Evolutionary Psychology and Darwinism as an <em>Idée Fixe</em> - Evolution News & Views

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Evolutionary Psychology and Darwinism as an Idée Fixe

We need to remind ourselves from time to time that Darwinism is more than a scientific idea, and more than the seed of a social philosophy or worldview. It's also a prime example of the kind of rigid thinking -- the idée fixe or fixed idea -- that bedevils seemingly unrelated fields having to do with diet, therapy, advice, and self-help, with results that are sometimes comic, sometimes more unfortunate than that.

A fixed idea is one that, for the believer, applies everywhere and to everything and under every circumstance no matter how wisdom, discernment or common sense might argue contrary to it. For instance, among those of us interested in advice for parents, the hot battle of the moment pits against one other the Chinese and Western models of parenting. With her huge bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale law professor Amy Chua has made a pot of money, and a lot of angry critics, wittily championing a borderline-abusive model of what it means to be a Chinese mother.

Proponents of softer parenting insisted on the superiority of their own approach. It didn't seem to occur to anyone that maybe the aggressive, demanding Chinese way brings out the best in some kids, regardless of ethnicity, while the Western way, or a blend, works best with some other kids. Real wisdom would consist of knowing what's most appropriate for your own children.

It's like the silly debate between the Atkins and South Beach diets. Why does nobody consider the possibility, the probability, that Atkins is best for some people, South Beach for others, and some other diet for other people?

Fixed-idea thinking maniacally jams all cases, facts, and individuals into the same simplistic interpretive mold, yielding a single model for evaluating behavior, therapeutic treatment, diet, or what have you.

In our culture, this counterfeit of wisdom is often mistaken for the real thing, of which we're largely bereft. Authors, gurus, and therapists have discovered it's possible to fuel a lucrative career by selling as universally applicable a single insight into the nature of some human beings -- maybe a group of people no more populous than that of the self-help author and his own spouse or her own child or family.

Which brings us back to Darwinism, specifically to Darwinian evolutionary psychology. The latter is a field that embarrasses even other Darwinists, who pride themselves on the "rigor" of their own scientific theorizing, a boast that can be sustained only because the claims of evolutionary psychology are less technical and thus easier to make fun of. Yet whether considering the evolution of the cell or the psyche, Darwin's theory is always the same obsessively fixed idea, cramming everything we see in nature into the same bursting interpretive suitcase and jumping up and down on the lid to get the blasted thing shut.

This doesn't stop the popular media from applauding every absurdly tidy evolutionary explanation of every human foible or propensity you can imagine. The New York Times Science section makes a specialty of playing up new and inane Darwinian psychological speculations -- of crying, homosexuality, being helpful, sharing childcare, gossip, morality, mate poaching, valuing a Harvard degree, whatever. It's almost a weekly feature.

You could play it as a parlor game, "Trivial Evolutionary Psychological Pursuit." Players form teams. You set an egg timer and then turn over the card. Each team must explain in evolutionary terms why, for example, women wear makeup, or why they are more distrustful of strange men when they are ovulating. Quick! You have 45 seconds! Go! Extra points for imagining how your explanation was proved true for all time by a study of undergraduates at the local college.

Recently, Darwinian biologist-bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne were pouring mockery on an article in Slate by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering. Dr. Bering claims that ovulating women have a stronger handgrip because evolution fitted them to defend against rapists. In 2002, this was proved definitively by a study of undergraduates at the local college (SUNY-Albany).

Myers and Coyne are rightly contemptuous. But Jesse Bering's extrapolations are only a less esoteric version of other Darwinian leaps like the one based on research that got a rave the other day from the crew of homunculi at Panda's Thumbs. This study from the local college (University of Illinois teaming up with the Chinese Academy of Sciences) deals not with undergraduates but with eelpouts. It tells a plausible story of how the Antarctic fish might, or might not, have evolved a gene for an anti-freeze protein from coding for a related enzyme with "modest" anti-freeze properties.

The reason this caught the attention of PT is because the evidence can be construed -- if you really, really, really strain -- to reinforce the meta-narrative, the grand fixed idea, under which all of nature's development can be explained by the accumulation of such trivial genetic micro-fixes.

Where's the harm in fixed ideas, whether Darwinian or otherwise? Some can indeed be harmless things, amounting to mere private obsessions.

Certainly there is ground for resentment, however, of the idée fixe in the therapeutic fields. Prefaced by the inevitable stock phrase, "Science says," the complexity of human personalities and relationships are leveled down to suit a simplistic, often degrading model, well suited to impress, cow or intimidate emotionally vulnerable people. The tradition of philosophical conservatism is an impassioned protest against what historian Jacob Burckhardt called such "terrible simplifiers" and in favor of appreciating what philosopher Russell Kirk called the "proliferating variety and mystery of human existence."

Shoving individual men and women into a rigid ideological scheme, even if "for their own good," insults the reality of who we really are, retarding the capacity for greatness.

Darwinism is the mother of all fixed ideas, corroding the picture of ourselves we carry in our heads with a vision of nature in its entirety reduced to flat, ultimately sterile and dead matter chasing round a cosmic drain hole. Yes, it very much matters who we think we are. If Darwinian reductionism is right, we're nothing more than meat on its path to putrefaction.

Other, older and deeper views -- various forms of theism, traditionalism, conservatism, call it what you will -- hold out the hope that we are something not so easily defined, something greater, more mysterious and, at least potentially, more noble.