In “Nature, nurture and liberal values” (Prospect, January 25, 2012) Roger Scruton
reviews a number of recent neuroscience books, noting, “Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge. But people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses.” No, but the purpose of evolutionary psychology and materialist neuroscience is to go ahead and do that anyway, and he seems surprisingly sympathetic to a lot of it. In the end, he writes,
Undeniably, once it is there, the I-to-you relation adds a reproductive advantage, just as do mathematical competence, scientific knowledge and (perhaps) musical talent. But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of “I” as it tells us about the validity of mathematics, the nature of scientific method or the value of music. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?
The obvious answer, accessible to any evolutionary psychologist, is forget the person; that’s just an illusion. (And so are liberal values, on that view. Maybe a useful illusion, but let’s not kid ourselves.)
A much bigger question, which Scruton misses, is this: the evolutionary psychologist builds a mountain of speculation on what supposedly happened to human beings 70 or so millennia ago, conveniently outside any meaningful testing range. Yet in the last few years, our view of Neanderthal man, their contemporaries and – it turns out – relatives, has been completely revised. Based on evidence of more sophisticated artifacts than we expected.
So that shows just how wrong we can be in the absence of evidence.
But evidence for attitudes and behaviour from 70 thousand years ago is non-existent. Which is convenient for evolutionary psychology – as long as we take it about as seriously as we do astrology.
Books Scruton reviews:
Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (Allen Lane, £22)
Incognito by David Eagleman (Canongate, £20)
You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (Notting Hill Editions, £10)