All-inclusive intellectual myth

July 14, 2000

Evolutionary psychology is 'mistaken and pernicious' argue Hilary and Steven Rose.

Over the past few years the theory of "evolutionary psychology" has entered the cultural drinking water in both the United States and the United Kingdom, claiming to unify the social and life sciences under a "Darwinian" umbrella. Not only do we have evolutionary biology, medicine, psychology and psychiatry, but there are apparently evolutionary economics, sociology and ethics.

The term "Darwinian" is employed to explain processes as seemingly varied as the origin of the universe, the expansion of companies on the internet and the growth of rival scientific theories.

We argue that the theory's all-embracing sound-bites are for the most part not just mistaken, but culturally pernicious.

Evolutionary psychology offers to explain all aspects of human behaviour, and thence culture and society, on the basis of universal features of human nature that found their final evolutionary form during the infancy of our species some 100,000 to 600,000 years ago. Its protagonists argue that the "architecture of the human mind" that evolved during the Stone Age is fixed. Not enough time has elapsed since then for it to have changed significantly. In short, there have been no major refurbishments to our minds since the Stone Age.

For evolutionary psychologists, everything - from men's propensity to rape to our alleged preference for grassy scenery - derives from our mythic origin in the African savanna. In its prioritising of explanations of, for instance, rape as a device for sexually unsuccessful men to propagate their genes, it is completely unable to explain why most men do not rape. The patient research of the social scientists working on alternative explanations of such phenomena is airily dismissed in favour of the evolutionary psychologists' armchair speculation.

Given Charles Darwin's distaste for Herbert Spencer's abstract theorising, it is tempting to suggest that were he alive today he would have found evolutionary psychology equally speculative. Indeed, confronting today's self-styled Darwinians, he might well have echoed Karl Marx's ironic claim not to be a Marxist.

These new fundamentalists assert that their view of human nature should inform the making of social and public policy. Yet evolutionary psychology shows an extraordinary plasticity in its favoured political causes. It is used to support projects from writer Matt Ridley's rightwing authoritarianism and Princeton philosopher Peter Singer's eugenicist left, to scientist Helena Cronin's antifeminist feminism.

At a time of political confusion, when what is left or right is anyone's guess, evolutionary psychology's fusion of absolute certainty about the nature of human nature and its pick-and-mix approach to political prescription has shown itself to be tremendously seductive, not least to the media. Arguably, it has become one of the most pervasive of present-day intellectual myths.

In September 1998, academics from a number of disciplines met to critique this all-embracing theory. The result was a book, Alas, Poor Darwin, that offers both criticisms of evolutionary psychology's most prominent exponents and alternative explanatory perspectives - on biology, anthropology, developmental psychology and social theory.

Developing these multivoiced critiques of evolutionary psychology's explanations has helped to shape our several alternative and more complex understandings of humanity's biosocial nature.

Steven Rose is professor of biology at the Open University; Hilary Rose is visiting research professor of sociology at City University. Alas, Poor Darwin is published this month by Cape, Pounds 18.99.

* Is evolutionary psychology "mistaken and culturally pernicious"? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk.

Book review, pages 22-23

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