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Darwinophobia II - Andy's Attack
Andrew Ferguson's March 19, 2001 Weekly Standard article "Evolutionary Psychology and its True Believers," is representative of a general pattern of Darwinophobia found throughout the Right. It's hard to think of a major conservative magazine that hasn't embarrassed itself in recent years by running an article attacking Darwinism.
There are some good reasons for disliking some of Darwin's modern descendants. The Village Atheist tub-thumping of Richard Dawkins, for instance, is completely unjustified by the science. Further, it's obviously counterproductive, playing into the hands of the crudest Creationists. In 1999, I wrote two long essays for the National Post of Toronto on "Darwin's Enemies on the Right and the Left." In the first, A Miracle Happens Here: Darwin's Enemies on the Right, I considered the religious question in some detail, concluding that atheistic biologists should learn more about cosmology before spouting off.
Still, it's more than a little strange to see the Weekly Standard turning for guidance to Leftists who hate the very concept of "human nature" because it implies limits to the effectiveness of the social engineering that they want to force upon humanity. Steven Jay Gould and Company are the spiritual descendents of the anti-Darwin Lysenkoists who sent so many of the Soviet Union's Darwinian geneticists to the Gulag. (My National Post article "Equality v. Truth: Darwin's Enemies on the Left," reviews the ongoing struggle between Darwinists and the Left.)
Ferguson trots out all their tired arguments against neo-Darwinism. For example, he approvingly quotes Anne Fausto-Sterling, "a geneticist and professor of women's studies," who poohs-poohs the idea that Darwinian selection caused men to favor quantity in mating partners while women favor quality. Ferguson summarizes her point as, "their 'hypotheses' about the origin of sexual roles can't really be tested, as scientific theories are supposed to be."
Anne and Andy, of course, miss the key point that lots of other scientific theories "can't really be tested." For example, you can't reproduce Continental Drift in the lab. You can't scoop up a few continents, go back a billion years, and then see if the same drift happens all over again.
Ferguson thrashes onward, quoting from his new-found pals:
"Return once more to female sexual coyness: Even if one grants that it is found across cultures, can we be certain that the trait is instinctual? 'It seems just as plausible—if not more so—that these preferences derive from rational, conscious deliberation,' writes the science writer John Horgan, in a thoughtful dissection of evolutionary psychology included in his recent book, The Undiscovered Mind. 'By puberty, most females recognize that even if they employ contraception, they are at risk of becoming pregnant during a sexual encounter; it is thus quite rational for females to be more wary of casual sex than males are.'"
Just because you can't test historical theories like Continental Drift or Darwinism in the lab, it doesn't mean they aren't testable. You just have to be more clever. You have to look for naturally occurring tests.
For example, many of us lived through an excellent test of Horgan's theory that sex roles are not at all instinctual. The introduction of the birth control pill in 1964 and the legalization of abortion in 1970-1973 made having an unwanted baby a negligible risk to women. This lead to the late Sexual Revolution, as men temporarily persuaded many women that the only thing holding them back from the joys of random sex had been fear of pregnancy.
While this brief era provided all sorts of fun to Hugh Hefner, Wilt Chamberlain, and Warren Beatty, it proved much less emotionally and physically satisfying to the great majority of women. Therefore, in the Eighties, women greeted the arrival of AIDS (which never threatened middle class women to any appreciable degree) with tasteless gratitude, finding it the perfect excuse for retiring from the Sexual Revolution.
Of course, much of the wisdom that neo-Darwinians laboriously rediscover had never been lost by non-intellectuals, such as your grandmother, who made these truths about humanity the basis of her nagging.
In 2000, for example, evolutionists won worldwide headlines with the following stop-the-presses findings:
1. Women like taller men. ("So stop slouching like a slob, young man!")
2. Rapists are often motivated by sexual desire. ("So stop dressing like a slut, young lady!").
The biggest problem with contemporary neo-Darwinism is that - in its reigning "evolutionary psychology" version - it talks solely about sex in order to avoid to having to mention race. Real Darwinism, though, is essentially about two things: sex and race.
