Hard Wired

How evolutionary psychology ended up at the heart of the culture wars

Hari Kunzru

The first backlash to Sociobiology came from Harvard scientists Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould, who worked closely with Science for the People (SftP) to denounce racism, sexism, and elitism in science. Courtesy Science for the People

In 2017, a Google engineer called James Damore circulated an internal memo criticizing the company’s diversity initiatives. In “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore argued that women were underrepresented in the tech industry not because of bias but because of innate psychological characteristics. “Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership,” he argued. If psychological “traits” were at the root of the problem, then existing initiatives to improve diversity would not work. “These practices are based on false assumptions generated by our biases and can actually increase race and gender tensions.”

Damore’s tone wavered uncertainly between technocratic neutrality and libertarian polemic. “Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business,” he wrote. Google was suffering from “confirmation bias,” stemming from left-wing domination of the social sciences and humanities, a domination that had produced and maintained such “myths” as “social constructionism and the gender wage gap.” He accused his employer of shaming dissenters into silence, creating “an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.”

If Damore thought his intervention would be well received, he’d failed to read the room. The Department of Labor had just testified in court that it had convincing evidence showing Google was systematically paying women less than men across the company. Any suggestion that people inside Google believed that women were innately less suited to being software engineers was potentially damaging to a company defending itself against possible labor-law violations. On August 5, the website Gizmodo published the memo. Two days later, Damore was fired. In a note to Google employees, the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, stated that “our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

Damore’s case quickly became a cause célèbre in the culture wars. To some he was a free speech martyr who lost his job for the thought crime of being “offensive and not OK.” To others he was a misogynist troll who had made himself unemployable. He toured the right-wing media circuit, doing sympathetic interviews with Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan and changing his Twitter profile picture to a professional-looking shot of himself wearing a T-shirt with a version of the Google logo détourned to read “Goolag.”

One prominent defender of Damore was the psychologist Steven Pinker. On a panel at Kenyon College, Pinker assured the audience that everything in the memo was based on peer-reviewed science, and that it was “by no means a sexist or outrageous document.” Pinker’s support for Damore was perhaps unsurprising, since much of the memo was couched in terms drawn from Pinker’s own field, evolutionary psychology.

According to evolutionary psychology, the brain is an information-processing system designed by natural selection in response to feedback from the environment. Individual behavioral adaptations are generated by specialized programs, or “modules,” rather than emerging from some general-purpose, infinitely plastic architecture. So instead of the mind being a tabula rasa on which culture can write its many and varied scripts, culture is constrained and channeled by the process of natural selection that has created the evolved brain. And importantly, because evolution takes place over long time scales, the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness” for which the brain is supposedly optimized is an ancient one—namely, the savannah that exerted selection pressures on our ancestors.

This perspective is, among other things, a direct challenge to the idea, common in the social sciences, that culture occupies a realm separate from psychology and biology. In one of the landmark documents of evolutionary psychology, the 1992 essay “The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” the psychologist Leda Cosmides and her anthropologist husband, John Tooby, briskly stated their opposition to this assumption. “Human minds, human behavior, human artifacts, and human culture are all biological phenomena,” they insisted, “aspects of the phenotypes of humans.”

A founding gesture of sociology, one of the things made it emerge as a coherent field at the end of the nineteenth century, was Émile Durkheim’s characterization of “social facts” as a separate object of study from “those that form the subject matter of other sciences of nature.” Cosmides and Tooby were claiming that “social facts” were not so distinct after all. If they were part of the human phenotype, an expression of genes interacting with the environment, then maybe they ought to be studied using of biology. The social sciences, they claimed, were suffering from “endemic failure,” “malaise,” and a “failure to thrive” brought on by their unwillingness to “locate their objects of study inside the larger network of scientific knowledge.”

This dream of a social order founded in nature has deep roots in the American political imagination.

