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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 of the forest (or savanna) 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 organize like ants, sing like whales, 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 with 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 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 kinesthetic 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 savannas 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? Good, 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 weight 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 of 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 mainstream 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.