distinctly different areas of objection to EP, this review merely samples some of them.

Blurring the Boundaries

The title of the first essay, “Less Selfish than Sacred? Genes and the Religious Impulse in Evolutionary Psychology” by Dorothy Nelkin, professor of sociology at New York University, hits at the near worship of the evolutionary theory by some. She writes that author Edward O. Wilson and other scientists “have promoted this model of human nature in popular books and magazines with missionary fervour, aiming to convert the unenlightened. So ardent are their efforts, it is almost as if they aspire to assure the Darwinian fitness of the theory—to assure its survival in the world of cosmic ideas. Their claims, their language and their style have striking religious overtones. . . . Indeed, the gene appears as a kind of sacred ‘soul’. . . . They are, I argue, part of a current cultural move to blur the boundaries between science and religion.”

Nelkin claims that natural selection is, to evolutionary psychologists, a “theory of everything,” defining our concepts of good and evil, and explaining emotions such as love, jealousy and hate and behaviors such as infidelity and status seeking.

Another writer under Nelkin’s critical eye is Dawkins, who, she states, “reduces people to the status of ‘robot vehicles’ programmed to perpetuate genes.” Dawkins “insists that anyone who believes in a creator, God, is ‘scientifically illiterate.’”

Evolutionary psychology is not only a new science, it is a vision of morality and social order, a guide to moral behaviour and policy agendas.” 

Dorothy Nelkin, professor of sociology at New York University

If Nelkin’s view of the scope of EP is correct, its perniciousness can scarcely be underestimated: “Evolutionary psychology is not only a new science, it is a vision of morality and social order, a guide to moral behaviour and policy agendas.”

Evolutionary psychology is indeed a religion with some very grandiose aspirations for itself. “More than a scientific theory,” writes Nelkin, “evolutionary psychology is a quasi-religious narrative, providing a simple and compelling answer to complex and enduring questions concerning the cause of good and evil, the basis of moral responsibility and . . . the nature of human nature. While represented as a scientific theory, evolutionary psychology is rooted in a religious impulse to explain the meaning of life.”

She later adds, “Like the physicists engaged in God-talk, geneticists and evolutionary psychologists are borrowing the compelling concepts of one belief system [Christianity] to meet the needs of another, in an effort to attract converts.”

Such an approach is puzzling at best. Indeed, while Alas, Poor Darwin is a brave and informative book, it is somewhat perplexing to read essays by believers in the evolutionary theory that inadvertently decry the concepts behind random natural selection.

A couple of quotes from the third essay, “Anti-Dawkins” by professor of genetics Gabriel Dover, should serve to illustrate: “Organisms evolve under very complex internal and external conditions,” he remarks, “which have not so far been captured by the available models” (emphasis added throughout). Or, “Hence, it is the very transient nature of unique phenotypes [observable characteristics of an individual], coupled to their biological trick of knowing how to reproduce, which makes them, through their specific exchanges with the local environment, the only determinants of the operation of selection.”

Atomizing Thought

The words science and scientific automatically connote authority and impartiality in the minds of the general public. In the essay “Why Memes?” Mary Midgley, a philosopher with a special interest in the relationship between science and religion, contrasts two approaches to understanding thought and culture.

The current scientific trend advocated by Dawkins, among others, is to atomize thought “by analysing it into its ultimate particles and then connecting them up again.” These units of thought and culture Dawkins calls memes. Midgley, however, insists that this approach to analyzing culture does not work for the simple reason that thought and culture are not granular but consist of patterns, like ocean currents or traffic flow. The better way to understand culture is to understand the patterns of the surrounding context. But admirers of the physical sciences, says Midgley, have always “wanted somehow to extend scientific methods over the whole field of thought and culture.”

This enthronement of the physical sciences was further facilitated by the dualism of such thinkers as René Descartes (1596–1650), who believed that two distinct classes of substance exist, one constituting minds and the other bodies. Reunifying this artificial division may be a laudable objective, but EP tries to use science to explain all the functions of the mind and human behavior in general.

According to Midgley, “It seems to promise that in this way we can fulfil the positivist programme, proclaimed by Auguste Comte, that human thought should progress steadily away from religion through metaphysics to a triumphant terminus in science. That programme, however, is not really an intelligible one. It only looks plausible because of an ambiguity in the idea of science.”

Midgley points out that different forms of thought are required for different disciplines. Thus an approach to social dilemmas will differ from an approach to historical thinking, which will be different again from the thought processes required for working in chemistry. The standardization that some proponents of EP seek to impose is that of science in its narrower modern definition. For instance, she rejects the kind of formal unity “that the philosopher Daniel Dennett tries to impose in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by inflating Darwinism to a universal system.”

The temptation to extend modes of thinking that work well in one field to areas where they do not is almost as old as recorded history. 

The temptation to extend modes of thinking that work well in one field to areas where they do not is almost as old as recorded history. Take, for example, the Aristotelian tradition that extended purposeful reasoning from beyond the bounds of human conduct in order to explain the behavior of stones. “Theories of everything” in human thought and reasoning have been with us for a very long time.

Midgley points out what is obvious to those not taken in by the imperialism of science: Human motivation and its causes are not hidden in our DNA. The facts about motives “are obscure largely because we find it so hard and painful to attend to them.” Summarizing the futile endeavor to explain human behavior through the application of Darwinian theory and the physical sciences, Midgley concludes that “the meme story simply fails to give us any kind of explanation at all” for why people do the things they do.

Conceptually Flawed

Steven Rose, in the final essay, “Escaping Evolutionary Psychology,” attempts to uncover the fundamental flaw of EP. He has no problem with its declared aim of explaining patterns of human activity and how society is organized. The inherent error, he concludes, is that “like its predecessor, sociobiology, it offers a false unification, pursued with ideological zeal. . . . It offers yet another reductionist account in which presumed biological explanations imperialise and attempt to replace all others.”

He believes EP is guilty of “two major conceptual errors: the misunderstanding of the relationship between enabling and causal mechanisms, and the attempt to privilege distal [farther removed] over proximal [nearer] causes. It is on these shaky foundations that prescriptions for how humans do and must behave, and for the social policies that flow from this, are based.”

Alas, Poor Darwin is a refreshing and informative book that lays bare some of the deficient thinking that is palmed off as scientific thought on the unsuspecting public, academic and political institutions, as well as the media.

Indeed, the very narrow modern definition of science actually compounds the problems of bringing clear thinking to bear on what humanity is and how we came to possess qualities that set us apart as creative, cultural and morally aware creatures.

Science Falsely So Called

When we consider that “science” has come to stand for a rejection of anything that cannot be measured within physical parameters, it should really come as no surprise that the high-sounding theories and fads of the age often result in logical and moral cul-de-sacs.

It should really come as no surprise that the high-sounding theories and fads of the age often result in logical and moral cul-de-sacs.

It may come as a revelation to realize that almost 2,000 years ago a highly educated Jew, Paul of Tarsus, was also a debunker of false philosophy masquerading as science. He advised his protégé Timothy: “Keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20, King James Version). In the context of evolutionary psychology and its slavish acceptance of a Darwinian “theory of everything,” Paul’s advice is just as sound today as it was long ago.

All of this invites a deeper question, not raised in Alas, Poor Darwin. If a theory can be misapplied and overapplied so enthusiastically, and with very little critical evaluation, shouldn’t we be subjecting the fundamentals of the theory of evolution, including the notion of natural selection, to the same kind of critical analysis? And in evaluating it and where its underpinnings have led us morally, perhaps we should bear in mind the words of another “philosopher,” Jesus Christ: “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? . . . Therefore by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16, 20).