by Denyse O'Leary
If materialism is not true, its "evolutionary psychology" branch is doomed. But it might have been doomed anyway. Berlinski, while he has some fun with it, does not write like a man with an urgent message. Nor need he.
He usefully reminds us that what we now call "evolutionary psychology" was at the heart of the true conflict between Darwin and his co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace:
... there is no evident distinction, Wallace observed, between the mental powers of the most primitive human being and the most advanced. Raised in England instead of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a native child of the headhunting Jivaro, destined otherwise for a life spent loping through the jungle, would learn to speak perfect English, and would upon graduation from Oxford or Cambridge have the double advantage of a modern intellectual worldview and a commercially valuable ethnic heritage. He might become a mathematician, he would understand the prevailing moral and social codes perfectly, and for all anyone knows (or could tell), he might find himself a BBC commentator, explaining lucidly the cultural significance of head-hunting and arguing for its protection.
From this it follows, Wallace argued, that characteristic human abilities must be latent in primitive man, existing somehow as an unopened gift, the entryway to a world that primitive man does not possess and would not recognize.
But the idea that a biological species might possess latent powers makes nonsense in Darwinian terms. It suggests the forbidden doctrine that evolutionary advantages were front-loaded far away and long ago; it is in conflict with the Darwinian principle that useless genes are subject to negative selection pressure and must therefore find themselves draining away into the sands of time.
Wallace identified a frank conflict between his own theory and what seemed to him obvious facts about the solidity and unchangeability of human nature.
The conflict persists; it has not been resolved. (P. 158-59 )
Far from the conflict being resolved, contemporary scientism has opted for legends instead. As noted earlier, an alleged similarity between humans and apes, based on very little evidence, is widely advanced today. Berlinski observes:
It is for this reason - no science, little evidence - that the kinship between human beings and the apes has been promoted in contemporary culture as a moral virtue as well as a zoological fact. It functions as a hedge against religious belief, and so it is eagerly advanced. The affirmation that human beings are fundamentally unlike the apes is widely considered a defect of prejudice or a celebration of trivialities. (p. 160 )
Similarly, he takes on the "hardwired" metaphor for human characteristics, originally from computer science but now a beloved truism of pop evolutionary psychology (P. 166):
Commenting on the negative advertising in political campaigns, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked that "there appears to be something hardwired into humans that gives special attention to negative information." There followed what is by now a characteristic note: "I think it's evolutionary biology." The fact that there is nothing hardwired about human beings, because they are not wired at all is passed over as incidental. The metaphor has taken on a life all its own and now that it is living, it has grown great.
These are, of course, the pious legends of scientism.
[H]aving provided an explanation of negative campaign advertisements, evolutionary biology also explains war and male aggression, the human sensitivity to beauty, gossip a preference for suburban landscapes, love, altruism, marriage jealousy, adultery, road rage, religious belief, fear of snakes, disgust, night sweats, infanticide, and the fact that parents are often fond of their children.
As for the "blonde bombshell" theory of evolution (Why gentlemen prefer blondes), Berlinski observes,
If sexual preferences are rooted in the late Paleolithic era, men worldwide should now be looking for stout muscular women with broad backs, sturdy legs, a high threshold to pain, and a welcome eagerness to resume foraging directly after parturition. It has not been widely documented that they do.
Our ancestors are in any case unavailable. Claims made on their behalf are unverifiable. (pp.167-68)
But, of course, evolutionary psychology never needed to make historical or scientific sense in order to be believed. It only needed to confirm the average newspaper reader's view that materialism "explains" things. And of course, it does. Indeed, any perspective, whether space alien conspiracy theory or Freudian psychodrama, can explain things. If an "explanation" is all you want, evolutionary psychology has the advantage of being widely disseminated and readily understood, as well as competely ridiculous. At last, pop psychology grows up and becomes science.
Next: Part Four: The duty Berlinski never accepted
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the new The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).
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