Now even a conservative columnist in the NYT is dissing EP. The
times certainly are a changin'. --PG
June 26, 2009
Human Nature Today
By DAVID BROOKS
Has there ever been a time when there were so many different views of
human nature floating around all at once? The economists have their
view, in which rational people coolly chase incentives. Traditional
Christians have their view, emphasizing original sin, grace and the
pilgrim's progress in a fallen world. And then there are the
evolutionary psychologists, who get the most media attention.
For 99 percent of human history, they observe, our species lived in
small hunter-gatherer bands. The people who survived developed certain
mental modules, which have been passed down to us through our genes.
Some of these traits serve us well in the modern age. Children have
the capacity to learn language with astonishing speed. Some of these
traits don't. Humans have an insatiable craving for fatty and sugary
In 2000, Geoffrey Miller, a leading evolutionary psychologist,
published a book called "The Mating Mind," in which he argued that
the process of sexual selection among early human groups hardwired
many of the behaviors we see in humans today. Some of the traits are
physical. Men generally prefer women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio
(that's a 24-inch waist and 36-inch hips, for those of you reading
this at the gym). Women generally prefer men who are taller and
Some of these traits are more subtle. Men, Miller argues, tip better
in restaurants, because they've been programmed to show how much
surplus wealth they have. The average American adult knows 60,000
words, far more than we need. We have all those words because we like
to mate with people who caress us with language.
Now Miller has published another book, "Spent," in which he takes
evolutionary psychology to the mall. The basic argument is that each
of us is born with our own individual level of six big traits:
intelligence, openness to new things, conscientiousness,
agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion. These modules are
built into humans and other animals (apparently squid can be shy).
We are all narcissists, Miller asserts. We spend much of our lives
trying to broadcast our excellence in these traits in order to attract
mates. Even if we're not naturally smart or outgoing, we buy
products and brands that give the impression we are.
According to Miller, driving an Acura, Infiniti, Subaru or Volkswagen
is a sign of high intelligence. Driving a Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford or
Hummer is a sign of low intelligence. Listening to Bjork is a sign of
high intelligence, while listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd is a sign of low
intelligence. Watching Quentin Tarantino movies is a sign of high
openness. He theorizes that teenage girls may cut themselves as a way
to demonstrate their ability to withstand infections.
Evolutionary psychology has had a good run. But now there is growing
pushback. Sharon Begley has a rollicking, if slightly overdrawn,
takedown in the current Newsweek. And "Spent" is a sign that the
theory is being used to try to explain more than it can bear.
The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series
of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are
fluid and plastic. We're learning that evolution can be a more rapid
process than we thought. It doesn't take hundreds of thousands of
years to produce genetic alterations.
Moreover, we've evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different
circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials.
Individual behavior can vary wildly from one context to another. An
arrogant bully on the playground may be meek in math class. People
have kaleidoscopic thinking styles and use different cognitive
strategies to solve the same sorts of problems.
Evolutionary psychology leaves the impression that human nature was
carved a hundred thousand years ago, and then history sort of stopped.
But human nature adapts to the continual flow of
information-adjusting to the ancient information contained in genes
and the current information contained in today's news in a
continuous, idiosyncratic blend.
The second problem is one evolutionary psychology shares with
economics. It's too individualistic: individuals are born with
certain traits, which they seek to maximize in the struggle for
But individuals aren't formed before they enter society. Individuals
are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the
particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of
ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second.
Shopping isn't merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits.
For some people, it's also an activity of trying things on in the
never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.
The allure of evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all
behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of
time and place. But there's no escaping context. That's worth
remembering next time somebody tells you we are hardwired to do this