Evolutionary psychology

After the tawdriness of psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology is an inspiring project. It is moving to contemplate, in those around us and in ourselves, the traces of the daily provisionings and death struggles of our immemorial ancestors. It satisfyingly draws together all the departments of human self-knowledge, the range of human accomplishment and failure. Its potential mass appeal is much greater than that of psychoanalysis, because it does not reduce that range to the result of a universal incest drama. Evolutionary psychology is romantic; in our irrationalities and stupidities it hears the echoes of the forest (or savanna) primeval. Given the choice most human beings would rather ascribe their failings—their shortsightedness, their lust, their bad temper, their haste—to the habits of the hunters of antiquity, than to Adam's and Eve's sin, or to unremembered childhood sexual frustrations.

But evolutionary psychology presents the same central problem as psychoanalysis. It explains absolutely everything, and in several different ways, with nothing to falsify, and nothing to choose by save taste, or loyalty to a particular hypothesizer. Natural selection, a principle similarly subject to speculative application, is constrained by the ever-refined records of fossils, geology, and genetics. No such constraints prune evolutionary psychology. Its applications grow with the problems to be explained, not the data to be understood.

Evolutionary psychology derives modern traits from the needs and conditions of ancient hominids. We have their skeletons—which have much to say; but we have none of them to study. We abstract and generalize from primates; but that is an analogy more driven by the human habit of projecting our own traits onto animals—here especially tempting with so many real isomorphisms—than any actual likeness in behavior between humans and our cousins: we who sing like whales, organize like ants, laugh like nothing else. But evolutionary psychologists do not work out, on practical grounds, what primitive humanity was like. Our ancestors as in our ancestors needed this behavior are not taken from anthropology, primatology, or zoölogy. What we are presented in our ancestors is neither human, nor animal; it is human wit, human intellect, without the danger of human mistake, uncivilized and therefore prelapsarian, illiterate yet storyless and unaware of themselves, their behavior always to the animal's long-term optimum without an animal's forgetfulness. Our ancestors is not a theory, a model, or a guess; it is a notion, an impression, an idea.

In practice, evolutionary psychology assumes implicitly, without asserting, that there was some moment when human beings left the animal behind. Evolutionary psychologists note that hominids made tools and mastered fire; but they continue to treat these hominids as if their tools—and their increasingly invented and instrumental social order—were inert epiphenomena of the usual evolutionary interactions, with predators, competitors, and climate. But by rewarding the better knapper, kindler, imitator of vocalizations announcing prey or predator, marker of trails building up a symbolic instead of a kinæsthetic map in memory, giver of orders, maker of allies evolution simultaneously created clumsiness, carelessness, awkwardness, taciturnity, stupidity, uncertainty, servility and domineering. Somewhere, far enough back, there was the animal that would be man; but in between there was no morning when optimally behaved hominids became human beings with the poisonous baggage of irrelevant reflexes and drives.

They take a parochially modern and civilized view of humanity, ignoring historical progress and modern diversity, where the human animal is assumed irrelevant and obsolete. But somewhere in between was Heorot; there was the wolf, there is now the door, but once one scratched and snorted at the other. In their offices and conferences the evolutionary psychologists do not always stop to check that the subject is dead before the autopsy. Not everyone gets through life without having to fight or fly. They do not notice primitives, peasants, refugees; nor the wilderness worse than jungle that follows famine, disaster, war; nor even the criminals, politicians, soldiers around them in their cities, who live by instinct, against worse than saber teeth. It would be well to stop and remember that civilization did not drop down from heaven or occur by accident: it was made, and by human beings with animal strength.

Evolutionary psychology is a worthy project; but so far the project has been ignored while the idea of an evolutionary psychology has been used to weigh and stiffen commonplaces of irreligion and cynicism. It must ask its own questions. What was each species of hominid really like? What marked the transitions, how sudden were they, were they qualitative or quantitative? What was the rôle of population bottlenecks, or of population centers? How far did cohabitation produce sociability, how far did otherwise conditioned sociability produce cohabitation? Are aboriginal peoples and cultures, exhibiting perennial stability, the original type of humanity, or aberrant dead ends, diverging from a mainstream which insensibly shades from pre-agricultural, even pre-human villages into civilization? Are reason and language, once set in motion, practically self-perpetuating within the general economy of life, or always subject to external pressures themselves subject to abeyance? This should be the work of the infant science: not to yield new answers, or to reinforce old answers to existing problems, but to set new problems of its own.

A house in the country

City people's country houses are always easy to recognize—not just by the signs of wealth. City people move to the country; it is all to them one green emptiness filling in the space between cities. Formerly most such people came fleeing the city; as many now profess a love for the country, founded in landscape paintings, movies, music, sometimes even when an eye for beauty notes that there is more beside the highway or the trail than scrolling scenery.

