Why evolutionary psychology explanations are pleasing and what they get wrong (#161)

“I can’t help myself, it’s human nature, human nature
Who’s to say what’s meant to be?
Why can’t we be on our worst behavior, worst behavior
When it comes so naturally?”

Zara Larsson (I Would Like)

The study of human nature in evolutionary psychology makes us humans seem like totally irrational creatures, “… survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” as Richard Dawkins wrote in one of his most popular books of all time.

Nevertheless, explanations about human nature from evolutionary psychology have been to me, and as I observed to some others too, quite pleasing. It’s entertaining—for lack of a better word—to think that the way humans lead their lives today in some situations is the result of (or is caused by) our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ survival pressures since they evolved in circumstances that needed for example, a fear impulse. And it’s very relieving to put the blame on “human nature” than our conscious human self who can make rational choices.

It’s kind of weird that some feel pleased by evolutionary psychology explanations for human behavior; to think of everyone (whole culture, family and themselves included) as these mechanically driven irrational people—that’s a rare human characteristic. So first I list down a few aspects of evo-pscyh explanations for our behavior as irrational human beings (as it claims) due to which they seem really promising to accept (or simply as the title suggests, below are some points on why evo-pscyh explanations are pleasing):

  • They bring visual stories to mind:
    It’s easy to imagine a primitive Homo sapiens with long hair, a healthy physique, a few leaves covering his body, walking around with some stone tools. “Tiger making the bushes rustle” and the whole “eat and not be eaten” necessity for the conditions of being able to survive, reproduce and mutate in the Savannah Plains—we can easily create visual pictures of phenomena that may have led to certain impulses being ingrained inside our big human preprogrammed brains. This helps explicate the theory better and we tend to believe it due to its apparent coherence.

  • They suggest that “it’s not you, it’s everyone”:
    Let’s say you’ve calmed down and now rationally judge an impulsive act you’d taken recently. We do this all the time. With these kinds of explanations though, it becomes so simple (although you may argue to the extent to which we actually do this—Zara Larson’s song being an exception) to put the blame on your primitive human self: irrationally guided by an emotion of anger when something in your surroundings tips it and you supposedly lose all control of your rational side. Evolutionary psychology explanations allow you to rest assured. It’s not just you, but everyone. Everyone has this irrationality problem. Explanations about evolutionary psychology are evolutionarily pleasing too (we are casting off blame from ourselves because being accountable for something that goes wrongly is bad for genes!). See, when you’ve studied evo-pscyh as an amateur at least you can’t help but put all of human behavior through its evolutionary lens. That brings me to the next point.

  • They can easily be used as a thumb rule to (badly) explain most behaviors:
    It gets easy to explain all we ever do as this product of the evolution of our human mind. In some way we have this encoded information that is responsible for all our choices. Heck we have no choices is what one could conclude! But that’s not the case. We are creative people. And there’s more to just genes that have an impact on human behavior.

Memes & Creativity

If we’ve got a survival impulse to eat and satisfy the feeling of hunger, why do people fast? How do people fast? Why do people abstain from sexual activity? Why do some feel thrilled going skydiving when we’re supposedly to have a fear of heights encoded within? Perhaps the biggest question: why do people commit suicide?

Sure we are all influenced by our human genetic inclinations but that’s not the full picture. And unless we get the full picture, we can’t say we truly understand human behavior.

Memes, as we popularly know of them today are pictures shared on the Internet topped off by certain texts that make them funny. However the term meme was actually coined for a different purpose as you might know. A meme is a cultural idea that gets replicated into minds of people that affects behavior.

Humans create their own knowledge. Knowledge beyond that encoded in their genes caused by a process that we suppose is natural selection. The theory of evolution by natural selection is an example of this in action. That’s a meme in a sense and it affects behavior. People who generally accept this idea don’t believe in the theory of creationism. The idea that a supernatural being or god created the Universe. People who would earlier have believed that god did so must be praying to him (going to Church for instance) but if they adopt this idea they may have changed their minds and they would probably remove church from their routine. Even the idea of god is a meme. It has been replicated through generations in people’s minds and survived. In this sense, memes act on existing memes. But memes can act on genes as well. It’s likely that people fast, commit suicide, and do other such contra-genetic behaviors for this reason. This sort of knowledge influences their behavior.

It is this knowledge creation aspect of people that puts them beyond the mere power of their encoded genetics.

“Creative thought can and does allow us to transcend our genetic programming.”

David Deutsch

References & Recommendations

This blog post was inspired by a tweet by Lulie Tanett and contains ideas I grasped from David Deutsch’s work; most notably in his book The Beginning of Infinity.

I’d recommend listening to this podcast on The Primacy of Ideas with David Deutsch as it touches more on the subject of this post.

Lastly, this blog post by O Falibilista on a critique of “human nature” through the lens of evolutionary psychology and memetic theory explains ideas covered in this post very, very well.

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