Phenomenological Psychology

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Charles Darwin and the “New Darwinists”

October 14th, 2011 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

I recently was stimulated to re-read Darwin’s two greatest works, which are On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871).  Without diminishing their importance, Darwin is pervasive in a way that philosophers (Socrates, Plato) or psychologists (James, Hall, Skinner, Freud, Rogers, and Sullivan) aren’t.  Philosophy primarily is speculative and classical psychology theory (by which I mean non-clinical and non-experimental) primarily is interpretive.  As such, both are subject to what deconstructionists such as Paul Ricoeur (1970) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1984) characterize as the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” [1] They simply are one way of looking at the world and man’s place in it.  Thus, for example, Aristotle characterized man as a “rational animal;” theologists hold man is a “creature of God;” Freud, that man is “libido maximizing;” etc.

Darwin, by contrast, is primordial.  He introduced a new model of scientific explanation that is non-teleological.[2] Molecular evolution commenced from purely random or arbitrary beginnings, constrained only by the laws of physics (e.g. the speed of light, gravity, entropy) (Dennett, 1995, chapter 7, section 1).  After these proto-beginnings, organisms acquired sufficient critical mass that they could compete for resources and reproduction opportunities based on their differential ability to adapt to their environment.  Even then, the human being probably isn’t the right unit of selection.  Rather, according to Richard Dawkins (1976/1989), it’s the gene.  Humans merely are one type of “survival machine” that implements the interests of “replicators,” which are genes.

Random beginnings?  No meaning or purpose in life?  Humankind simply carrier devices for replicators?  These are scary concepts, because they throw the entire project of what the phenomenological psychologist Martin Heidegger called “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1927) into doubt.  Darwin himself did not fully understand some of the more granular implications of his work.  It has taken contemporary zoologists, biologists, ethologists and evolutionary psychologists to force Darwin to the conclusions he should have reached.  Darwin’s perspective, and its logical entailments, has three primary implications, all of which have made considerable difference in my thinking about them.

Cognition. Enlightenment thinkers such as Rene Descartes (1614/1911) and John Locke (1894) started with the mind as the fundamental foundational premise of human existence.  I formerly shared this point of view.  Evolutionary psychology turns it on its head and holds that mind (consciousness) is nothing more than a useful adaptation in the myriad permutations resulting from differential survival of the fittest.

The precise way this works is subject to debate.  Daniel Dennett (1995) reports the size, complexity and flexibility of the brain – and its precipitates, such as consciousness – primarily is due to adaptation, which is an algorithmic result of natural selection (Dennett, 1995, chapter 13).  An “adaptation” is a functional trait evolved by an organism as it interacts with its environment; it often means the organism achieves the maximal fit possible, given genetic and ecological constraints.  For adaptations to occur “algorithmically” means there is a series of causal steps by which this has occurred, traceable in principle back to their beginnings.  Stephen Jay Gould (1997a) objects to Dennett’s mechanistic, engineering-based account, and reports other factors may be involved.  Algorithmic evolution alone is insufficient to account for “all the phenomena of organic diversity.”  Consciousness, for example, may have evolved in fits and spurts depending on constraints imposed by environment, the “punctuated equilibrium” of evolutionary change (rather than slow and steady, most new species originate in an ageological “moment”), unpredictable contingencies (such as the meteor that wiped out half the world’s species 65 million years ago), and any number of other factors.  Regardless of these nuances, evolutionary psychology presents a shocking alternative to the view of mind as the primary determiner of human destiny.

Language.  The preeminent linguist of the 20th Century is Noam Chomsky.  In his book Syntactic Structures (1957) he set forth his theory of transformational grammar.  The capacity to generate language is “innate” to the human mind.  Even though it doesn’t specify a particular language, the mind is structured such that it can accommodate the learning of any language, and create (and understand) completely novel sentences, through a formal “language acquisition device.”  Chomsky (1959) critiqued B. F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior (1957), which held that language is learned from use and context, just like any other functional behavior.  Chomsky’s critique widely was regarded as devastating to Skinner’s position, for many of the same reasons why the cognitive theories of the 1960s overtook behaviorist theories of the 1950s.  Weaned on the former, I used to believe that Chomsky was right and Skinner was wrong.

Evolution once again casts serious doubt on both Chomsky’s and Skinner’s position.  It was not until Stephen Pinker published The Language Instinct (1994) that there was a thorough-going contemporary account of the role of evolution in language.  Pinker held that, like other evolved features, language is a biological adaptation shaped by natural selection.  While Pinker agrees with Chomsky that certain features of language are innate, they don’t strictly “live in the head.”  Pinker takes Chomsky’s argument a step further, arguing that evolution is the only way to explain (for example) how primitive tribes of hunter-gatherers were able to communicate their intentions, such as to go hunting, which in turn lead to survival advantage and reproductive success.  In time, spoken and written language became more complex, and now is a unique feature of humankind.

Again, Gould (1997b) has added an interesting wrinkle to this.  He argues language is what he called a “spandrel,” that is, a non-adaptive by-product of other evolutionary features, which later was co-opted for other useful purposes.  Predictably, Dennett (1997) disagreed, insisting that language too was the product of the same algorithmic process characteristic of evolution itself.  Dennett dismisses the idea of spandrels, contending that organisms evolve as complex and interconnected wholes, not as loose alliances of separate parts.  Dennett was joined by Pinker and two other authors (1997).  They too argued for an exclusive principle of adaptive design, versus Gould’s evolutionary “pluralism” and hypothesis of other possible explanations for diverse phenomena of human existence.[3] Regardless of etiology, a theory of language from the “bottom-up” perspective of evolutionary psychology is far different from the “top-down” theories offered by Descartes and Locke, in which I originally believed.

