The Beagle sails back into fashion

Kenan Malik
This article originally appeared in the New Statesman, 6 December 1996

It had to happen: the most fashionable political think-tank in the country meets up with the most fashionable scientific theory of the moment. This week, Demos launches a new report, Matters of Life and Death, that sets out the agenda of the new and very sexy science of evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology is the latest attempt to understand human affairs through the prism of Darwinian theory. Ever since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, biologists and social scientists have attempted to explain human behaviour as a product of natural selection. In the 19th century ‘social Darwinism’ held that inequalities between classes, races and nations were evolutionary in origin – history was about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘superior’ social groups were evolutionarily more fit to rule the world. Social Darwinism was at the heart of many of the pernicious theories of the past century, including scientific racism and eugenics.

In the 1970s the science of sociobiology emerged, which again tried to explain human behaviour in terms of our evolutionary and genetic heritage. The most celebrated sociobiologist, Harvard’s E O Wilson, wrote in his seminal book Sociobiology: The new synthesis, that the ‘social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology.’ According to Wilson, human cultural traits such as religion, ethics, tribalism, co-operation and competition could all be explained in evolutionary terms.

Sociobiologists courted controversy by explaining inequality as an evolutionary adaptation. Wilson, for example, argued that ‘genetic bias’ meant that even if women were granted ‘equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science’. Such claims incensed liberals and the claims of the theory soon became marginalised.

Now we have evolutionary psychology. At its heart is the idea that genes that shape our behaviour were selected to suit the conditions of tens, even hundreds of thousands of years ago. So social scientists who try to derive explanations for human behaviour simply from contemporary social conditions are doomed to fail. To understand human behaviour, say the new Darwinists, we need to recognise it as s series of adaptations to a very different environment. As Helena Cronin, co-editor of the Demos report, puts it: ‘The clue to understanding our behaviour is to understand the rules that natural selection has laid down in our brains.’

According to the new Darwinists, many of the problems of modern society originate in the mismatch between our genetic heritage and our contemporary environment. Natural selection, for instance, designed us to favour foods that used to be nutritious but scarce – salts, sugars, fats. Today, in an environment of abundance, those same genetic preferences give rise to chronic diet-related illnesses: obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. In effect we are Stone Age men living in a space-age world.

The root of evolutionary psychology in sociobiology is clear. But the new Darwinism has emerged as a respectable scientific discipline and become increasingly influential in liberal intellectual circles. As the Demos report shows, those who might have dismissed Darwinian explanations in the past are now drawn to them. Why?

‘I find compelling the basic arguments about how our minds are formed through the evolutionary process,’ says Geoff Mulgan, director of Demos. ‘The ideas contained within liberalism, the Enlightenment and Marxism that humans can make themselves what they want to be – an argument that reaches its apotheosis in Foucault with the image of humans as pure self-creation – is extremely dangerous …Dispositions such as self-interest, material aggrandisement, sympathy, notions of fairness, equity, etc, are genetically hardwired, not social constructs …

‘Just as ecological understanding has shown there are all sorts of external limitations to what humans can do, so evolutionary psychology shows parallel internal limits, which we transgress at a high cost.

‘There is a view, for instance, that it is fairly easy for humans to become wholly androgynous. Evolutionary psychology suggests that while it may be more desirable for men to become less promiscuous, less territorial, it may not be that easy.’

Most importantly, Mulgan argues, Darwinism reveals the limits to human freedom and the costs of providing too much freedom: ‘Full freedom of consumption has led to obesity, drug abuse and so on. This entails costs both for the individual and for society.’

All this suggests that much of the attraction of evolutionary psychology lies in its easy chiming with the mood of our times. Increasing disillusion with social explanations for human behaviour, a sense that traditional social theory has proved an inadequate guide, and a pessimistic attitude towards human potential have all opened up a space for Darwinian arguments. The prominence of social theory in the sixties and seventies was in large part a reaction against the terrible consequences of the Nazis’ attempts to put into practice biological theories of human behaviour. The liberal ethos of the period encouraged policy-makers to look to sociologists to explain how society worked, in order to try to change it, through ‘social engineering’.

Today the picture is very different. The disintegration of the left over the past decade has also called into question the very nature of social explanations. From education to criminology to welfare policy, there is an increasing tendency to see social issues in individual or moral terms. Why are certain people unemployable? What is it about a person’s make-up that turns him into a criminal? What are the psychological causes of the poverty trap? The idea of limits to human activity has led people to question how far we can ‘engineer’ solutions. Perhaps in the end an inflexibility of human nature constrains the potential of social change.

The nature of radicalism is also being redefined. There has been a shift from the stress on equality to a stress on difference. Feminists, for instance, increasingly point to the psychological differences between men and women. In the Demos report the US author Robert Wright has penned an intriguing article trying to provide a Darwinian underpinning for the radical feminist arguments of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. ‘Human males are by nature oppressive, possessive, flesh-obsessed pigs,’ he says. The law should take account of the evolved differences between men and women and provide special protection for ‘female vulnerabilities’.

In substance Wright’s argument is little different from that of E O Wilson. But whereas 20 years ago it was dismissed as reactionary hogwash, today the argument meshes well with the ethos of our age. A politically correct social Darwinism? You’d better believe it.

Disenchantment with Thatcherite-style individualism has also lent legitimacy to the new Darwinism. Thatcher’s legacy, in the sense of a more atomised society, is still with us. But as explanations of human behaviour provided by neo-classical economics have been discredited, Darwinism has stepped into the breach. As Mulgan puts it: ‘In a more transactional, more instrumental, more individualised society, the question of altruism becomes problematic. How do you run the NHS without half a million volunteers? Neither sociologists not economists can tell us why people behave in an altruistic way. Darwinists can.'

Hence much of today’s Darwinian discussion of human behaviour is couched in language of ‘community’, ‘co-operation’ and ‘altruism’.

For all the professed contempt of the Darwinists for social theory, both disciplines draw on a common well of themes: hostility to Enlightenment ideas of human nature, an attack on ‘hubris’, an insistence on human limitations, a belief that we need to recognise difference. Perhaps this common ground should not be too surprising: both Darwinists and social theorists are, after all, trying to spin their stories out of the threads of contemporary consciousness. A cynic might argue that all that evolutionary psychology does is to give new expression to our current preoccupations and uncertainties by grounding them in the seeming certainty of science.