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Freud was right to say that culture or civilization is a symbolic reaction against the physical and psychological terrors of nature. The natural world means uncertainty and chaos. It brings storms, earthquakes, floods, famine, and death. Nature is cruel and heartless – it cares nothing for the needs of man and is indifferent to his/her well-being. Nature also represents meaninglessness, since the world without humans is devoid of meanings, reasons, or even facts – it just is. Freud, Becker, Camus, and some of the most intelligent people to have ever lived, realized that a lucid and unadulterated view of reality is too terrifying for almost anyone to digest in full.
The human condition is fundamentally absurd. The dynamic fabric of culture tirelessly moves in ways to obscure it from view – to preserve our quiet ignorance and distract us from thinking too hard or feeling too much. The history of human civilization is nothing but a history of attempts to shield ourselves from the problems of freedom, responsibility, meaninglessness, and death. Myths communicate culturally determined ‘truths’ about the nature of reality. Traditionally, we prayed to Gods to protect us from nature, death, and to save us from an otherwise meaningless world by offering prescriptions to live by. But as our collective faith in God diminishes, we must replace it with secular equivalents that serve the same functions. Dostoyevsky was acutely aware of this fact. He knew that the rejection of traditional religion would only see them replaced by new kinds of faith.
“… you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself … though he be rebellious, heretical, and godless a hundred times over.” (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 256)”
Living, from an ‘Evolutionary Perspective’
Many incorrectly surmise that human myths, including that of the Christian God, will be killed off by science – especially when confronted with the powerful science of evolutionary theory.
However myths serve an emergent and ubiquitous human need, and for that reason they will persist, enduring both the test of time and the scrutiny of science. In fact, one of the greatest ironies is discovered in the fact that we can see traditional religions being replaced by ideological meaning systems framed within evolutionary theory itself. In unprecedented numbers, we see people vociferously denying God, while also rejecting the symbolic human animal, emphasizing the importance of viewing human beings from ‘an evolutionary perspective.’ This quaint little phrase has been tossed around a lot in recent years. But it is not just a simple ‘nod’ to neo-Darwinian theory as a highly credible hypothesis – that would hardly be worth mentioning. No, it is more often shorthand for believing that the human mind evolved much like the body, and that almost any kind of human trait can be interpreted as if it served an adaptive function at some point in our evolutionary history. This is the attitude that Raymond Tallis describes as Darwinitis, or more generally Universal Darwinism, and I would argue that it also serves the function of pseudo-religious myth, akin to the metaphysical ‘hero-systems’ described by the venerable Ernest Becker, and alluded to by others before him.
In previous essays, I have argued that the underlying assumptions of evolutionary psychology defy both science and reason. In this essay I will suggest reasons for its popularity. In becoming an increasingly dominant cultural narrative for understanding what it means to be human, I propose that Universal Darwinism serves the function of a societal defense mechanism by way of modern cultural myth. Defense mechanisms, either personal or public, will serve at least two main functions: 1) they are denials or distortions of reality, enhancing the ability to cope with some threatening psychological truth, and 2) they operate unconsciously (as they become conscious, they lose some of their power).
Like all cultural myths, from classical Greek pantheism to Buddhism and Christianity, Universal Darwinism offers its adherents the image of a coherent worldview under a theoretical umbrella that claims to unearth some ‘Truth’ about human nature. Though there are no delusions of a utopian afterlife, if we read and believe the evolutionary psychology literature, we can nonetheless ascertain what this life is for (e.g. ultimately to survive and procreate), why we do what we do (e.g. to propagate our genes), and implicitly what we should strive for (e.g. to live as ‘evolutionarily authentic’ lives as we can). It offers a single lens through which to view reality, allowing us to feel as though we have a firm grasp of it, while providing a sense of unity among like-minded believers, through a shared set of symbols (e.g. Darwin worship). Like all faiths, true believers can feel special, since they have a privileged access to ‘Truth’ or ‘reality,’ enabling them to see the big picture outsiders seem to miss. The special few may therefore feel enlightened in comparison to the ignorant and unaware masses, thus bolstering their own self-esteem. We have, in recent years, seen increasing numbers of individuals enraptured by a philosophy that would choose to view human nature through an adaptationist lens. Though often implicit or subtle, these trends will occasionally appear as unabashed hero systems or evolutionary cults, as can be readily observed in this website titled ‘Evolvify’:
The subtitle says it all:
“paleo logic + evolutionary psychology = superhumans with the best lifestyle on earth.”
