There’s a brawl going down on the internet over the validity of evolutionary psychology. On defense for evolutionary psychology: biologist Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, possibly the most eminent evolutionary psychologist. On the warpath: PZ Myers, a developmental biologist, who argues that “most of the claims of evolutionary psychology are fallacious.”
Though Myers’ main line of attack centers on data and methods, the long and contentious political debate over Darwinian social science gets dragged into the fray.
While that argument has raged for decades, this century’s round opened with Steven Pinker’s classic The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, famously knocked down a naive “blank slate” theory of human nature: namely, that human behavior and preferences are entirely shaped by culture and thus endlessly malleable. Though it’s less widely held by actual scientists, Pinker demonstrated how influential Blank Slate thinking has been in the humanities departments, popular culture, and political philosophy.
Locke’s tabula rasa undermined the dogma and authority of aristocratic social systems, since it meant that no man inherently possessed any more wisdom or virtue than others–only what experience imparted. And indeed, the modern versions of the Blank Slate were bolstered by an appropriate wariness of ugly Darwin-justified racism and sexism.
But the Blank Slate is also a great foundation on which to build catastrophic social engineering schemes (Mao Zedong said “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written”), as well as a wall behind which to hide PC shibboleths. Some racial strands of political thought have latched onto evolutionary theory, but certain strands of conservatism have welcomed the insights of evolutionary psychology because they reinforce the conservative intuition that human beings are not as malleable as the many on the Left want them to be.
More recently, Peter Lawler’s New Atlantis essay, “Moderately Socially Conservative Darwinians,” argues that evolutionary psychology “reinforces the conservative lesson that we are not merely autonomous individuals but also social and relational beings.”
And so, unsurprisingly, politics gets dragged into the latest spat as well. Coyne accuses skeptics of evolutionary psychology of being motivated by ideology and politics:
Like the opponents of sociobiology thirty years ago, these skeptics object to the discipline because they see it as both motivated by and justifying conservative political views like the marginalization of women [!!]
Myers (who is an anti-theist and certainly no conservative!) brushes this aside:
I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us.
Even as Myers, Pinker and Coyne march into battle over methodology and assumptions about neuroplasticity and epigenetics, the specter of old political battles will hang over them. Scientific disputes inevitably bleed into political disputes, and vice versa, often with scant regard to logic. That doesn’t mean that we should shout down any scientists who attempt to overturn our political assumptions, assumptions to which nature is wholly indifferent.
So it’s perhaps useful here that Coyne, Pinker, and Myers are all secularists and atheists, showing that the disputes over evolutionary psychology are not a mere proxy war for other politics, but a genuine controversy over how the scientific community can account for our human nature.