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Evolutionary Psychology

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Today we have not stories but science and science has taught us how bad we are. 

Biology, ethology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, all provide information about human nature. The picture isn’t good.

The Evolutionary Psychology movement in particular has influenced popular assumptions about who we are. 

At its most basic it sees reproduction as bottom line.  The urge to perpetuate ourselves drives all behaviour, one way or another.  

There is little escaping this.

However exciting and complex biological and cultural developments are; all are strategies for maximising reproductive success in the various environments where we find ourselves. Over the millennia our environments have changed, our desires have not.

Males want to reproduce as many of themselves as possible. Females, have a more limited capacity to do so and seek quality rather than quantity.

Contemporary evolutionary theorists are at pains to avoid claims that reduce us to wild beasts. Yet their views work together to imply them. 

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Human Morality

No one denies some difference between our reproductive strategies and those of a chimpanzee. The man who composes a sonnet for his beloved has done something other than beat his chest and offer a morsel of meat. Yet the tenor of the discussion suggests that the value provided by human activity is superficial. 

What we are is the chest-thumping ape. What sonnets and symphonies provide is just packaging. We are part nature, part culture, rather than a well-integrated whole. In the relationship between nature and culture, it’s nature whose boss. 

Human morality is as a thin crust underneath of which boil antisocial, amoral, and egoistic passions.

This is labelled the veneer theory. That drives to reproduce ourselves are what is natural. Culture is the transparent and thin attempt to further, while glossing over, that reality. 

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Veneer Theory

How much of it is true? 

Dutch primatologist, Franz de Waal’s research on a wide variety of apes and monkeys led him to conclude that “we are moral beings to the core”. 

Apes, like us, are both brutish and noble. This research is important because it begins at the bottom. It shows that even if you accept the idea that culture is trivial (or anyway, recent) and that most of what is essential to human nature is beastly, we are far better off than is thought.

De Waal argues that moral ability is parallel to language ability. Nature and nurture can never be completely separated.

We are born with capacities that are similar to those of other animals, particularly those apes with whom we share 99 percent of our genes. But those capacities only come to fruition under particular conditions. 

The emotional responses to suffering that we share with apes are building blocks of the complex structures of human morality. Such building blocks are crucial in showing that we can do what we think we ought to do. We are not restricted to our core drives.

Apes sympathize, demand fairness, internalise rules and punish those who violate them. And they know how to make peace through negotiation when conflicts arise. These are the emotional building blocks of morality.

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Projection

De Waal notes that worries about projection only arise when we view animals positively; we’re happy to call them aggressive, but balk at calling them sympathetic.  He underscores the inclination to interpret the data in the worst possible terms.

“The standard trick is to present mean and selfish acts as proof of our true character, and to either overlook kindness and sympathy, or demonstrate a hidden agenda behind it.”

This is as true for animal as for human behaviour: 

“If animals do show tolerance or altruism, these terms are often placed in quotation marks lest their author be judged romantic or naïve. To avoid an overload of quotation marks, positive inclinations tend to receive negative labels.”

“Preferential treatment of kind, for instance, instead of being called ‘love’, is sometimes known as ‘nepotism’…In the ultimate twist of irony, anyone who fails to believe we are fooling ourselves, and feels that genuine kindness actually exists in the world, is considered a wishful thinker, hence accused of fooling him – or herself.”

He argues that decades of empirical observation show that evolution itself produced the bases of morality.

Far from undermining morality, Darwin can be used as part of a view that’s brighter than the Enlightenment’s best dreams.

We are creatures so social that we need no original social contract, since nature created the means we can use to live together; we are built to find altruistic behaviour rewarding.

There was no time in which we lived without one another and came to agree that we’d like to try a change. Humankind and sociability developed together.

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Selfishness

It is true many altruistic actions serve the actors own interest. Most especially if you take our interests to include satisfaction in having been good. 

Morality is usually good for us. Life would be horrible if it wasn’t. Behaviour generally aims to produce harmony out of different interests. Acting morally furthers the interests of the species as a whole. But the claim that morality generally furthers our interests is a far cry from the claim that we – or our chimpanzee relations – act morally only to further our interests.

Evolutionary psychologists know this well, though they continue to suggest that not only self-interest but selfishness is at human nature’s core. 

Without actually stating it, evolutionary psychologists imply that cultural developments are secondary to the biological urges they believe drive them. 

A favourite way of doing this is to remind us that human culture as we know it is a mere five thousand years old, while primitive hunter gatherer societies have been around for a hundred thousand years. 

Everything that arises later in human destiny is as an inessential fillip on our fundamental nature.

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Useful to whom?

None of the radical versions of these claims is proven. Yet given the choice between two unproven conclusions, the worst is always taken. 

Steven Pinker is a prominent writer on the subject. He acknowledges that what he calls the tragic vision of human nature “has not been vindicated in anything like its most gloomy form.”

“For all its selfishness, the human mind is equipped with a moral sense, whose circle of application has expanded steadily and might continue to expand as more of the world becomes interdependent.”

What reaches the public discourse, however, is not a whiff of moral sense, but the most negative versions of all. Several sources conspire to show that human nature is a nasty piece of work.

When attacked, evolutionary psychologists retreat from the grimmest versions of their claims, but the message is still dismal. Paying heed to nuance, they encourage the darkest spin. 

What is the pleasure we seem to get in seeing our cups as half-empty? When the evidence for them being half empty is just as hard to find as the evidence for their being half-full, we are no longer talking about science and truth. We need to ask: Are such standpoints useful and to whom?

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

 


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