Friday, June 26, 2009
The Right doesn't like sociobiology (& neither does the Left)
Yesterday New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks wrote a column debunking evolutionary psychology. You can find it at:
Here's my debunking of his debunking:
Wow. This was a breathtakingly shallow editorial. Brooks argues persuasively against an evolutionary psychology that no evolutionary psychologist proposes. In other words, he's committing the "straw man argument" fallacy, where you oversimplify and distort someone's position, then knock down the oversimplified distortion.
Oh, and it's actually sociobiology. That was the original name for this field, and it still fits it best. Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists persist in trying to be the last dog to whizz on every intellectual fire hydrant, perpetually rebranding areas of interest that cross over those disciplines' traditional boundaries.
Sociobiology just says that to understand modern behavior, it helps to understand where it came from. Nobody says that we act just like Kenyan hunter-gatherers did 50K years ago. Moreover--and here's one reason why I prefer calling it sociobiology--we are designed from the get-go to function in groups--some sociobiologists might go so far as to call an individual human being the instantiation of his/her gene pool.
Thus altruism is perfectly understandable when you look on us as a pack animal whose children are utterly dependent on us far longer than any other animal.
As for our vaunted malleability--well sure...up to a point. Those who are most controlled by their primitive heuristics are those who deny their influence the most.
Thus I know I'm hardwired to lust after salt/fat/sugar/meat--all vital to have in small amounts in our ancestors' world. That knowledge helps me fight the urge to overindulge in all of those things--yet I'm still packing 25 lbs. of lard I shouldn't be carrying--and the odds are that half or more of those reading this know what I do and still carry spare tires too.
Brooks really needs to read two books before he says any more about this field: The Moral Animal, which speculates about human morality evolved, and how the ingrained instincts involved are mediated in today's environment; and Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule our Minds, by a cognitive psychologist at MIT, which shows how primitive heuristics built into our brains helped us survive back then but distort our understanding of reality now.
One example: every time you see a three-pronged electrical outlet a face-seeking heuristic in your brain lights up and demands to know if that's actually a face. It was a vital survival trait for our ancestors to see faces quickly and in shadows--and far safer to see more than really are there than to miss one. I know this, and yet every time I see a 3-prong outlet I still feel that heuristic lighting up.
So yes, we can and do adapt. It's in our nature to be adaptable. But if you know anything about object-oriented programming (okay, I live in Silicon Valley--so sue me), you can think of our mind as having these nuggets of primitive instincts with modern adaptations wrapped around them. The wrappers can't change the nuggest, but they do let us function. However, in many circumstances--especially if we're unconscious of them--they subtly reassert themselves.
Liberals loathed sociobiology when it came out, because they need philosophically to see Man as infinitely malleable--a blank slate free for any sort of social experimentation, with no innate racial or gender mental differences whatsoever.
Conservatives also hated it because they need to believe that we are moral free agents, each of us totally responsible for everything we say or do from the instant of our 18th birthday onward.
Both sides forget Santayana's definition of freedom: arranging your chains as comfortably as possible...