The Wall Street Journal’s Darwin-Free Zone

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Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar D. C. Sessions says:

    Tag closure?Report

  2. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    There are several evolutionary pathways for cultural effects to change over time, not only genetics. We have spoken traditions, mythology, religion, literature and art, recorded history itself, etc. Genetics is the slowest-acting of the many ways human culture can change over time.

    The problem with bringing genetics into a discourse on the deep structure of human culture is that it rarely brings anything new to the table but personal biases and anecdotes dressed up as evolutionary psychology.

    To explain the impulse to destroy beloved individuals, I could spin a tale of small societies who happen upon the idea of human sacrifice to calm their bloodlust proving fitter than rival societies who never figure out how to stop killing within their clans. Just look at the Aztecs dominance over their domain before the Conquistadors arrived! So Aztecs were the ubermenschen of fame, evolved to find out their most beloved athletes and sacrifice them to their gods, giving everyone a small, healthy dose of blood so they can peacefully farm their maize.

    But what have I really added to our understanding of human culture that I could not have added simply by cutting directly to the story of Aztecs creating fame in their athletes and then sacrificing them? I would then be asked to back up my idea with a firm historical grounding (which I’d be unable to give, but someone else might), and then we could talk about how the example fits with other ideas presented. The evolutionary psychology aspect of my claim was only an appeal to authority disguised as science. (For the record, I don’t think this Aztec business is a good example of the fame effect. I think it is a good example of how bringing evolution into a conversation about human culture can cause problems.)Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    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.

    I can’t help but think that if Darwin were indeed brought into this discussion, it would have to be done without sufficient empirical foundation. This would make of evolution a religion, not a science.

    There are moreover plenty of things that aren’t darwinian, but that are passed along through time and that can even become cross-cultural.

    The consciously created cultural products (themselves subject to cross-cultural appropriation!) are just the start of these factors; we must also consider those things that are products of human action, but not of human design — spontaneous orders, in other words. We develop in a thicket of them, and a human being would be a pitiable creature without them. Much of our attempt to understand ourselves is an attempt to understand the differences created by these orders, in light of our apparently quite common biological substrate.

    Stepping back a bit, I’m not sure I understand the point of your post. Is it to say that cultural criticism needs to be more evolutionarily reductionist? Or is it to say that because cultural criticism isn’t evolutionarily reductionist, it’s somehow insufficient… by someone’s standards?

    If so, whose standards would those be? Is anyone really saying this?Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      What Jason said. Trying to explain the cult of celebrity in evolutionary terms would, absent an immense amount of cross-cultural and cross-species research, be as content-free as “because God wills it.” Compare the just-so stories about how optimal reproductive strategies make women monogamous and faithful, and how easily they’ve been adjusted to fit the fact that attached women are less faithful than previously thought.

      (My own theory about celebrities is that they give people who live far away from each other neighbors to gossip about. )Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If we’re talking about culture, wouldn’t Lamarck be a better person to be bringing up?Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      Only if culture were somehow inherited from your biological parents, rather than being learned behavior.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I would argue that culture is very much inherited from one’s parents.

        “Biological” isn’t necessary, though. “Adopted” works every inch as well. Moreover, since it’s “soft inheritance”, you can pick it up from all sorts of wacky places. The kid next door, classrooms of 35, hell, even in a book! (I know all kinds of people who consider this, or that, or this other set of books to be surrogate parents.)

        Lamarck was wrong when it came to biology… but his theory describes very much how societies, cultures, hell… MEMES evolve.Report

  5. Avatar Obdicut says:

    Agreed with Boegiboe and Jason.

    Austin, without specifically saying how you’d like Darwin brought into the conversation, the point is a very weak one. You also appear to have a somewhat shaky grasp on genetics. First of all, DNA does not act alone in phenotype; environment matters as well. A phenotypic change in a population can occur without any geneotypic change if the environment is changed, and this is even more extreme for natal environments.

    You should also remember that when you look at the genotype of an organism, you are not seeing adaptation to current environment, but adaptation to the most pressured environment. The sickle-cell anemia present in American blacks is not there because it was selected for in their current environment as an anti-malarial measure, but in a past environment. Evolution may occur relatively quickly in some circumstances, but mass media– the environment necessary for celebrity– is a very recent phenomenon.

    There is such a bare chance that a complex behavior involved with celebrity can be directly tied to any evolution in humans. What it might be tied to is the functioning of an evolution for a past environment– the smaller bands we used to be in. In that regard, the author may have not dealt with primate behavioral research that could help to explain human behavior towards celebrities, but that would not be recent human evolution.

    In short, it is not only possible but perfectly sensible to expatiate on the nature of the human pysche without reference to evolution at all. It is a truism that behaviors evolved in a context that were selected for. However, given that human culture has changed more rapidly than the human genotype, discussion of evolution’s effect on ‘cross-cultural universals’ would be at best wildly speculative.

    p.s. You’re misusing the word ‘psychic’. It’s not short for ‘psychological’.Report

    • Avatar jdutky in reply to Obdicut says:

      1) is it any surprise that an organ of Murdoch’s right wing noise machine would eschew any consideration of Darwinian evolution in any discussion, not matter how germane?

      2) I second Boegiboe in denouncing evolutionary psychology as a fraudulent appeal to authority whose only purpose seems to be to introduce unscientific (unfalsifiable) personal prejudices into otherwise objective discussions.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Obdicut says:

      Just a note- I read Austin’s use of the word ‘psychic’ here as meaning something relating to the mind, or just a synonym for ‘mental’, which strikes me as being basically correct. I don’t think he’s using it as shorthand for psychological.Report

  6. “Lord of the Flies” argues no “evolutionary” progress has been made.

