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When animals attack

March 1, 2010

(Courtesy of Colin Burnett under a Creative Commons License)

Large-animal trainers, together with mountain climbers, astronauts, and certain X-treme sportspeople, have the rare, but not necessarily desirable privilege of dying fully intelligible deaths. There is shock and grief as always, a search for ‘what went wrong,’ but no real mystery, no sense of chaos in the world, not, at least, beyond the brain-scrambling pain of personal bonds severed too soon. Admirers and critics alike say ‘really, what else could we expect given the nature of their chosen pursuits?’ Here death steps out of its normal role: it doesn’t refute what we already know–it confirms it. This is not just an actuarial matter of the mathematical risks being unusually high or something. It’s more that death, if it still lives anywhere in the rational, padded world, lives on mountaintops, in the almost electric field around intelligent, dangerous animals, and on top of rockets going 18,000 miles an hour. There are almost certainly statistically more dangerous activities, but few in which the dangerous element is so concentrated and primal, and fewer still in which the greater, more outrageous and criminal the danger, the more they seem worth doing.

Wikipedia links

February 28, 2010

The official US motto ‘In God We Trust’ is of relatively recent origin. It appeared on US coins only during the Civil War, when an upwelling of Christian sentiment also led to the proposal of a Christian Amendment, and on paper money only beginning in 1957!

Soviet-era temperance literature:

Jesus as moonshiner

We probably domesticated rye unintentionally. Thanks Vavilovian mimicry!!

Kelp-buoyed boats of the Chatham Islands.

Great, detailed article on the Civilian Public Service set up for Quakers, Mennonites, and other ‘historic peace churches’ during WWII. They were sort of like the CCC but also staffed mental hospitals and served as medical test subjects. Interesting tidbit:

As the war progressed, a critical shortage of workers in psychiatric hospitals developed, because staff had left for better paying jobs with fewer hours and improved working conditions. … The government balked at initial requests that CPS workers have these positions, believing it better to keep the men segregated in the rural camps to prevent the spread of their philosophy.

Man-eating catfish?

William James on evolution

February 26, 2010

William James–has our continent produced a more sensitive philosophical mind?–made in 1880 an important point underappreciated even now, namely that Darwinism means you have to distinguish between why trait is preserved by the environment and how it was produced in the first place:

If we look at an animal or a human being, distinguished from the rest of his kind by the possession of some extraordinary peculiarity, good or bad, we shall be able to discriminate between the causes which originally produced the peculiarity in him and the causes that maintain it after it is produced; and we shall see, if the peculiarity be one that he was born with, that these two sets of causes belong to two such irrelevant cycles. It was the triumphant originality of Darwin to see this, and to act accordingly. Separating the causes of production under the title of ‘tendencies to spontaneous variation,’ and relegating them to a physiological cycle which he forthwith agreed to ignore altogether, he confined his attention to the causes of preservation, and under the names of natural selection and sexual selection studied them exclusively as functions of the cycle of the environment. (emphasis James’s)

(from ‘Great Men and Their Environment‘)

James’s distinction shows why it’s maximally misleading to speak, even semi-facetiously, of natural selection ‘designing’ or ‘wanting’ organisms to do things, a point I was trying to make in an earlier post, ‘The evolved mind.’ When you think of something as designed, even by a ‘blind watchmaker’, the distinction between production and maintenance doesn’t really arise: hammers are produced to pound nails and hammers are still around–we haven’t moved on to something else–because they really do pound nails. They are produced by an intention, namely nail-p0unding, and persist so long as they continue to fulfill that intention. Whether a hammer is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a simple matter: does it pound nails? It’s pretty easy, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, for us to wrap our minds around this. But inevitably, this means that talking about natural selection as, for example, ‘a blind watchmaker’, as Richard Dawkins does, triggers the thought that what goes for hammers goes for organisms: if not consciously designed, organisms are still produced in order to survive and procreate. From there it’s a small step to the conclusion that whether a trait is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is answered by the simple question of whether it furthers survival/procreation. But this line of thought is confused from the beginning. Traits are preserved because of their survival/procreation-value, not produced by it, even unconsciously.

