Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 4, 2011

Steven Pinker = Hobbes + Pangloss

Filed under: evolutionary psychology,war — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Steven Pinker: bad hairdo, worse ideas

Whenever a prominent sociobiologist (I prefer this term to the more nebulous “evolutionary psychology”) like E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker comes out with a new book, you can expect it to arrive with a big splash—getting a front-page review in the Sunday Times Book Review, interviews with Charlie Rose, and all the rest. The reception will be overwhelmingly favorable because the message of such thinkers is deeply conservative, namely that biology is destiny. What is the point of struggling for a classless society if greed and aggression are hard-wired in our genes?

Get set for a barrage of fawning reviews of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is basically an expansion of the chapter in his “The Blank Slate” that deals with violence. Pinker adheres to a Hobbesian view of society, one in which the state is necessary to curb the kind of wanton violence that apparently was much worse in primitive societies than it is under capitalism.

You don’t have to waste your money on this book in order to get a handle on Pinker’s views. John Brockman (described once by Wired Magazine as a onetime hippie, Warhol groupie, and feminine-hygiene marketing guru) is a literary agent whose clients include some of the most prominent sociobiologists, including Daniel Goleman, Richard Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. He also publishes Edge Magazine, in the latest edition of which you can find a lecture by Steven Pinker that is a short-form version of the new book.

This doctrine, “the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”),” he writes. “But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.”

Pinker’s lecture begins with a glance at how bad things used to be:

In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies, “[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” Today, such sadism would be unthinkable in most of the world.

But after the fashion of Voltaire’s Pangloss, Pinker discovers that we are living in—or rapidly approaching—a time of the best of all possible worlds:

Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.

He also takes exception to notions of a “noble savage”:

The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset (“War is not an instinct but an invention”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species”), and Ashley Montagu (“Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood”). But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler.

As opposed to such foolish notions, Pinker asserts that Hobbes got it right:

The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.

I was first exposed to Pinker’s dubious ideas in The Nation Magazine, of all places. In a November 18, 2002 review of “The Blank Slate”, Steven Johnson takes heart in Pinker’s curious mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss:

Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite–understanding the particular channels that we’re prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive.

At the time I questioned the wisdom of such a review:

For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.

It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.

The next time Pinker showed up on my radar screen was in the course of a commentary on the Yanomami science wars. Like Jared Diamond, who hailed colonialism “pacification” of the Papua New Guineans, and Napoleon Chagnon, the sociobiologist who viewed the Yanomami as “fierce” based on cherry-picked evidence, Pinker was committed to the view that hunting-and-gathering peoples were even more violent than they were depicted in Tarzan movies. About such characters, I had this to say:

Jared Diamond makes an identical argument to Pinker’s in his book “The Third Chimpanzee”, even going as so far as to accuse the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall as prototypical Nazis. In the infamous New Yorker article, he states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.” So violent were the PNG tribesmen that when the British colonizers arrived, they supposedly were grateful for being delivered finally from bloody Hatfield-McCoy feuding that never came to end. At least that’s Diamond’s argument.

When people like Pinker or Diamond write about the brutal hunting-and-gathering societies, they do so very selectively. Our ancestors came into existence two million years ago. Since the evidence for how early ancestors lived is quite scanty, there is a tendency for sociobiologists to project their own schemas backwards into a period with little regard for archaeological evidence. Trying to explain warfare in terms of Darwinian adaptation (what people like Pinker call environment of evolutionary adaptation or EEA) is very problematic as Gould pointed out in a NY Review article:

But how can we possibly know in detail what small bands of hunter-gatherers did in Africa two million years ago? These ancestors left some tools and bones, and paleoanthropologists can make some ingenious inferences from such evidence. But how can we possibly obtain the key information that would be required to show the validity of adaptive tales about an EEA: relations of kinship, social structures and sizes of groups, different activities of males and females, the roles of religion, symbolizing, storytelling, and a hundred other central aspects of human life that cannot be traced in fossils? We do not even know the original environment of our ancestors—did ancestral humans stay in one region or move about? How did environments vary through years and centuries?

For my money, there is no better antidote to Pinker’s Hobbesian/Panglossian worldview than the articles of Rutgers sociology professor Brian Ferguson, who is one of the leading critics of Napoleon Chagnon. Particularly useful is “The Birth of War” , an article that is clearly informed by a historical materialist viewpoint. He writes:

Over the millennia, tribal warfare became more the rule than the exception. As the preconditions for warfare (permanent settlements, population growth, greater social hierarchy, increased trade, and climatic crises) became more common, more tribal peoples in more areas adopted the practice. That development in itself spread warmaking to other groups. Once ancient states arose, they employed “barbarians” on their peripheries to expand their empires and secure their extensive trade networks. Finally, the European expansion after 1492 set native against native to capture territory and slaves and to fight imperial rivalries. Refugee groups were forced into others’ lands, manufactured goods were introduced and fought over (as with the Yanomami), and the spread of European weapons made fighting ever more lethal.

When I began studying war in the mid-1970s, I was trained in an approach called cultural ecology, which argued along the lines that Steven LeBlanc does today. Population pressure on food resources-land, game, herd animals-was seen as the usual cause of indigenous warfare. In some cases the theory did work. Among the peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast prior to the depopulation of the nineteenth century, groups fought to gain access to prime resource locations, such as estuaries with good salmon streams. But in far more cases around the world, such as that of the Yanomami, warfare could not be linked to food competition.

Today, under the rubric “environmental security,” many nonanthropologists who work on issues of international security embrace that ecological view. Recent outbreaks of violence, they argue, may be rooted in scarcities of subsistence goods, fueled by growing populations and degraded resources (such as too little and eroded cropland). But when you examine the cases for which that interpretation seems superficially plausible-the conflicts of the past several years in Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, or in Rwanda-they fail to confirm the “ecological” theory.

We anthropologists are just beginning to bring our experience to bear in the environmental security debate. What we find is that if a peasant population is suffering for lack of basic resources, the main cause of that scarcity is an unequal distribution of resources within the society, a matter of politics and economics, rather than the twin bugbears of too many people and not enough to go around.

