Until recently the mind was studied by people who believed that it was shaped by outside influences not innate structure-and who knew nothing about evolution. Now the Darwinians are taking over. Matt Ridley considers the rise of evolutionary psychology and Steven Pinker, its new championby Matt Ridley / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
It is well known that to write a best-selling book about evolution it helps to be called Steven. When Professor Steven Pinker’s last book, The Language Instinct, was short-listed for the Rhone Poulenc prize for science books in 1995, it immediately became the favourite: the three previous winners were Professors Steven Rose, Stephen Jay Gould and Steve Jones.
In the event, Pinker did not win the prize; and some think the reason was that he is not a true Steven. The other three Stev(ph)ens respect a hallowed tradition: that evolution is about bodies, not minds. The human mind is studied by people who know nothing about evolution. Charles Darwin tried to understand the mind through evolutionary theory, but after his death biologists retreated from the attempt. In the 20th century, the mind became the province of Freudians, behaviourists and sociologists. All of them believed, in one way or another, that the mind is made by outside influences, not innate structure; that psychology is the product of society, not vice versa. They put up large signs: “Keep out: biologists will be persecuted.”
The tradition held for most of this century. Well-behaved biologists enforced it as vigorously as social scientists, vilifying those among their tribe who stepped over the boundary-such as the hapless EO Wilson, a Harvard ant specialist, who in 1975 allowed some incautious speculation about human beings into his book on social behaviour in animals, Sociobiology. Such trespassers are accused of reductionism, essentialism, determinism, even Nazism. Most get the message and stick to beetles.
But a few biologists have persevered, and have been encouraged recently by one or two social scientists. In Britain, the philosopher Helena Cronin at the LSE has championed Darwinian explanations of the mind, as has the sociologist Garry Runciman. In psychology the stage is now set for a replay of the old Victorian battle between evolution (man is an animal) and exceptionalism (man is different).
Modern evolutionary theory now uses an argument once used against it: the argument from design. It was once an important strand of theological thinking that animals were at least as complex as watches and therefore must have been made by entities at least as clever as watchmakers. Ergo god. Today, the dominant idea in evolutionary theory is “adaptationism,” which turns this on its head. Where you come across a complex biological machine, such as the human eye, the chances are…