Walking heads: on ‘Examined Life’

February 24, 2010

Since olden times philosophers and those calling themselves philosophers have self-aggrandized in public and self-medicated in private by repeating the Platonic mantra that the unexamined life is not worth living. Like all good PR, this slogan creates a sort of negative space–note the dual negativizers ‘un-‘ and ‘not’– into which you can throw all your vague ideas about just what the examined life actually is and what actually makes life worthwhile, all while everyone else  does exactly the same with vague ideas of their own. Like all good advertising, it holds out a promise to you–YOU!–that your own personal existence will get better, more meaningful if only you’ll turn on your mind and drag out those inchoate ideas you’ve been accumulating on your mental periphery.

Astra Taylor’s documentary ‘Examined Life‘ (streamable on Netflix, btw) is a series of brief talking head interviews with prominent philosophers conducted on the move. They expound in cars, in rowboats, on airport moving sidewalks, in parks, on busy streets, and in front of large piles of trash. They are out in the real world, among the people, taking it to the streets. That’s the premise, I guess, and the movie consciously plays up the incongruity of it all: pure mind plopped down in the middle of a messy world of which it’s the last, best hope. Thus we get Cornel West, a man who dresses like he should be hailing a horse-drawn hackney carriage, riding in the back of car. We get Peter Singer amid the high-fashion carnival of Times Square wearing utilitarian gray and speaking in the most measured monotone . We get Avital Ronnell dressed like she’s from the Chinese future strolling by schlubby, bewildered New Yorkers. Meanwhile, Michael Hardt, voice of the global multitude, takes an aristocratic-seeming boat cruise, and Kwame Anthony Appiah wanders around an eerily deserted airport looking rather lonely. Ideas certainly do belong in the world, but in order to make this conclusion dramatic the movie thinks it has to first play up the silly thought they and the people who think them up ever came from anywhere else.

The best and rarest moments are when the subjects break character, stop being pedants, and talk less at us than with us. Hardt has a funny story about getting absurdly impractical career advice from El Salvadorean guerrillas, as does Appiah about how his Ghanaian father and English mother got together. Fleetingly, seemingly against the filmmakers’ wishes, we see that philosophers are people too, and that some of them are even halfway interesting.

By contrast, one of the most painful moments is when Sunaura Taylor, a disabled rights activist, herself disabled, and the one non-professional philosopher in the movie, struggles to articulate the theoretical distinction between disability and impairment and gets gently but rather smugly corrected by Judith Butler. It’s not cruel or anything but it sort of raises the question of what ultimately the value of theory is. If it gives people a productive way to think about themselves, if it can make the callous more empathetic, great, but it’s nothing to hold over people. I don’t know about unexamined, but the untheorized life is almost certainly still worth living.

By far the weirdest thing about ‘Examined Life’ is that for a movie ostensibly about ideas engaging the world no one ever really does anything beyond basically walk and talk. Hardt crashes his rowboat and S. Taylor and Butler buy a sweater, but that’s it. The rest of the time everyone just sort of floats along leisurely, in the world but not of it. I suppose this might be to show how life-examination can be done anywhere, anytime, and without accessories sold separately, but still. It’s as if simply examining your life were enough by itself: in essence, if the unexamined life isn’t worth living, then clearly all that’s needed to make life worthwhile is a little examination, a little engaged but disembodied thought or, as certain philosophers like to say, interrogation. But a) you need to act well as well as think well, and b) thinking is easy, thinking well is the hard part. It’s what matters and based on the documentary evidence it’s not clear that professional philosophers are in any meaningful way better at this than others. This is, as it were, the fine print under Plato’s timeworn slogan.

Who is a terrorist?

February 24, 2010 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Given that there is entirely too much hysteria attached to the word ‘terrorist’ and that far too much of that is attached specifically to the dark-skinned, non-Christian demographic, it’s probably not very productive to get too invested in the debate about whether Joseph Stack, the anti-tax terrorist (manifesto here)who crashed his plane into an IRS office in Austin killing one (besides himself) and injuring thirteen, was or was not a terrorist. Regardless of whether or not Stack himself was a terrorist, the indisputable facts are these: 1) there certainly are white-skinned, Christian terrorists and 2) we should be on guard against the very real tendency to downplay terrorist, borderline terrorist, and plain-old despicable acts when the person looks and talks more like Middle America.

