In “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (New Yorker, September 17, 2012), Anthony Gottlieb asks, “How Much Do Evolutionary Stories Reveal about the Mind?”:
Evolutionary psychologists are not as imperialist in their ambitions as their sociobiologist forebears of the nineteen-seventies, but they tend to be no less hubristic in their claims. An evolutionary perspective “has profound implications for applied disciplines such as law, medicine, business and education,” Douglas Kenrick, of Arizona State University, writes in his recent book “Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life.” The latest edition of a leading textbook, “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,” by David Buss, of the University of Texas at Austin, announces that an evolutionary approach can integrate the disparate branches of psychology, and is “beginning to transform” the study of the arts, religion, economics, and sociology.
There are plenty of factions in this newish science of the mind. The most influential sprang up in the nineteen-eighties at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was popularized in books by Steven Pinker and others in the nineteen-nineties, and has largely won over science reporters. It focusses on the challenges our ancestors faced when they were hunter-gatherers on the African savanna in the Pleistocene era (between approximately 1.7 million and ten thousand years ago), and it has a snappy slogan: “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.” This mind is regarded as a set of software modules that were written by natural selection and now constitute a universal human nature. We are, in short, all running apps from Fred Flintstone’s not-very-smartphone. Work out what those apps are—so the theory goes—and you will see what the mind was designed to do.
We’re seeing more and more thinkers stopping and realizing that those who pretend to psychoanalyze Pleistocene man are staging a personal or cultural psychodrama in skins and ochre. Or worse, engaging in cultural manipulation. Either way, not contributing to knowledge of human behaviour, but rather, detracting from it.
The nice thing about Hanna Barbera’s Flintstones is that no one ever pretended that they were not really just suburban Americans.
And Gottlieb’s is one of the best sendups of evo psych we have seen in a while.