Time to Abandon Evolutionary Psychology
by Adam Naphta
EP Has No Place Amongst the Right.
I find it perplexing that so many on the right, supposed defenders of traditional and anti-modern knowledge, accept theories about human nature from the domain of evolutionary psychology. I expected that members of the right, or better the periphery, would be more apt to question dubious claims about the nature of humanity and human behavior given from evo-psych, or EP, proponents. An analysis of our Being should be substantially deep and account for the wide variety of phenomena that present themselves to us. I understand the allure of evolutionary psychology comes from the ability to derive an ought from an is. For example, we evolved to do X, therefore we should do X. However, our normative claims as rightists should not be from such a shallow programme. We should ground our normative claims in the duties conferred to us by our cultural and traditional institutions and our nature as human persons, not as evolved mammals. I will show later that the desired ought from is, which EP purports to give, should be taken from a functional understanding of human nature.
Shallow stories regarding the existence of certain characteristics and behaviors as adaptations to a hypothetical environment we know little about should strike anyone with a cursory understanding of human culture as ridiculous. The complexities of our cultural and religious institutions can not easily be reduced to just-so stories from ultra-Darwinist camps. I find it especially odd that peripheral rightist thought allows for explanations that would reduce tradition, religion, and value down to nothing but adaptive behaviors of an imaginary group of humans on the Sahara. Anyone on the right should be suspicious to find Steven Pinker as an intellectual bedfellow.
The Appeal of Evo-Psych
The just-so stories surrounding the existence of our largest and most profound cultural and religious institutions, as well as the disparities and differences both inside and between groups, strike me as the worst of neoliberal attempts to justify their own stock of knowledge as inherently superior and prior to cultural and traditionalist thought. They believe that if they can give a sufficient reduction of these purportedly transcendent institutions in terms of a base ultra-Darwinian materialism, then they can easily dispose of such institutions as mere superstitious adaptations that have long outlived their value. I understand that the defining characteristic of right-wing support on EP comes from the enthusiastic desire for a biologically grounded theory of inter-racial and inter-sex differences, but I believe that this could far more easily be done without subjecting oneself to a research programme that is wholly antithetical to a proper rightist knowledge of humanity and Being. There are sufficient explanations of inter-race and inter-sex differences without reference to, as David Stove puts it, Darwinian fairytales. We should be wary of the following thesis: certain behaviors are selected for in an environment of evolutionary adaptation and therefore ground how to think about our current behaviors.
Looking for New Grounding.
I believe then it is time for the right to give up evolutionary psychology as a grounding for its projects. It is a research programme designed to level and debase all claims to transcendent knowledge. There is no room in EP, as practiced by ultra-Darwinists (which is unfortunately the current research paradigme), for a proper right wing account of human culture and behavior. The scientific sheen of an established biological paradigm should not trump a, what I believe to be, properly factual account of culture, tradition, and human purpose.
I will focus now on why we should drop EP as a research programme amongst the right. Following this I will open up some alternative paradigms one should consider as a proper account of explaining the place and importance of culture, tradition, and values, as well as how to derive an ought from an is. First we should consider the critiques of EP given by evolutionary paleontologist, Stephen J Gould. I will merely summarize two of his arguments against Daniel Dennett’s ultra-Darwinist paradigm.
First, cultural evolution is Lamarckian in nature. Second, we have very little knowledge of the environment of evolutionary adaption. One should notice that even if we did have a substantial set of knowledge on said environment, knowing that cultural evolution does not work like Darwinian natural selection should make it clear that even if we could give all the necessary stories of behavior and adaptation in that environment, the changes in culture from then till now would be so substantial it could not matter.
The key difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution is that Lamarckian evolution allows for characteristics acquired during an individual’s lifetime to be passed onto offspring. To understand human behavior we must first understand what it would mean for human behavior to be Darwinian in nature versus Lamarckian in nature. As Gould puts it, “Since every participant in these debates, including Dennett and the evolutionary psychologists, agrees that much of human behavior arises by culturally induced rather than genetically coded change, giving total authority to Darwinian explanation requires that culture also work in a Darwinian manner.”
However, a large problem arises that Gould points out. “The common metaphor proclaims, biological evolution builds a tree of life–a system based upon continuous diversification and separation. A lineage, after branching off from ancestors as a new species, attains an entirely independent evolutionary fate. Nature cannot make a new mammalian species by mixing 20 percent dugong with 30 percent rat and 50 percent aardvark. But cultural change works largely by an opposite process of joining, or interconnection, of lineages.” This seems obvious to me. A certain book is written in Germany, which then makes its way to Russia and China which causes two similar yet distinct changes in culture and behavior in the 20th century. These Lamarckian processes are so fast that they overwhelm any Darwinian process that could have determined or affected behavior.
Moving On from Evo-Psych
I only really pointed out this understanding of culture so that we could understand that one of the central EP theses. That certain behaviors are selected for in an environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) and therefore ground how to think about our current behaviors, is mostly factually incorrect due to the previous understanding of how culture moves at a Lamarckian pace. Therefore just-so stories about Darwinian adaptation don’t make sense given that culture, the true ground for behavior, outpaces what would have happened at the environment of evolutionary adaptation.
This brings me to the last of Gould’s critiques, namely that we do not know much about this EEA. I’ll leave it again to Gould. He writes, “ how can we possibly know in detail what small bands of hunter-gatherers did in Africa two million years ago? These ancestors left some tools and bones, and paleoanthropologists can make some ingenious inferences from such evidence. But how can we possibly obtain the key information that would be required to show the validity of adaptive tales about an EEA: relations of kinship, social structures and sizes of groups, different activities of males and females, the roles of religion, symbolizing, storytelling, and a hundred other central aspects of human life that cannot be traced in fossils? ” I can’t put it any better myself. It is obvious that EEA stories are usually postulated post-hoc and retrofitted to what we want them to show. It seems as though there is no behavior that you cannot make up a story for. Given that we have so little factual evidence of actually how these people lived, using it to strengthen our normative claims seems quite dishonest.
What Should We Appeal To?
Now then, let us return to why I brought up these criticisms in the first place. I do not claim that evo-psych must inherently be wrong or useless. I merely claim that we as a movement should not ground our normative claims from factual, or purportedly factual, claims about why certain behaviors were good in the EEA, even if they seem to agree with our views on gender and race. As Gould has shown, even if we knew everything about such an environment, culture (the ground of behavior) quickly evolves past it. We should instead understand ourselves as human persons inhabiting cultures, and that these cultures make demands of us that we must follow as we, in our nature as persons, have duties to said culture.
Factual claims about our status as American persons can ground our normative statements, but bogus claims about our status as mammals cannot and should not. Our normative claims can indeed be grounded by factual understandings of human nature and culture as such, but only if we understand such things not naturalistically but functionally. A good man in a culture acts a proper way, as does a properly functioning watch, think of yourself as such and we can derive the desired ought from the purported is. This final argument is expanded in Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue and Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature. If one has been convinced to look elsewhere for an understanding of deriving ought form is following this article, I would start with those two books.