Charles Darwin did not dream up the Theory of Evolution. Many earlier thinkers, like his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and the great French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, had proposed various schemes of gradual changes in organisms. Darwin's contribution was the precise engine of evolution: selection. Lamarck, for example, had believed that giraffes possess long necks because their ancestors had stretched their necks to reach higher leaves. This stretching somehow caused their offspring to be born with longer necks. Darwin, however, argued that the proto-giraffes who happened to be born with longer necks could eat more and thus left behind more of their longer-necked children than the proto-giraffes unlucky enough to be born with shorter necks.
And what selection selects are hereditary genetic differences. In "The Descent of Man," Darwin wrote, "Variability is the necessary basis for the action of selection."
Consider the full title of Darwin's epochal book: "The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." It is hard to imagine two words that could get a scholar in worse trouble today than "Favoured Races." But that term is not some deplorable Dead White European Maleism that we can scrape away to get down to Darwin's multiculturally sensitive core idea. Not at all: "Favoured Races" is Darwin's Big Idea. For if we didn't differ genetically, selection could not act upon us. We would still be bacteria.
Note well, however, that Darwin wrote "Favoured Races," not "Favoured Race." Darwinism is no brief for some purported Master Race. It proposes not that one race is superior in all things, but that all races are superior in several things. That is how it accounts for the glorious diversity of life.
The unity and diversity of the human race are not contradictory ideas. In fact, considering the vast range of geographic and social environments found across the face of the Earth, the only way we could flourish in so many places yet retain our unity is to adapt endlessly. To stay one species, we have to be many races.
Here again Darwin clashes with the Left. While "diversity" and "equality" are both considered Good Things by multiculturalists, that does not make them synonyms. They are antonyms. The more environments we have been selected to adapt to, the more trade-offs selection has had to make.
Thus the more meaningless it is to boast that your group is supreme overall. But the more implausible it also is to expect all groups to be identically favored in each particular setting or skill --whether it is high altitude mountain climbing, engineering, charisma, running the 100 meters, or stand-up comedy.
Unfortunately, the inevitable conservatism of genuine neo-Darwinism made it so many enemies on Leftist-dominated campuses that anthropologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides found it expedient to relaunch sociobiology under the new, improved brand name of "evolutionary psychology." In a brilliant marketing ploy, they spin-doctored neo-Darwinism into academic acceptability by pronouncing themselves the truest True Believers in equality. They portrayed human nature as almost monolithically uniform, and proclaimed that science should only study human similarities.
Yet, except for identical twins, no two humans' genetic codes are the same. So, exactly whose genes were they going to study? Stumped, the evolutionary psychologists responded with name-calling: Interest in human differences was deemed evil, or tedious, or insensitive, or just not done. This conservative-egalitarian party line soon had many smart people parroting silly ideas. For example, one of Steven Pinker's evolutionary psychology bestsellers concluded, complete with italics: "… differences between individuals are so boring!"
Since most highly-educated people are infected with the Platonic virus that makes them prefer to think in terms of nonexistent abstract certainties rather than reality's fuzzy probabilities, few challenged the new orthodoxy of a homogenous human nature. The evolutionary psychologists themselves, however, soon found that while egalitarianism was a useful cover story, it was a largely useless methodology for learning about humanity. Ironically, but not surprisingly, evolutionary psychology has become primarily the study of sex differences.
Why? Because knowledge consists of contrasts. Information can be boiled down to that most basic of contrasts, the ones and zeroes of digital data, but it can't be boiled down further to all ones. So, if we want to learn much about human nature, we're going to need to compare different kinds of humans: male and female, sick and healthy, young and old, smart and stupid, gay and straight, tall and short, black and white, and so forth. They all deserve respect as manifestations of human nature's rich diversity. (See my National Post article "The Future of Human Nature" for a discussion of what this implies for the future when genetic engineering becomes more advanced.)
If you have a fairly fast web connection, probably the best introduction to the implications of honest neo-Darwinism is my Thatcher Speech Web Presentation. This provides the text and the amusing slides from a speech I gave at a Hudson Institute conference hosted by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
March 30, 2001