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Web Letter

William Deresiewicz illuminates the hermetic cul-de-sac inhabited by academic literary studies (and, daresay, much of the humanities) and their theoretical "abstrusiosities, [which have] cut the field off from society...the common reader and common sense." He also spotlights the sins committed by some practitioners of evolutionary psychology. But, unfortunately, so does he.

First, evolutionary psychology (EP) merely posits that nature helped prime culture, which upsets the folks that prefer humans to be a breed apart--at least from the neck up. It also violates sacred academic silos in hybridizing the natural and social sciences and the humanities--a mating that Deresiewicz sentences to hybrid sterility, all because some of its "stories" are just-so and lack direct evidence. As the philosopher of science, David Hull, has shown, no new interdisciplinary science matures instantly, ex nihilo. EP will evolve hybrid vigor and testable evidence from the initial maelstrom of gases. The evolution of the science is itself Darwinian, beset with much mutation and many blind alleys, i.e., variation (in ideas, hypotheses) weaned by natural selection (testable evidence). Ultimately, to stretch the metaphor, the fittest ideas about nature having primed culture will survive to spawn in the next intellectual generation.

Second, the Pleistocene might be a world imperfectly preserved--as is all of history--but Deresiewicz needs to read up on it. Paleobiologists, geologists, archaeologists, climatologists and others would be extremely surprised to learn that "(1) we don't actually know what the Pleistocene environment looked like; (2) we don't know how our Pleistocene ancestors lived."

Finally, consider the critique that Deresiewicz might have written about Darwin in 1859. Substituting "the Origin" for "EP" in one of Deresiewicz statements, "There are other problems with the stories that [the Origin] likes to make up about how we got to be the way we are. They still have no support in genetics. If something's not genetic, it's not evolved."

Well, the Origin is devoid of genetics. Darwin knew nothing about genes, not having read about Gregor Mendel's peas. In fact, genetics did not "support" evolution for another seventy-five years. And the Origin tells many stories that Darwin "made up."

Leonard Krishtalka

Lawrence, KS

Jul 10 2009 - 3:10pm

Web Letter

We are truly lucky to live in a world where Deresiewicz boldly criticizes everyone else as plebeian, careless thinkers who can’t see all the obvious truths he has amassed. Who else could be so self-assured in his own superior reasoning that he could bash other thinkers for not properly using science or offering evidence for their claims while asserting, “Finally, there are some deeply ingrained human behaviors that seem very hard to justify in adaptive terms,” with no need for any evidence, or even one example of his own? I might wonder how he reached the conclusion, “That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up,” but he states that claim as a fact, so I suppose it must be true. Deresiewicz is truly a great thinker and brings glory to the title of “critic,” which so many see as an occupation for egoists who don’t have their own ideas and take a perverse joy in spending their lives trashing the work of others. The points of interest he raises towards the end of this rant are carefully overshadowed by his force of personality and rampant egoism. I wonder why he hasn’t become a pundit on a syndicated news network.

Harmony Neal

Beaverton, OR

Jun 26 2009 - 1:10pm

Web Letter

William Tooke (see online letter) complains that "adaptations can be correctly studied and 'reverse-engineered' without recourse to a detailed understanding of how they are instantiated in genes in present environments."

Of course they can. But to assume to begin with that human cultural behaviors are "adaptations" would be question-begging. Also, not all evolutionary narratives about the adaptive origins of human behaviors have been subjected to such rigorous testing. In fact, when it comes to pop-Darwinian claims about literature and art, none of them have. An evolutionary just-so story is, at best, a testable working hypothesis; but to claim scientific authority for untested just-so stories, accusing those who demand evidence of facile ignorance or getting "the vapors," is hogwash.

Tooke says that Deresiewicz attacks a strawman. To show that, he would have to show that Deresiewicz misrepresents the books he reviews here--but he doesn't.

If there is a glitch in Deresiewicz's otherwise excellent review, it is his apparent giving away of the store, at least temporarily, in the following lines:

"And if our bodies have evolved, then so have our minds, which a materialist philosophy (one that doesn't depend on supernatural entities like the Christian soul) must regard as products of our bodies--of our brains, nerves, sense organs and so forth.... Why not...acknowledge, at least in principle, a universal human nature, however various its elaborations in culture?"

The fallacy apparently creeping in here is that if our mental capacities evolved, then our mental behaviors, our "psychology," must have evolved too. But the ability to manifest non-evolved behavior is just learning, which we clearly do. The serious question about "universal human nature" is not whether one exists at all but how much of our actual nature is shaped, and how tightly, by our biological heritage. The amount of specification is limited by the observed range of actual human behavior, because whatever is, can be. That is, "universal human nature" must be at least as diverse in potentiality, at least as genetically non-determined, as the behavioral diversity we actually observe--which is pretty damn big. This rules out all simplistic, pan-adaptationist attempts to explain every nuance of beauty culture, the novel, shopping habits, political behavior and the like as genetically determined--such as one sees weekly in the popular science press.

It is, in short, not true that every behavior of an evolved creature must be an evolved behavior.

Larry Gilman

Sharon, VT

Jun 19 2009 - 11:56am

Web Letter

Why is it that even the most misinformed think they can pile on with facile critiques of evolutionary science? Evolutionary psychology is simply the application of the "adaptationist program" to human behavior and cognition. I humbly suggest that this might have something to do with creativity and the arts. It's unclear to me why those in the traditional humanities frequently get the vapors over this rather conservative approach.

Further, it isn't the case that evolutionary adaptationism needs "support" from genetic studies. Adaptations can be correctly studied and "reverse-engineered" without recourse to a detailed understanding of how they are instantiated in genes in present environments (see, 1997. R. Thornhill. The concept of an evolved adaptation. Pp. 4-13 in Characterizing Human Psychological Adaptations, G. Bock and G. Cardew, eds. CIBA Foundation, London, UK.). Mainstream evolutionary biologists do this all the time, with stunning insights and results. Deresiewicz is attacking a pitiful straw man that only the uninformed, fevered imagination of someone in the traditional humanities could cobble up.

William Tooke, PhD

Plattsburgh, NY

May 30 2009 - 9:02pm