Anthropology can offer an alternative view on such terrible disasters as the Rwandan genocide or the civil wars in the Balkans. case studies of modern-day conflicts show that a broad range of factors may be interacting, including subsistence needs and local ecological relations, but also political struggles over the government, trends in globalization, and culturally specific beliefs and symbols. Moreover, when hard times come, they are experienced differently by different kinds of people. Who you are usually determines how you’re doing and where your interests lie: identity and interest are fused. Once a conflict gets boiling and the killing starts, all middle grounds get swept away, and a person’s fate can depend on such simple labels as ethnic, religious, or tribal identity. The slaughter of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is only one of the latest examples of that horrific effect. But such differences are not the cause of the conflict.

My view is that in most cases-not every single one-the decision to wage war involves the pursuit of practical self-interest by those who actually make the decision. The struggle can be joined over basic subsistence resources, but it can just as easily erupt over goods available only to elites. The decision involves weighing the costs of war against other potential hazards to life and well-being. And most definitely, it depends on one’s position in the internal political hierarchy: from New Guinean “big men” to kings and presidents, leaders often favor war because war favors leaders.

The question of subsistence resources is key. When primitive people fought each other, it is not because they are aggressive by nature but because of a need to gain access to the means of reproduction like water, food and land. The irony is that while capitalism made such struggles outmoded through its technological breakthroughs, but only raised them to a higher level since a fraction of society—the bourgeoisie—became bellicose in its need to monopolize the very means of production that allowed a peaceful and abundant society to prevail. Instead of fighting over water, food and land (ironically, the environmental crisis placed this on the front burned once again), the fight became one over natural resources need for manufacturing (especially oil) and markets for manufactured products.

Pinker’s belief that peace is becoming universal also does not take into account that violence is only partially a function of what happens on the battlefield. The fact that we have not endured anything like WWI or WWII in the past 65 years or so has to be weighed against the continuing violence of daily life in the Third World, which is not that visited so much by a bayonet but by hunger.

Two years ago U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told those gathered at a three-day summit on world food security: “Today, more than 1 billion people are hungry. Six million children die of hunger every year — 17,000 every day, he said.” (http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/11/17/italy.food.summit/) Just add up the number of dead children since the end of WWII and you arrive at 390 million casualties of the war on the poor. You might not have trench warfare, but the quiet death of a child in Peru is just as brutal. The guns that prevent Peru from descending into Hobbesian anarchy might be regarded as a necessary evil by Pinker, but to the mothers and fathers of those children that is of little consolation. When the Shining Path, by no means a perfect liberation force, decided to take up arms and challenge a system that condemned so many of its citizens to an early death, the voices of “peace” and “civilization” urged its destruction. Fujimori brought peace but it was the peace of the graveyard.

Like Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker is a public intellectual serving the interests of big capital. His targeted readers are suburbanites and the urban middle class that has somehow avoided the biggest blows of the Great Recession, the PBS contributors whose worldview is shaped by the News Hour and who will probably stick with Obama in 2012.

They like the idea that World History is moving toward a better place despite those evening reports about bad things happening in Zaire or Somalia. They are reassured by knowing that no matter how bad these things are, they were much worse 500 years ago than they are today—at least based on what Pinker reports. Of course, it matters little that others like Basil Davidson found an entirely different continent before colonialism, one that was a lot more livable despite the obvious small-scale battles over land, water and hunting grounds. And if the restive natives ever decide that they can do better by themselves than the enlightened colonist or neo-colonist, there is always the UN Blue Hats to sort things out in Hobbesian fashion.

July 21, 2009

Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine

Filed under: evolutionary psychology — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

(I recalled that I had written about sociobiology in the Nation Magazine some years ago before I began blogging. In light of what I have been writing about the Yanomami science wars and to complement an excellent review of “André Pichot’s The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler” on Lenin’s Tomb, I thought it would be appropriate to recycle them now.)

Barbara Ehrenreich on war

(I do not know when this was posted)

I guess I have gotten used to how bad the Nation magazine has become, but every once in a while I run into something so rancid that I have to pause and catch my breath. This was the case with a review by DSA leader Barbara Ehrenreich of 3 books on war. This review was accompanied by a review by Susan Faludi of Ehrenreich’s new book on war titled “Blood Rites”. All this prose is dedicated to the proposition that large-scale killing has been around as long as homo sapiens has been around and that it has nothing much to do with economic motives. Looking for an explanation why George Bush made war on Iraq? It wasn’t over oil, “democratic socialist” Ehrenreich would argue. It was instead related to the fact that we were once “preyed upon by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator…but that of a creature which has learned only ‘recently,’ in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.”

In a rather silly exercise in cultural criticism, Ehrenreich speculates that the popularity of those nature shows depicting one animal attacking and eating another are proof of the predatory disposition we brutish human beings share. I myself have a different interpretation for what its worth. I believe that PBS sponsors all this stuff because of the rampant oil company sponsorship that transmits coded Social Darwinist ideology. Just as the leopard is meant to eat the antelope, so is Shell Oil meant to kill Nigerians who stand in the way of progress.

One of the books that Ehrenreich reviews is “War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage” by Lawrence Keeley. Keeley argues that material scarcity does not explain warfare among Stone Age people. It is instead something in our “shared psychology” that attracts us to war. Keeley finds brutish behavior everywhere and at all times, including among the American Indian. If the number of casualties produced by wars among the Plains Indians was proportional to the population of European nations during the World Wars, then the casualty rates would have been more like 2 billion rather than the tens of millions that obtained. Ehrenreich swoons over Keeley’s book that was published in 1996 to what seems like “insufficient acclaim”.

I suspect that Keeley’s book functions ideologically like some of the recent scholarship that attempts to show that Incas, Aztecs and Spaniards were all equally bad. They all had kingdoms. They all had slaves. They all despoiled the environment. Ad nauseum. It is always a specious practice to project into precapitalist societies the sort of dynamic that occurs under capitalism. For one thing, it is almost impossible to understand these societies without violating some sort of Heisenberg law of anthropology. The historiography of the North American and Latin American Indian societies is mediated by the interaction of the invading society with the invaded. The “view” is rarely impartial. Capitalism began to influence and overturn precapitalist class relations hundreds of years ago, so a laboratory presentation of what Aztec society looked like prior to the Conquistadores is impossible. Furthermore, it is regrettable that Ehrenreich herself is seduced by this methodology since she doesn’t even question Keeley’s claims about the Plains Indian wars. When did these wars occur? Obviously long after the railroads and buffalo hunters had become a fact of North American life.