In the years after Cosmides and Tooby issued their challenge, evolutionary psychology has been on the frontlines of the American culture wars. Though its particular model of the evolved brain is contested by other research traditions, it might as well be the only game in town for consumers of popular media. Magazines and websites now feature a constant stream of headlines drawn from EvoPsych papers: a recent news search brought up stories about what men think of other men’s beards, gay men’s responsiveness to fertility cues, and whether men or women fall asleep faster after sex. Celebrity “pick-up artists” such as Destiny draw on what might be called “pop EvoPsych” to teach young men how to maximize dating success—in a video of one of his popular seminars, Destiny tells his students that “our attraction mechanism has been evolutionarily microcalibrated…by millions and millions of generations of both success stories and failure stories.… Your design is prepared for an ancient environment.” And the EvoPsych approach to intimacy gets distilled into violent misogyny as it percolates through the “Manosphere,” the internet milieu of men’s rights activists, MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), and Incels, a subculture that has produced a number of mass murderers and is now widely recognized as a terrorist threat.

As its perspective has spread out into popular culture, pop EvoPsych has inflected highly charged debates about gender, race, violence, and social class. It has also permeated a receptive Silicon Valley culture that shares much of its intellectual DNA, particularly with regard to theories about information, feedback, and control. James Damore is far from the first young male engineer who has used EvoPsych to push back against the liberal ideology of diversity, to question postmodernist theories about the social construction of knowledge, or to provide a simple account of human nature that could help him steer a path through the unquantifiable complexities of the social world.

Evolutionary psychology’s attack on social and cultural modes of explanation has obvious ramifications for left-wing political projects that derive their legitimacy from that tradition. Much of its popularity on the North American Right is because it provides ammunition in political gunfights that have little or nothing to do with theories about the evolution of the brain or the extent to which culture ought to be understood in terms of biology. When the psychologist and self-help writer Jordan Peterson talks about a “dominance hierarchy” that “however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years,” he is making an appeal to evolution as an iron law, an absolute constraint on political and social possibility: opposing this dominance hierarchy, or trying to mitigate it, is going against nature. And this dream of a social order founded in nature has deep roots in the American political imagination. Indeed, the battle over the “Google memo” was a skirmish in a conflict that is now more than a century old.

in an essay written in 1889 called “The Gospel of Wealth,” the industrialist Andrew Carnegie explained why his vast fortune was not just good for him but good for humanity.

While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore…great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.

The famous phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined by a man Carnegie habitually referred to as “my dear master,” the British polymath Herbert Spencer, who aimed to unify biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics under the sign of an evolutionary principle that made progress both a natural law and a moral imperative. Spencer was thinking about evolution before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and Darwin’s theories served to reinforce the cultural centrality of an idea that was already as much political as scientific. Moral evil was, for Spencer, a quasi-physical effect that arose merely “from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions.” It was destined to die out. Progress was “not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is a part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower.”

For Spencer and fervent American disciples like Carnegie, the important thing was that human evolution should not be artificially restrained by government or retarded by the perverse incentives created by misdirected charity. What might look to a sentimental observer like callousness was in fact love. In his first book, Social Statics (1851), Spencer wrote:

It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

Social evils, Spencer believed, resulted when once-savage humans found themselves incompletely adapted to living in society. The law of progress meant that “the ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain,” but social programs or regulations that mitigated or alleviated competition would only delay his arrival.

In the early years of the twentieth century, social Darwinism became entangled with the ideas of yet another English polymath, Francis Galton, in the project of eugenics. In 1910 the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a private research organization Carnegie had set up to promote scientific projects for the “improvement of mankind,” funded the Eugenic Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, which became a center of American eugenic research and thinking. The consciously directed improvement of “the race” (whether that was understood as the human race or more narrowly) was enthusiastically taken up by Progressives as a means of social reform, and by Nativists who feared what the lawyer and zoologist Madison Grant called, in a best-selling book of 1916, “The Passing of the Great Race.” Notions of social “fitness” and a horror of “degeneration” had led the state of Indiana, in 1907, to pioneer the practice of sterilizing criminals and “idiots,” and in the years that followed, thirty-one other states would go on to institute similar laws. The 1924 Immigration Act, which set quotas for new immigrants, was explicitly devised with the aim of reducing migration from so-called “dysgenic” populations such as Italians and Eastern European Jews. The American eugenics movement was closely followed in Germany. Hitler wrote a fan letter to Madison Grant, calling his book, which extolled the virtues of “Nordics” over other groups, “my Bible.”

