Saturday, February 23, 2013

Marxism and EvoPsych

The ever-energetic Louis Proyect has three- recent- posts on Napoleon Chagnon's newest book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. Now he's way ahead of me--I haven't even read that book yet, much less all the reviews that Mr. Proyect covers. Nevertheless, I think Mr. Proyect's condemnation of evolutionary psychology (EvoPsych) is just wrong.

Mr. Proyect cites three major arguments. The first is his claim that EvoPsych is descendant from Social Darwinism in the 19th Century, and thus represents the reappearance of Nazi ideology in modern science. He says, for example,
Though academics are trained to explain away practically anything, I was shocked to see this article described by Chagnon supporters as having nothing to do with the racist theories so in vogue in early 20thcentury America and Nazi Germany.
Mr. Proyect asserts a syllogism:
Social Darwinism is bad.
All bad things are false.
EvoPsych is like Social Darwinism.
Therefore EvoPsych is false.
Only the first premise of the argument is true. Unfortunately, not all bad things are false, and the facile association of EvoPsych to Social Darwinism is also wrong.

EvoPsych and Social Darwinism agree on only one thing--namely that our brains are a product of our evolutionary heritage just as any other body organ is. Unless you're a religious fanatic this seems obviously true. But Social Darwinism went much further and said that Englishmen (to pick an example) were more "evolved" than, say, the Inuit. EvoPsych rejects that categorically. Given that we are all alive today and we have all had equal time to "evolve," there is no case to be made that  "primitive" people are less evolved than anybody else.

Indeed, EvoPsych makes precisely the opposite case--not only are we all equally evolved, but under the hood we are all very much the same. EvoPsych frequently talks about our "stone-age brains," i.e., despite our civilizational veneer we're human animals underneath.. Unlike Social Darwinism, EvoPsych does not study primitive tribes to learn about how we are different, but rather to learn about how we are all the same.

Mr. Proyect's comparison between Social Darwinism and EvoPsych is, I think, a slander, and can only be made by willfully ignoring the big differences.

Second, Mr. Proyect mocks Napoleon Chagnon's apparent fixation on sex. "I am surprised that Chagnon did not report that the shaman told him, “Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads! Broads!”. His impact on the tribes was, after all, quite broad." Not having yet read Chagnon's book, I can't judge whether or not he overstates the role of sex in their warfare, but one doesn't need to rely on Mr. Chagnon to see that sex is an important motivator for battle. Here are just a few salient examples:
  • Combatants are overwhelmingly male, and only rarely female. This appears to be human instinct, and strongly suggests a sexual motivation for fighting.
  • War and rape are inextricably linked. Go back and read Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul for some excellent examples. Or, failing that, consider the Yugoslav "rape camps," the horrific rapes in the Congo, the "rape of Nanking," or the 72 virgins promised to Jihadi martyrs, along with the occasional command from their officers to take Christian and Jewish women captive and turn them into concubines. Only for the most disciplined, modern armed forces (e.g., the US Marine Corps) is rape not a significant battle reward, but even there it happens.
  • Women are attracted to brave warriors. They are also attracted to athletes, who engage in a simulacrum of battle.
  • Military and political leaders, from Julius Caesar through Genghis Khan and Mao Tse-Tung have had hundreds or even thousands of concubines. Indeed, it is likely that everybody alive today is descended from Julius Caesar.
So is Mr. Proyect really going to insist that sex and warfare are unrelated phenomena? Mr. Chagnon's goal was to establish this link in our evolutionary past--not because the Yanomamo were "unevolved," but because they were relatively untainted. In other words, insofar as they were like us, they represent our common genetic heritage.

Finally, Mr. Proyect doesn't like Napoleon Chagnon. He thinks he's a bad guy. And here I tend to agree with him--Mr. Chagnon isn't a person I’d want to lend money to. (Tyler Cowen suggests that part of Mr. Chagnon's problem is his name: Napoleon. Nobody nice could have that name.) But again, this is arguing by flawed syllogism:

Bad people are always wrong. 
Napoleon Chagnon is a bad man. 
Therefore Napoleon is wrong.

I think EvoPsych is indisputably true on some level. Surely the brain is an evolved organ, and as such our behavior is also evolved. Like all other animals, we have instincts. Behaviors that all or most human cultures have in common are likely instinctive. So the goal is to discover what is common to the human animal, and what depends on culture or the environment. This is the motivation behind Chagnon's research--it was an attempt to uncover our common humanity. I don't know how successful Mr. Chagnon's project was, but Mr. Proyect's argument by slander is not convincing or helpful.

I'll end with some thoughts about the Marxist alternative to EvoPsych. First, like Social Darwinism, but unlike EvoPsych, Marxism is a political point of view. It aspires not just to interpret the world, but to change it. EvoPsych has no such ambition--it merely tries to understand the human animal better. Thus evolutionists are all over the map politically. Steven Pinker and Robert Wright are very much on the Left side of the aisle. I don't know Richard Dawkins' politics, but his radical atheism allies him with the Left. On the other hand, there are many Rightists who will categorically reject EvoPsych. Obviously some religious fundamentalists fall into that category, but so will well-known scholars such as Harvey Mansfield or Paul Johnson.

A key factor in scientific thinking is to separate scientific results from moral conclusions. Social Darwinism wasn't science because it made moral claims. EvoPsych makes no moral claims--it simply tries to describe who we are and how we got that way. Marxism has a long history of mixing moral outcomes with scientific results, egregiously with Lysenkoism. In his rejection of EvoPsych, this is precisely the error that Mr. Proyect has fallen into.

Marxism will have us believe that human evolution somehow stopped when human society separated into classes, and has played an unimportant role since then. This statement is clearly not true--human evolution has continued unto the present day--and likely even accelerated. This is an indisputable empirical fact. Similarly, that our brain is an evolved, biological organ is simply a fact--it cannot be wished away by saying that culture or economic class consciousness trumps all.

At best, Napoleon Chagnon's life's work contributes a rich source of data toward our understanding of human nature. I tend toward that view, but not having yet read his book I really don't have a strong opinion. But the laws of evolution predate Mr. Chagnon by at least a century, and the evidence in favor of EvoPsych in some form is overwhelming, even if Mr. Chagnon turns out to be a complete fraud.

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