The reason all this stuff seems so poisonous is that it makes a political statement that war can not be eliminated through the introduction of socialism or political action. For Ehrenreich, opposing war is a psychological project rather than a political project:

Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war — a warrior elite or, on our own time, the chieftains of the ‘military-industrial complex’ – risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome … So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the ‘enemy’ is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace.

Really? The abstract institution of war maintains its grip on “us”? Who exactly is this “us”? Is it the average working person who struggles to make ends meet? Do they sit at home at night like great cats fantasizing about biting the throats out of Rwandans or Zaireans in order to feast on their innards? The NY Times has been reporting more and more concern among Clinton administration officials about Kabila’s drive toward the overthrow of Mobutu, our erstwhile puppet. It is not out of the question that Clinton and his European allies would put together an expeditionary force to protect “democracy” in Africa. Who would be responsible for this war? The ruling class or the poor foot soldiers who get drummed into action?

Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on Nov. 4, 2002

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to get a trial subscription to the Nation Magazine. What the hell, I said. This would give me a chance to see what the red-baiters were up to first-hand, as well as work on their nifty crossword puzzles. When my last subscription was winding down during the beginning of Clinton’s second term, the puzzles and Cockburn’s column were the only things that kept me going. When they cut Cockburn back to one page and then went into a full-tilt boogie for Clinton, I said to hell with them.

When I got my first complementary copy this morning, I was reminded why I let this awful magazine lapse. Starting out with an editorial admonition to its readers against wasting a vote for the Green Party in tomorrow’s elections, it then proceeds to a defense of sociobiology of a kind that I’ve never seen in a left publication.

In Steven Johnson’s review of Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, we discover that E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins were right all along. Biology is destiny. Women’s brains differ from men’s, hence accounting possibly for men’s superiority in theoretical physics among other things. (Don’t worry, gals, your brains might just as easily prepare you for “social interactions” and “empathy”.)

While reading through this crapola, one gets no sense of what Pinker stands for politically. Johnson assures us that Pinker presents his views on the political and social implications of neo-Darwinism with his characteristic “eloquence” and “humor” but one would get no sense from the review what ideas this humor and eloquence is actually mustered to support.

Let’s look at a few of them:

  • Males have a stronger tolerance for physical risk and a stronger drive for anonymous sex.
  • Women have stronger emotions and are better at reading emotions on the faces of others.
  • Pinker states “A variety of sexual motives, including taste in men, vary with the menstrual cycle.”
  • He also states that “in a sample of mathematically talented students, boys outnumbered girls by 13 to one” but that women maintain more eye-contact, and smile and laugh more often.
  • Humans are hard-wired to think in stereotypes and to prefer kin.
  • Some people, most of them men, are born with criminal tendencies.
  • Turning to the big questions of social transformation that have vexed Great Thinkers for the millennium, we learn from Pinker that “Biological facts are beginning to box in plausible political philosophies.” Communism may work for insects, but humans are programmed for economic exchange and “reciprocal altruism.” (Is that the reason I used to climb across the ceilings and consume a pound of sugar at a time when I was in the Trotskyist movement, I wonder?)

When you stop and think about it, the title of Pinker’s book sets up a straw man, namely that radicals of one sort or another believe that the mind is a “blank slate” and that human nature is infinitely malleable.

It is of no small importance that Pinker ultimately finds backing in Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, mediated through anthropologist Donald Brown who adapted Chomsky’s idea of a “universal grammar” to “social patterns, beliefs and categories” shared by all human societies. We discover that Pinker (and presumably the feckless reviewer) are so impressed by Brown that he devotes an entire appendix to such categories worked out in alphabetical order. The c’s include cooking, cooperation, and copulation (all of my favorite activities, it turns out.)

With such basic activities underpinning all human societies, and human nature implicitly, one might easily conclude that it is risky business to tamper with the eternal nature of things, like sending your daughter to MIT. You might end up with Pol Pot, Stalin, the Animal Farm or women running around burning their bras. Pinker quotes Chomsky just to show that this kind of hostility to revolution has respectable defenders:

A vision of a future social order is based on a concept of human nature. If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the State authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement and participation in a free community.

While respect must be paid to Chomsky for his fearless critique of US foreign policy, it would be a big mistake to write a blank check for his ideas on human nature, etc. As his biographer Robert Barsky has pointed out, many of Chomsky’s ideas on human nature and society owe much more to 18th century rationalism than any more recent emancipatory philosophies, including Marxism. Indeed, what permeates much of sociobiology and Chomsky on his worst days is a kind of Hobbesian skepticism about the human animal, who would need to be restrained from wanton violence, rape and warfare by a protective state.

For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.

It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.

June 27, 2009

Chagnon among the Yanomamo

Filed under: anthropology,evolutionary psychology,Yanomami — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

When I first got word of the Jared Diamond/New Yorker magazine scandal, I could not help but think of Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami. Just around the time that the Marxism list was launched, a big fight broke out among anthropologists over Chagnon’s fieldwork with the Amazon rainforest Indians provoked by the publication of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon”. Sides were drawn in the profession between those pro and con Chagnon, who at least unlike Jared Diamond had professional qualifications in the field. In doing some preliminary research on the Chagnon-Tierney dispute, I have learned that some experts in the field without any apparent axe to grind have faulted his research.

I plan to revisit the controversy in light of what I have learned about evolutionary psychology, particularly through my reading of Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” but want to start off by posting some excerpts from the fifth edition of Chagnon’s “Yanomamo”, a book that was titled “Yanomamo: the fierce people” in its initial publication in 1977. Given all the controversy his research has generated, it is understandable why he would have dropped the fierce people, especially since the global perception that they are facing extinction. It would be like writing a book in 1940 titled “The Aggressive Jew”.

The excerpts below are not intended to be an introduction to Chagnon’s work, but only passages that struck my eye for obvious reasons except for the last, which I will explain beforehand. For a useful presentation of Chagnon’s approach, I have made available an article from the 1988 Science magazine titled “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population” at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/chagnon.pdf.

