Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th, Darwin!

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in the Tora Bora Mountains or somewhere similarly remote you’ll have heard that this is a big Darwin year. Not only is it the great man’s 200th birthday (today, February 12th), but November will also see the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. (So now you have a reason to use the delightful word sesquicentennial).

There will, no doubt, be a deluge of Darwin-related retrospectives and Darwin-inspired speculation today as we celebrate the history of the greatest idea ever, and the man behind it. Science journals and magazines will naturally make the biggest noise. Nature, for its part, has put together a stellar issue around this anniversary, and I’m delighted to be able to say that I’m a part of it with a feature article on human nature, human universals and cultural diversity (see also the issue's editorial).

Trying to understand human beings in light of Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and descent with modification have been controversial from the get go. This approach fell out of academic favour for much of the 20th century (as an understandable reaction to excesses of biologically based theories of human behaviour and identity, from eugenics to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany), but started re-emerging in the 1970s and 80s under the guise of socio-biology, and then really hit the big time with the emergence of evolutionary psychology in the 1990s.

Evolutionary psychology has been misread, misunderstood, misrepresented and caricatured in a variety of ways. It has been denigrated as ‘just so’ story telling (after Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories in which he spins yarns about, for instance, why elephants got long trunks and leopards got spots). It has been lambasted as sexist, racist, right wing, genetically determinist, greedily reductionist, and flat out wrong.

Needless to say, I think much of this is massively misguided (see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate for a thorough rebuttal of these charges). But that doesn’t mean I think that evolutionary psychology is flawless in all respects (and it’s an increasingly broad church, with its own internal disagreements). I fully accept the core message of evolutionary psychology: that we need to think about the innate, evolved structure of the human mind (human nature, in other words) in understanding human behaviour. The idea that we’re born as blank slate, which is one of the worst ideas in the history of psychology, has rightfully been slain, and I think evolutionary psychology has been an important aid to this (though the work of linguist Noam Chomsky and various developmental psychologists have also been crucial in this regard – indeed, the ideas and findings coming from these people have been enthusiastically picked up by evolutionary psychologists, who have drawn much inspiration from them).

At the same, the particular interests of evolutionary psychologists, and the intellectual climate that the field was initially a response to, has at times lead to a neglect of cultural variation, and processes of cultural transmission and evolution, in human behaviour. This is not, as I read it, the result of dogmatism on any side, but a genuine disagreement about how best to understand human behaviour, human nature and cultural variation.

Arguing against the ‘mainstream’ evolutionary psychologists (typically taken to be John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Martin Daly, Margo Wilson, David Buss, Steven Pinker, and various of their students) are a cadre of anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers. While most of them accept some of the core tenets of evolutionary psychology, and are not afraid to talk about an evolved human nature, they also want to get a much more detailed account of how culture interacts with this given nature to produce manifest behaviour. And it is these sorts of accounts that I run through in my Nature piece. It’s an exciting time to be thinking about human behaviour, human nature and culture, and I hope this little feature will convince you of that too.