A review of ‘Survival of the Sexiest’, The Nation.

Why do religions exist? One common, if slightly anti-religious, explanatory scenario runs like this: imagine you’re a prehistoric person without any understanding of gravity, meteorology, or other concepts which explain natural phenomena. You may be led to ask the question, “why does the river move?” The only things we know of that move by themselves are humans and animals, so there must be something ‘living’ in the river. Or what causes the wind? Something living, a spirit, akin to the breath of a human. Part of what lends this explanation its appeal is how readily it allows us to recognize our own desire for explanation (where did religion come from?) in the hypothetical caveman’s desires for explanation (where does wind come from?). But it’s a scenario with a less-than-favorable view of religion: if the religious impulse is merely one of explanation, then what happens when science can explain almost everything?

If science has gradually assumed a greater share in explaining phenomena, Darwinism occupies a privileged place. It is the only science which offers to explain the development of human beings, which is, for most of us, a more interesting endeavor than the explanation of, say, heat lightning. Through numerous adaptations of Darwin’s ideas, popular science can now answer many questions from everyday life. Why are women more selective about sex? If we evolved in an age without contraceptives, the woman has a high chance of pregnancy. Given pregnancy’s health risks, one wants to make sure the male will stick around to help the child’s survival (so ‘love’ is a priority), and to make sure the child will inherit ‘survival genes’ – thus burly, Stanley Kowalski types are more attractive. Of course, none of this is conscious on the part of women, but over time, women who look for male attachment and survivability will pass on their genes to the third generation more frequently. Interesting, isn’t it?

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It’s been interesting enough to develop a huge popular following, but Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel over at The Nation wrote a provocative critique of sociobiology’s widest current iteration, Evolutionary Psychology, or EP. They give a rough sketch of the movement, taking care to point out the discrepancy between EP’s questionability in academic circles and its almost unqualified popular acceptance. As they point out, these myths can’t quite be considered science, because they can’t formulate falsifiable hypotheses. Who really knows what prehistoric women preferred in a mate? Perhaps, Ahern and Weigel muse, women’s comparative lack of sexual willingness reflects the double-standards of our still-patriarchal society.

Ahern and Weigel seem mainly concerned to debunk EP as a way of justifying, or even normalizing, regressive gender types. It’s fine if your boyfriend refuses to help with laundry – he didn’t evolve for laundry! Certainly, I’m horrified by the use of Evolutionary Psychology to justify an atavistic boyfriend’s laziness. The problem is, I’ve never encountered anyone who would think that way. Just how many Atlantic-reading gender-regressive committed Darwinists are out there?

The more compelling thesis is that sociobiological theories have mirrored the economic systems they grow out of. One of the first people to deploy Darwin sociobiologically, Herbert Spencer, thought social stratification reflected different levels of fitness, justifying Victorian neglect of the poor by making it seem natural. As Ahern and Weigel point out, “Spencer conferred value on a process that Darwin had merely described.” Granted, the idea of people reading Darwin to justify their nation’s economic structure is no less speculative than EP itself, but in Herbert’s case, it fits nicely.

But if the political Right uses a form of Darwinism to justify economic inequality by an appeal to the past (the cream has risen to the top justifiably), the Left’s focus on equal-opportunity merely projects the problem into the future: if we place everyone on an equal footing, if we give a reset to social position and obliterate external advantage (family, money, connections, etc), then the cream will rise to the top; those who are skilled and work hard will have a chance to prosper. Thus to say that the danger of EP is justifying the way things are is to make a reductively leftist critique of it. It seems both sides share the underpinning of Spencer’s “conferr[al] of value” to Darwin’s process; selection becomes self-selection into the ‘right’ group. The basic appeal of natural selection, transcending right and left, seems to be the idea that things are in flux and thus my above-averageness should ensure my relative success. The Spencerian use of Darwinism to justify “my relative success” is inseparable from the liberal value of in-flux-ness, and vice-versa. The Law behind the law is one and the same: I like relative mobility, because I think I can move faster than most – and everyone else thinks so, too. If I win the game, I outperformed everyone in a perfect equal-opportunity world; if I lose the game, maybe it was rigged from the start. Both are equally focused on competition.

The economic realm is simple enough; acquisitiveness and fairness are less complex than something like gender roles. If the article’s got a slightly feminist bent, a question becomes, if pop Darwinism / sociobiology is to be rejected, what’s the mechanism for change? “Not all of the genes we inherit will express themselves”, Ahern and Weigel venture; “New research in ‘gene expression’ is exploring the environmental factors that ‘switch on’ genes.” Maybe in a culture with the right ideals, they suggest, our more violent genes would be permanently ‘off’. Scientifically, this idea is far less credible than the ‘EP’ they rightly question. But the same impulse underlies them both: we want ourselves and our society to become better, and anything which allows us to tell that story convincingly we will latch onto.

Ahern and Weigel, students in film, diagnose the faults of Evolutionary Psychology well, but the faults behind the faults – our penchant for telling ourselves the stories we wish to be true – they can’t help but fall into towards the end. These semi-scientific fields, like EP, we widely embrace when they tell us what we want to hear; when they don’t, their conclusions are speculative nonsense. But if their conclusions seem speculative, perhaps ours are foregone. The takeaway seems to be that science isn’t simple, but we humanities types are eager to smooth out the wrinkles and nuance to fit what we want to say. In theirs, it’s a story of Spencerian self-justification by conservatives using EP in the social sphere. For the theology blogger, it’s a story of self-justification in general, and of our need for narratives of progress. With the recession of religion, pseudo-science is increasingly fueling the stories we want to tell. Regardless of the language our hopes for change are written in, their writing remains constant.

(PS, just noticed Aronofsky’s Noah borrowed this shot for Cain and Abel – human progress intertwined with original sin.)