1. Chagnon meets the Yanomamo:

My heart began to pound as we approached the village and heard the buzz of activity within the circular compound. Mr. Barker commented that he was anxious to see if any changes had taken place while he was away and wondered how many of them had died during his absence. I nervously felt my back pocket to make sure that my notebook was still there and felt personally more secure when I touched it.

The entrance to the village was covered over with brush and dry palm leaves. We pushed them aside to expose the low opening to the village. The excitement of meeting my first Yanomamo was almost unbearable as I duck-waddled through the low passage into the village clearing.

I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows! Immense wads of green tobacco were stuck between their lower teeth and lips making them look even more hideous, and strands of dark-green slime dripped or hung from their nostrils—strands so long that they clung to their pectoral muscles or drizzled down their chins. We arrived at the village while the men were blowing a hallucinogenic drug up their noses. One of the side effects of the drug is a runny nose. The mucus is always saturated with the green powder and they usually let it run freely from their nostrils. My next discovery was that there were a dozen or so vicious, underfed dogs snapping at my legs, circling me as if I were to be their next meal. I just stood there holding my notebook, helpless and pathetic. Then the stench of the decaying vegetation and filth hit me and I almost got sick. I was horrified. What kind of welcome was this for the person who came here to live with you and learn your way of life, to become friends with you? They put their weapons down when they recognized Barker and returned to their chanting, keeping a nervous eye on the village entrances…

As we walked down the path to the boat, I pondered the wisdom of having decided to spend a year and a half with these people before I had even seen what they were like. I am not ashamed to admit that had there been a diplomatic way out, I would have ended my fieldwork then and there. I did not look forward to the next day—and months—when I would be left alone with the Yanomamo; I did not speak a word of their language, and they were decidedly different from what I had imagined them to be. The whole situation was depressing, and I wondered why I ever decided to switch from physics and engineering in the first place. I had not eaten all day, I was soaking wet from perspiration, the bareto were biting me, and I was covered with red pigment, the result of a dozen or so complete examinations I had been given by as many very pushy Yanomamo men. These examinations capped an otherwise grim day. The men would blow their noses into their hands, flick as much of the mucus off that would separate in a snap of the wrist, wipe the residue into their hair, and then carefully examine my face, arms, legs, hair, and the contents of my pockets. I asked Barker how to say, ‘Your hands are dirty’; my comments were met by the Yanomamo in the following way: They would ‘clean’ their hands by spitting a quantity of slimy tobacco juice into them, rub them together, grin, and then proceed with the examination.

2. The Yanomamo make a fool of Chagnon:

At first I tried to use kinship terms alone to collect genealogies, but Yanomamo kinship terms, like the kinship terms in all systems, are ambiguous at some point because they include so many possible relatives (as the term ‘uncle’ does in our own kinship system). Again, their system of kin classification merges many relatives that we ‘separate’ by using different terms: They call both their actual father and their father’s brother by a single term, whereas we call one ‘father’ and the other ‘uncle.’ I was forced, therefore, to resort to personal names to collect unambiguous genealogies or ‘pedigrees’. They quickly grasped what I was up to and that I was determined to learn everyone’s ‘true name’, which amounted to an invasion of their system of prestige and etiquette, if not a flagrant violation of it. They reacted to this in a brilliant but devastating manner: They invented false names for everybody in the village and systematically learned them, freely revealing to me the ‘true’ identities of everyone. I smugly thought I had cracked the system and enthusiastically constructed elaborate genealogies over a period of some five months. They enjoyed watching me learn their names and kinship relationships. I naively assumed that I would get the ‘truth’ to each question and the best information by working in public. This set the stage for converting my serious project into an amusing hoax of the grandest proportions. Each ‘informant’ would try to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more preposterous or ridiculous than what I had been given by someone earlier, the explanations for discrepancies being “Well, he has two names and this is the other one.’ They even fabricated devilishly improbable genealogical relationships, such as someone being married to his grandmother, or worse yet, to his mother-in-law, a grotesque and horrifying prospect to the Yanomamo. I would collect the desired names and relationships by having my informant whisper the name of the person softly into my ear, noting that he or she was the parent of such and such or the child of such and such, and so on. Everyone who was observing my work would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterical laughter as I clumsily pronounced the name, sometimes laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The ‘named’ person would usually react with annoyance and hiss some untranslatable epithet at me, which served to reassure me that I had the ‘true’ name. I conscientiously checked and rechecked the names and relationships with multiple informants, pleased to see the inconsistencies disappear as my genealogy sheets filled with those desirable little triangles and circles, thousands of them.

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called ‘long dong’ and his brother ‘eagle shit.’ The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

And so on. Blood welled up to my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort, and I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get. I understood at that point why the Bisaasi-teri laughed so hard when they made me repeat the names of their covillagers, and why the ‘named’ person would react with anger and annoyance as I pronounced his ‘name’ aloud.

3. The Yanomamo as “specimens”.

(I doubt that Chagnon consciously intended to dehumanize the people he was studying, despite his initial horror at their appearance, but I was struck by his comparison to them as the slime that lives within crustaceans below. That speaks volumes about the mindset of certain anthropologists.)

In this chapter I will discuss the daily social life and social organization of the fanomamo from several vantages, for there are, indeed, a number of acceptable land widely used approaches to the understanding of social organization in primitive (societies. I will focus primarily on the fascinating problem of village fissioning lamong the Yanomamo and how this reflects the ‘failure of solidarity,’ the inability lof villages to be held together by kinship, marriage, descent from common ancestors, and the ephemeral authority of headmen such as Kaobawa. It would appear that primitive societies can only grow so large at the local level—the village in this lease—if internal order is provided by just these commonly found integrating mechanisms: kinship, marriage, and descent.

