The Corner

Evolutionary Corruption

This is a really intriguing piece by David Barash on the unintended consequences of teaching evolutionary psychology. Here’s the opener:

Socrates was made to drink hemlock for having “corrupted the youth of Athens.” Is sociobiology or — as it is more commonly called these days — “evolutionary psychology” similarly corrupting? Although the study of evolution is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and illuminating of all intellectual enterprises, there is at the same time, and not just in my opinion, something dark about the implications of natural selection for our own behavior.

Should we revise Pink Floyd’s anthem “Another Brick in the Wall” — with its chorus “No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Teachers leave them kids alone” — to “No dark sociobiology in the classroom”? To answer this, we need first to examine that purported darkness.

Basically, it’s a matter of selfishness. For a long time, evolution was thought to operate “for the good of the species,” a conception that had a number of pro-social implications; that may be one reason why “species benefit” was so widely accepted, and why its overthrow took so long and was so vigorously resisted. Thus, if evolution somehow cares about the benefit enjoyed by a species, or by any other group larger than the individual, then it makes sense for natural selection to favor actions that contribute positively to that larger whole, even at the expense of the individual in question. Doing good therefore becomes doubly right: not just ethically correct but also biologically appropriate. In a world motivated by concern for the group rather than the individual, altruism is to be expected, since it would be “only natural” for an individual to suffer costs — and to do so willingly — so long as other species members come out ahead as a result.