Departments

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 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 try to reduce that range to the result of a universal incest drama. Evolutionary psychology is romantic; in our irrationalities and stupidities it hears the echoes the forest (or savannah) primeval. Given the choice, most human beings would prefer to ascribe their failings – their shortsightedness, their lust, their temper, their haste – to the habits of the hunters of antiquity, than to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, or to the unremembered sexual frustrations of childhood.

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 guide choice save taste, or loyalty to a particular hypothesizer. Natural selection, a principle similarly subject to speculative application, is constrained by the records of fossils, geology, and genetics. No such constraints prune evolutionary psychology. Its applications grow, not with the data to be understood, but with the problems to be explained,

Evolutionary psychology connects modern behaviors with the needs and living conditions of ancient hominids. We have their skeletons, which have much to say, but we have no living specimens. We 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 commonalities – than any actual resemblance in behavior between humans and our very distant 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 zoology. What we are presented in our ancestors is neither human nor animal; it is human wit, human intellect, without the danger of human error, uncivilized and therefore prelapsarian, illiterate yet storyless and without self-consciousness, 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 myth.

Evolutionary psychology assumes that there was some one 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 kinaesthetic map in memory, giver of orders, maker of allies – by rewarding them evolution simultaneously created clumsiness, carelessness, awkwardness, taciturnity, stupidity, uncertainty, servility, and domineering. Somewhere, far enough back, there was the animal that would be human; but in between there was no morning when optimally behaved hominids became human beings with their baggage of irrelevant reflexes and drives.

Where is history? Evolutionary psychologists take a parochial view of humanity, ignoring historical change and modern diversity, a view where the human animal is assumed irrelevant and obsolete. But we did not leave the savannahs and start building skyscrapers. Somewhere in between was Heorot; there was the wolf, now there is the door, but once one scratched and snorted at the other. You can explain altruism? Great, now explain stylites.

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 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, made by human beings with animal strength.

The form of the answers evolutionary psychology gives is correct. The way we are is because of the way our ancestors were. But we do not how they were and, for the most part, we do not know how we are.

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 the clichés of cynicism and misanthropy. But swinging the blackjack, satisfying as it, is not science.

To mature, evolution psychology must ask its own questions. What was each species hominid really like? What marked the transitions, how sudden were they, were they qualitative or quantitative? What was the role of population bottlenecks, or of population centers? How far did cohabitation produce sociability, how far did forced sociability produce cohabitation? Are aboriginal peoples and cultures, exhibiting perennial stability – are they where we started, or are they dead ends, diverging from a mainsteam which shades from pre-agricultural villages into civilization? Are reason and language, once set in motion, self-perpetuating, or are they only a reflection of external pressures?

This should be the work of the infant science: not to yield new answers, not to reinforce old answers, but to ask new questions of its own.

A House in the Country

City people’s country houses are easy to recognize – not just by the signs of wealth. City people move to the country as if it were a place; it is all to them one green emptiness filling the space between cities. Formerly 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, lifted for a moment from the road or the screen, notices 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 an image of the country from magazines and movies. They take a place, with its own character and private history, and cut and prune and saw and fertilize and plant and irrigate until they have turned it into a tableau. It is all for the eye. 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. The sense of place vanishes. It goes untouched by its owners. Bare feet, a little light gardening, 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 up-to-date; unassertive prospects, 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 look at that wooden wagon with the empty 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?

In the city, in the suburbs, we dwell lightly. Others have been and gone as we are and must go. There is no connection except sequence. But a country house is not just a property. To have it is not merely to own something, but to become part of something, of the life which is there already – an ecology, a history, a place. It is proper to bring order to that life; it is yours, leave your mark; but you also have responsibilities: to nature, to the past, and to the future.

On Essays

The essay cannot usefully be defined, because it is always subject to redefinition. Essays are the most individual form of writing, and the most governed by tradition. An essayist must be themselves, but they must also know the whole history of the essay. The essay is a language we learn, and only having mastered, employ fluently.

We call many compositions essays only for their length: for some purposes the essay is a unit of composition arranged from paragraphs, just as paragraphs are arranged from sentences. Or else it is the sump of literature, where everything ends up that has nowhere else to go. These definitions are true, but meaningless; two-legged without feathers.

The essay is a via negativa. The essay 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, the essay can take interest, background, and good will for granted. It is not a tract; it does not line up points and facts to support them. The essayist does not expect to persuade. And it is not a sermon: the essay has no reproach, only sympathy and commiseration, for our failings.

The essay is the fruit of experience – but writing (and reading) essays is a particularly fruitful form of experience. Being untried, we think ourselves sound; being pure, we think ourselves incorruptible; being strong, we think ourselves able; having hope, we think ourselves destined. Until we learn better nothing we write, however clever, can be an essay. But essai really means trialtrial, not attempt – and essays are one way we can try ourselves.

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. Secondhand opinions, clichés and party lines, annul the essay in the beginning, or derail it in the end. You bring to an essay only what is your own: not the text of your philosophy, but its marginalia; your exceptions, not your rules.

Notice

I find writing to be its own reward. But there is 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 meant to recall the essay series of old, when they could stand alone: The Tatler, The Idler, The Rambler, and others. I mean to be similarly eclectic and similarly to space out essays with other forms – what I call caprices. But my mark is Baconian 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 literary. 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 an audience, not for posterity: this is my end of a conversation.