I will also counterpose two points of view that are widely found in the field of I anthropology. One of the approaches is the “structural” approach, which focuses on 1’ideal models’ of societies, models that are constructed from the general rules of (kinship, descent, and marriage. These are highly simplified but very elegant [models, but they do not address the actual behavior of individuals in their day-to-Iday kinship roles, their actual marriage practices, their life histories, and why [individuals simply cannot ‘follow’ the ideal rules. The second approach is the statistical models’ approach, which is usually based on large numbers of actual I behavioral and genealogical facts, but yields less elegant, less simplified models. However, such models conform more to reality. I prefer the latter, for they lead to a more satisfactory way to understand individual variation and therefore the ability to predict social behavior. To be able to engage in this approach, one must, of course, [know what the “ideal” patterns are that people’s behavioral choices deviate from. A poignant way of illustrating the difference in these approaches is an anecdote I once heard the famous French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss use to justify his interest in ideal models and ‘structures.’ He likened social and cultural anthro–pology to a kind of science that studies crustaceans. It is legitimate, and even meritorious, he said, to concern oneself with the shell of the organism itself. ‘ Levi-Strauss preferred to consider the shells: They are attractive, symmetrical, pleasant to handle, and pleasant to think about. But he acknowledged that there were other ways of studying this life form. One could focus on the slimy, amorphous, rather unpleasant animal that lives in the shell—such as an oyster or snail. That, too, was a legitimate and meritorious endeavor, and he had no objection if others pursued that kind of approach. The issue, of course, has to do with the extent to which the shell and the amorphous animal inside it make much sense when considered alone and separately. My own view is that the animal inside the symmetrical shell is not as amorphous as it appears and itself has some structured integrity. I also believe that there has to be some kind of causal relationship between the animal and the type of structure it generates in the form of an elegant shell. The shell in this analogy is ‘social structure.’ The amorphous animal inside it is ‘social behavior.’ Once the question is posed, ‘What causes the animal to produce the elegant, symmetrical, shell?’ then a great variety of possible answers—and theoretical issues—comes into play. These are questions about causes of human behavior and, in turn, how that behavior—acts, thoughts, sentiments found among individuals in particular cultures—is shaped by and reflects realities such as demographic facts, physiological differences between males and females, and the evolved nature of the organism itself.

June 15, 2009

The Woolly Mammoth and the Noble Savage

Filed under: evolutionary psychology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Back in the mid-1990s when I first began writing about American Indians and ecology, I was surprised to see how eager some progressives, and even some Marxists, were to characterize the Indians as just as wasteful as a modern corporation. Talking points included bison being driven off cliffs, as well as the earliest ancestors of modern Indians being responsible for killing off the woolly mammoth and a number of other Pleistocene megafauna.

The extremely distinguished Marxist David Harvey wrote an extremely undistinguished book called “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” (nobody is perfect) that included these talking points, including the following:

Archaeological evidence likewise suggests that late ice-age hunting groups hunted many of their prey to extinction while fire must surely rate as one of the most far-reaching agents of ecological transformation ever acquired, allowing very small groups to exercise immense ecosystemic influence.

Harvey’s citation for this is a 1956 article by Carl Sauer, a geographer who has the distinction of being the first to put forward the overkill hypothesis but it is really Paul S. Martin who has become the most prominent defender. Martin, a U. of Arizona geosciences professor emeritus, began writing about Pleistocene extinctions and Clovis people’s sole responsibility for the “blitzkrieg” in 1967.  (The Clovis were “paleo-Indians” named after the archaeological site in New Mexico where a characteristic spear point was discovered.)

Clovis spear head

Unfortunately, very few of Martin’s articles are available online except for those who have access to a research library, as I do. If you want to read a fairly typical example, I would refer you to the March 9, 1973 Science Magazine article titled “The Discovery of America” in which he makes the case that overkill of large herbivore mammals like the mammoth was made possible by the beast’s failure to recognize man as a predator. Once the herbivores became extinct, it was only a matter of time before the carnivores—including the saber-tooth tiger—became extinct as well.

Unlike in the delightfully wacky movie “10,000 B.C.”, which depicted mammoth-hunting as an extremely dangerous rite of passage, Martin’s version of history has Clovis man enjoying carte blanche with his prey:

We need only assume that a relatively innocent prey was suddenly exposed to a new and thoroughly superior predator, a hunter who preferred killing and persisted in killing animals as long as they were available.

In other words, Clovis hunters were the Wehrmacht of their day.

It was clear that Martin viewed the Pleistocene extinctions as the moral equivalent of 20th century warfare. In “Ice Age Behavior” (Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, Oct. 1970) another article also unfortunately not available online, Martin makes an amalgam of the “rape, torture, assassination of Vietnamese” and the overkill that supposedly took place over 10 centuries earlier:

Placed in the perspective of the last million years, it would appear that man’s normal, natural urge to hunt and his prehistoric worship of weapons led via stone age technological innovations to fauna overkill. In our time modern weapons and an ice age temperament remain no less menacing a combination.

Well, this would make for a compelling remake of “Encino Man” directed by Sam Raimi, wouldn’t it? Instead of Brendan Fraser waking up from a block of ice 10,000 years later and being passed off as an Estonian exchange student in high school, Fraser instead becomes a serial killer mutilating kittens and toddlers alike.

For reasons I will explore momentarily, evolutionary psychologists have a strong affinity for this primitive man as psychopathic killer version of history. For example, Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” argues that “evil” is genetically implanted and explains just about every bad thing that happens in history starting with the depredations of primitive man. The book, which can be read on Google has an opening chapter titled “Mother Nature, the bloody bitch” that recoils at the idea of a “noble savage”.  He maintains that homo sapiens has the same bloodthirsty nature as his closest relative the chimpanzee that was revealed by researcher Jane Goodall to be capable of unbelievable and wanton cruelty to rival bands, just like the Bosnian and Serbs presumably. For movie buffs, the famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” when the ape-man discovers that a bone can be used as a club should spring to mind.

But perhaps no other evolutionary psychologist has embraced the Pleistocene overkill scenario with more relish than Jared Diamond who wrote an entire book—The Third Chimpanzee—making the case that we are nothing much different than these marauding apes.

In chapter 17, “The Golden Age that Never Was”, Diamond begins by scoffing at Rousseau’s noble savage and proceeds to demonstrate that the Maori “exterminated” the moa, a flightless bird that like the mammoth did not understand that man was their enemy. Diamond writes, “Like the naïve animals of the Galapagos Islands today, moas were probably tame enough for a hunter to walk up to one and club it.” It should be pointed out that probably is a word evolutionary psychologists often use when trying to describe events that took place centuries ago. In the absence of hard evidence (how else can it be otherwise), speculation reigns supreme.

