Psychology and Philanthropy’s Attack on Darwin and Evolution Theory (part I of II)

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On many days I wear three different hats: geologist, psychotherapist (in the field of counseling psychology), and philanthropist. I try to bring this wide-angle view to the work I do as a philanthropist making and monitoring grants primarily in the areas of mental health and human services. In this two-part blog series I’d like to take a first pass at addressing what I see (using my wide-angle view) as an alarming trend: a new front in the war against Darwin and his theory of evolution.

Most of us know about the “out in plain sight” attack on Darwin known as Intelligent Design or Creationism. I won’t be talking about this front because much has been written about ID in the popular press. For a review of this topic, see Jerry Coyne’s 2009 book entitled Why Evolution Is True (Penguin Books). In this blog series I’d like to focus on a new attack on Darwin that is largely hidden and not widely talked about. (Searching high and low I could only find one book, an edited volume, on the subject, one, arguably, on the fringe: The Death of Truth—Responding to Multiculturalism, The Rejection of Reason, and the New Postmodern Diversity edited by Dennis McCallum (1996, Bethany House.) This attack goes by two names: postmodernism and posthumanism.

Simply, postmodernism is the “theory of no theory” or the “model of no model.” So, in fairness to postmodernism, it’s not that PMers (people who believe in postmodernism) dislike Darwin’s theory of evolution in specific; they dislike all theories in general. My focus here, however, will be on the postmodern attack on Darwin’s theory.

Simply, posthumanism is the theory that holds that humans should move from being biologically-based to mechanically-based entities. PHers (people who believe in posthumanism) believe in the “humans as machines” metaphor. Futurist Ray Kurzweil is arguably the Pied Piper of the posthuman movement. Kurzweil believes that in the not-too-distant future (2043 to be exact) machine brains (aka computers) will merge with biological brains through a process Kurzweil calls the Singularity. Once the Singularity is upon us, humans will transcend the confines and restrictions imposed by biology and, by extension, evolution. In my opinion, the Singularity seems to share much in common with belief in the Rapture in that both are about transcending the bounds of biology. Unlike postmodernism, posthumanism seeks to make a direct attack against Darwin’s theory and its focus on humans as biologically evolved beings.

Postmodernism and posthumanism tend to be familiar bedfellows because at some level both philosophical and political movements wish to attack Darwin. In my opinion, posthumanists are very much aware that they are attacking Darwin (as the above Kurzweil-Singularity example demonstrates). In contrast, I’m not so sure that postmodernsists are aware that they are also attacking Darwin. I’m not sure that postmodernists are aware of how their attack on Darwin (which may be largely unconscious if I am being generous) shares much in common with earlier, modern, attacks on Darwin that go by such names as “atomization” or “reductionism.” Trust me, I’m not an expert in these earlier attacks on Darwin, but philosopher Mary Midgley is. Midgley wrote the 2010 book entitled The Solitary Self—Darwin and the Selfish Gene. A bit further along in this post series I’ll be pulling heavily from Midgley’s book as she describes these earlier attacks against Darwin. But for now allow me to provide you with two examples of where I’m seeing this new and largely hidden attack on Darwin. The first example is from philanthropy; the second is from counseling psychology.

The other day I received a form email message from a prominent leader in the philanthropy community. (It’s not important who this person is.) Suffice it to say that this email message rambled on and was largely incoherent. It appeared as if the author was flitting from one point to another much in the same way a hummingbird flits from one flower to the next. This concerned me because this voice speaks for a large segment of the philanthropy community. If pressed, I would say that the principal message of the email was along the lines of, “The philanthropy community needs to bring about a new paradigm shift centered on consensus through connection.” As we will see below, “consensus” is a postmodern reframe of the modern ideologies of atomization and reductionism: two earlier philosophical theories centered on taking a complex whole and breaking it down into its constitutive parts. Once a whole is “atomized” or “reduced,” a part (often chosen arbitrarily) is used to represent the whole whence it came.

The email provided no real plan or strategy or theory (that I could discern) by which the twin aims of consensus and connection could be achieved. I was left scratching my head. I began thinking of that Pink Floyd song: “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding … how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?” I began playing with the aforementioned email in the following way: “If you don’t connect, you can’t have any consensus … how can you have consensus if you don’t connect?” While keeping our pivot foot firmly planted (lest you draw a foul), lets switch our focus to the field of counseling psychology.

