By applying Darwinian theory to human behaviour, evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker have provided striking insights. But the new Darwinians reduce culture to biology and do not understand how language and self-awareness have made humans different from animalsby Kenan Malik / December 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Boys are made to squirt and girls are made to lay eggs. And if the truth be known, boys don’t very much care what they squirt into.” Crude though it may be, Gore Vidal’s pithy quote neatly sums up the argument of evolutionary psychology.
The human mind is created by genes, the argument goes, the sole purpose of which is to reproduce themselves. The genes, which have been selected through evolution, programme the mind with behaviour patterns best designed to carry out their selfish aims. The reproductive strategies of men and women are different, so they have been programmed to exhibit different behaviours. The edifice of human society and culture is built on this need for genes to reproduce themselves, and on the different needs of men and women.
This argument has become increasingly fashionable. Darwinian thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have become superstars. A multitude of non-scientists, including Booker prize winner Ian McEwan and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, have become proselytisers for the new vision of Man. From Cosmopolitan to Time (and, indeed, to Prospect) the media has been seduced by the charms of the new science.
Fashionable, perhaps, but is it credible? Consider three premises of evolutionary psychology. First, that human beings are not born as blank slates, but are preprogrammed with specific knowledge about the world. Second, that most human behaviour patterns, as well as social structures, have been selected for a purpose through the course of evolution, and that the ultimate (if not immediate) cause of such behaviour is the need to spread genes. And third, that many of the social problems which beset humanity arise from the mismatch between our genetic heritage (adapted for a Stone Age environment) and the world in which we live today. In effect, we are Stone Age people living in a Space Age world. The first argument is largely correct, the second largely wrong, and the third is specious nonsense.
For most of the past half century, the orthodox view within the social sciences has been that human beings are born as blank slates-what Darwinists dismissively dub the Standard Social Science Model, or SSSM. The human infant learns entirely through experience; its behaviours are moulded by the culture into which it is born. Most scientists acknowledged that humans had a number of basic instincts, but felt that these did not amount to much, given the almost infinitely…