Does evolution explain our behaviour? The short answer is: No. And you may well concur with that answer but ‘out there’ there is an increasing constituency of thinkers claiming quite otherwise. Along with the claims that the brain explains the mind and activity in one bit of brain or another corresponds to love, joy, conscience, the self, or whatever, and that much of our behaviour is explained by a gene for this or a gene for that, is the increasingly popular notion that our behaviour has an evolutionary explanation. Indeed you can hardly open a newspaper without encountering some manifestation or other of ‘evolutionary psychology’.
Evolutionary psychology assumes that human behaviour is being shaped, indeed determined, by processes of natural selection: those modes of behaviour that favour the replication of the genome will preferentially survive. We behave as we do because we are designed to optimise the chances of our surviving long enough to replicate our genetic material. Men who sleep with a lot of women, traders who aim to maximise their returns on their investments – or at least attempt to – are simply responding to the fundamental biological imperative to make the world safe for their genes.
You may think that you chose your mate because she was kind, and witty, and shared your view of the world. Forget it: you were attracted to her because she had a waist/hip ratio (the ratio of the circumference of the waist to that of the hips) that approximated to the 0.7 – a figure which is associated with good health and fertility. As for your political or religious beliefs (if you have them), they possess you because they improve your chances of survival or that of the group to which you belong. You haven’t chosen them; they have chosen you. If you think this is somewhat tendentious, consider the recent claim is that evolutionary psychology can explain why pink is associated with femininity and blue with masculinity. Women in prehistory were the principal gatherers of fruit and would have been sensitised to the colours of ripeness – i.e. deepening shades of pink. Men, on the other hand, would have looked for good hunting weather and sources of water – both of which are connected with blue.
Not everyone is persuaded by the terribles simplificateurs who preach the gospel of evolutionary psychology; and I include myself among them. The initial attractiveness of the notion that it is our genes, and not our thoughts, or our conscious agency that guide our lives is understandable. Has not Darwin demonstrated that human beings were manufactured by the same processes as gave rise to chimpanzees, sea slugs and centipedes? And are we not living now because we have bodies and behaviours that maximise our individual or collective fitness? What makes us think that human beings engaged in the manifestly biological act of choosing a mate are any different from other creatures engaged in the same activity?
Well the facts of everyday life, for a start. The enormously complex events that result in two individuals deciding to share their lives, consisting to an important degree of a very long sequence of conversations, has no counterpart in the pair-bonding processes even of our nearest primate kin. This seems so obvious that you may wonder why anyone gives evolutionary psychology the time of day. It is easy, however, to persuade of the truth of this pseudo-science if we describe animal behaviour in anthropomorphising terms and human behaviour in ‘animalomorphic’ terms. Words such as ‘mating behaviour’, ‘courtship’, and so on, shuttle back and forth between the human world and the animal kingdom.
We can see this linguistic pincer movement closing on the gap between humans and animals at work everywhere in evolutionary psychology. Let us look at the first strategy because it is particularly effective. Indeed, we have got so used to re-describing what goes on in ordinary human life in such a way as to make it sound like what goes on in ordinary animal life, that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. Here are a couple of examples. Supposing you invite me out for a meal. Having learnt that the credit crunch has turned your house into a mound of negative equity, I choose the cheapest items on the menu and falsely declare that I am full after the main course, so as to spare you the expense of a pudding. A chimpanzee reaches out for a banana and consumes it. Evolutionary psychologists would like to say that both the chimp and I are doing similar things: we are exhibiting “feeding behaviour”. This identity of description, however, obscures huge differences between the chimp’s behaviour and mine. Here’s another example. I decide to improve my career prospects by signing up for a degree course which begins next year. I have a small child. I therefore do more baby-sitting this year in order to stockpile some tokens. Daisy the cow bumps into an electric wire and henceforth avoids that place. It could be said that both Daisy and I have been exhibiting learning behaviour. Again, I think you will agree, the difference between the two forms of behaviour is greater than the similarities.
