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Against Evolutionary Psychology

Against Evolutionary Psychology

Welcome back to Anarchist Hot Takes, the newsletter from Everyday Anarchism!

There is an inevitable move made by anyone opposing anarchism (or any of its philosophical cousins, like democracy, pragmatism, liberalism, etc). Ultimately, the attacker of anarchism will fall back on the vague dictum of “human nature.” Humans simply cannot be trusted to make their own decisions and form their own values, because humans are simply not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, to be trusted. I’m sure you will not be surprised to hear that the people making this argument never seem to include themselves in this category; somehow their nature is always wise, good, and authoritative. It’s other people whose nature requires them to be contained, controlled, and coerced. (As David Graeber puts it: “Everyone believes they are capable of behaving reasonably themselves. If they think laws and police are necessary, it is only because they don’t believe that other people are.”)

For centuries, if not millennia, the West used the concept of original sin to explain how humans were too corrupt to make their own choices. Later, the “state of nature” - was introduced by thinkers like Locke and Hobbes; Hobbes particularly introduced the idea that all humans “naturally” trend toward individualistic and violent self-seeking and only artificial - ie coercive and violent - structures can restrain them.

Since Darwin, the new source for “human nature” has been genetics. Pseudo-scientific fields, which can loosely be grouped under the term “evolutionary psychology,” have proliferated in research universities. And the results have been just a cornucopia of nonsensical and outright revolting conclusions, like:

  • “Homosexuals” exist because the “gay gene” incentives sex with males, and the payoff of encouraging females to have more babies is “worth it” for the species even with the creation of “evolutionarily unfit” homosexuals.
  • Advertising heavily features females with large breasts because those organs represent “evolutionary fitness” for feeding children, and males, genetically programmed to maximize their reproductive success, “naturally” seek out such traits
  • Prehistoric tribes lived in ethnically homogeneous groups which jealously guarded their resources. The appearance of someone with a different skin color indicated an obvious intrusion into this group; therefore the recognition of and automatic negative reaction to different skin colors is “hardwired” as “implicit bias” that cannot be overcome because “evolution.”

Of course, many of the most important thinkers since Darwin have done profound work at the intersection of biological and cultural evolution. The sophisticated analysis done by figures such as Peter Kropotkin, Jane Addams, John Dewey, and Dan Dennett has legitimately transformed our understanding of humanity.  Their kind of work, however, seems to be quite out of fashion in favor of shallow takes which confirm the biases of the elite classes. Last week, writing in The Atlantic, the Yale professor Nicholas Christakis waded into the vaccine mandate debate by confidently and pseudo-scientifically explaining that evolution, in fact, demands vaccine mandates! According to Christakis “we have evolved the capacity and desire for centralized enforcement.” Professor Christakis provides a handy link supporting his conclusion. The article is behind a paywall, of course, but if you click on the link you can read the abstract and find out that yes, of course, this experiment “proving” that we need vaccine mandates was carried out on macaques.

Long-tailed macaque
Photo by Dimitry B / Unsplash

Macaques form hierarchies in captivity; therefore, vaccine mandates

So, whereas I spent almost 30 minutes making the case against vaccine mandates in a recent podcast, my mistake was trying to use outdated concepts like reason, empathy, kindness, and common sense. If I had consulted “science,” I would have learned that my efforts were all in vain; after all, a group of scientists studied a group of captive macaques and concluded that centralized enforcement was necessary. The scientists even have charts and graphs! What else is left to say?

I will return to these issues often, including in an upcoming podcast on science, and talk about the evolutionary thinkers I do admire. But for now, just remember, by their own rhetoric, Ivy League scientists are pretty much indistinguishable from macaques. Of course, you’re not supposed to think that way; what they really mean is that you and I are indistinguishable from macaques, while they are profound and authoritative “scientists.” But I am happy to accept their terms this time; Professor Christakis is proudly performing a simian dominance routine, establishing hierarchy within an in group (in this case, overeducated elites) through a traditional ritual (i.e. an article in The Atlantic), probably in an attempt to increase his reproductive success (i.e. get laid). In fact, I have no choice but to conclude that Professor Christakis’s entire career was simply an attempt to raise his primate social status in an attempt to increase his evolutionary fitness. I mean, I don’t love that conclusion, but I have no choice. It’s just science.