Superhuman indeed. We can clearly see the attraction: here one can go to read about how to live more authentic lives, understand the Truth about human nature (using a ‘hunter-gatherer’ philosophy of course), and feel like a superhuman – that is, better than the rest of humankind who have yet to access this grand philosophy about how people come to think, act, and feel as they do. In addition, they can sometimes use this knowledge to resist or even overcome the push and pull of their own genetic heritage – transcending the shackles of their evolutionary past, while they watch the unenlightened and enslaved masses acting as mere pawns.
This attitude of Darwinian heroism is most obviously captured in the Universal Darwinian account of religion. Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and many others, suggest that religiosity must have been linked to some evolved psychological adaptation selected by the environment for its survival advantages. However these Darwinian authors also agree that it is a child-like attitude – an after-effect of some outdated psychobiological program that is almost entirely useless in modern times. As self-proclaimed atheists, the Universal Darwinists must either believe that they lack the biological predisposition that would otherwise incline them toward religiosity, thus suggesting that they are perhaps trending toward a more evolved human being, or that while they may share this predisposition, they have nonetheless managed to overcome their genetic baggage, heroically wrestling themselves from the hold of their own biology, while the rest of humanity remains tightly bound within its grasp. But all is not lost… for we are told that if we follow the heroic lead of these Darwinian prophets, we too can be saved.
“As a defender of Darwinism, Dawkins is committed to the view that humans are like other animal species in being ‘gene machines’ ruled by the laws of natural selection. He asserts nevertheless that humans, uniquely, can defy these natural laws: ‘we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.’ In affirming human uniqueness in this way, Dawkins relies on a Christian worldview.” (J. Gray, Black Mass, p. 188).
But as we shall see, the heroic rebellion of the universal Darwinist, against the evolutionary ghosts hiding in his genes, seems almost entirely limited to religion. This is likely due to the fact that modern ecclesiastical beliefs are the prevailing hero-systems – they must be overthrown if universal Darwinism is to have any hope of replacing it as the dominant cultural myth.
We can also understand this attitude toward religion in the curious choice of idolizing Charles Darwin, the symbolic mascot for objective science, and not Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, who critiqued religion not on the basis of purported evidence, but rather based on reason. This makes perfect sense… reason would not allow for this kind of Darwinian madness. However, a distorted view of science (e.g. scientisim) most certainly would – where objective ‘evidence’ is grounded not in reason, but rather careless assumptions. This is why Darwin is the target of hero-worship, though if he were alive today, it is doubtful whether he would allow his theories to be taken to this extremity of unreason. And so from the still smoldering remains of a religious hero-system arises a Darwinian one. And far from ridding the world of unreason, it perpetuates mythical beliefs according to its faith-based ‘science.’
I contend that religiosity is not an evolved adaptation, but rather one variant of a larger trend toward utopian ideological belief systems, which are in turn an ontological reaction to the conscious threat of reality; namely, the lucid discovery of meaninglessness, death, and the absurd. Most Universal Darwinists would reject this view because it does not fit with their modularized assumptions about how the mind works. They can understand how we would have evolved fears that might have led to serious injury or death, but they cannot comprehend an evolved fear of death itself. But the fear of death and the potential to uncomfortably discover meaninglessness and the absurd are not specialized adaptations but rather a by-product, side-effect, or evolutionary spandrel. Once our brain developed the capacity for self-awareness, to think in terms of cause and effect, and to project ourselves in time, the unfortunate side-effect is that we became capable of asking some difficult questions about the nature of reality. Culture is a way of suppressing the terrors that might be revealed. Stated differently, many would argue that the same set of ‘adaptations’ that allowed us to organize future-oriented behavior, permitting us to hunt wild boar and to kill it by throwing a well-timed spear into its belly, also had the unfortunate side-effect of our being able to contemplate about our own existence and know that we are ultimately food for worms. The utopian hero-systems, be it religious or ideological, are simply unconscious reactions to this process, and according to Becker, they are as variable as cultures themselves.
Rejoice in the Limits of Human Freedom
Almost all cultural myths or symbolic hero-systems must have some way of dealing with the problem of freedom. As previously explained, freedom is a burden since it means carrying the responsibility that comes with it, including the responsibility for discerning right from wrong, and for the creation of meaning.