But once they have their piece of the country, city people set about re-creating it. They re-make it in their image of the country. They find a place, with its own character and private history, then cut and prune and saw and fertilize and plant and irrigate until they have turned it into a tableau. It is all for the eyes. Every leaf and blade and flower screams of the desperation to please critical visitors, also city people, making their visit to the country, not to this place. It goes untouched by its owners. Perhaps bare feet, perhaps a little light gardening, perhaps a little pruning; but it is the contractors, even the best of them strangers to this soil, these trees, who peform the grafts and amputations.

The wry tree and the curious outbuilding are sawn down, torn down, cut out to ensure that all is scenic and even; all ready for photographs; all in today's best taste; all a succession of prospects present but unassertive, like background music, with nothing to catch the eye or hold the fancy, nothing to draw off the trail, nothing to impress the memory except how impressed you were with the means and taste of your host—didn't we read that designer's name in a magazine somewhere; and pictures of this place will be appearing in the next issue; yes, that magazine, it's wonderful and we're so proud of this place, we'll send you a copy; of course you can have that number.

The magazine shows the designer's work, a dozen different places in a dozen different states—"We wanted to reflect the local idiom"—but the photographer didn't really capture the gingerbread curves impressed in the stucco of the northeastern house, or the smooth corners of the southwestern house. If you didn't know any better you might swear that every shot was of the same place: smooth grass you could play golf on, a touch of whimsy in that little statue, demure trees concealing the horizon in an anonymous rank, the three trees lined up by the house as an umbrella trimmed so they seem one tree with three trunks.

It is all country, not a car or a speck of concrete or asphalt, and just look at that wooden wagon with the pots in it—but it is all city. It is neat, and tame; and it is hard to understand, and tragic, how your escape from the city brings the city with you, how your love of the country creates a virtual reality, seen but not touched, too eager to please for beauty. Do you keep the prints of those old paintings, watch those movies, listen to those songs; do you ever come outside from them and realize that no one will ever paint your house, that no stories will be born or live or come there?

There are country people like you. They live what seem to them their lives, have their fun, in the city; the country is their staging and dumping ground, somewhere to sleep it off, somewhere to stash the trash, somewhere to to leave the old car for the rain to eat away—you might fix it up, or need the parts someday.

A country house is a place; to have it is not merely to own a canvas, but to be part of it, of the life which is there already. It is proper to bring order to that life; it is yours, leave your mark, show your taste; but it is absurd to ignore it and start over. It is trompery; it is the lie; it is all surface. It can delude, it can seduce, but it cannot satisfy.

On essays

An essay cannot be usefully defined. It is something, like eloquence generally, which is not practiced by rule, but by a synthesizing imitation of its masters, many as they are, bearing on a theme or problem and expressing observations chosen and collected by, or drawn from, the vivifying individuality of the writer. We recognize an essay because it is part of that tradition.

Dr. Johnson furnished us with, "A loose undigested sally of the mind"—this from a lexicographer, this from a critic, whose language includes Bacon's plain-set diamonds! We call many compositions essays only for their length—in the hands of some the essay is merely a unit of composition arranged from paragraphs, just as paragraphs are arranged from sentences. Or it is the sump of belles-lettres, where everything ends up which has no where else to go. As these definitions are true, they are meaningless, two-legged without feathers.

An essay may be adumbrated by what it is not. It is not a treatise, it is not a tract, it is not a sermon. It does not begin from first principles, it deduces nothing; like conversation an essay takes interest, background, and receptivity for granted. The essay—as a genre, not an exercise—is not a tract; it does not line up points and facts to support them; nothing could be further from the spirit of the essayist than to expect to persuade, because it is the purpose of an essay, not to tell you what to think, but to expose where you have not thought. It is not a sermon: an essay has no reproach, but sympathy and commiseration for the vagaries of weak though willing humankind.

The very young are thus never good essayists: as they are untried, they think themselves sound; as they have hope, they think themselves destined; as they are pure, they think themselves incorruptible; as they are strong, they think themselves entitled. They need not be forcibly disabused; but until they have learned better, nothing they write, however clever, is really an essay.

An essay may be fine, patient work, or swift swashbuckling, but the tool is the same—to be honest; to omit nothing and exaggerate nothing. A secondhand opinion by cliché or party annuls the effort if it so begins, or derails it if it so ends. You bring to an essay only what is your own: not your personal philosophy, but the footnotes and exceptions and amplifications your experience and reflection have made to it; not your opinions, but what their trial, ventured in practice or maintained in conversation, has taught you of their place and value.


I find writing its own reward, but something cowardly in spending time amassing what is not to be shared. I have therefore created this blog and mean here to expose at intervals tending towards weekly something worth reading, even re-reading.

The name, The Ruricolist, is intended to recall the essay series of old, when they could stand alone: The Tatler, The Rambler, &c. I mean to be similarly eclectic and similarly to interlard essays with capricious pieces. But my cynosure is Bacon's concentration and brevity, not smooth Augustan prolixity.

It would be worse to hide my political and religious principles than not to have them, but my intentions are strictly belletristic. I do not mean to advance, join, or create a faction. I believe as others believe, but I wear no uniform.

I write not for myself, not for friends, not for fellows, not for an audience, nor for posterity: this is my end of a conversation.