The Earthling

Homo Deceptus

Never trust Stephen Jay Gould.

At the risk of sounding grandiose, I hereby declare myself to be involved in a bitter feud with no less a personage than Stephen Jay Gould. It all started in 1990, when I reviewed his book WonderfulLife for the NewRepublic. I argued, basically, that Gould is a fraud. He has convinced the public that he is not merely a great writer, but a great theorist of evolution. Yet, among top-flight evolutionary biologists, Gould is considered a pest–not just a lightweight, but an actively muddled man who has warped the public’s understanding of Darwinism.

Gould, alas, paid me no mind. No testy letter to the NewRepublic, nothing. I heard through the grapevine that he was riled. But, savvy alpha male that he is, he refrained from getting into a gutter brawl with a scrawny, marginal primate such as myself. Then, last month, my big moment finally arrived. Gould’s long-repressed contempt burst forth from the reptilian core of his brain and leapt over the fire walls in his frontal lobes. In an essay in NaturalHistory magazine, while dismissing evolutionary psychology as “pop science,” he called my book TheMoralAnimal “the most noted and most absurd example.”

It is, of course, beneath my dignity to respond to this personally motivated attack (except to note that if you think Stephen Jay Gould actually deigned to read my puny book, you must be getting him mixed up with someone whose time is less precious). Instead, I will use the occasion of Gould’s essay to make a major contribution to Western thought. And actually, come to think of it, making this contribution will entail responding to Gould’s personally motivated attack. We’ll start with Gould and get to Western thought later.

Gould’s NaturalHistory essay, in keeping with his long tradition of taking courageous political stands, argues against genocide. Its final lines are: “It need not be. We can do otherwise.” You may ask, “Where’s the news value in noting that people can refrain from committing genocide?” Well, Gould spent the previous half-dozen paragraphs cultivating the impression that some people think genocide is hard-wired into our genes.

W ho are these people? Good question. Gould doesn’t name names. Instead, just when you’re starting to wonder who exactly is making this ridiculous claim, he changes the subject to an allegedly analogous example of biological determinism: currently popular Darwinian ideas about male and female psychology. Here he can name names–or, at least, one name. That’s where I come in.

Gould begins by distorting a basic evolutionary psychology argument: that because men can reproduce more often and more easily than women, natural selection (which favors traits conducive to genetic proliferation) has made the minds of men and women different. Gould puts the posited difference this way: Women, in theory, “should act in such a way as to encourage male investment after impregnation (protection, feeding, economic wealth, and subsequent child care), whereas men would rather wander right off in search of other mates in a never-ending quest for maximal genetic spread.” The “wander right off” part is wrong. Evolutionary psychologists classify our species as having “high male parental investment.” Men are naturally inclined to fall in love with women, stay with them through pregnancy, and fall in love with the endearing little vehicles of genetic transmission that roll out of the womb.

To be sure, men may be tempted to philander on the side, even to fall in love with a second woman; they are more inclined than women to both infidelity and polygamy. (Women do have a penchant for cheating or straying, but under a narrower range of circumstances.) Moreover, men find it easier to have sex without emotional attachment, so they do sometimes want to “wander right off” after sex. Still, the fact that evolutionary psychologists don’t view desertion as standard male procedure vaporizes what Gould considers one of his killer arguments: “Any man who has fiercely loved his little child–including most fathers, I trust–knows that no siren song from distinctive[ly male] genes or hormones can overcome this drive for nurturing behavior shared with the child’s mother.” If Gould knew the first thing about evolutionary psychology (if he had, say, read my book), he’d know that this “drive for nurturing behavior” isn’t some news flash to evolutionary psychologists. It is central to their view of the tensions within male sexual psychology.

More noteworthy than Gould’s warping of evolutionary psychology is that he actually embraces some of its premises. On sex differences: “I don’t … think that the basic argument is wrong. Such differences in behavioral strategy do make Darwinian sense.” Hmm. Gould has denounced evolutionary psychology for years without (to my knowledge) making such concessions. Now, as it gains support within both biology and psychology, he seems to be staging a strategic retreat. But, of course, he can’t be seen retreating. He must, in the end, still manage to depict evolutionary psychologists as simpletons. What to do? Create confusion.

G ould informs us that the sexual strategies of men and women are mere “capacities, not requirements or even determining propensities.” Now, first of all, a truly determining propensity is a requirement. So Gould, without conspicuously positing a simplistic dichotomy, has posited a simplistic dichotomy: Every behavior–infidelity, genocide, whatever–is either a mere “capacity” or an “inevitability.” Evolutionary psychologists, Gould suggests, tend to take the “inevitability” view, while a more discerning interpretation of biology (his) takes the “capacity” view.