Nazism made eugenics a dirty word, and there has since been intense opposition to the use of biology to authorize any kind of social or political program. Yet the political current that made social Darwinism a powerful intellectual driver of American immigration and social policy has never really gone away. National origins quotas were lifted only with the Immigration Act of 1965. In the 1980s, conservative opposition to New Deal social welfare policies coalesced around the Reaganite tropes of the “Welfare Queen” and the “breakdown” of the Black family, with the imputation that the “wrong” people were being given assistance. The highly publicized controversy about Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve in 1994 was a sign both of the strength of the opposition to Spencer-Carnegie-style social Darwinism and its persistence.

Twenty-five years later, Spencer and Carnegie’s influence on contemporary American politics couldn’t be more marked. The virtue of competition and the suspicion that government is an artificial imposition on some kind of self-optimizing natural process have come to seem self-evident to many Americans, as if biology itself endorsed laissez-faire capitalism. The argument that “the economy” should take priority over public health measures designed to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 stands squarely in this tradition, as does the related argument that the disease should be taken less seriously because it “only” kills the old and the sick.

James Damore’s memo, too, is marked by the Spencerian tradition that sees the social order as shaped by biology. Yet it is also a product of the “Californian Ideology” of Silicon Valley, which draws on another influential intellectual tradition that links biology, technology, and social organization: that of cybernetics.

Cybernetics was one of the great conceptual revolutions of the twentieth century, so successful that it has more or less disappeared as a distinct discipline.

in 1967, the writer and San Francisco underground figure Richard Brautigan published a pastoral poem in which he described a landscape that is at once natural and technological, a “cybernetic meadow” where “mammals and computers” live in “mutually programming harmony.”

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over by machines of loving grace.

Brautigan’s utopia could not be farther away from the muscular competition of social Darwinism. Instead of ceaseless striving, he sees an end to work. Instead of ruthless exposure to the rigors of natural selection, he finds care and wholeness. The word cybernetic appears in each of the poem’s three stanzas, evidence of the West Coast counterculture’s fascination with the science of “control and communication in the animal and the machine” proposed by the MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1948.

Cybernetics was one of the great conceptual revolutions of the twentieth century, so successful that it has more or less disappeared as a distinct discipline. As Brautigan was writing his poem, its central ideas were being absorbed by every field from engineering to psychology. Wiener took the word from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernetes), “governor” or “helmsman,” and cybernetics, like Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy, promised a great unification, a rigorous description of the way all kinds of natural and technological systems interact with their environments. Central was the now ubiquitous concept of “feedback,” the continual response and adjustment of a system to environmental conditions, like a sailor adjusting the tiller in response to changes in the wind.

The possibilities of cybernetics were explored at a series of annual meetings run by the Macy Foundation from 1946 to 1953. The participants included the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, one of the conduits of cybernetic ideas into Brautigan’s countercultural milieu. In London in 1967, Bateson addressed a conference billed as the International Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, alongside Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, and Herbert Marcuse, and told the assembled audience:

We know that when we talk about the processes of civilization, or evaluate human behavior, human organization, or any biological system, we are concerned with self-corrective systems. Basically, these systems are always conservative of something. As in the engine with a governor, the fuel supply is changed to conserve—to keep constant—the speed of the flywheel, so always in such systems changes occur to conserve…some component of the status quo.… At this conference, fundamentally, we deal with three of these enormously complex systems of arrangements of conservative loops. One is the human individual.… Second, we deal with the society in which that individual lives.… And third, we deal with the ecosystem, the natural biological surroundings of these human animals.

Given that Bateson was speaking to a radical audience at a political moment that is almost always remembered for the disruption of existing systems and the expenditure of revolutionary energy, his language of “conservative loops” seems teasing, even provocative. A cybernetic system is set up to maintain itself in a certain state, to “read” the environment and self-regulate accordingly, to dissipate entropy rather than increasing it. Its goal is certainly not to sharpen social contradictions in the hope of inducing the revolutionary Aufhebung radicals longed for. But for many in the audience at Bateson’s talk, cybernetics did have revolutionary potential. Its vision of humanity as a component in a holistic, self-steering world system promised an end to alienation and a way to break through the Cartesian dualism that they saw all around them in “straight” culture, which they blamed for violence, social problems, and environmental degradation.

