What Darwin Does to Psychology – And Humanity
“Traits that we may find unsavory are nevertheless also products of our evolutionary history.” This quote stands out boldly in a call-out from an article by psychologist Jerome H. Barkow (Dalhousie University) in a review of evo-psych (evolutionary psychology) in PNAS.1
Barkow acknowledged controversy about the premise that the evolutionary history of our psyches produces a deterministic picture of human behavior (e.g., 05/02/2008, 06/06/2008), but then embraced it, based on a paper in PNAS by Sell, Cosmides, and Tooby on the evolutionary history of anger.2 Those authors claimed 11 predictions confirmed by the “welfare tradeoff ratio” theory of anger, in which strong men tend to be angrier and women are more attracted to them: “This theory proposes that anger is produced by a neurocognitive program engineered by natural selection to use bargaining tactics to resolve conflicts of interest in favor of the angry individual.” In other words, they justify anger as an evolutionary virtue – the ability to get one’s own way by inflicting costs on others. Barkow began,
Let us not ask whether the brain is “really” a biological computer. The more productive question is whether it is useful to think of the brain as a computer, one designed by evolution to solve problems of adaptation via specialized “circuits” and “architecture.” Does this biocomputational approach, pioneered by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby and then developed and expanded by them and others [such as David Buss, Geoffrey Miller, and Steven Pinker] lead to theory and research that further our understanding of human behavior? Critics notwithstanding (e.g., ref. 7), the evidence of the article in this issue of PNAS,2 indeed, of the myriad books and research papers produced by the Cosmides–Tooby school of thought, is “yes.” But, of course, there are caveats.
Barkow put the engineering terms (computer, circuits, architecture) in quotes because those words usually imply intelligent design. What, though, are the caveats he had in mind about evo-psych? To find the answer, the reader has to wade through his discussion of controversies about intuition, welfare tradeoff ratios (WTRs), the levels of consonance between predictions of evolutionary psychology and folk wisdom, and whether competing schools of thought are contradictory or complementary. Barkow reasons that whether or not evo-psych is true, it is useful. “It is leading to theory, hypotheses, and data that are broadly compatible with other evolutionary perspectives rather than developing into an encapsulated and self-perpetuating citation circle,” he said.
What makes evolutionary psychology controversial is the unflattering picture it gives of the human psyche. According to the theory of Sell, Cosmides and Tooby, for instance, “the strong and attractive, the people who are presumably winners in life, use anger to improve their bargaining position with those less strong and attractive.” This would tend to promote anger as a Darwinian virtue. It produces fitness. Barkow remarked, “what we have here is one more rip in the romantic portrait of our species that many nonevolutionists would prefer to continue to enjoy.” This provided the context for that bold call-out quote:
From the unsentimental perspective of evolution, however, not just anger but sexual jealousy, male sexual insistence, infidelity (on the part of both men and women), sibling rivalry, preoccupation with one’s relative standing, nepotism, and individual and collective aggression are not pathologies or even errors to be corrected once and for all by morality and religion or at least proper child socialization, they are strategies that have often, at least in the past, been biologically adaptive. Like socially valued traits such as love, loyalty, cooperativeness, and forgiveness, traits that we may find unsavory are nevertheless also products of our evolutionary history.
Has Barkow just sanctified male chauvinism and nepotism as evolutionary virtues? Has he destroyed the whole corpus of romantic literature? Apparently so. He also pointed out that evolutionary psychology gives the death blow to notions of human perfectibility, whether through the sermons of preachers, or through Marxists hopes of utopia via the distribution of wealth.
At this point Barkow mentioned some of the promised caveats. Some criticisms of evo-psych are valid. Contrary to the “biocomputationalism” that “unabashedly locates our ‘failings’ in the architecture of the human brain,” some work on infants finds enough variability and contingency in human brain development to cast doubt on the apparent determinism of evo-psych. Barkow excused this failing on two fronts: evo-psych can tolerate variability, and any useful theory is bound to be oversimplified. “Even if the Cosmides and Tooby school of thought is indeed guilty, at times, of simplification, that is only to be expected: theoretical models necessarily simplify, and when predictions nevertheless receive empirical support it is difficult to argue that a simplification is excessive.” Earlier, Barkow had acknowledged the fallacy of affirming the consequent: “accurate prediction can make a construct useful but is not, in my opinion, sufficient for one to be as certain of its ontological status,” he had said. Usefulness of a construct is not the same as validity. Ontology notwithstanding, evo-psych is a program on the move. Examples he cited are part of a “broad enterprise of research and theory that, while not yet ready for full integration, is at least on its way.” Spoken like a Kuhnian.
In passing, Barkow made a remark that may raise the hackles of critics of evolution. He said, “Antievolutionist attacks have waned, in recent years, as Darwin’s insights have gradually spread from field to field and now, in an often lamentably simplified form, are part of popular discourse.”
