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An Unevolved Take on Psychology From ‘The New Yorker’

The September 17th issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy essay-cum-book review (in that magazine’s inimitable, occasionally impenetrable, and almost patentable style) by Anthony Gottlieb, titled “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Subtitled “How much do evolutionary stories reveal about the mind?,” its answer is: Not much. Enough there to catch my attention, and, I hope, that of many of The Conversation’s readers, since both evolution and the mind are much on the public and scholarly mind, as well they should be. Even more attention-grabbing, in my case, was the book highlighted: Homo Mysterious, written by yours truly and just published by Oxford University Press.

That’s the good news, at least for me. The bad news is that Gottlieb takes a dim view, not so much of evolution per se, but of its ability to cast meaningful light on human behavior generally. Presumably, our reviewer—who was evidently perceived by the ostensibly knowledgeable staff at The New Yorker to be competent to make such judgments—isn’t a die-hard creationist or “young Earther” (the pseudo-scientific equivalent of today’s anti-Obama “birthers”), but rather someone from the educated world who maintains, à la the late Stephen Jay Gould, that for some unexplained reason, having produced the human body and brain, evolution by natural selection stopped there and remains somehow disconnected from human behavior.

The reality is otherwise, such that Gottlieb and his ilk are quite simply on the wrong side of history and of scientific truth: Just as the anatomy, physiology, embryology, molecular biology, paleontology, endocrinology, neurobiology, etc., of Homo sapiens are the results of evolution by natural selection, so is our psychology. New data and theory in the field (along with new journals, textbooks, and research findings) have been impressive and unstoppable. (Surprisingly, perhaps, I share Gottlieb’s distaste for the phrase “evolutionary psychology,” but not—like him—because I doubt its usefulness or veracity, but because I am confident that the “evolutionary” part will eventually be seen as redundant, since in the future all psychology, like all biology today, will be known to be evolutionary. It cannot be anything else.)

It is said that when the wife of the Bishop of Worcester was told of Darwin’s scandalous theory, she replied: “My goodness! Let us hope that it is not so. But if it is so, let us hope that it does not become widely known.” Well, it is so, and pace Gottlieb and other modern-day descendants of the good bishop’s wife, it is becoming widely known. Indeed, it is necessarily so, because of the two great realities of biology: That (1) all living things (including human beings) are intimately linked via evolution, and that (2) they came to their current estate largely—if not exclusively—via the action of natural selection. To these, one might add a third key fact: That “behavior,” whether of hickory tree, halibut, or human being, derives from the interaction of biological heritage and environmental circumstances such that there is nothing in the case of Homo sapiens that renders us qualitatively discontinuous from the rest of evolution’s “creation.”

On the other hand, I am pleased that my book in particular attracted The New Yorker’s attention, not all of it negative and critical. (Many years ago, an editor reminded me that short of outright libel, almost any review of one’s book is “positive,” at least insofar as it helps garner public notice. The only important thing, she added, is that they spell your name right.) In this case, it even appears that the reviewer read Homo Mysterious … or at least, skimmed it, which reminds me of my own overheated adolescent perusal of Lolita and Lady Chatterly’s Lover in the late 1950s, on the prowl for comparable “good parts” (Lolita was a deep disappointment; Lady Chatterly, more rewarding). Thus, Gottlieb notes my discussion of various hypotheses for the evolution of concealed ovulation and the female orgasm, while ignoring consciousness, the arts, and language.

The review even makes a good point, although one that is hardly news to workers in the field: That much of the research in evolutionary psychology derives from a regrettably skewed human sample, namely English-speaking college students. Unacknowledged, however, is the fact that research in social, cognitive, clinical, and developmental psychology (which is to say, nearly all of psychology) is even more restricted to this atypical subpopulation. Evolutionary psychologists have in fact been in the forefront when it comes to emphasizing the importance of verifying their findings cross-culturally, since evolutionary psychology is explicitly concerned with characteristics of “human nature” that transcend local social traditions as well as racial, linguistic, or other cultural boundaries. A recent article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences lamented the prevalence of study samples that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or “WEIRD.” Moreover, one of the most-quoted studies in the field—which Gottlieb explicitly criticizes, but apparently without comprehending or perhaps without having even read—involved cross-cultural verification of male-female differences via 37 different human “tribes” or “societal units” … unprecedented breadth for any research in psychology.

This is not the venue for me to review the various arguments presented in Homo Mysterious, or even to refute Anthony Gottlieb’s numerous mischaracterizations. I’ll just note two unfortunate failings. First, he apparently doesn’t “get” the excitement, ubiquity, and, to use Darwin’s phrase, the “grandeur in this view of life,” the sense in which humanity’s view of itself is enhanced, not diminished, by seeing our species for what it is: part of this planet’s great stream of organicity. And second—on an admittedly more parochial note—he takes Homo Mysterious to task (along with evolutionary psychology more generally) for often failing it come up with definitive answers. Perhaps he didn’t bother to read the book’s subtitle, “Evolutionary puzzles of human nature.” Thus, my explicit intention in Homo Mysterious has been to highlight those aspects of human nature that are, well, mysterious, those that even evolutionary biology has not answered conclusively. Yet. This is not a failing of evolutionary biology or psychology; rather, it is testimony to their scientific vigor that the more we learn, the more we discover that we have yet to learn.

Mark Twain once observed that it was easy to stop smoking—he had done so hundreds of times! It is similarly “easy” to explain the various evolutionary puzzles of human nature: We have numerous hypotheses. Much of the excitement among today’s researchers, and nearly all of it in Homo Mysterious, derives from current efforts to identify the best ideas and figure out which ones are the most viable.

Oh well, I didn’t write Homo Mysterious for Anthony Gottlieb. And at least he spelled my name correctly.

David Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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