Towards utopia

The Imagined World Made Real: towards a natural science of culture

Henry Plotkin <em>Allen Lane, T

It is difficult now to believe that, after Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the second bestselling book in 19th-century America was a socialist utopia. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward described a distant Boston future in which all conflicts had been resolved and politics had given way, in the dreamy words of Saint-Simon, to the administration of things. All questions settled, all goods compatible, all passion spent.

Is utopia a good place (eutopia), or is it no place at all (outopia)? The sustained critique from within, by Huxley, Koestler, Zamyatin and Orwell, left us with the sense that utopia, if it was anywhere at all, was a terrible place. And so nobody writes such books any more.

But utopia never really dies. It just changes discipline. Where once it was the priests or the poets or the artists or the philosophers who would supply the vocabulary to unite all conversations, for some time now it has been the scientists. In this readable, at times magisterial book, Henry Plotkin, professor of pyschobiology at University College London, puts the best case for a reminted candidate: universal Darwinism, the latest signpost along the road of the imagined world made real.

Plotkin's last book, Evolution in Mind, has already become the locus classicus of a new discipline: evolutionary psychology. The defining contention of evolutionary psychology is that the mind gradually evolves into an instrument attuned to practical thinking, like the nose adapts to breathing, or the nail to the protection of toes. Plotkin is seldom less than judicious, and it is a shame that some of his more freely utopian colleagues appear to believe that evolutionary psychology holds the key to an explanation of everything from infidelity to infanticide, from jealousy to attraction, from homicide to personal grooming.

Plotkin asks the big questions, with vital implications for a just social policy: to what extent can human behaviour be accounted for genetically? How much of what we do is a consequence of our individual experiences and how much is attributable to innate knowledge? To what extent can we be said to be responsible for what we do and to what extent is genetic aetiology our get-out clause?

Plotkin argues that intelligence is a special kind of evolutionary adaptation that changes us as the facts change. It is our way of coping. We begin, he writes, with a mental slate already genetically engraved, by genes from the main evolutionary programme. Our capacity for culture is, on this account, an evolved trait, inexplicable solely within the realm of the social sciences.

Academic disciplines are not sealed units. Plotkin has some intelligent things to say about what social scientists can learn from the methods of natural scientists and vice versa. But he has grander ambitions than that, however clothed they are in temperate language. His book's subtitle is instructive: "towards a natural science of culture". This is a distinctively utopian quest and suffers two characteristic, generic weaknesses: the myth of unity and the account of agency, of the journey there.

First, there is a definite imperial urge to evolutionary psychology. It began as a union of two other sciences, evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology. There is no reason to suppose that the consolidation is over yet. Indeed, Plotkin's first chapter is entitled "Marrying the Biological and Social Sciences". This seems to me rather like marrying knives and forks, and ought to be met with trepidation by anyone who does not believe that intellectual traditions follow the same rules as the market for financial services.

Utopias have never permitted any disciplinary conflict. There is no politics in utopia, as William Morris wrote in News from Nowhere, because in utopia all good things are compatible and the optimal solution has been realised. Second, the great weakness of utopian texts is their inadequate account of the journey we are to take. The missing link, in other words, is the missing link between here and there. In most instances, human beings go missing. We are transported to the promised land either through a long sleep, a serendipitous journey or a device for travelling through time.

Cultures are consciously created, and this is the central objection to Plotkin's evolutionary account. South Africa after 1948, to use one of his examples, was racially split because people, full of ideology, wanted it to be. As Peter Worsley has pointed out in his sprawling book Knowledges (1997), culture is never blind. Plotkin wants to get underneath human beings, to uncover the laws that govern our capacity to learn culture from one another. In fact, human agency distinguishes biological evolution from cultural change, and we live in this gap, the space between the imagined and the real.

Philip Collins is the director of the Social Market Foundation. His novel The Men from the Boys is published by HarperCollins (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, If only I could teach them what I have learnt