However. Even if you agree to dispense with the word ‘terrorist’ and the reflex hyperventilation that comes along with it, you still need to classify different cases differently–race, religion, and nationality are just, everyone should agree, the wrong ways to do it. (Appallingly, not everyone agrees even on this, but that’s a separate issue.) It’s also, for a different reason, wrong to classify violent fearmongers as either personally or politically motivated, terrorists, the thought goes, always and only being politically motivated. The put-upon worker who finally goes postal (see Milton in Office Space) is, of course, personally, not politically motivated. But it’s hard to find anyone who is just politically motivated, for whom there is no relevant personal history that in some way explains their ideological commitments, and it gets even harder as the politics in question get more and more radical. After 9/11 the marketplace was flooded with books and movies that sought to explain the radical politics of al Qaeda types in terms of their personal humiliations. If Stack should be ranked below sundry jihadis on the badness scale, it’s not just because he was acting out of personal grievances on some level deserving of sympathy. So, in all likelihood, were they.

Like Atta and McVeigh, Stack had a political agenda which he sought to advance through violence and fear by attacking civilians. But even within the ranks of the politically motivated violent fearmongers, there are important distinctions to be drawn. This goes beyond the relatively small scale of his attack. Stack was not, so far as we know, allied to a larger terrorist movement, though, sadly, he may yet get his wish and inspire one after his death. Nor was he allied to a terrorist movement with the real (but often overestimated) potential to commit acts of large-scale murder. None of this is to excuse him as not-a-terrorist or, what comes to the same thing, not-one-of-those-terrorists. The whole terrorist vs. not-a-terrorist thing is just a crude way to look at cases that need to be placed rationally and dispassionately along a finely graduated scale.

‘Benefit of Clergy’: Orwell on Dali

February 23, 2010

Salvador Dali, by Carl van Vechten

This essay by Orwell on Salvador Dali is one of the most intelligent pieces of art criticism I’ve read. It’s especially remarkable because it’s so naive. Orwell is, by his own admission, writing without any specialized knowledge of the art involved. Key sentences:

Perhaps they [i.e., Dali’s ‘aberrations’] are a way of assuring himself that he is not commonplace. The two qualities that Dali unquestionably possesses are a gift for drawing and an atrocious egoism. ‘At seven’, he says in the first paragraph of his book, ‘I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.’ This is worded in a deliberately startling way, but no doubt it is substantially true. Such feelings are common enough. ‘I knew I was a genius’, somebody once said to me, ‘long before I knew what I was going to be a genius about.’ And suppose that you have nothing in you except your egoism and a dexterity that goes no higher than the elbow; suppose that your real gift is for a detailed, academic representational style of drawing, your real MÉTIER to be an illustrator of scientific books. How do you become Napoleon?

There is always one escape: INTO WICKEDNESS.

He thinks Dali was a weird combination of the extremely perverse and the extremely banal.

George Orwell

The shameful society

February 23, 2010

There has to be some connection between torture and prison rape. They show a society that cannot look its enemies, foreign or domestic, in the eye. Cheney and Rumsfeld and Addington should be held to account for authorizing torture, but the problem of torture goes beyond them. It extends to domestic prisons in which rape is treated as unpreventable, not even worth preventing, as de facto just.

Large segments of America believe that however badly our own citizens are treated in prison, foreign terrorists should be treated worse. Hence the outcry over moving Guantanamo detainees to the homeland. The sentiment is based not on any half-way rational assessment of the security risks, but rather on a sense that those men deserve something beyond our native prisons. But when our own prison system cannot even allow prisoners the dignity of going unraped, how much worse must we treat ‘enemy combatants’?

Torture as sacrifice (not the good kind)

February 23, 2010

The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility has recommended (full report) that Jay Bybee and John Yoo be disciplined for authorizing torture. They won’t be though, because a Justice Department higher-up released a memo concurrent with the OPR report clearing Yoo and Bybee of any wrongdoing. It will be a long, long time before we come to grips with torture. This goes beyond just punishing the guilty, but it starts there.