    Heart of Darkness/Apocolypse Now too, I reckon. And Mad Max.Report

  7. Avatar Andy Smith says:

    @Boegiboe: “But what have I really added to our understanding of human culture that I could not have added simply by cutting directly to the story of Aztecs creating fame in their athletes and then sacrificing them?”

    Well, for starters, what are “athletes”, except genetically gifted individuals? If a society develops the practice of killing them off–for whatever reasons, cultural as well as genetic–don’t you think that will have an effect on genetic or Darwinian evolution? One might liken it to cutting the tallest trees in a forest, which allows more light in and therefore more growth potential for young seedlings. I myself am not familiar enough with these practices to say whether they could have had this effect, but it seems to me a reasonable question to ask. And if it did have this effect, is it such a stretch to imagine that it created an environment where individuals who favored or at any rate did not oppose such sacrifices might be selected for?

    We could also ask, what is this “creation of fame”? A cultural ritual, for sure, but what is it about our species, or primates, that makes “fame” an issue in the first place? An organism has to be fairly far evolved to have any concept, even in a very loose sense of that term, of fame to begin with. It presupposes not only a sense of individuality, but a ranking system of individuals. We might well ask whether the evolutionary process that created these, which were largely Darwinian coupled apparently with some other non-Darwinian but also non-cultural processes, could have contributed to the later evolution of some bias against fame or celebrity.

    The lack of an empirical foundation that Jason decries seems to me to be a red herring. Do we have any more solid foundation to argue that this kind of behavior originated or evolved solely through cultural practices? Of course any discussion of this is going to involve a lot of speculation, but is speulation about Darwinian processes any worse than speculation about cultural ones?

    @Jason: “There are moreover plenty of things that aren’t darwinian, but that are passed along through time and that can even become cross-cultural. ”

    Of course. No one is disputing that cultural evolution is the major driving force of change in our species. But genetics determines the baseline or background on which this evolution occurs.

    “we must also consider those things that are products of human action, but not of human design — spontaneous orders, in other words.”

    “Spontaneous orders?” That sounds as free from any empirical basis as the target of your criticism. Human actions are no more free from genetics than human design, in fact, probably less so. Where these actions end up may be hard to predict, but again, there is some original genetic constraint.

    @Jaybird: “Lamarck was wrong when it came to biology… but his theory describes very much how societies, cultures, hell… MEMES evolve.”

    Maybe not entirely wrong about biological evolution. There is strong debate now about whether certain epigenetic mechanisms oculd result in Lamarckian evolution. But in any case, Lamarckian evolution is not quite the same as cultural evolution. For one thing, Lamarckian evolution is all vertical (parent to offspring), whereas cultural evolution is also (and now, maybe for the most part) horizontal (from one member of society to another). Memes are also passed along far more selectively, and less faithfully, than anything Lamarck likely envisioned.

    I think the main point Austin is trying to make, if I may pretend to speak for him, is that any human behavior that is both ancient and widespread must have a strong genetic basis. Whether modern attitudes towards celebrities really are derived from, or have any meaningful relationship with, ancient sacrifices, is certainly debateable. I myself see that as an interesting idea, but also somewhat of a stretch. But if one wants to pursue that thesis seriously, I think one inevitably does have to appeal to genetics. You bring everything that you have to the table.Report

    • Avatar Boegiboe in reply to Andy Smith says:

      I think the main point Austin is trying to make, if I may pretend to speak for him, is that any human behavior that is both ancient and widespread must have a strong genetic basis.

      There is good logic to this statement. Yet, I don’t see “genetics” as being a valuable thing to talk about here, because we still have virtually no scientific understanding of how our genes predispose us to certain complex behavior. Heck, I don’t think we even know how a spider’s genetic code produces webs.

      So any discussion of how our genes encode fame is going to have to go down the evolutionary psychology path. I just can’t see anything useful coming from that direction, because misconceptions abound. Did you know, for example, that the so-called “alpha male” behavior pattern in wolves is entirely a product of living in zoos, and not how wolves behave in the wild? Yet how many evo-psych discussions depend on that archetype? Far more useful would be careful study of historical texts, anthropological evidence, that sort of thing.

      I get what you’re saying about not tossing out useful concepts–I just think evo-psych is not a very useful concept, and is very often harmful to discourse on cultural phenomena.Report

  8. Avatar Jess says:

    Yeah, I agree with above comments. Evo-psych is terrible, and any discussion of pretty much any cultural practice or artifact is weaker for including it. We didn’t evolve in the presence of iPhones, twinkies, or bicycles, and yet somehow we use all of those things. It’s almost as though large animals with grasping limbs, long juvenile periods, giant brains, binocular vision, and remarkably detailed linguistic ability are capable of more varied behavior than other organisms.

    If any evolution has taken place in the roughly ten thousand years we’ve had, say, agriculture (although unless you’re semitic in origin your ancestors haven’t had it that long), it’s much more likely to have been in immune function than in higher-order mental faculties. Of course, the scientific tools we can use in exploring this are limited.Report

  9. Avatar the innominate one says:

    I suspect Jason Kuznicki is probably right.

    Additionally, a search of the WSJ from 2007 to 2010 for the terms “Darwin” and “evolution” returns 138 hits, including one authored by Michael Shermer, which is highly unlikely to be an anti-evolution piece.

    I guess evolution isn’t off-limits at the WSJ after all.Report

  10. Avatar Gorgias says:

    If the implicit premise here is that such psychological developments must be adaptational, I think you’re succumbing to a very naive view of Darwinian mechanics.  It seems much more likely to me that our various psychological quirks are emergent and largely incidental outgrowth of things that actually are adaptive, namely our gigantic brains.  The notion that human sacrifice is conditioned by evolution requires much more proof than you seem to give it credit for- for one, we’d have to have a clear genetic cause for it.Report

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