For Brautigan and the Bay Area hippies, the cybernetic meadow was nature without natural selection, a way to get back to the garden. Adaptation was less a battle for survival than a gentle teleological unfolding, an ascent to higher states of being. In Bateson’s view, natural selection was essentially homeostatic, a feedback process that allowed organisms to self-regulate. As he told the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, “Natural selection acts primarily to keep the species unvarying; but it may act at higher levels to keep constant that complex variable which we call ‘survival.’” The thought of “survival” as something that could be mathematically expressed, a point or space within an n-dimensional field of possible outcomes, would have been unthinkable before cybernetics, and it opened up a new understanding of political power. This was a politics founded in nature, but it was a nature that had been partially disembodied, abstracted into systems and loops, into information.

Cybernetics came to serve wildly divergent projects. At the Twenty-Second Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1961, the Central Committee had declared that cybernetics was “one of the major tools of the creation of a Communist society.” As Bateson spoke to the heads at Kingsley Hall, the straights at the RAND Corporation were using cybernetics to help steer the Vietnam War. In 1971 in Chile the Allende government would initiate Project CyberSyn, a plan to manage the national economy from a control room connected to a network of telexes and computers running statistical models. The Chilean cybernetic dream, smashed by the coup, was one in which workers would be able to manage their own factories. In the political tendency that has become known as neoliberalism, by contrast, cybernetics lends itself to a technocratic vision of social systems kept in an optimal state through the use of feedback and control, by nudges and modifications rather than discipline and punishment. Change comes about through bloodless optimization, rather than class war.

Within academic biology, meanwhile, countercultural cybernetics encountered the thorough-going neo-Darwinism that dominated conservative Anglo-American biology departments. This collision was to shape the culture wars of the early twenty-first century.

in 1975, E. O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist and world authority on ants, published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, an ambitious book whose title was intended to echo the so-called Modern Synthesis of Darwin and Mendelian genetics. Wilson was aware of cybernetics and the interdisciplinary power of its abstraction of living and social systems. In Sociobiology, he proposed nothing less than a rigorous cybernetic biology. Wilson defined his new science as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior,” and proposed an account of the evolution of aggression, communication, hierarchies of dominance, territoriality, and sexuality, among other traits, in every kind of creature from “the colonial invertebrates” to “Man.”

Sociobiology proposed the biologization of what Durkheim had referred to as “social facts,” the same disciplinary power move that would later be attempted by evolutionary psychology. “It may not be too much to say,” wrote Wilson, with swashbuckling confidence, “that sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis.”

For Wilson, all social behavior, animal and human, was in a tight feedback loop with the environment, each behavioral program or “device” “tracking” or self-optimizing in response to it. “Culture,” he wrote, with cybernetic bathos, “including the more resplendent manifestations of ritual and religion, can be interpreted as a hierarchical system of environmental tracking devices.” He explained slavery, eccentrically, as a suboptimal social arrangement that could take hold only because of “lack of competition from other species.” When it came to sex and the division of labor, differential levels of parental investment in offspring meant that men had evolved to be roaming hunters, while women gathered close to home. At a moment when Second Wave Feminism was attempting to dismantle the patriarchy, this looked suspiciously as if science, notoriously one of the master’s tools, was being used to build the master’s house a nice new extension.

Sociobiology seemed to biologize the status quo in other ways, too. “A key question of human biology,” Wilson wrote, “is whether there exists a genetic predisposition to enter certain classes and to play certain roles.” Citing the former director of the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology, he mused on this possibility. “Dahlberg (1947) showed that if a single gene appears that is responsible for success and an upward shift in status, it can be rapidly concentrated in the uppermost socioeconomic classes.” To many on the Left, this sounded alarming. If not actual social Darwinism, it appeared at the least to be throat-clearing for yet another recitation of the ancient conservative creed of the Natural Order of Things, with genes instead of God having the last word.