Going back over some of the pieces Mark Danner wrote about torture during the Bush years, I was struck by this analysis of the political logic behind it:

…if “taking the gloves off” was a critical part of the “great success story” that has “kept the country safe,” then those who put the gloves on—Democrats who, in the wake of the Watergate scandal during the mid-1970s, passed laws that, among other things, limited the president’s freedom to order, with “deniability,” the CIA to operate outside the law—must have left the country vulnerable. And if by passing those restrictive laws three decades ago Democrats had left the country defenseless before the September 11 terrorists, then putting the gloves back on, as President Barack Obama on assuming office immediately began to do, risks leaving the country vulnerable once more.

Thus another successful attack, if it comes, can be laid firmly at the door of the Obama administration and its Democratic, “legalistic” policies.

Torture is demonstrably ineffective as technique either of interrogation or of intimidation, but once you put it on the table, it changes the whole political narrative. If you torture and there are no successful terrorist attacks, great, you’re heroes. If you torture and there are successful terrorist attacks, well, it’s not your fault, you did everything you could. In fact, you gave a fuller measure of devotion because you sacrificed your moral dignity, you did unspeakable things, all to keep Americans safe.

Of course, if you don’t torture and there are no attacks, you just got lucky. And if, heaven forbid, there are attacks, then, well, we all know why, don’t we?

Terror, the very idea, brings out fear, and fear brings out the atavistic in us. There’s something tribal or religious in the logic of torture. Not just that it’s barbaric and brutal and stupid, but that on some level it’s about sacrifice. The movements of al Qaeda can seem to us just as mysterious and inscutable and fearsome as the movements of heavenly bodies seemed to Aztecs or Druids. They sought to control these movements through the sacrifice of innocents. That these are terrible acts is part of the point–the idea is that they wouldn’t be so effective if they weren’t. Something similar may be true, on some level, of our state-sponsored torture. Part of the political point is that it’s terrible. We think, atavistically, that there is a web of sympathetic magic in which atrocities are connected to atrocities.

The Manchurian Tea Party

February 21, 2010

tea party NY / CC BY 2.0

As this New York Times article shows, a lot of the Tea Party movement’s rhetoric is about mind control. Obama, they think, is secretly totalitarian: he wants to control your thoughts without you even realizing it! Electronic surveillance, Acorn, the Federal Reserve—it’s all part of the plan:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership. trumpets “exclusives” reporting that the Army is seeking “Internment/Resettlement” specialists. On, bloggers warn that Mr. Obama is trying to convert Interpol, the international police organization, into his personal police force. They call on “fellow Patriots” to “grab their guns.”

Mr. Beck frequently echoes Patriot rhetoric, discussing the possible arrival of a “New World Order” and arguing that Mr. Obama is using a strategy of manufactured crisis to destroy the economy and pave the way for dictatorship.

At recent Tea Party events around the country, these concerns surfaced repeatedly.

In New Mexico, Mary Johnson, recording secretary of the Las Cruces Tea Party steering committee, described why she fears the government. She pointed out how much easier it is since Sept. 11 for the government to tap telephones and scour e-mail, bank accounts and library records. “Twenty years ago that would have been a paranoid statement,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s not anymore.”

One of the movement’s favorite websites,, has the motto “Because there is a war on for your mind.” In sections with names like “Big Brother” and “Police State”, it purports to collect evidence that totalitarianism is on the march.

In itself, this sort of thing is nothing new. The John Birch Society, it’s often pointed out, is a forerunner. Think also of Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove freaking out about fluoridated water. There’s a new irony, though. The Tea Party movement is fueled by media like Fox News, talk radio, blogs, and twitter that exercise their own kind of mind control. Obviously, it’s nothing like The Manchurian Candidate, where the far left secretly controls the far right. And it’s nothing as deliberate, ambitious, or nefarious as what people accuse the government of, but it’s far more real. There’s the oft-mentioned echo chamber effect where people surround themselves with nothing but fellow travelers. There’s also the bumper-sticker effect, where people are bombarded by images stripped of all but the most superficial meaning. Boston tea party! Socialism! Czars! Patriotism! Tyranny vs. Liberty! Any chance of re-investing them with their real significance suffocates instantly under the sheer volume.

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.