Evolution and the Brain

Dear Steve:

       From what I read about How the Mind Works, I was expecting another predictable exercise in what Stephen J. Gould has called “Darwinian fundamentalism,” this time made worse by a sugary helping of “artificial-intelligence fundamentalism” for dessert. Now that I have read the book itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find a more nuanced appreciation of evolutionary psychology and AI than can be found in Daniel Dennett, Robert Wright, or Frank Sulloway. Especially refreshing is your acknowledgment of how little we human beings understand of what is most interesting about us: consciousness, sentience, meaning, the self–those sorts of things.
       Given the limits of our understanding, you might have said that evolutionary biology and computationalism tell us many important things about how we think and act, leaving open the possibility that something else might best explain other aspects of how (and why) we live. But, at least most of the time, that is not what you say. Sometimes, indeed, you say the very opposite. “Natural selection has a special place in science,” you write, “because it alone explains what makes life special. Life fascinates us because of its adaptive complexity or complex design.” (Your emphasis.) Who’s the “us”? Life–at least human life–fascinates me because no one has ever been able to explain its purpose and meaning. That’s why I became a humanistic social scientist rather than, say, an evolutionary psychologist. Once we grant that complexity is what we want to understand, natural selection will be the natural place to turn. But no one–and certainly not you–knows why life is special. Because there are many theories about why it is, there will be many ways to study human beings.
       When you come up against something which neither evolutionary biology nor computation can explain, it bothers me that you try to explain it anyway. “If the brain has not changed over the centuries,” you ask, “how can the human condition have improved?” It’s a good question. As you point out, lots of things that once seemed to characterize the human condition–slavery, exploitation, fascism–have receded to the margins of the human world. We do not know why. Most of the sociologists and historians who write about these things suggest a combination of factors: People themselves rebelled against their oppressors; they were able to win allies among divided ruling elites; what seemed morally acceptable in one age cannot be tolerated in another. For you, the answer, at least in part, is that “information can be framed in a way that makes exploiters look like hypocrites or fools.” Instead of grasping at straws like that, I wish you had instead said what you say in your conclusion: “Theories of the evolution of the moral sense can explain why we condemn evil acts against ourselves and our kith and kin, but cannot explain the conviction, as unshakable as our grasp of geometry, that some acts are inherently wrong even if their net effects are neutral or beneficial to our overall well-being.”
       It would have been interesting to hear you speculate a bit on the origins of such convictions. Are they something greater than information? Could they have come about through some other mechanism than natural selection? I can understand your unwillingness to engage such questions, because it might put you on alien turf. What I cannot understand is why, after having acknowledged that some of our practices serve no adaptive function, you then go on to discuss fiction or religion in Darwinian terms. The contrast between the amateurish speculation at the end of your book and the careful attention to computational and neurological detail at the beginning is striking. Why is it that even the best of the neo-Darwinians–I obviously include you in that category–seem unable to resist such childish theorizing?
       “People desperately want Darwinism to be wrong,” you write at one point. I don’t. I just want it to explain what it can–which is actually a great deal–and be prepared to admit, with more conviction than you demonstrate, what it cannot.

Alan Wolfe