In today’s Wall Street Journal (behind paywall) Stephen Budiansky reviews John Allen’s Home, in which Allen purports to give an evolutionary account of why humans, who like other primates are “not natural builders,” started building shelters. As one might expect, everything Allen writes is highly speculative and totally untestable and therefore unfalsifiable. In other words, Allen trots out the usual litany of “just so stories” that are the stock in trade of evolutionary psychologists. One thing it is clearly not: science.
Budiansky’s review is particularly insightful regarding the utter futility of any attempt to apply evolutionary storytelling to any real world problem:
A chapter that tries to explain the recent home-mortgage crisis as the product of the “powerful and pervasive” “meme” of home ownership is the kind of thing that gives scientific reductionism a bad name. It is true but trivial that the crisis would not have occurred were it not that people want to own homes; they also want cars and credit cards, but no one has suggested, as far as I know, that humans have a “powerful and pervasive” evolutionary instinct to travel on wheeled objects or run up charge-card debts. In reducing it all to the evolutionary psychology of borrowers, Mr. Allen betrays a blissful ignorance of the financial structures that led to the collapse of the mortgage market – particularly the securitization of loans that permitted lenders to maximize profits and avoid risk even as they deliberately sought borrowers with the worst credit ratings. A chapter on homelessness likewise seems strained and glib rather than insightful. Instead of straining to make his book accessible with superficial connections to current events and needlessly patronizing prose, a better bet would have been to tackle the ideas behind the science with a seriousness of purpose that reflects the author’s obvious fascination with, and feeling for, his subject.