Darwin wars

Alas, Poor Darwin: arguments against evolutionary psychology

Edited by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose

The succession of more or less destructive intellectual superstitions following the 19th-century crisis of faith is clear. First Marx, then Freud and now Darwin has been nominated as the patriarch of an all-encompassing system explaining human life and history. The latest, Darwinian phase is most characteristically expressed by the discipline of evolutionary psychology (EP), which insists that, because we are animals, our behaviour can be understood only as the result of evolution by natural selection.

So, for example, we like pictures of countryside featuring grassland, water and trees because our ancestors spent so much time on the African savannah; and our sexual mores - male promiscuity, female coyness - are entirely determined by the evolved differences between male and female investments in the reproductive act. Plainly, there is a chance that such explanations are at least partly true; but, equally plainly, there is a good chance that they are not. There is no conclusive evidence either way. But the Darwinian faithful insist that they must be true. Why?

The short answer is that Darwinism is the one clear, self- organising principle that science has yet produced. It shows how complexity can arise without external intervention. That much cannot be denied. What can be doubted, however, is that it is the only way complexity can arise, or that it is sufficient in itself to explain any complex biological system. Darwin himself had both these doubts; his current followers have neither.

Alas, Poor Darwin is a selection of essays designed to undermine such faith. It is bracing and fun, especially in the repeated pot-shots taken by the writers at grand figures of neo-Darwinism such as Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Edward O Wilson and Richard Dawkins. Its primary weakness is an excess of politics. Socio- biology, the precursor of EP, was trashed, in its time, as a right-wing ideology with a covert aim of keeping minorities and women in their place by giving quasi-scientific explanations of their predicament.

But EP appeals to many on the left, as well as on the right. An insistence on the conspiracy theory, rather than on the scientific and philosophical weaknesses of the doctrine, makes the book's argument sound more partisan than rational. Furthermore, the inclusion of an entirely daft essay by the architectural critic Charles Jencks, entitled "Phone Home", subverts the seriousness of the whole.

The main scientific problem is that EP relies too heavily on the simple faith that Darwinism must explain almost everything in the human realm. We cannot know this because the evidence from pre-history is all but non-existent. We know nothing of the selective pressures arising from the long human residence of the African savannah, and any extrapolation backwards from our present behaviour must, first, be highly speculative and, second, effectively ignore the influence of the intervening millennia of cultural influences. In doing this, EP finds itself having to produce more rather than less likely explanations. Do we like pictures of the countryside because it is where our ancestors lived or because of the later history of classical and Romantic art? The latter is more likely.

Furthermore, the centrality of the role of the gene - essential to EP - is controversial. Current discoveries in genetics seem to be dethroning the gene as the clear, chemical foundation of our destiny. It does not, as several writers point out here, replicate itself; rather, it requires the whole paraphernalia of the living cell. Its ultimate reductive and metaphysical power as what Dennett calls "the unmeant meaner" is, therefore, dubious in the extreme.

None of this is intended to overthrow Darwinism itself. Evolution through natural selection is accepted by every scientific writer as a potent force in biology. But what the sceptics - led, as usual, by Stephen Jay Gould - argue is that there are so many other factors, known and unknown, involved in the process that an extrapolation of Darwinism into all other realms is reckless in the extreme.

One of the most famous of these extrapolations was the idea of the meme, tentatively advanced by Dawkins, but now at the doctrinal centre of a large number of academic attempts to make hard science out of sociology. The meme is a theoretical unit of cultural transmission - a short skirt or a pop tune would be a meme. It can be seen as an attempt to scientise the human realm by extending the reductive concept of the atom or the gene to cultural processes.

In the finest essay of Alas, Poor Darwin - "Why Memes?" - the philosopher Mary Midgley quietly and amiably takes this absurdity apart, primarily by asking why on earth culture should be so reducible. She also notes the inhumanity involved in seeing ourselves, as does the meme prophet Susan Blackmore, as "meme machines" - "constructions produced by alien viruses for their own purposes and incapable of having any purposes of their own". This gloating, nihilistic impulse is, in fact, what lies behind much EP and geno-centrism; it is the simple desire to sneer at our own sense of what is good and unique in human life.

There is much that is good in this book, but the best is Midgley. This thoughtful old lady taking on these grand, highly paid global figures and pointing out, quietly and utterly persuasively, that they are wrong about almost everything is one of the most heartening spectacles in contemporary intellectual life.

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, So, who still wants to be a millionaire?