Happy birthday, natural selection
Yesterday, 150 years ago, two papers were read out at the Linnean Society in London, one by Alfred Russell Wallace and the other by Charles Darwin, which first laid out to the world Darwin's theory of natural selection.
Darwin's theory continues to have a profound influence on psychology, via the increasingly dominant theory of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) which, like a particularly aggressive turtle on the Galapagos Islands, is busy fighting off all competition and establishing itself as the alpha male of psychological theories.
Still, I have four main reservations about EP. Firstly, its tendency towards biological determinism. 'Men naturally do this...it's how men have behaved for thousands of years. Men hunt. Women stay at home. Men are polygamous. Women flirt and gossip'. Etc. Yes, our 200,000 year history may give us a predisposition to behave in a certain way, and I find it very interesting to explore our evolutionary history, but evolution has not yet finished. We are making it up as we go along. So examining how humans behaved in the past may not be as enlightening as thinking how we would like to, or should, behave today.
Secondly, how useful is EP for people suffering from mental illnesses? If someone goes to an evolutionary psychologist, say, with social anxiety, the psychologist may well say 'social anxiety is adaptive. That's why it's survived for so long. So it's not entirely a bad thing.' Great! So the socially anxious person goes back to their flat and remains a bitterly unhappy recluse. Or the psychologist says 'social anxiety comes about because there's a mismatch between our primitive past, when we lived in groups of around 150, and our industrialized present, when we live in sprawling anonymous cities'. Great! So we'll have to join a tribe in the Amazon jungle to be happy.
Thirdly, virtue for followers of EP really comes down to social skills. Thus Matt Ridley, a leading EP popularizer, writes in his book The Origins of Virtue: 'What counts is not strength but social skills...The well-connected inherit the earth.' The EPers tend to emphasize that humans have evolved incredible abilities to team up, network, make pacts, persuade, schmooze, back-scratch, and arse-lick. And this, to them, is the height of virtue.
They note that monkeys, also, possess these sorts of cooperative and social skills, only we possess them to a much greater degree. So really, we are simply clever monkeys.
But I think human virtue and wisdom are actually much greater than this, and that the EP account of virtue leaves a great deal out. It leaves out our ability to conceive of our own death. It leaves out our ability to imagine the whole stretch of time and space, and our tiny selves in relation to it. It leaves out the struggle, which has happened throughout human existence, to find some sort of common identity and unity with the universe, to find some principle or idea which does not die.
Monkeys don't, as far as I know, go through this sort of long, hard struggle to find some unity with the cosmos. Humans do however, and this struggle is a crucial part of what it means for many people to be human. It has been right at the centre of what it means to be human for 200,000 years. But followers of EP leave it out.
Fourthly, and finally, followers of EP, like Herbert Spencer and the social scientists who followed Charles Darwin, love to use evolutionary theory to support their own right-wing, laissez faire politics and economics. Thus Matt Ridley, who wrote for the Telegraph, looks on the animal kingdom, and sees only little Thatcherites - struggling for status, making deals, learning to exchange and reciprocate.
At the end of The Origins of Virtue, he rises to a moving vision of a world free of state interference: "If we are to recover social harmony and virtue, if we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital that we reduce the power and scope of the state...Let international and national states wither...Let everybody rise and fall by the strengths of their reputation."
And what did Matt do next? He became chairman of a Yorkshire bank called Northern Rock, which borrowed excessively, then became the first victim of a bank run in Britain for a century, and had to be bailed out by the government, in the largest involvement of the state in the banking sector since the 1940s.