Socialist Worker

What contributes to ‘human nature’?

In the second column in our series, Viren Swami looks at evolutionary psychology

Issue No. 1975

I want to examine the debates among those who accept that evolutionary theory has something to say about human nature this week.

This debate centres on the uses of evolutionary theory in illuminating human behaviour.

Supporters of the idea that evolution has something to say about human nature have appeared in a variety of guises since Charles Darwin published his account of evolution in the 19th century.

But the modern incarnation of this idea is generally dated from the 1975 publication of Edward Wilson’s monumental Sociobiology:The New Synthesis.

Wilson’s book contained 27 chapters, of which only the last, and a few provocative sentences in the introduction, had any direct bearing on the human species.

In these he sketched a range of insights into human nature that could be gleaned from evolutionary reflections.

The book caused a furore. Wilson was accused of racism, sexism, and a good deal else besides.

The heated debate over sociobiology left the topic in some disrepute, though it had also gained a dedicated band of followers.

In the mid-1980s one group began to organise itself around a version of sociobiology that they named evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker see their main opponents as social scientists, who adhere to something called the “standard social science model”.

This says that the human mind is a “blank slate” wholly unconstrained by any kind of human biology.

In opposition to this, supporters of evolutionary psychology begin with an apparently familiar and uncontroversial idea.

They assume that the way to understand human behaviour is to examine the structure of the human brain.

The structure of the human brain, they argue, can be best understood by considering the genes, or genetic programme, that guide the development of brains.

They seek to understand particular genes as a reflection of the evolutionary process.

Evolutionary psychology views the brain as consisting of a large number of “mental modules”. Human evolutionary history has designed these to generate behaviour in response to certain environmental cues.

Evolutionary psychologists have put forward the idea of all manner of mental modules that govern human behaviour—from modules for food preferences to ones governing sexual attraction.

This theory appears to resonate strongly within contemporary popular science.

But it is also deeply misconceived. There has been no shortage of criticisms of the theory. The most prominent of these is the collection of essays edited by Hilary and Steven Rose called Alas, Poor Darwin.

The main point of these criticisms is that it is dangerous to suppose that understanding how something came about is the right way to understand what it does, or how it works.

It would be wrong to deduce that because George Bush is descended from powerful politicians, he is well suited to be a politician. This claim needs to be investigated on its own merits.

Such an investigation may suggest causal processes that might have led to the characteristics required to be a politician. But a good deal more is needed to establish that these characteristics have been realised.

None of this is to deny that evolutionary history matters. But history does not only provide insight into human nature. It also, in part, plays a determining role in human nature.

Given that history matters, we must ask which part of it matters most. Evolutionary psychology claims that the grand sweep of evolutionary time is the history that laid down the fundamentals of human nature.

Because of this, they argue, something as historically recent as a preference for democracy is too superficial to count as part of human nature.

My view is that more recent history is generally a lot more relevant than evolutionary psychologists claim.

Certainly a great deal of evolution of the brain happened long before there were any beings at all like humans. Without this evolution there could have been no human mind.

But to understand the human mind we need to look at the much more detailed ways in which cultures have developed and co-evolved with the people who live in them, as I will do in my final column next week.

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