The Wall Street Journal’s Darwin-Free Zone
The Bookshelf column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (I know, ancient history in blogging time) featured an essay so typical you normally wouldn’t even notice it. Reviewing a new book entitled Fame, Toby Young (himself moderately famous for How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) summarizes the book’s thesis – that the modern cult of celebrity satisfies the same primitive bloodlust once expressed in ritual human sacrifice (!) – offers tepid praise (the book is “lively and well-written”) and damning criticism (“another book on such a well-worn subject needs to be startlingly original to justify its existence”), and concludes that the book is probably not worth readers’ time. Along the way, Young gives us his own, somewhat self-contradictory opinion of celebrity (“the phenomenon of stardom has become and more routine, less and less interesting,” says Young, despite that it has consumed more and more of our attention), and blandly concedes that the book’s theory is probably right (“the impulse to destroy those whom we adore, whether gods or men, may well be an ineradicable part of man’s psyche.”). All in all, a solid, if uninspired, book review.
What’s missing here? Someone writes an entire book purporting to reveal deep structures in human behavior. A reviewer then comes along and finds the book’s theories basically credible. Young describes the idea with a metaphor from fluid mechanics: “Without an outlet for [the human psyche’s] bloodlust, such as the pagan rituals of Greece and Rome, the appetite will inevitably find expression elsewhere.” (inevitably!) Civilization, in other words, channels primitive instincts in hidden directions.
Nowhere does the reviewer even mention Darwin, who apparently doesn’t factor into the the book Fame either. On the contrary, both author and reviewer seem persuaded by Sir James Frazer, author of the once enormously influential treatise The Golden Bough, that the mind has progressed since civilization began. I understanding that the evidence of recent human evolution is accumulating rapidly. Nonetheless, recent human evolution involves a relatively small number of genes (just as the recent evolution of dogs involves a relatively small number of genes. Wholesale psychic changes have not had enough time to evolve.
Now you would think that if you are interested in deep structures of human culture, you would be interested in the genes. Human DNA is surely the only plausible source of cross-temporal and cross-cultural universals. But not only does neo-Darwinism not factor into the thinking of author or reviewer, they do not even pay it even heed. Young does need even bother to ask how a desire to raise up figures for later ritual sacrifice could have evolved. Instead, he evidently believes that it is not only possible but perfectly sensible to expatiate on the nature of the human pysche without reference of evolution at all.
That this should be true just goes to show that once again, for all that right thinking people are supposed to believe in and esteem Darwinism, mainstream intellectual discourse remains for the most part a Darwin free zone.