In the next chapter Diamond turns his attention to the New World:

Among the startling discoveries about Clovis people is the speed of their spread. All Clovis sites in the U.S. dated by the most advanced radiocarbon techniques were occupied for only a few centuries, in the period just before 11,000 years ago. A human site even at the southern tip of Patagonia is dated at about 10,500 years. Thus, within about a millennium of emerging from the ice-free corridor at Edmonton, humans had spread from coast to coast and over the entire length of the New World.

Equally startling is the rapid transformation of Clovis culture. Around 11,000 years ago Clovis points are abruptly replaced by a smaller, more finely made model now known as Folsom points (after a site near Folsom, New Mexico, where they were first identified). The Folsom points are often found associated with bones of an extinct wide-horned bison, never with the mammoths preferred by Clovis hunters…

It was Paul Martin, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona, who  described  the  dramatic outcome  of hunter-meets-elephant as a “blitzkrieg”. According to his view, the first hunters to emerge from the ice-free corridor at Edmonton thrived and multiplied, because they found an abundance of tame, easy-to-hunt big mammals. As the mammals were killed off in one area, the hunters and their offspring kept fanning out into new areas that still had abundant mammals, and kept exterminating the mammal populations at the front of their advance. By the time the hunters’ front finally reached the south tip of South America, most of the big mammal species of the New World had been exterminated.

Despite Diamond’s characteristically triumphalist tone, scientists are by no means unanimous in accepting Paul Martin’s thesis. A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired a show that put forward a new theory, namely that a comet was responsible for the Pleistocene extinctions–not Clovis hunter. You can watch the show at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/clovis/ as well as review some different points of view in the debate, including those that directly challenge Martin:

But skeptics have asked, Where’s the evidence? Grayson and Meltzer (overchill) have noted that late-Ice Age sites bearing megafaunal remains that show unequivocal sign of slaughter by humans number just 14. Moreover, they stress, only two types of giants were killed at those 14 sites, mammoth and mastodon. There’s no sign that early hunters preyed on giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, or the massive, armadillo-like glyptodonts, for instance. (Forensic studies of a cache of Clovis tools found in 2008 suggest the Clovis people did hunt now-extinct camels and horses.) That’s hardly enough evidence, Grayson and Meltzer argue, to lay blame for a continent’s worth of lost megafauna at the foot of the first Americans.

But for me at least, some of the most compelling political rebuttal to Martin and his followers, including Jared Diamond, comes from Vine Deloria Jr., the American Indian scholar who died in 2005. His “Red Earth, White Lies” is a scholarly and polemical rebuttal of the “overkill” hypothesis that poses questions such as this:

Since most American anthropologists accepted the Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon evolution, the late entrance of man into North America was a given. Clovis-point locations, which incidentally are scattered all over the western United States on the surface as much as buried, and which by the common agreement of scholars date to around 12,000 years ago, then enabled Martin to argue that “the Indians did it” by linking a few sites which had bones of extinct megafauna and were also dated at that time.

The thesis is really applicable only to the herbivores, however, because almost every advocate of the idea cites those locations where mammoth bones are associated with evidence of human activity. From the list above we never hear about the giant rhinoceros, giant beaver, or giant armadillo, nor do the scholars refer to carnivore extinction except by indirection, assuming that the extinction of herbivores doomed meat-eating predators. Can we imagine hungry saber-toothed tigers and other carnivores unable to feed upon the smaller species of deer, moose, and bison when they discovered that the mega-animals had been destroyed?

When the Europeans came to North America the land was filled to overflowing with all manner of edible grazing game. The bison are conservatively estimated at a population of nearly 60 million creatures at the time of discovery. Since no species could evolve in 12,000 years, we must assume that the game animals we see today were here in their present form at the time when Martin suggests the Paleo-Indians were ruthlessly slaughtering the mammoth and mastodon.

So we have actually two questions. Why did the megacarnivores not pounce upon the smaller, weaker herbivores and maintain themselves in grand style? Why did the Paleo-Indian hunters not begin with smaller-sized animals, which would have been easier to kill, less dangerous to be around, and which themselves might be relegated to the fringes of the good grazing places by the larger and certainly more dangerous megaherbivores? Martin made a feeble effort to answer the second question by admitting that “we must beg the question of just how and why prehistoric man obliterated his prey. We may speculate but we cannot determine how moose, elk, and caribou managed to survive while horse, ground sloth, and mastodon did not.” He begged people not to ask him for specifics about the second question and was not even aware of the complexity of the first question.

As is so often the case with indigenous peoples and the scientific community, no matter the best of intentions of the latter, differences over Pleistocene extinctions, Kennewick Man, supposed Anasazi cannibalism, etc. become a political battleground. It does not have to be this way. Around five years ago, I had dinner with Guy Robinson Jr., the son of a radical philosophy professor who was on Marxmail briefly. Both of them had been to Nicaragua on solidarity brigades and both were decidedly anti-capitalist. Guy Jr. was working on a dissertation that tried to prove the Paul Martin hypothesis using fossil evidence in New York State. You can read an article on the Fordham University website about his research. It states:

Choosing his sites carefully, Robinson was able to pump and excavate layers of alluvial mud and examine concentrations of fungal spores called “Sporormiella”  from the dung of the megafauna. He compared these chronologically with the tiny carbon traces left behind from frequent landscape-level fires (signs of encroaching human activity), thus yielding a time frame of human settlement. A tree pollen analysis helped to determine the dates of large-scale climactic changes. His conclusion: human beings were on the move in the continent about 1,000 years before the most dramatic climate swings.

“In North America,” Robinson notes, “it was probably [there’s that probably again!] a combination of the hunting and landscape-level transformation” that did in the megafauna. “But it’s probably not for millennia that we see real agricultural alterations. I think it’s hard to accept that people of Paleolithic times — old stone age people, without metal tools — could have instigated an ecological crisis. It’s a lesson for where we stand now. Although eco-systems can be quite resilient, once they’re put into a state of collapse it’s hard to resist that direction.

