Has there ever been a time when there were so many different views of human nature floating around all at once? The economists have their view, in which rational people coolly chase incentives. Traditional Christians have their view, emphasizing original sin, grace and the pilgrim’s progress in a fallen world. And then there are the evolutionary psychologists, who get the most media attention.
For 99% of human history, they observe, our species lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. The people who survived developed certain mental modules, which have been passed down to us through our genes. Some of these traits serve us well in the modern age. Children have the capacity to learn language with astonishing speed. Some of these traits don’t. Humans have an insatiable craving for fatty and sugary foods.
In 2000, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller published a book called The Mating Mind, in which he argued that the process of sexual selection among early human groups hard-wired many of the behaviours we see in humans today. Some of the traits are physical. Men generally prefer women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio (that’s a 24-inch waist and 36-inch hips, for those of you reading this at the gym). Women generally prefer men who are taller and slightly older.
Some of these traits are more subtle. Men, Miller argues, tip better in restaurants because they’ve been programmed to show how much surplus wealth they have. The average American adult knows 60,000 words, far more than we need. We have all those words because we like to mate with people who caress us with language.
Now, Miller has published another book, Spent, in which he takes evolutionary psychology to the mall. The basic argument is that each of us is born with our own individual level of six big traits: intelligence, openness to new things, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion. These modules are built into humans and other animals (apparently squid can be shy).
We are all narcissists, Miller asserts. We spend much of our lives trying to broadcast our excellence in these traits in order to attract mates. Even if we’re not naturally smart or outgoing, we buy products and brands that give the impression we are.
According to Miller, driving an Acura, Infiniti, Subaru or Volkswagen is a sign of high intelligence. Driving a Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford or Hummer is a sign of low intelligence. Listening to Björk is a sign of high intelligence, while listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd is a sign of low intelligence. Watching Quentin Tarantino movies is a sign of high openness. He theorizes that teenage girls may cut themselves as a way to demonstrate their ability to withstand infections.
Evolutionary psychology (EP) has had a good run. But now there is growing pushback. Sharon Begley has a rollicking, if slightly overdrawn, takedown in a recent Newsweek article. And Spent is a sign that the theory is being used to try to explain more than it can bear.
The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hard-wired mental modules, as the EP types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations.
Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials. Individual behaviour can vary wildly from one context to another. An arrogant bully on the playground may be meek in math class. People have kaleidoscopic thinking styles and use different cognitive strategies to solve the same sorts of problems.
EP leaves the impression that human nature was carved a hundred thousand years ago, and then history sort of stopped. But human nature adapts to the continual flow of information—adjusting to the ancient information contained in genes and the current information contained in today’s news in a continuous, idiosyncratic blend.
The second problem is one EP shares with economics. It’s too individualistic: individuals are born with certain traits, which they seek to maximize in the struggle for survival.
But individuals aren’t formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn’t merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it’s also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.
The allure of EP is that it organizes all behaviour into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. But there’s no escaping context. That’s worth remembering next time somebody tells you we are hard-wired to do this or that.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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