To give a purely psychological explanation is to subsume social facts into biology in a way that makes politics vanish.

the fiercest backlash to sociobiology came from within Wilson’s own Harvard department. His colleagues, the population geneticist Richard Lewontin and paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, were members of Science for the People, a movement of radical academics who had first come together to oppose the Vietnam War. “Science is inevitably political,” the group declared in a 1972 statement, “and in the context of contemporary American corporate capitalism…it contributes greatly to the exploitation and oppression of most of the people both in this country and abroad.” In response to Wilson’s book, Lewontin and Gould helped form the Sociobiology Study Group (SSG), a collective of around fifteen scientists who wrote a letter to The New York Review of Books in November 1975: “What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g., cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudice of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems.”

This was only an opening salvo in what became known as the “sociobiology wars,” a conflict that reverberates to this day, defining the ground for such figures as James Damore. Though Lewontin and Gould and the rest of Wilson’s critics in the SSG raised serious scientific objections to sociobiology, they also had an unapologetically propagandist aim. As representatives told a 1977 conference of Science for the People, “The group conceives of its chief function to be, in addition to self-education on the scientific and political issues, the production of ideological weapons to counteract and delegitimate sociobiology and biological determinism in general.”

To Wilson and many others, the attacks on sociobiology were no more or less than a new Lysenkoism, the political corruption of biology that had taken place under Stalin and led to the imprisonment and execution of scientists who did not support state-backed pseudo-science. The SSG and their allies retorted that sociobiology was not innocently “scientific”; it just didn’t avow its politics. Lewontin got into the trollish habit of sending Wilson articles by far-right figures praising his work, and the atmosphere in the Harvard Biology Department deteriorated to the point where the two men could no longer look at each other when in a room together. Wilson, whose personal politics at this time were, at least in public, a fairly unremarkable Cold War liberalism, could not deny the existence of a far-right audience for his ideas. Richard Lynn, a prominent racist and eugenicist who was then teaching at the New University of Ulster, wrote to Wilson that “several of us in Ulster have been greatly impressed by your book sociobiology and also sorry to see you coming under attack from ‘liberals.’” Lynn help- fully enclosed a paper he had published, titled “The Sociobiology of Nationalism.” And after Wilson’s death in December 2021, correspondence emerged between him and another discredited race scientist, J. Philippe Rushton, who was later to become a central figure in American white nationalism. Wilson turns out to have supported Rushton’s work on such topics as race and intelligence, writing to his university to defend him against the decision to sanction him and remove him from teaching. In letters to one of Rushton’s critics, Wilson appears sympathetic to Rushton, not just on the grounds of academic freedom but also in the substance of his project to legitimize race science.

Perhaps because its chief opponents were Marxists, Anglo-American sociobiology took on an anti-Marxist orientation, and (to use cybernetic language) a positive feedback loop developed. Scientific debate was mapped onto left-right politics in a way that was neither natural nor inevitable, but historically contingent. Observing the hardening positions, a mystified Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that “in France, Leftist authors were the first to be captivated by sociobiology, which they saw as virtually a Neo-Rousseauian way of integrating man into nature.” It seemed strange to him that in the United States it was being denounced as a “Neo-Fascist doctrine.” He considered the debate “passionate” but “largely artificial.”

in 1978 Wilson was in Washington, D.C., speaking at a symposium organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when protesters stormed the stage and drenched him in water. Gould, who was also present, took to the microphone to condemn the action and apologize to Wilson, chastising his assail- ants by quoting Lenin on the “infantile disorder” of left-wing communism. The action generated widespread sympathy for Wilson, and outraged another speaker, an Oxford animal behaviorist named Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene had recently become a best seller.

Dawkins was a rigorous neo-Darwinist with a cybernetic cast of mind, who used computer models extensively in his work. Organisms, as he saw it, were vehicles, piloted by “selfish” genes whose sole aim was reproduction. In a now famous passage, he described the evolution of ancient “replicator molecules” floating in a “primeval soup.”

