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 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.