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The evolved mind

February 20, 2010

chimp / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[This is post is a reflection on Robert Wright’s book The Moral Animal]


Evolutionary psychology reveals that within us there are subterranean forces at work. Undetectable to the untrained eye, they have their own tectonic, inexorable logic. They are at work in animals and savages, too, for we are all, ultimately, the products of natural selection. We all cope with certain biological realities, most especially the fact that the burdens of child-bearing fall disproportionately on the female of the species. And we have all been equipped, if rather haphazardly, to seek our own reproductive advantage. We simply would not be here if we weren’t.

Beginning in the 1960s, a group of scientists led by George Williams, William Hamilton, and Robert Trivers began to show how complex social behaviors, including those of humans, might arise from the relatively simple imperatives of sex and survival. Just as complex behaviors and institutions might arise from the simple, short-sighted drives of economic actors—via the proverbial invisible hand—they might also arise from the simple, short-sighted drives of biological actors. The incentive is wealth in the one case, healthy offspring in the other.

We can now, it seems, explain such facts as these:

  1. That step-children are more likely to be abused than biological children. (Since they won’t pass on your genes, there is simply less evolutionary incentive to treat them well.)
  2. That men value sexual more than emotional fidelity, and vice versa for women. (Men can father children with many women concurrently, so their investment of parental affection is far more valuable than their sperm. But by the same token, men need to know that their parental affection is invested in their own offspring.)
  3. That men are, at least in a certain way, generally more ambitious than women, and less willing to apologize or show weakness in front of peers–this is the old chestnut about men refusing to ask for directions. (They are programmed to compete with other males for relatively scarce females.)
  4. That parents find the death of an adolescent more painful to imagine than the death of either an infant or full-grown child. (The adolescent is the doorstep of sexual maturity and so has more potentially productive years ahead of himself than the adult child, and since he is closer to fruition than the infant, more time and energy have been sunk into him.)
  5. That women looking for a mate are often coy. (Her children will benefit from a father who will stick around.)
  6. That sons tend to be more valued in high-status families, daughters in low-status families. (A high-status son can father many more offspring than a high-status daughter can conceivably birth. But low-status sons will need to compete with their high-status peers, who will claim more than their fair share of women. So it’s the low status daughters who stand a better chance of reproducing.)

The basic Darwinian framework is thus far more powerful than previously thought. It extends beyond our baser lusts for food and sex, to more elevated sentiments.

But what, really, are we to make of all this? That we are each more mercenary and self-interested than we let on? That we are, in effect, sleepwalking toward goals we are not even consciously aware of? Or that we are not really in control of our behavior, just along for the ride, hitched to our overeager gonads? Or that we are in control after all, but it’s just the lowdown, conniving part that’s in charge?

Some 150 years after Darwin’s The Descent of Man, we still don’t have any very good ways of grappling with our evolutionary history. It’s not that the science is somehow conceptually incoherent, as that we have yet to really wrap our animal minds around it. The failing is in us, not the theory. Science has a way of running ahead of us—look, for example, at quantum mechanics and general relativity. Increasingly, the best, most polished theories are too slippery for us to hold barehanded.

It’s tempting, then, to retrofit familiar concepts: you fall back on what you know. Intelligent design is out of the question of course, but perhaps the way to think about natural selection is as a designer, just a blind, brutish, slow working, and slightly ham-fisted one. You could also adapt the Freudian idiom and speak of a second, unconscious mind toiling away under the conscious one. Even if I’m not consciously sizing up every woman I meet as a sex partner, my biological unconscious is.

Either way, though, these are imperfect metaphors. You’re going to end up using a lot of quotation marks. You’re going to speak of natural selection ‘designing’ things of it ‘wanting’ us to reproduce. You’re going to speak of this second Darwinian mind ‘thinking’ and ‘desiring.’ As an example, consider this quote from Robert Wright:

If there’s one thing natural selection ‘wants’ us to believe, it’s that our individual happiness is special. This is the basic gyroscope it has built into us; by pursuing goals that promise to make us happy, we will maximize the proliferation of our genes (or, at least, would have stood a good chance of doing that in the ancestral environment).

But these quotation marks are just reminders that it’s not really ‘design’, that there isn’t literally a second mind in each us that ‘wants’ us to do things, but rather….something else, something like design and desire, but not.

At worst their worst, these metaphors can create new confusions and perpetuate old ones. We risk importing features of our retrofitted concepts into places they don’t belong. Throughout human history we have invested the designs of various divine creators with special, often mystical significance. With our vestigial language of design and creation, we risk doing the same again, just with a new, decidedly less mystical creator. Evolutionary psychology may in some sense reveal our hidden selves, but are those hidden selves the truer selves?