What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?… Do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.… They go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

This anti-humanist vision was at least as influential as the one emerging from post-structuralist thought in Paris around the same time. Implicit in the thought of the selfish gene is that of the human being as a population, rather than a singular individual. Dawkins’s vivid science-fiction imagery of lumbering robots guided by cunning gangs of replicators reads like an Anglo-American version of the cybernetic Spinozism of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in which reality at all scales is composed of swarms and multitudes, a picture that owes much to their own gleanings from Bateson. But while the French philosophers may have seen in their theory a way to smash Oedipus and escape capitalism, Dawkins stayed within terms acceptable at Oxford High Table. And his vision was a long way from the pastoral cybernetic dream of Brautigan. “Be warned,” Dawkins told readers, “that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” Dawkins did not rule out the evolution of cooperative behavior, or argue that genes exerted top-down control. “Anybody can see that, as a matter of fact, genes do not control their creations in the strong sense criticized as ‘determinism.’ We effortlessly (well, fairly effortlessly) defy them every time we use contraception.” We could go ahead and build social democracy, if we liked. But our genes didn’t really want to play ball.

Lewontin excoriated The Selfish Gene in a patronizing review in Nature as a “caricature of Darwin,” mocking the “school of sociobiology, among whose more extraordinary productions is a recent highly praised dissertation explaining fellatio and cunnilingus among the upper middle classes as an adaptive response to constant resources.” Lewontin saw Dawkins and the neo-Darwinians as fundamentalists, eager to explain every evolutionary change as an “adaptation,” the product of natural selection optimizing the organism for its ecological niche. The Gould-Lewontin view was not that natural selection didn’t exist, just that it wasn’t all-powerful; it was merely one among several processes that could account for change.

They charged that the neo-Darwinians were “Panglossians” and tellers of just-so stories, identifying traits that could be the products of chance or morphological constraint as evidence of “the best of all possible worlds,” and inventing fairy tales about how those traits came to evolve. Ergo, adaptive oral sex. These just-so stories were not always neutral. Lewontin identified a tendency to blur psychological phenomena such as “aggression” into social ones such as “war.” People, he pointed out, don’t go to war because they’re aggressive. They go to war because they’re patriotic or paid or conscripted. To give a purely psychological explanation is to subsume social facts into biology in a way that makes politics vanish.

Evolutionary psychology was sociobiology turned inward, from human behavior to the psychological mechanisms that generated it.

for a while during the 1980s, it seemed as if the Lewontin-Gould axis had the upper hand. Contrary to Wilson’s blithe certainty, the social sciences showed no signs of capitulation, and as research in genetics progressed, the staggering complexity of the molecular machinery became apparent and the prospect of finding genes that had simple relationships to high-level social behaviors receded. But things started to change when scientists revolutionized the techniques for sequencing and manipulating DNA, and genes began to be discovered that played a part in human disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases. In the 1990s the inauguration of the Human Genome Project and an exponential growth of cheap computing power meant that suddenly geneticists were showered with data and had the tools to analyze it.

Dawkins had been maintaining biology’s forward position on the terrain of social and cultural explanation. His idea of “memes” proposed the existence of cultural replicators, spreading ideas and practices in quasi-biological ways. After The Selfish Gene, his next book, The Extended Phenotype, developed the theory that genes are not expressed only in the physical characteristics of an organism. “We must think of each replicator as the center of a field of influence on the world at large,” he wrote—a field of influence that included such artifacts as ant hills and termite mounds, but that also had clear implications for human culture, opening the way for a renewal of the sociobiological program in the form of EvoPsych.

Evolutionary psychology was sociobiology turned inward, from human behavior to the psychological mechanisms that generated it. If those mechanisms were discrete “modules” (what Wilson had called “devices”), then evolved traits or adaptations could be identified and understood using the standard tools of experimental psychology. Surveys could be conducted. Reactions could be measured. Behaviors could be defined. The field quickly became popular, with researchers beavering away, trying to isolate some aspect of human behavior, describe a mental module that could generate it, and propose an adaptive reason for that module’s existence. By the early 2000s, evolutionary psychology was thoroughly ensconced in mainstream political and cultural discourse. And no one played a more important role in popularizing its ideas than the Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, whose pugnacious 2002 book The Blank Slate stands as one of the great monuments of the Anglo-American culture wars.

