Aug. 4th, 2010

flewellyn: (Default)
Just thinking to myself tonight about how to boil down my problems with evolutionary psychology. It could have been a promising field! Really! It's it is, it produces massive amounts of USDA Prime Grade bullshit.

Here, I think, is the chain of logic, boiled down to essentials:
  1. Human brains evolved. (Right! We know that.)
  2. Human psychology is a product of human neurology. (Makes sense.)
  3. Therefor, human psychology must have evolved in concert with our neurology. (Okay so far...)
  4. In evolution, traits which are adaptive (or neutral) tend to survive, while traits which are maladaptive tend not to survive. (Again, not controversial.)
  5. Human psychology definitely counts as a trait, if not many. (Fair enough...)

  6. Here's where they go off the deep end...

  7. Therefor, human psychological traits must, on the whole, be adaptive. (Well, hang on a second, all of them? Some might not be neutral or even maladaptive? And what about cultural influence? Hey, are you listening?!)
  8. Therefor, all behaviors that we observe in current human populations MUST have been adaptive traits that carry over from our savanna-dwelling ancestors, and biologically determined! Cultural norms of today are of course adaptive traits, and therefor there's no point in trying to change them! (Wait, WHAT?!)

See, they're doing fine up until that second-to-last step. Nicely reasonable premises that square with well-established science. Then suddenly it's VROOM! Straight over the cliff and into a huge sea of unfalsifiable hypotheses and "just-so" stories, transparently trying to justify current cultural norms as unchangeable biological imperatives. They routinely ignore cultural variation, both between contemporary cultures and within a single culture over time. They also ignore the enormous plasticity of the human brain, especially in childhood, and its ability to adapt itself to many different environmental conditions, on a time scale many orders of magnitude faster than evolution operates. And they tend to show a rather poor understanding of evolution; I am not a biologist, but what I do know on the subject tells me that this "cave-man psychology" thinking is woefully uninformed. I have read essays by actual biologists on the subject who make precisely that charge.

And it's surely a coincidence that the evolutionary psychologists who engage in such speculation are almost exclusively white men, and they spend an awful lot of time trying to justify problematic societal attitudes towards women and minorities, right? Right?

The frustrating thing is, up through step 5, it does sound like an intriguing field of inquiry. It really would be fascinating to learn more about how and why the overarching structure and function of our pscyhes formed, and how that influences our cultural development today. But the way they're doing it now, producing the neuropsychological equivalent of "How the Leopard Got His Spots"? That's not science. That's just pseudoscientific onanism.
flewellyn: (Default)
So, as just about everybody has probably heard, United States judge Vaughn Walker overturned the bigoted and small-minded Proposition 8 in California, which rebanned same-sex marriage. I need not link to news articles on the subject, I'm quite sure everyone can find them all over the internet.

Nor do I need to announce that the right-wing hate machine is already screaming and crying over the supposed evils of this ruling, denouncing it as "overturning the will of the people" and "legislating from the bench". Of course they did. And of course there was the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth about immoral behavior and blah blah blah biased judge blah blah blah family values and all that crap. I'm not posting to rehash all of that.

One thing I did note about the objections, however, is something I've seen repeatedly from the fundamentalist conservative camp on all kinds of issues of social justice and equality. Look at the tirades that the bigots unleash, and you'll find a common thread: they repeatedly will say something along the lines of "This is not normal!" Or "they're trying to make it seem normal!" Or "You can't pretend that that should be normal!"

Normal. Normal normal normal. It's like a watchword with these people. They cling to it like a security blanket. If something is normal, to them, it's good. And if it's not normal, it must be forced to conform or eliminated.

Now, that's nothing new, I know. It's long since become a cliche among progressives to respond with "What is normal, anyway?"* But, honestly, I don't think that's a useful response. Because honestly? Normal as a concept does exist, and have meaning. Statistically and colloquially, it means the most typical set of behaviors or traits in a population. It's true that everyone is different, but commonalities exist, patterns and trends emerge, and we can indeed see that some things, some ways of being, are more common than others. And people know this.

So, when progressives say "What is normal?" or "There's no such thing as normal!" in retort to these people who so fetishize conformity, it's not really much of a retort.

I think it would be more useful, instead, to say to the people who harp on normality, "Why is normal good? Why is the most common way of being, the right one? Surely you're not suggesting that morality is a matter of majority opinion, are you?" The difference here is, rather than deny the existence of something that clearly exists (the concept of normal), we are instead questioning a connection which is not at all clear.

There is no logical reason to suppose that the typical, and the good, are at all related; in fact, the existence of institutional racism, sexism, classism, religious bigotry, and other hierarchical biases indicate to me that what is normal in society is quite often harmful.

The people I find who harp on normality as a good in itself, I note, are often Christians, or profess to be. At least in this country, that's predominantly the case. In such cases, I might remind them of a short passage from their holy book, namely Exodus 23:2: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil."

* I usually respond with "It's a small town in central Illinois, next to Bloomington. My sister was born there." While this is irrelevant, it does point out the absurdity.


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