“Traditional religions have assisted us by allowing us to evoke God as our alibi. We are given a prescription for living, can always ask for forgiveness for our sins, and we need not be upset or frightened about the senselessness of the world, because God loves us all, and all is part of his mysterious plan. Personal responsibility is minimized in our subscribing to something of a fatalistic religious worldview.” (Modern Psychologist, Defining the Human Animal)
Universal Darwinism is likewise fatalistic, suggesting that we are often inclined to do what we did due to some genetic predisposition outside of our control. And just as the religiously faithful believe that God speaks to them through the clergy and interpretation of scripture to reveal His plan, the theory of evolutionary psychology speaks to the Universal Darwinist through adaptationist interpretation, to reveal ‘nature’s plan,’ allowing them to explain to the masses the ultimate reasons for why people cheat, why we wage war, why we love, and why we do pretty much anything. In essence, we are told that we were in large part fated to do so, and thus it relieves us from the heavy burdens of freedom, responsibility and for the creation of meaning. Stated differently, the Universal Darwinist utilizes their mythical belief system about the origins of the human mind, to take meaning that was invented by human beings (and thus our burden to carry), and repackage it into meaning that is largely pre-programmed (a burden relieved by appeal to genetic predispositions).
As we find ourselves increasingly dissatisfied with the notion of God, we need to find another scapegoat – another alibi. And as always, the perfect alibi is one that appears credible, but cannot be called in for further questioning. With universal Darwinism, we are told that the interrogation can only be conducted by geneticists of the future. How convenient. And again, how perfect that this New Faith is one capable of masquerading as science.
The myth of Universal Darwinism has other consequences. Not the least of which are its genetically-fatalistic leanings that naturally lead to a somewhat nihilistic worldview. Nihilism is not the attitude that nothing is meaningful, but rather the habit of denying things that are. A perfect example is found in Darwinian explanations for human altruism. Altruistic behavior is, for the non-Darwinist at least, evidence of the human capacity for self-sacrifice, as we postpone or deny our own biological needs and indeed our own safety, in the name of some higher abstract value. It should be a clear illustration of free-will and personal responsibility in action. It simultaneously demonstrates the human capacity for inventing, and also defending, a shared symbol, concept, or value. But to the universal Darwinist, altruistic behavior is nothing more than evidence for yet another unconscious genetic program or script; a psychological adaptation, based on the high probability of these actions being reciprocated by others in the future. To them, altruism serves a purely utilitarian function and provides further substantiation for selfish genes at work. And thus altruism is explained away, and with it free will, as they suggest it to be little more than a subjective illusion, though of course one that they claim would have had long-term survival advantages as well.
Cultural influences are likewise interpreted through an evolutionary lens, as we are told that our materialistic definitions of happiness, and the drive to consume, are not by-products of capitalistically defined cultural worldviews, but ultimately the result of genetic adaptations that held particular fitness advantages. Violence and war are similarly explained away as the result of some ultimate genetic predisposition, though perhaps varying throughout history in accordance with our ability to collectively harness these instincts through the civilizing process. Steven Pinker, a long-time advocate of evolutionary-psychology, makes this kind of argument in his best-selling book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Like most evolutionary psychologists, Pinker has a conservative attitude about our human nature. He is also pessimistic about the unrestrained human being, though in his main argument reassures us that we have also seen a decline in historical violence due to the civilizing effects of modern societies, without which we would exist in a Hobbsian state of nature – where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” And thus we see how a nihilistic worldview can be used to justify the status quo.
“Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.” – Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader, 1999, p. 208)
Leaving aside the point of whether violence has actually declined (though I should mention that Pinker has been fiercely criticized on this point), I will simply draw the reader’s attention to his curious affinity for Thomas Hobbes. This should not surprise us, for Hobbes was a moral nihilist, which as we will see, is a characteristic shared with Universal Darwinism as well. And like the Universal Darwinist, Hobbes saw human freedom as a problem. “… The state of nature, in Hobbes, is a dark and fearsome realm, to which no one inhabiting the securer milieu of civil society under a sovereign wishes to glance back… (Israel, Radical Enlightenment, 2001, p. 270).” Hobbes was no democrat; he argued for the unrestrained rule of the monarch and the necessary suppression of free thought and speech. Like Pinker, Hobbes was pessimistic about humanity; his vision was a nihilistic one, and he used it to justify the status quo of his day. But even in the early days of the Enlightenment Hobbes was criticized for his views. Spinoza argued for example, that man’s true ‘state of nature’ was more correctly viewed as a democratic one. A “democracy is declared better than monarchy and aristocracy because it is the ‘most natural form of state, approaching most closely to that freedom which Nature grants to every man’” (Israel, p. 271). On the surface Pinker claims to defend democratic ideals, but again it is telling that he would draw from Hobbes and not Spinoza or Rousseau. Basing his ideas in the purported ‘science’ of evolutionary psychology, Pinker follows in Hobbes’ footsteps as he justifies the status quo of his day – namely, the American way of life (a bias pointed out by Herman & Peterson), which claims to be a democracy, though anyone capable of critical thought understands that it works as a plutocracy.