As a graduate student at Harvard, Pinker witnessed “the political paranoia and moral exhibitionism that characterized university life in the 1970’s, the era in which the current opposition to the sciences of human nature took shape,” and the book is in part a re-litigation of the sociobiology debates, devoting long passages to arguments with Lewontin and Gould about the salience of natural selection in shaping brain and behavior. “The blank slate” names what Pinker sees as the primary fallacy of sociobiology’s critics, the notion of the mind as a tabula rasa, written on by “the environment,” rather than a complicated ecology of specialized modules that generate cultural behavior. He attributed the “decline and fall” of the “elite arts and humanities” to faith in the blank-slate theory of human psychology. With equal chutzpah, he dismissed the left-wing politics of evolutionary psychology’s opponents as being based on a “Utopian Vision” of human nature, which he contrasted with a “Tragic Vision,” an opposition taken from the conservative economist Thomas Sowell. Utopian visionaries believe (in Pinker’s version) that “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements” and hence human nature is in fact infinitely plastic and can be completely changed by changing those social arrangements. Tragic visionaries see hard limits to that plasticity, and accept, with Kant, that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Unsurprisingly, Pinker came down on the Tragic side. “My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision.”

the critique of EvoPsych’s opponents was not simply that they were utopian, though. It was that they were relativists, too unmoored to mount a defense of their own liberal way of life. Asked about the threat the religious Right posed to science, Dawkins told an audience at the Hay Festival in 2007 that “we face an equal but much more sinister challenge from the left in the shape of cultural relativism—the view that scientific truth is only one kind of truth and it is not to be especially privileged.” In the years since, evolutionary psychology has come to stand, in debates around race, gender, and group differences, as a totemic “science” opposing some version of standpoint epistemology, a prestigious source of politically incorrect “facts” that don’t care about your socially constructed “feelings.” And “science” (and in particular the kind of public-facing science that addressed social questions) in turn came to stand in for something vaguer and more politically intoxicating, something that started to be equated with “enlightenment values,” referring to epistemic virtues such as truth and objectivity. If you were skeptical of EvoPsych’s just-so explanations for complex social behaviors, its defenders asserted, you were skeptical of the Enlightenment.

given the elevation of evolutionary psychology to these giddy heights, it would be easy to imagine that all its claims are settled, or that its picture of the evolved brain is universally accepted. This is not the case. There is the old debate about the degree to which observed traits must be the result of natural selection. A question mark also hangs over the theory that the brain is specifically adapted to a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer environment. Some structures appear to be much older, dating back to early primate history. Research has also shown that evolution can produce significant changes on much shorter timescales, so it’s possible that the search for “Stone Age” impulses beneath the sophisticated veneer of modern social life, while picturesque, is misguided.

To some neuroscientists, the cybernetic tradition of abstracting the brain into an information system—the so-called Computational Theory of Mind—is a useful metaphor that has been taken too far.

They believe that evolutionary psychologists have themselves been captured by a kind of blank-slate-ism, abstracting the mind into patterns and flows of information without paying sufficient attention to the evolutionary constraints imposed by the actual chemistry and biology of the brain. Also controversial is the picture of the evolved brain as a collection of discrete “modules,” each dedicated to a specific task. Evolutionary psychologists consider this idea banal. After all, the body is composed of specialized organs. If an eye can evolve, why not a mental module for detecting cheating, or intuiting the ideal waist-hip ratio of a potential mate? But critics point out that there’s no conclusive evidence that the brain is actually organized in this way, and if it isn’t, the neatly packaged “adaptations” studied by evolutionary psychologists may not exist.

And this conflict is not only about science: the war in which James Damore became a foot soldier is one in which science is often politics by other means. If something is natural, it is surely pointless to try to change it. If “we” or “our genes” are “naturally” xenophobic, then policies promoting diversity are doomed to fail. If competition is adaptive, then isn’t redistribution maladaptive? If sexual roles are innate, then why change the workplace? Biologists warn time and again that (as the philosopher of biology Evelyn Fox Keller puts it) “trying to determine how much of a trait is produced by nature and how much by nurture, or how much by genes and how much by environment, is as useless as asking whether the drumming that we hear in the distance is made by the percussionist or his instrument.” And yet the dream of a politics founded in nature is always too tempting to resist.

Hari Kunzru is the author of six novels, including Red Pill. He writes the Easy Chair column for Harper’s.
Originally published:
June 1, 2022


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