Coffee’s up!! Evolutionary psychology now gives us its latest: The EP romance series

(targeting customers of the more familiar bodice-ripper and cherry-chomp brands)

David Brooks, who used to know tripe when he saw it, now gives us this, praising pop evolutionary psychology:

Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy

A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment. But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways. The cognitive revolution of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over I.Q. It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.

Yes. There is a name for that: fascism

Fascism, at heart, is a belief that surrendering to an emotion engendered by an idea can bring about an earthly utopia. In politics, the idea is usually appears as a messianic leader, but in current psychology, anyone with some neuroscience training can generate these visions using machines, drugs, or narratives that get published as research on human subjects.

And it is always very difficult, at best, to explain to people that, on Earth, utopia is the trade name for hell.

Anyway, Brooks unintentionally outlines the problem better than any detractor could by retailing this loathsome love story:

Harold and Erica got their first glimpse of each other in front of a Barnes & Noble. They smiled broadly as they approached, and a deep, primeval process kicked in. Harold liked what he saw, from the waist-to-hip ratio to the clear skin, all indicative of health and fertility. He enjoyed the smile that spread across Erica’s face, and unconsciously noted that the end of her eyebrows dipped down. The orbicularis-oculi muscle, which controls this part of the eyebrow, cannot be consciously controlled, so, when the tip of the eyebrow dips, that means the smile is genuine, not fake.

Erica was impressed by him: women everywhere tend to prefer men who have symmetrical features and are slightly older, taller, and stronger than they are. But she was more guarded and slower to trust than Harold was. That’s in part because, while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues discernible at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem. Human babies require years to become self-sufficient, and a single woman in that environment could not gather enough calories to provide for a family. She was compelled to choose a man not only for insemination but for continued support. That’s why men leap into bed more quickly than women. Various research teams have conducted a simple study. They hire a woman to go up to college men and ask them to sleep with her. More than half the men say yes. Then they have a man approach college women with the same offer. Virtually zero per cent say yes. So Erica was subconsciously looking for signs of trustworthiness.

James Le Fanu, a British doctor who seems to have got fed up with all-rubbish all-day (a busy practice will do that), ripostes,

It would be good to think that perhaps this is all a jest, an 'argument ad absurdum' that would appeal to The New Yorker's sophisticated readership. David Brooks cannot seriously suppose this bizarre amalgam of pop psychology and cold evolutionary theorizing can really tell us anything of interest about the human psyche, let alone that it represents a "revolution in consciousness." But if he does, he would certainly not be the first to suspend their critical judgement in deference to science's claims to knowledge not possessed — for the most salient feature of the studies he cites is how unconvincing they are even on their own terms. To take just one example already considered, Willis and Todorov's "First impressions: Making up your Mind after a 100-Ms exposure to a Face" was published in the journal Psychological Science in 2006.This study was designed to investigate the "minimal conditions" under which people infer character traits — revealing a significant correlation between psychology undergraduates' assessment, when shown photographs of 70 amateur actors, of their "competence, trustworthiness and aggressiveness," whether viewed for just a tenth of a second or "without time constraints."

This would indeed confirm the truism that people are capable of making "snap judgments," but without casting any light on the two really important questions — the nature of the brain's astonishing feat of processing information that allows such judgements to be made and their validity — i.e. whether those judged to be "competent, trustworthy or aggressive" really were so. So for all the ingenious ingenuity of Willis and Kosorov's experiment, we are left none the wiser.

There are, needless to say, profounder issues involved here, of which the most salient is whether it is indeed possible to illuminate the workings of the human mind by reducing it to so many distinctive attributes that can then be investigated independently of each other.

Of course it isn’t possible, but many people welcome swamp gas, having no other light.  And Brooks probably really does want his fictional (whew!) profoundly unpleasant couple to be “happy.” That, however, makes the offence worse.

On the plus side, Brooks has at least made clear that no one who values reason over emotion in assessing the human condition need take him seriously.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

3 thoughts on “Coffee’s up!! Evolutionary psychology now gives us its latest: The EP romance series

  1. It’s probably true that much of evolutionary psychology at this time is very speculative. And of course unlike biological evolutionary we don’t have the benefit of DNA or a fossil record. So perhaps as a “science” it may not survive, particularly if there can be no corresponding experimentation. But on the other hand the questions asked are good ones – why do we do the things we do? Why do people cheat on each other, why are they altruistic, why are people addicted etc?
    I imagine though to a religious person, and Christians especially, these line of questioning could be seem rather threatening, and maybe that’s the real reason for such animosity to EP from Ms O’Leary. I guess if you accept paradigms such as sin (original or otherwise) and then there is evidence to suggest what we consider to be “sin” has more ordinary and natural explanations, that could be disconcerting.
    After all, in the end we are really facing a very simple question – is there a natural explanation for both our biology and behavior – or is there a non-natural explanation? If the latter, one ought to expect some positive evidence for it, but certainly in this blog and others like it, it isn’t discussed much – the preference instead is to dismantle and critique science and evolution in particular.
    Indeed Ms O’Leary seems down on science in general, which is a peculiar stance for a science writer; it also results in writing that is not only deeply cynical (and at times unkind), but uninspiring, repetitive, supercilious. It can be a depressing read. I wish ID could be a more compelling and encouraging endeavor – it seems ID is what is left once evolution has been disemboweled, which is not a good way to win people over and change minds.

  2. Ms O’Leary replied over at UncommonDescent with this:
    “But how could it threaten Christianity? Christianity is not the publicly suspected father of that idiot child. Evolutionary biology is.
    The idiot child’s widely worshipped mother, St. Trend of Popular Culture, keeps signifying that evolutionary biology is the father, but many of us still hope that some freak of nature is the correct explanation. After all, evolutionary biology has the makings of a science.”
    I’m really not sure I fully understand the reply (sorry, but I find Ms O’Leary’s rambling style rather hard to follow and full of non sequiturs).
    But I do think EP (if fully fleshed out) could undermine religion – in the same way that evidence of an old earth at least undermines a literal view of scripture such as Genesis (and of course this introduces a new problem – at what point does Genesis switch from allegorical/mythical to actual history? I’ve yet to hear a good reply on that what, and yes it does matter).
    If religious people believe “sin” to be the result of disobedience to a supernatural agent and EP can show that our behaviors (good and bad) are really the result of lengthy evolutionary processes which have no need for a supernatural agent or a concept such as “sin” – yes, that would most definitely undermine religion.
    And even without EP, it’s a stretch for most scientifically literate people to accept, given what we know about human evolution, that there was a single event of rebellion with two proto-humans that resulted in “original” sin. We really have no reliable record of this and whatever you think about evolution, clearly human beings did not arrive intact in the form we know today on this planet.
    If then we can explain sin in purely naturalistic ways, how would that not undermine a religion such as Christianity, which after all is all about redemption and salvation from sin? It is absolutely central to orthodox belief. Ms O’Leary attempts to hand-wave the problem away with the comment “Actually, as it happens, there is no more ordinary or natural explanation than sin. People choose to do what they know they shouldn’t” – which I think is clearly just side-stepping more serious issues and is no real answer at all.

  3. Hi. Just found your website. I want to sign up for your tltseenwer but I am confused as to what color Las Vegas Nevada would be. We are getting warm weather now. I have transplanted a lot of things outside. Please let me know what color you would suggest. Mitzi

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