Monkeying with evolution

Some on the left join the religious right in twisting the science of humanity's origins

July 24, 2008|By David P. Barash

"My dear, let us hope that it isn't true!" the wife of the bishop of Worcester is reputed to have exclaimed 150 years ago, on hearing that human beings might be descended from apes. "But if it is true, let us hope that it doesn't become widely known!"

When it comes to sociobiology - better known these days as "evolutionary psychology" - the bishop's wife has modern counterparts: The religious right and the secular and supposedly scientific left are remarkably on the same page, both sides inclined to dispute or misrepresent the relevance of evolution to human beings. The former, of course, deny the underlying science. But what about the latter? They're secular, they're rational, they're tolerant, aren't they?

And there's the rub. For more than 30 years, left-leaning academics - notably residing in the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences - have been strongly opposed to using evolutionary theory to help make sense of human behavior, in part because their professional training emphasizes the role of social learning and cultural traditions, and - perhaps even more - because they fear the possible findings. Do racial differences imply genetic distinctions that might argue against social equality? Are women fated for kitchen work and childbearing, not high-level physics? And even if the science is more nuanced than that (which it certainly is), will the simpler message drown out the details and provide ammunition for social regression?

In fact, there are some good reasons for leftists' caution: We've seen the gross misuse of evolution - under the guise of Social Darwinism and the "survival of the fittest" - to justify class oppression, monopolies and imperialism. We've also seen the even grosser abuse of biology by eugenicists and Nazis; a history of employing biology (and the supposed "natural inferiority of women") as a misogynist club with which to beat half the human race; and the disgraceful pseudoscience of The Bell Curve and its ilk, promoting the false claim that if any trait or tendency is "in the genes," there's nothing that society can do.

But the fact that something has been misused in the past does not make it bad, or even untrue. Moreover, applying evolution to understanding ourselves offers, for example, a potentially powerful antidote to some of the things that the left fears the most: ethnocentrism and racism. That's because evolution emphasizes the underlying biological commonality shared by all members of the species Homo sapiens, regardless of superficial differences. As for sexism, doesn't that reside in differential valuing of the sexes, not in the struggle to understand them?

To honestly assess the role of genes is to recognize that every trait - structural, physiological, behavioral - comes from the interaction of genes and experience. Contrary to Prospero's description of Caliban in Shakespeare's The Tempest, there is no one "upon whose nature nurture can never stick."

Just as the Catholic Church brought great discredit on itself for its persecution of Galileo, political ideologues of all stripes do themselves no favors by politicizing biology. Speaking of the church's blindness, a devout Blaise Pascal wrote that "if the Earth moves, a decree from Rome cannot stop it." In terms of evolutionary biology, if we are the products of natural selection, with consequences for behavior no less than morphology (and we are), the disapproval of my fellow leftists will not stop it.

Admittedly, there is an important difference: Whereas celestial dynamics are unaffected by whether earthlings adopt a Ptolemaic or Copernican worldview, social reality can be influenced by the prevailing attitude toward our behavioral tendencies. If it is concluded (falsely) that women are fit only for reproduction, or that African-Americans can jump but can't cogitate, unfortunate social consequences are bound to follow - and in the past, conservatives have shown themselves all too eager to make exactly these fallacious connections.

Indeed, ideologues of both stripes seek to have it both ways: denying evolution when they choose but, when convenient, twisting its insights to support their causes. Accordingly, some on the political right have endorsed aspects of sociobiology, claiming that evolution's "selfish" individualism and the way it rewards and amplifies personal fitness accords comfortably with laissez-faire capitalism. At the same time, liberals are willing to enthusiastically support sociobiology when it suggests that gene-based "selfishness" frequently operates in nature by way of an altruistic sacrifice on behalf of others - social altruism being a leftist's dream.

But cherry-picking science is as bad as ignoring it. It may not sit right with modern descendants of the bishop of Worcester's wife, but wouldn't it be nice if everyone - regardless of political preference - simply tried to understand what is true, and stopped trying to fit evolution into ideologic pigeonholes?

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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