Monthly Archives: March 2014

David Brooks Declares: “Evolutionary Biology and the Other Axis Sciences Declare War on Character and Depth!”

You know how Bill O’Reilly has made a yearly habit of declaring that the godless liberals who run America’s public institutions have declared war on Christmas? Reading David Brooks’s piece in yesterday’s (March 14, 2014) New York Times, The Deepest Self, I wondered whether Brooks had taken a page out of O’Reilly’s playbook. No, Brooks isn’t fretting about the demise of nativity scenes on courthouse lawns or bans on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Instead, Brooks is worried about the decline of character, and of depth, which he defines (a little obliquely, I think), as the possession of “permanent convictions about fundamental things…a web of unconditional loves…and permanent commitments to transcendent projects that cannot be completed in a single lifetime.

Brooks has met the enemy of character and depth: It’s a scientific axis of evil that includes “evolutionary biology” (by the way, when did “evolutionary biology” start sounding cooler to Opinion columnists than “evolutionary psychology?”), “the chemistry and biology of love and sex,” and “psychology and the cognitive sciences.” Together, these Axis scientific powers are pushing a view of human nature that is crowding “character” and “depth” out of the marketplace of ideas:

[T]he strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. It leaves the impression that we are just slightly higher animals—thousands of years of evolutionary processes capped by a thin layer of rationality. It lops off entire regions of human possibility.

And, according to Brooks, that’s just wrong:

In fact, while we are animals, we have much higher opportunities. While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms.

Wow. This sounds bad indeed. Character is important! Depth is important! If evolutionary psychology and the other axis sciences are pushing a view of human nature that marginalizes character, then Brooks is right to be concerned.

But they aren’t, so Brooks isn’t.

First of all, Brooks is wrong when he accuses evolutionary psychology of drawing a profound contrast between the throbbing mass of irrational, unconscious, animalistic impulses and the thin veneer of rationality that gets slapped on top of that jumble. In his indictment, Brooks accuses evolutionary psychology and the other axis sciences of pushing the following view of human nature:

Deep in the core of our being, there are the unconscious natural processes built in by evolution. These deep unconscious processes propel us to procreate or strut or think in certain ways, often impulsively. Then, at the top, we have our conscious, rational processes. This top layer does its best to exercise some restraint and executive function…This evolutionary description has become the primary way we understand ourselves. Deep down we are mammals with unconscious instincts and drives. Up top there’s a relatively recent layer of rationality.

To me, this sounds like Brooks has mistaken Darwin for Freud. It was Freud, after all, and not Darwin, who bequeathed to us the Id, Ego, and Superego. Evolutionary psychology has bequeathed a view of the mind as an integrated set of reasoning systems that are good at solving problems that ancestral humans faced as our species was becoming modern. According to the evolutionary psychology view of mental processes, there is no mind at war with itself, but rather, a collection of systems that are integrated and interdependent, even if their agendas don’t always coincide for every possible course of action. (If they did, what would be the point in having multiple systems?) Whatever that “relatively recent layer of rationality” is, evolutionary psychology’s view of human nature suggests that it’s going to be good at doing the jobs that natural selection designed it to do, which means that it has to play nicely with the other evolved systems the mind contains.

And even though evolutionary social scientists don’t yet know for sure what those jobs are, they have some decent hypotheses. Humans in every society that has ever existed have formed friendships, sought to cultivate good reputations with their neighbors, tried to master their environments, worked to develop social and human capital (some of Brooks’s other darlings), and sought to share the wisdom they have acquired over a lifetime with old friends and loved ones. Not every human succeeds at these tasks, but most do, to varying degrees. It’s Brooks who is bifurcating human nature into a zoo of untamed, irrational, animalistic impulses and a thin layer of reason that tries, bumblingly, to play zookeeper. Don’t blame evolutionary psychology for a dichotomy between what’s animalistic/natural and what’s rational/restrained, for that’s a dichotomy that evolutionary psychology actively resists.

Second, Brooks pushes a very old and very worn-out dichotomy between “nature” and “development:”

But depth, the core of our being, is something we cultivate over time. We form relationships that either turn the core piece of ourselves into something more stable and disciplined or something more fragmented and disorderly. We begin with our natural biases but carve out depths according to the quality of the commitments we make. Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

It’s always nice to have new examples of the nature/nurture fallacy to show the freshman psychology students I teach, so in a way I’m pleased to see Brooks’s fresh recapitulation of that fallacy here. The set of human traits that are natural and the set of human traits that develop over time are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two sets overlap almost completely. The body’s ability to produce calluses, scars, and darker skin in response to sunlight are all natural. They are also all “things that develop over time.” Learning a language is natural for humans. It’s also something that happens—and something that humans can even “actively cultivate”—over time. The same goes for character. Why is it that humans strive to become better and wiser, whereas our dogs and cats and goldfish (apparently) don’t? Because the urge to develop character is part of human nature, but not part of dog nature, cat nature, or goldfish nature.

Finally—and this is just a hunch—I think Brooks is confusing evolutionary psychology’s (de facto) research agenda with evolutionary psychology’s (actual) view of human nature. What’s really bugging Brooks about evolutionary psychology, I think, is its preoccupation with “the chemistry and biology of love and sex.” The lede to his piece, after all, is a recitation of factoids (drawn, one presumes, from recent research articles) regarding the effects of humans’ sexual appetites on their behavior, perceptions, and judgments.

I get the sense that Brooks finds evolutionary psychology’s overweening emphasis on sex a little trying. On this point, I actually agree with him. Sex has become to evolutionary psychology what Fire and Rain is to a James Taylor concert. Even so, evolutionary psychologists also study things like trust, cooperation, generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, reconciliation, moral judgments, reputation, culture, reasoning, empathy, language, music, memory, the development of expertise, and even play. Are concepts like these relevant to Brooks’s definition of character? I hope so: They’re relevant to everybody else’s. Granted, you won’t find any scientific talks on “depth” at an annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, but can you imagine hearing anything interesting on the topic of “depth” at any scientific conference?

Brooks’s fretting strikes me as the sort of thing people write when they’re worried that science might actually succeed in explaining something important about human nature. But “explaining things” is what scientists are supposed to be doing. As Steven Pinker recently wrote, “The mindset of science [is] indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.” In my opinion, you can add character to Pinker’s list without reducing its accuracy in the slightest.

Brooks is obviously free to continue admiring how people acquire permanent convictions about fundamental things, webs of unconditional loves, and permanent commitments to transcendent projects that cannot be completed in a single lifetime,” but some of us actually want to understand the pillars of human character, not just ooh and ahh about them and yearn for a time when evolutionary psychology and the other axis sciences weren’t butting into conversations in which they weren’t welcome. And despite what Brooks or anybody else might lead you to believe, as far as character is concerned, evolutionary psychology is trying to make love, not war.