So rather than acknowledge and rebel against the problems inherent to modern-day civilizations or cultures, Pinker’s approach, consistent with that of Universal Darwinism as a whole, is to justify it. It does this by nihilistically denying the existence of what exists, proclaiming that everything else is as it should be, and that we are somewhat fated to this predisposition. In short, “it is so.” Our burden of freedom and personal responsibility lifted, as we rejoice in our passivity, and live comfortably knowing that our human limitations are ultimately biological ones.
To the non-evolutionary psychologist, meaning and morality is externally defined: by human reasoning, shared ideas of virtue, invented values, and our symbolic cultures. In contrast, many Universal Darwinists believe that meaning is ultimately defined by pre-specified psychobiological scripts (though they may need ‘environmental triggers’ to activate). Values are merely selected (or more appropriately unselected) in accordance with the organism-environment fit as it pertains to survival and reproduction. But if they are to remain consistent with their theoretical assumptions, they must accept that meanings, values, and morality are thus arbitrary, since ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ would be defined solely by its usefulness from an evolutionary perspective. Nature, being the ‘blind watchmaker’ that she is, could just as well have selected another set of meanings or morals, so long as they held some survival-based advantage. There can be no cherished values or higher goals from this perspective. Survival and reproduction is all that matters – everything else is arbitrary, which is why it is appropriate to label the Universal Darwinian account of human nature as a nihilistic one. It is also worth noting that one cannot defend human values from this view, since it would not seem to matter if future adaptations fit with previously cherished views of morality or with human reasoning, since nature is again blind – it cares nothing for man-made hopes, ideas, or reasons.
The Universal Darwinist is thus faced with a paradox: either we are not free to define meaning and morality, and must accept that both are arbitrarily determined by genes, or that we are free to define these things, which would tell us that genes are not the ‘ultimate’ cause they are claimed to be. Put another way, we might ask how one can get from an adaptationist worldview, where meanings are pre-specified based on genetic fitness, to one where meaning, morality, and human values more generally, could be rationally defended. This paradox was pointedly captured by Soloviev’s sardonic remark: ‘man is descended from the monkey: therefore let us love one another.’
For the Universal Darwinist, the ‘purpose of life,’ is to survive and reproduce. But Pascal wisely reminds us that ‘living for its own sake is a dehumanization of the human being.’ As I have previously argued, humans are part animal, part symbolic creature. But the Universal Darwinist wants to be rid of symbolic animal and the burden it implies.
“Again we avoid acknowledging the symbolic animal that is man; we avoid carrying this painful contradiction – this time choosing not to deny the animal, but to embrace it fully. Instead of a drunken flight into irrational fantasy, we fall into numb despair. In increasing numbers, scientists … are happy to tell us why we were programmed to do what we do: explaining everything from the abuse of step-children, to morality, the appreciation of art, and the nature of good and evil. The role of God is being increasingly replaced by pseudoscientific explanation. We throw down the existential burden of the symbolic self – believing ourselves to be little more than a mix of machine or reflexive animal (Modern Psychologist, Defining the Human Animal).”
This is of course a conservative stance toward humanity; it entails a pessimistic view regarding our capacity for free-will and our future potential. The Universal Darwinian attitude is a cultural myth and a secular religion. It is simple enough to be grasped by laypeople, and so long as they do not think too hard, it seems consistent with the theory of evolution – the most credible scientific theory ever developed. In short, it has the appearance of rationality, and thus serves as an exemplary cultural defense mechanism, since it minimizes the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise come with traditional religions that more obviously defy science and reason. Most Universal Darwinists, including the more technically-defined evolutionary psychologists, do not fully understand the philosophical assumptions that they rely on in order to support their ideas. A parallel can be found in the religious individual, who has not taken the time to read the contents of their holy text. Of course this works because it leaves the belief system intact and prevents it from being threatened by logic. But this cultural belief system is a nihilistic one, and is symptomatic of a culture that has fallen ill.
So it would seem that our modern cultures have rallied enough reason to kill God, but not enough courage to live with the consequences – we again forfeit reason for psychological equanimity. In closing, I will only repeat that the ongoing challenge, for those who seek to fully understand the world and their place in it, is to continually find ways of revealing the truth, while tolerating as much reality as one can bear, and without appeal to absolute doctrines of value or meaning, be it religious or secular.