In my good-natured (I swear it) discussion with Guy Jr., I raised the American Indian objections to Paul Martin’s research and his use of the term “blitzkrieg” specifically. There was no doubt in my mind that Guy Jr. had zero interest in impugning the reputation of native peoples.

Jared Diamond is another story altogether. Unlike Guy Robinson Jr., his interest in these matters is highly ideological and this is the way to understand it. Like many of his co-thinkers, there is a need to establish primitive man as primitive in the sense of brutal. When Engels referred to hunting and gathering societies as “primitive”, it was in the technical sense only. Of course, this word and “savage” and “barbarian” had unfortunate connotations no matter the intentions of people such as Engels.

In seeking to destroy the myth of Rousseau’s “noble savage”, they resort to the teachings of a philosopher who predated him by about a century. This is what he wrote:

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Inference, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by Experience.  Let him therefore consider with himselfe, when taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall bee done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his dores; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests.  Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words?  But neither of us accuse mans nature in it.  The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin.  No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them; which till Lawes be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it.

You might have guessed that these are the words of Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan”. The world of the evolutionary psychologist is dark, evil, and grubby both in the earliest stages of history and in the contemporary world. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about our evolution is that we have drawn on the power of the state to control our worst instincts. As Jared Diamond says in his New Yorker article, the Papuan New Guineans practically got down on their hands and knees to thank the colonizers who finally were able to bring peace and stability to the highlands where tribal wars had left so many dead. So bad was the fighting that Diamond was led to conclude that primitive peoples were more genocidal than the Nazis, if not by absolute numbers killed then by percentage. Of course, given his tendency to make things up, we have no confidence in his assertions.

While I am not qualified to speak with any kind of authority on Pleistocene extinctions, I do want to conclude with some thoughts on how to transcend the noble savage versus Hobbesian jungle dichotomy. Fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that American Indians developed ecological insights and then went out and acted on those beliefs. This is an idealistic conception that is not very helpful in understanding our past.

A much better approach is to look at things from the angle of modes of production. Put simply, a hunting and gathering society had little need to kill animals except to satisfy such needs as food, clothing and shelter—all of which a bison could supply. Even in cases where there was “overkill”, like driving animals over a cliff, the main goal was to satisfy an immediate need. Once that was accomplished, the community could devote its time to singing, dancing and other forms of recreation that Marshall Sahlins described in terms of Stone Age affluence.

On the other hand, capitalism sees all flora and fauna as input to the commodity production process.  Bison were killed initially in order to supply hides for the European clothing market and later on they were exterminated in order to free up land for cattle ranching. Today vast trawlers scour the ocean to turn the last bluefin tuna into the last sushi special. Meanwhile, American Indians struggle to defend their right to fish for Salmon and whales as part of their traditional way of life. Some ecologists can’t distinguish between the trawler and the Makah motorboat, but that would not be the first time in history that an Indian gets a raw deal.

As socialists, our goal should be to create a world in which the production of what Marx called use values prevails. This means adopting the communal structures of Clovis peoples and their successors but combining it with modern technology. This finally is the only way in which the remaining megafauna can survive, including homo sapiens

June 9, 2009

Evolutionary psychology and art

Filed under: art,evolutionary psychology — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Over the next week or so I am going to be blogging about evolutionary psychology (the more au courant term for sociobiology) that will involve a return to Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee”, a book that foreshadowed his more well-known works as well as his boneheaded New Yorker article. I will also be looking at Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who shared Diamond’s Hobbesian take on hunting-and-gathering peoples—in his case the Yanomami rather than the Papuan New Guinea highland tribes.

In chapter 9 of “The Third Chimpanzee”, Diamond writes about the “Animal Origins of Art”. He begins with a discussion of Siri’s drawings that command prices up to $500 and about which Willem de Kooning had this to say: “They had a kind of flair and decisiveness and originality”.

As you might have guessed, Siri is an animal. In most of these animal-as-artist stories, you are dealing with either an elephant or a primate. In this particular case, Siri is an elephant. Oddly enough, Diamond does not bring up the all-important question for those who are focused on “originality” above all else. Has Siri ever represented anything while she held a pencil in her trunk? 32 thousand years ago, cave dwellers in France put images like this on their walls:

I doubt that an elephant or a chimpanzee could come up with something like this in 32 million years. For comparison’s sake, here is one of Siri’s masterpieces:

Diamond is anxious to refute Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “All art is useless”. So to drive that point home, he tries to establish the utilitarian nature of animal art, which is to help propagate the male’s genes—including as it turns out for homo sapiens (homosexuals like Wilde need not apply.)

Diamond proposes that the elaborate bowers constructed by the male bowerbird, a species native to New Guinea and Australia, establish his case since the female bird inevitably gravitates to the male with the most ambitious bowers. In human terms, this would be equivalent to Pablo Picasso who was reputed to have changed wives as often as he changed painting styles.

Needless to say, this understanding of the evolutionary psychology role of art is somewhat male-oriented. As Diamond puts it:

First, art brings direct sexual benefits to its owner. It’s not just a joke that a man bent on seduction invites a woman to view his etchings. In real life, dance and music and poetry are common preludes to sex.

Second, and much more important, art brings indirect benefits to its owner. Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sex partners.

In a nutshell, this might be described as the evolutionary psychology version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy.

One of the more outspoken defenders of the art as gene-spreading strategy is Denis Dutton, the New Zealand academic who used to run the Bad Writing contest. In light of his recently published evolutionary psychology exercise “The Art Instinct”, one wonders whether he will inspire a critical-minded academic to launch a Bad Thinking contest, especially in light of his appearance on The Colbert Nation.

Getting straight to the point, Colbert asks if people make art in order to get laid.

In a survey of evolutionary psychology and art that appeared in the May 20th Nation Magazine (“Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism”), William Deresiewicz looks at Dutton’s book and 5 others. He begins by trying to explain its appeal:

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp. Just think of Annie Hall. The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters–gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure–that it’s no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal. No wonder the field is catnip to journalists and armchair theorists alike. Equip yourself with a few basic concepts–natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice–and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up. EP is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.