Those who wish to obliterate the gap between humans and other beasts not only try to make human behaviour beast-like. They also describe animal behaviour anthropomorphically, making it seem to be human-like. We are all familiar with Walt Disney- like descriptions of animals that impute to them all manner of abstract or factual knowledge and institutional sentiments for which there is evidence only in human beings. This exemplifies a wider error that I have christened the Fallacy of Misplaced Explicitness that enables thinkers to speak of squids classifying the contents of the world, wasps grieving for their young and even artefacts such as thermostats making judgements.
One of the motives behind this is a feeling that, since we are animals in so many respects, unsentimental honesty requires us to say that we are just like animals in all respects. Like animals we are ejected from our mother’s bodies at birth and like animals we die of physiological failure; like animals, we eat, defaecate, copulate, fight and so on. But this is beside the point; for it does not follow that we eat, defaecate, copulate, fight. etc., like animals. It is a mistake, by the way, to look for our uniqueness solely in higher manifestations of humanity – such as religion, art, science and creativity. It concedes too much and overlooks that our uniqueness is there in every aspect of our lives: all of the biological givens are utterly transformed in us. We do not even defaecate like animals. Or not by choice, anyway. We insist on a certain amount of privacy – often in facilities with light switches that are connected to fans driven by artifacts based in the mighty science of electromagnetism to take away the pong. And we are the only beasts who manufacture toilet paper and argue over the respective merits of different brands of it. Even human dying is profoundly different from animal dying, except at the very end, when we become more like other stricken beasts. And when it comes to mating, we are the only beasts who make love. Every seemingly animal need or appetite – for food, water, and warmth – is utterly transformed in humans. And many of our strongest appetites – for example, for acknowledgement of what we are in ourselves, for abstract knowledge and understanding – are unique to us. Only humans think about the distinctive features of their own species.
Even evolutionary psychologists can occasionally see what is in front of their noses and notice that we are a bit different. They acknowledge that it was no mere coincidence that the organism that saw how all organisms came about and wrote The Origin of Species was a human being rather than, say, a chimp or a centipede. Undaunted, evolutionary psychologists look for ways to fill the Great Ditch separate humanity from animals and human behaviour from animal behaviour. The land-fill they need to make their approach to human behaviour seem half way plausible is provided by the concept of the ‘meme’, introduced by Richard Dawkins over thirty years ago, but now ubiquitous, like Dawkins himself.
The meme is a notion designed to cope with the fact that human lives are filled with, and are shaped by and shape, cultural phenomena that have no counterparts in the natural word. It is supposed to be analogous to a gene. While the gene is a self-replicating unit by which biological characteristics are transmitted, the meme is a self-replicating unit by which cultural characteristics are transmitted. Dawkins gives as examples ‘tunes, catch phrases, clothes, ways of making pots or building arches’. The enormously influential philosopher Daniel Dennett believes that human consciousness is a huge complex of memes. The key feature of memes for evolutionary psychologists is that they replicate by occupying human minds, which accept them as passively as does a brain invaded by a virus. We do not choose our memes; our memes choose us. They are advantageous to themselves but not necessarily to us; for their whole raison d’être – not only the reason for their existence but the reason that they exist at all – is that they are able to find minds in which to replicate.
This is a desperate attempt to ‘save the appearances’ in the face of a theory – the notion that evolution determines our behaviour – that has difficulty accommodating them. Just how desperate is manifested in some of Dennett’s examples of memes: the SALT agreement, faith, and tolerance for free speech. It is difficult to think of ‘tolerance for free speech’ as something that infests my passive mind as a unit. On the contrary, it is a principle that is argued over within and between people, and whose scope is likewise debated. It requires active, conscious assent on each occasion. Even the simpler memes – such as a tune in one’s head – are often discretionary: I bet the tunes in my head and the tunes in yours are not the same; or the same in my head from day to day or hour to hour. And many so-called memes – ideas for example - far from being passively acquired, indeed inescapable and unchosen as genes are, require hard work.
Meme theory, which sidelines human agency – and pictures the human mind as something between a junk yard and a lumber room – is the reduction to absurdity of evolutionary psychology. It is an example of what happens when science gives way to scientism; when evolutionary theory spawns evolutionary psychology. It is not Darwinism but Darwinitis or Darwinosis that leads us to believe that our behaviour is determined by evolution.