Monday, June 25, 2012

Evolutionary psychology and philosophers: An anecdote

N. Strohminger's review of philosopher C. McGinn's recent book on disgust (via cshalizi's pinboard) is hugely amusing, and reminds me of something that happened when I was a freshman in college.

I was attending a talk by someone in the NYU philosophy department, and the subject was the almost universal (human) fear of death. Towards the end of a long disquisition by the speaker on why the fear of death was puzzling (for example, death itself is not painful, and dying need not be), and philosophical explanations for why it might exist regardless, I raised my hand and asked: "Since we were produced by evolution, wouldn't a fear of death be selected for, because a fear of death would make us more likely to avoid it, and organisms that avoid death are likely to be more successful?"

This seemed to me like a curious theory to have omitted entirely from the talk. At the time, I had recently read R. Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, so evolutionary explanations for our behavior were on my mind. And also, it seems to align with common sense.

However, a reader of a certain background might notice that my explanation was an invocation of evolutionary psychology. I had, unwittingly, landed in a minefield on the scholarly battlefront between evolutionary psychology and its critics. So the speaker replied, roughly: "Well, evolution might select for avoiding death, but it wouldn't necessarily select for fear. I would also direct you to [list of scholars' names here], who have produced devastating critiques of evolutionary psychology." He then breezily moved on, evidently feeling that he could now ignore the idea, and evolution was not mentioned further.

I was so astonished by this response that I couldn't even muster a follow-up question. At the time I thought: is this philosopher seriously claiming that evolution could play no role in our fear of death? Could there be any psychological phenomenon which is more likely to be evolutionarily motivated? (Maybe love for one's children?) The speaker's reply correctly noted that evolution did not necessarily entail a fear of death, but it certainly could be sufficient explanation, and under an evolutionary account there might simply be no necessary explanation, only a sufficient one: the fact that death-avoidance is motivated by fear, rather than some other mechanism, might be no more inevitable than the fact that we have five fingers per hand rather than four. (Or, if you prefer, its necessity might be an artifact of the adaptive mechanisms that were at hand when the selective pressure was applied, rather than an a priori truth about the nature of the mind.)

I don't remember the content of the rest of the talk, but if you've ever read a work of scholarly philosophy you should be familiar with the style: a lot of precise reasoning from first principles (which I love), coupled with an almost disdainful elision of the empirical (which I do not).

At any rate, it seems to me C. McGinn's bizarre ideas about disgust, and total ignorance of the modern scientific literature thereof, share something in common with the NYU speaker's dismissal of my question. There is a certain strain in philosophy which doesn't particularly like science. Science offers a mode of investigation of such staggering power that it threatens the philosophical discipline. When you like sitting on the metaphorical mountaintop, pondering from first principles about morality, or aesthetics, or emotion, it can be a rude awakening to learn that some yob with electrodes or a pipette or a computer might be able to probe deeper and more certainly into reality than you can — even those aspects of reality which you thought were your exclusive domain.

To muddle things up further, a great deal of evolutionary psychology is terrible science, and the worthy interdisciplinary project of battling that nonsense provides cover for this brand of intellectual anti-intellectualism.

Truthfully, the episode with the seminar speaker above left me more sympathetic to evolutionary psychology, not less, so whatever effect he wished to have on me was completely thwarted. I am not by nature contrarian or perverse for its own sake; in fact I think that contrarianism without regard for correctness is one of the most pernicious and irresponsible seductions that clever people allow themselves to fall prey to; so my sympathies are not merely a reaction against misguided authority. I suggest in all earnestness that the next time you read some hilarious evisceration of embarrassingly popular bad evolutionary psychology, recall Strohbinger's review and consider that there's plenty of evisceration to be done on the other side as well.

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