Turning to Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction”, a work that appears somewhat more informed than Dutton’s (how can it be otherwise?), Deresiewicz challenges the unilinear underpinnings of this rather narrow understanding of art:

But the attractiveness of a theory is no brief for its validity. Because storytelling, absent literacy, leaves no record, Boyd’s reasoning rests entirely on analogy and deduction. Primates do this, children do that, contemporary hunter-gatherers do the other; therefore this is what primitive humans must have done. Fiction serves these functions now; therefore it always has. This kind of thinking may be clever, but it isn’t science. It also overlooks the crucial phenomenon of functional shift. What evolved for one purpose can end up developing many others. It further assumes that we know not only when storytelling began, 40,000 or 100,000 years ago rather than 10,000, but when fictional storytelling began. For the question of fictionality is one of the most vexed in this whole area of study. It is easy to see why ancient hunter-gatherers might have told factual stories: “When Ogg tried to cross the big woods, he was eaten by a pig”; “Wilma found much good eggs beneath the spotted bird.” But why would anyone want to tell stories that don’t have that kind of truth value? More to the point, when did we start doing so? The question becomes sharper when we remember that stories that look fictional to us may not have seemed so to their original audience. Homer did not think he was making fiction. Indeed, when the novel began to re-establish itself during the Renaissance, it took several centuries for European culture to accustom itself to the notion of fictionality–the idea that something can be true without being factual.

Laura Miller has a go at evolutionary psychology in a Salon.com article titled “The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss”. She hones in on Brian Boyd, who is based in New Zealand like Dutton:

Boyd’s explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction — like all art — is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they’re developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they’re concerned they’re just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

She makes a crucial distinction between biological and cultural evolution, however:

The difficulty is that once culture became the ascendant environmental factor affecting humanity, the game changed fundamentally. It’s true, as Boyd observes, that culture transforms itself in a way that resembles biological evolution; ideas and practices that catch on (such as Christianity or rap music) become more and more prevalent. But natural selection is a mindless process by which random mutations succeed or fail and the successes slowly accumulate. The evolution of culture is intentional, directed by the desires of human beings pursuing certain goals. (Nobody intends biological evolution to happen, unless you believe in God.) That’s why it took 540 million years for the eye to evolve, while the detective story has become culturally ubiquitous in the mere 170 years since Edgar Allen Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

But as useful as Miller and Deresiewicz’s critiques are, nothing can surpass the devastating articles written on evolutionary psychology/sociobiology in the New York Review by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, most of which unfortunately are behind a subscriber’s firewall.

Gould is of particular interest since he was the preeminent Darwinian of our time. Fortunately, a June 12, 1997 article titled “Darwinian Fundamentalism” is available online. He summarizes their presence on the intellectual landscape as follows:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

In this light, especially given history’s tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology (albeit in graceful prose) of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (who entitled his latest book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).[1] Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

Some of these ideas have filtered into the general press, but the uniting theme of Darwinian fundamentalism has not been adequately stressed or identified. Professionals, on the other hand, are well aware of the connections. My colleague Niles Eldredge, for example, speaks of this coordinated movement as Ultra-Darwinism in his recent book, Reinventing Darwin. Amid the variety of their subject matter, the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection’s ubiquity.

It is entirely possible that Deresiewicz’s notion that evolutionary psychology functions as a kind of religion might have been influenced by reading Gould’s essay, which contains the following take on the new “fundamentalism”:

Why then should Darwinian fundamentalism be expressing itself so stridently when most evolutionary biologists have become more pluralistic in the light of these new discoveries and theories? I am no psychologist, but I suppose that the devotees of any superficially attractive cult must dig in when a general threat arises. “That old time religion; it’s good enough for me.” There is something immensely beguiling about strict adaptationism—the dream of an underpinning simplicity for an enormously complex and various world. If evolution were powered by a single force producing one kind of result, and if life’s long and messy history could therefore be explained by extending small and orderly increments of adaptation through the immensity of geological time, then an explanatory simplicity might descend upon evolution’s overt richness. Evolution then might become “algorithmic,” a surefire logical procedure, as in Daniel Dennett’s reverie. But what is wrong with messy richness, so long as we can construct an equally rich texture of satisfying explanation?

Although it is a brief work and does not specifically mention art, Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” does provide an alternative to the biological reductionism of Dutton and company, while attempting to engage with Darwin’s recent discoveries. As obvious from the title of the article, Engels sees labor as the dividing line between animals and human beings:

First labour, after it and then with it speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which, for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect. Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments – the senses. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye discerns considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle. The dog has a far keener sense of smell than man, but it does not distinguish a hundredth part of the odours that for man are definite signs denoting different things. And the sense of touch, which the ape hardly possesses in its crudest initial form, has been developed only side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labour.

The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever-renewed impulse to further development. This development did not reach its conclusion when man finally became distinct from the ape, but on the whole made further powerful progress, its degree and direction varying among different peoples and at different times, and here and there even being interrupted by local or temporary regression. This further development has been strongly urged forward, on the one hand, and guided along more definite directions, on the other, by a new element which came into play with the appearance of fully-fledged man, namely, society.

While it is far beyond the scope of this article (and the knowledge of the author) to lay out a historical materialist explanation for the origins of art, but it probably served both would-be utilitarian and spiritual/esthetic needs. A bear or an antelope drawn on the wall of a cave or a tipi was essentially a totem. It helped our ancestors gain a kind of control over the world by familiarizing certain powerful objects in their environment. By painting a bear, you demonstrate a kind of mastery over it.

But more to the point, I would suggest that attempts to extrapolate from such primeval artifacts—or from the animal kingdom—is a very problematic business. The evolutionary psychologists harp on such early history (Diamond, for example, is fixated on the Eastern Islands) in order to essentialize the human condition. They look at bower birds, cave drawings and Miro etchings in a bachelor’s pad in order to turn everything into a quest to disseminate sperm effectively.

Who knows. In their anxiety to render the human condition as a simple working out of biological necessity, people such as Denis Dutton and Brian Boyd might be seeking to control their environment in the same fashion as cave painting artists. Fortunately for humanity, out destiny is not in our genes but in our willingness and ability to challenge the forces of the status quo and transform reality according to our ideals, just as long as economic and social forces have matured to the point where that is objectively possible.

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