Let’s not dwell on the sheer dishonesty of insinuating that I, or any serious writers on evolutionary psychology, believe infidelity or genocide or anything else is rendered inevitable genetically. (Well, OK, let’s dwell briefly. There.) The key point is this: Isn’t the range of alternatives to inevitability too broad to cram under the single heading of “capacity”? Do I just have the “capacity” to eat doughnuts and hamburgers and broccoli? No. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. I almost always feel a very strong attraction to doughnuts. To hamburgers I feel a fairly strong attraction under most circumstances. For broccoli I can muster mild enthusiasm if I’m feeling hungry or guilty. All these attractions can be bridled, but the amount and nature of the necessary effort differs by food type and by circumstance.

I concede that my inner turmoil over doughnuts is not of great moment. But let’s get back to things like infidelity, men’s desertion of their families, or even genocide. If we can learn something about how the underlying emotions wax and wane, about the circumstances under which bad things are likely to happen, wouldn’t that be useful information? Amazingly, Gould suggests not. After saying “we learn nothing” from current Darwinian theorizing about any “darkness” in human nature, he continues, “At the very most, biology might help us to delimit the environmental circumstances that tend to elicit one behavior rather than the other.”

At the very most? Delimiting those circumstances is the central aspiration of 20th-century psychology! So, even if Freud and Skinner had wholly succeeded in explaining how upbringing and social experience shape us, it all would have been a waste of time? Too bad they didn’t have a luminary like Gould to explain that to them. I’ve heard many criticisms of evolutionary psychology, but this is the first time I’ve heard anyone dismiss it by saying that all it can do is find the Holy Grail of behavioral science.

Obviously, evolutionary psychology hasn’t yet come close to finding the Holy Grail. But, it has provoked ideas about the role of environment that, if confirmed by further study, can inform moral discourse and public policy. For example, I’ve argued from ev-psych premises that extreme inequality of income, all other things being equal, tends to raise the divorce rate. This claim may turn out to be wrong, but, contrary to Gould’s basic indictment of evolutionary psychology, it is neither obvious nor, if true, useless.

I grant Gould that evolutionary psychology hasn’t taught us much about genocide that we didn’t already know. So far, its main contribution is to illuminate not epic enmity, but the everyday, subtle kind. For example: I just referred to Gould’s “dishonesty” in misrepresenting my views, but maybe the dishonesty isn’t conscious. Once I wrote that 1990 review, I became a threat to Gould’s social status, an enemy. According to evolutionary psychology, it then became hard for him to objectively appraise anything I’ve written (though I suppose actually reading it would have been a start). Tactically caricaturing my beliefs became an essentially unconscious process.

Similarly, now that Gould has attacked me, I have trouble being objective about him. My radar readily picks up, even magnifies, his distortions and confusions, but is less sensitive to my own missteps. (The editors of Slate will contact Gould and invite him to have an online debate with me, during which the truth can emerge from dueling egocentric biases. I predict Gould will ignore the invitation, reverting to a risk-averse alpha-male strategy.) Anyway, the point is just that we are all, by nature, deeply and unconsciously self-serving in our judgments of others. Gould and I are convinced of each other’s confusion, and the Hutus and Tutsis, long before the slaughter began, were convinced of each other’s treachery.

One big problem with Gould’s simplistic capacity/necessity dichotomy is the way it obscures this commonality between us and the Hutus. Gould (in another sign of strategic retreat) concedes that people have a biologically based “capacity” to view enemies as “beyond fellowship and ripe for slaughter.” But that makes it sound as if most of us are entirely civil human beings, while occasionally–in some remote part of the world–a “genocide” switch gets flicked, and slaughter happens. Those Serbs and Hutus may act like animals, but we Americans have kept our “capacity” for evil turned off.

Many Germans, presumably, had a similarly high opinion of themselves in the early 1930s, and no doubt such blithe self-regard lubricates descent. OK, OK–I won’t get carried away. I’m not saying Americans are on a slippery slope toward genocide, and that only evolutionary psychology can save the day. My point is just that (here comes my contribution to Western thought) evolutionary psychology needn’t, as Gould fears, be used to excuse evildoers as victims of biology. It can actually serve humanity by making it harder for any of us to casually assume our own goodness. It says we all warrant skeptical self-scrutiny, and it warns us that this scrutiny, being unnatural, is very hard. But it also suggests that the effort is needed. If you sit around waiting for some switch to get flicked, you’ll have waited too long.