Much of evolutionary psychology is probably not really about evolution at all, at least not in any special sense. No doubt we are all more self-interested than we let on, but it doesn’t take Darwinian theory to see this. It doesn’t take a theory at all, just an unflinching eye and an open mind. You simply have to realize that self-interest is a cunning, subtle thing that yes, sometimes overpowers our more disinterested sentiments but also shapes and shades them in more delicate ways. This is less a scientific discovery than a piece of folk wisdom.

We need to tread carefully here—there’s a major pitfall nearby. Though self-interest works through subtler channels than just mercenary calculation and blind lust, you might nevertheless shut your eyes to this and insist that mercenary calculation and blind lust are omnipresent after all, just below the surface, in some mysterious unconscious mind, the one ‘designed’ by natural selection.

Now there may be some deeper mind, but if there is you haven’t found it yet. At most you’ve discovered that the mind as we already know it is more complex than you once thought. This is still just psychology, not yet evolutionary psychology.

Things get evolutionary only when we start to trace the biological story of how our psychology got here. It’s with this task evolutionary psychology has been so helpful. How did we come to take such a powerful interest in the well-being of our children? How did we come to place such a high premium on friendship and loyalty to family? Well, to sum up a millennia-long story with a cast of millions, all these traits turned out to pay significant reproductive dividends.

So evolutionary psychology does two things, one psychological, one evolutionary. It helps illuminate certain easily overlooked aspects of our psychology, and it also tells a story about how that psychology got selected, about why it’s still around today.

But there’s another pitfall here, namely the thought that there’s some essential connection between the psychological insights and the evolutionary story. This is the thought that the evolutionary story reveals our emotional and mental habits for what they really are—tools for propagating our genes—and that the psychological insights flow from this core revelation. We are, on the psychological level, so self-interested precisely because natural selection works by selecting those traits which tend to maximize our self-interest. In being psychologically self-interested we are simply doing what natural selection tells us to.

This is a mistake because it combines two things that are really separate: what we might call, respectively, psychological and evolutionary self-interest. True, our psychological makeup has been selected by nature because it confers reproductive advantage. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that self-interest is a privileged feature of our psychology. Indeed, there are creatures, like ants and naked mole rats, who, to the extent that they have psychologies at all, seem to show no special concern for themselves. And yet we now know that this is all to their evolutionary advantage: altruism, like reproduction itself, can help others like you (i.e. your siblings and/or children) survive and propagate even if you don’t. It’s not so hard to imagine that if our reproductive biology had been different, closer to that of naked mole rats, natural selection might have made us into thoroughgoing altruists completely stripped of our psychological self-interest. Psychological and evolutionary self-interest are simply two different things.

Of course, this is not to deny that we are in fact highly self-interested and that natural selection has helped make us this way. Rather: first, natural selection has also produced our non-self-interested tendencies, and, second, no matter how self-interested we turn out to be, natural selection gives it no special aura. In no way does it make selfishness into a virtue.

We often think it does, though, when we let our metaphors run wild. We throw out the old, intelligent designer, but we simply put natural selection its place. Where we once bowed before the designs of an intelligent creator, we bow before the designs of a blind one. We think that if were designed to be self-interested then surely in some sense we ought to be self-interested. The problem, of course, is less with the identity of the creator than with the bowing to its intentions. Relatedly, we think that our self-interested impulses bubble up from some deeper, truer mind, the mind that has been built into us by natural selection. We think that when we feel self-interested not only are we furthering our survival, we are plugging in to the mind of Nature herself: what we want for ourselves she wants for us. But of course natural selection doesn’t really have a mind of its own; none of our thoughts, noble or base, has any special connection to its thoughts.


How, then, does evolutionary psychology produce such important psychological insights if it doesn’t in some fundamental sense tell us what we are? Well, not all our insights are simply dictated to us by a theory. Thinking of ourselves from an evolutionary standpoint probably works a little like a cup of strong coffee or a splash of cold water to the face: it braces us, makes us sit up straight, clears away some of the mental cobwebs. It doesn’t produce the psychological insights directly, it simply clears space for them.

And in most of us space needs to be cleared. We cling to illusions as if by instinct. The evolutionary standpoint frees us to see with new eyes, at least temporarily. We have a tendency to go extremes, and the evolutionary standpoint helps to rein this in. For example, we fall into the trap of thinking that we are either blank slates or creatures of instinct, either blissed-out natural children or born schemers, either wholly Righteous or wholly Base. Evolutionary psychology helps puncture these simple pieties. And it can do this even it leads us into new illusions and excesses. Indeed, sometimes delusions are best fought with other delusions. Two errors don’t add up to a truth, but in the right conditions they can get you closer.


The big, hysteria-inducing problem with Darwinism is that it seems to debunk truth and morality. They become fundamentally nothing more than tools for acquiring food, sex, and status. We have perhaps learned to live with this problem but we haven’t really solved it. However, it will almost certainly help to give up the mistaken thought that our evolutionary origins tell us anything very deep about the essential nature of our hearts and minds.


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