1. Jerome H. Barkow, “Steps toward convergence: Evolutionary psychology’s saga continues,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, September 1, 2009, vol. 106 no. 35, 14743-14744, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907723106.
2. Sell, Cosmides and Tooby, “Formidability and the logic of human anger,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, September 1, 2009, vol. 106 no. 35, 15073-15078, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0904312106.
Preachers, theologians, philosophers and any man or woman with a sense of decency should be outraged at this commentary, for numerous reasons. Let us first dispense with any claim to validity by Barkow and his idols (to show that our righteous indignation is not an artifact of ape in our past). Reason: the whole premise of evolutionary psychology is self-defeating. Anything that is self-refuting, remember, is necessarily false. Why is it self-refuting? Because Barkow’s own brain is determined by his evolutionary past. Within his world view, he cannot act as an independent spirit taking control of his biocomputer from the outside and trying to run logic programs on it. It comes pre-programmed. He is inside his computer, not outside of it (according to the evolutionary view). Everything he just said, therefore, has no ontological basis; he wrote all this because Darwin and his ape ancestry told him to. By appealing to logic (something that refers to truths that are timeless, eternal, and immaterial), he just played the Yoda card. His comments can be therefore summarily dismissed as nonsense.
Barkow, of course, and all the other evo-psych charlatans, cannot live with that realization. Their innate createdness as beings made in the image of God forces them to talk as if Christianity is true. Notice how this works. “Perhaps there are ways in which the tendency to use anger as a negotiating tactic may be mitigated, just as good parenting can mitigate sibling rivalry,” he said. “From the perspective of Sell, Tooby, and Cosmides, however, tactical anger is part of our biology and cannot be definitively eliminated by, say, a change in the distribution of wealth.” Here’s the question to ask him: why should it be mitigated? That’s his created conscience speaking. How did such a thought even enter his head? From whence did he get a notion that the inexorable march of evolutionary change needs mitigation? How does he judge “good parenting”? What angel whispered these notions in his ear? If Barkow is a pawn of the evolutionary game, this hint of self-identity and conscience has no justification at all. Notice that our criticism here goes beyond a possible comeback argument that evolution somehow produced elements of romanticism and virtue in addition to anger. No; the point is that his position is self-refuting. The very act of employing logic and morality as a disembodied Yoda on a higher plane of consciousness refutes the very notion that the human mind is a biocomputer produced by irrational, amoral processes of natural selection. Don’t let him get away with it. Evolution is what evolution does. Any hint that we “should” mitigate it or alter it is, therefore, pointless. It’s not only foolish to even try to alter evolution, it is impossible to conceive the thought of altering it if one is consistent with that world view. The only way Barkow could have conceived those thoughts was by reaching outside his presuppositions into the Christian world view, where anger deserves to be suppressed, women deserve to be treated with respect, and righteousness has ontological validity – because there really is a righteous God who created us with that knowledge.
Make sure those points are well-grounded in your head. We have just unplugged the black light creating a false mystique around Barkow’s intellectual pronouncements and shown him to be wearing a lycra Yoda costume, like some spiritualist fake. Now he no longer looks like a wise man, but a clown. This gives you the basis for strong opposition to evolutionary psychology – indeed, toward all the Darwinian baggage that has been a hodgepodge of illogical, irrational, self-refuting ideas, rationalizing the worst of human sin and producing the worst evils the world has ever seen (e.g., 11/30/2005). (Note: If Barkow tries to say Mao didn’t realize that Marxism is based on a false premise of human perfectibility, penalize him for using Christian notions of reason, and say to him, “There you go again.”)
Regarding the paper by Sell, Cosmides and Tooby, it is predictably full of evolutionary nonsense and storytelling: e.g., “what (if anything) was anger engineered by natural selection to accomplish?” Such a statement is completely nonsensical when they get outside their Yoda costumes and stop pretending to be Wise Ones above the human condition. They spoke of “neurocognitive programs in social species [that] have been designed by selection” in another place. Poppycock. A bad case of equivocation trying to Darwinize ID language. Their view also depends heavily on controversial views of kin selection and game theory. They spoke of “selection pressures” which, as we have stated several times (e.g., 07/14/2009 commentary), are mindless constraints powerless to design anything. Why is no one pointing out the illogic of their premises? As would be expected for a theory built on generalities about human beings, their paper is filled with Darwin-style just-so stories.
If you want a world in which it is pointless to fight evil, in which men can commit any brutality against women they darn well please in Darwin’s name, in which might makes right, in which the angriest gets his way, a world in which there is no recourse to justice, then go ahead and embrace evo-psych. If not, then understand the folly of what he just said and recognize its potential for horrors without end. Any preachers reading this should feel a sermon coming.
Get righteously angry also at his suggestion that antievolutionist attacks have waned, and that now, in an often lamentably simplified form, Darwin’s insights are part of popular discourse. “Darwin’s insights” – what a lamentable oxymoron. This is time to wax, not wane. Wax eloquent with well-placed whacks against waning myths that masquerade as reigning facts.