Culture. Finally, I would like to examine briefly the influence of evolution on culture.  It was Thomas Hobbes (1651) who famously held that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Only a “social contract” would enforce cooperation between competitors and, with that as a precondition could society, culture, art and morality emerge.

Hobbes’ position has been challenged on different grounds.  From the standpoint of evolution, two of the most influential works are Dawkins’ (1976/1982) book, The Selfish Gene, supplemented by his 1982 book, The Universal Phenotype; and Pinker’s (2002) book, The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature.  Dawkins argues for a concept, which he calls the “meme” (rhymes with “gene”).  A “meme” is a unit of cultural transmission arising out of human thoughts and actions – anything from religious faith to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears’ latest videos on YouTube.  Culture evolved through the growth of memes, in a manner analogous to the natural selection of genes.

Pinker has a slightly different approach.  Much like his extension of Chomsky, he argues for a fundamental human nature, which has inborn predispositions to develop cultural precipitates and artifacts such as language, art and music.  We are not, as Locke (1894) and the other British empiricists contended, mere “blank slates” upon which nature makes its mark.  Attracting the ire of deconstructionists, Pinker further contents that culture is not “socially constructed” or “culturally relative.”   Among other things, those give to much weight to human mind and intention (the self? the soul?) over the brute facts of biology.

What I think about this is that minds have an amazing feature, which is they are not “cognitively closed” (a term from Dennett, 1995).  We can think up new thoughts and simulate novel situations.  We have the capacity to countermand genetic influences, use our minds, and to create meaning in a hostile world.  Our brains can rebel against the dictates of evolutionary machinery.  This ability qualitatively differentiates humans from other mammals, whatever their state of evolution.[4] We are, however, more than just another species of big mammals.  We have the power to affect history – both for the better (art, religion, cultural artifacts), but also for the worse (genocide, nuclear disaster, excessive energy use) (Diamond, 1992).  This imposes on us – and psychologists, in particular – a special responsibility.

References

Chomsky, N. (1957).  Syntactic structures.  Berlin, GR: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co.

Chomsky, N. (1959).  A review of B. F. Skinner’s “Verbal behavior.”  Language, 35(1), 26 – 58.

Darwin, C. (1859).  On the origin of species.  London, UK: John Murray, Albemarle Street.

Darwin, C. (1871).  The descent of man.  London, UK: John Murray, Albemarle Street.

Dawkins, R. (1976/1989).  The selfish gene (2nd ed).  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1982).  The extended phenotype: The gene as the unit of selection.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. (1995).  Darwin’s dangerous idea – Evolution and the meanings of life.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dennett, D. (1997).  “Darwinian fundamentalism”: An exchange.  The New York Review of Books.  Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/aug/14/darwinian-fundamentalism-an-exchange/

Descartes, R. (1641/1911).  Meditations on first philosophy.  E. Haldane & G. Ross (Trs.).  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Diamond, J. (1992).  The third chimpanzee – The evolution and future of the human animal.  New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Gadamer, H. (1984).  The hermeneutics of suspicion.  Man and World, 17, 313 – 323.

Gould, S. (1997, Jun. 12).  Darwinian fundamentalism.  The New York Review of Books.  Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/jun/12/darwinian-fundamentalism/

Gould, S. (1997, Jun. 26).  Evolution: The pleasures of pluralism.  The New York Review of Books.  Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/jun/26/evolution-the-pleasures-of-pluralism/

Hobbes, T. (1651).  Leviathan.  London: Crooke.

Heidegger, M. (1927).  Being and time.  New York, NY: HarperOne.

Locke, J. (1894).  An essay concerning human understanding.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994).  The language instinct.  New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Pinker, S., Kalow, W. & Kalant, H. (Oct. 9, 1997).  Evolutionary psychology: An exchange.  The New York Review of Books.  Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1997/oct/09/evolutionary-psychology-an-exchange/

Pinker, S. (2002).  The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature.  New York, NY: Viking.

Ricoeur, P. (1970).  Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press


[1] “[A] method of interpretation which assumes that the literal or surface-level meaning of a text is an effort to conceal the political interests, which are served by the text.  The purpose of interpretation is to strip off the concealment, unmasking those interests” (Ricoeur, 1970, p. 33).  A better translation for “political” in this context would be “polemical” – as I review the original, it seems unlikely Ricoeur meant “political” in the sense of “politics.”  In addition to Freud, Ricoeur identifies other hermeneutics of suspicion as those arising out of theories associated with Marx and Nietzsche.  Put simply: everybody as an agenda, which may be based more on a preconceived theory, than the empirical evidence.

[2] That is, there is no striving or aiming towards some outcome or objective) (Greek = τέλοϛ for “end”, “purpose” or “goal”).  Mankind does not get progressively “better.”  There is no ultimate design or function.

[3] The various discussions between Gould and Dennett in The New York Review of Books are highly entertaining to read because they call each other the worst possible names, but using delightfully sophisticated terms.  I highly recommend them.

[4] Descartes (1641/1911) famously declaimed that the only thing he could not doubt was his own consciousness, because that’s what allowed him to doubt in the first place.  I would add the following to Descartes: that I cannot doubt I have my own genes.  While I don’t know for sure, insofar as I can tell, this is an original thought.