In the mail last week I received my copy of the September 2013 issue of Counseling Today, which is the official publication of the American Counseling Association. (The ACA is the professional trade association representing psychotherapists and counselors). I perused the index and stopped on an article by R. Rocco Cottone entitled A Paradigm Shift In Counseling Psychology. Whoa! … yet another paradigm shift. Here’s the tagline for Cottone’s article:

An evolving focus on the social consenualizing of problems and solutions has the potential to become a major theoretical movement in the field.

Whoa! (number two) … by all indications, it’s the same paradigm shift “rambled” about in the form email mentioned above. And apparently “consenualization” is a word (one that my spell checker had no idea what to do with). Again, as we shall see consenualization shares much in common with the ideologies of atomization and reductionism. I guess you could say that consenualization is a “kinder, gentler” form of atomization and reductionism.

I read Cottone’s article and I must admit that it was way more coherent than the form email I received. However, Cottone’s article took the form of, “This group dislikes this theory, and that group dislikes that theory … so lets all get along by embracing the theory of no theory—postmodernism.” As an example, Cottone specifically mentions that certain feminist groups dislike theories that focus on innateness—the idea that the behavior of all humans (and many higher order animals) is guided in large part by a system of interacting, biologically-mediated behavioral systems such as attachment, caregiving, and even sex. The feminist fear here centers on the possibility that both victim and perpetrator could be linked through their shared motivational system. As a result, theories that focus on innateness, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution or Bowlby’s theory of attachment, are thrown out wholesale. I would argue that this is a clear case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. As Midgley talks about in The Solitary Self, innateness is often thrown out for political reasons and not for scientific reasons. (For more on this theme, see Steven Pinker’s 2003 book entitled The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Books).) This is a trend that our Foundation is addressing through our close association with Syracuse University social work professor Ken Corvo and his efforts to frame domestic violence using such frames as Bowlbian attachment theory and Executive Function theory. (Contact the Foundation for copies of Dr. Corvo’s articles detailing his efforts in this area.)

Using a decidedly modern scientific worldview, Dr. Corvo’s efforts are designed to bring a higher and more accurate level of explanation, prediction, and intervention to the pressing social issue of domestic violence. Dr. Corvo’s research suggests that focusing on the relationship (especially the attachment relationship) between intimate partners explains more of the variation measured as a part of domestic violence research than does focusing on the state of either partner in isolation. The Foundation has supported Dr. Corvo’s efforts for the last ten years.

What’s going on here? Here are two major voices—the former in philanthropy, the latter in counseling psychology—talking about paradigm shifts, building consensus around social problems (e.g., consenualizing), and connecting. In part II, I’d like to take a stab at answering the question, “What’s going on here?” Trust me, I make no promise that I’ll be successful, but I will give it a try. Given that we’re talking about potentially huge changes within two fields that are of concern to me—our Foundation makes many philanthropic grants in the mental health and human services arenas—it behooves me (nay, all of us) to make the effort to find out what’s going on here. In part II, I’ll continue to make my case that this paradigm shift represents (among other things) a new postmodern (and possibly posthuman) attack on Darwin, one that shares much in common with early attacks on Darwin that go by such names as atomization and reductionism.

Postscript: Lest you think that the postmodern frame of consensus is limited to the areas of philanthropy and counseling psychology, allow me to mention a 2013 book by Gary Greenberg entitled The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (Blue Rider Press). DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Suffice it to say that the DSM is the diagnostic bible for not only psychiatry but also for such disciplines as psychology, counseling psychology, and social work. Without a diagnostic code from the DSM, you simply cannot get medical insurance reimbursement, become eligible for certain government service programs, or even receive research grants. (This is why removal of Asperger’s syndrome from the fifth edition of the DSM, released in May, 2013, has created such an uproar within advocacy groups.)

The Book of Woe is a history of the DSM, which, as mentioned above, is now in its fifth edition. What stunned me was Greenberg’s description of the DSM as a book of consensus and not science. Greenberg tells his readers that the DSM does not reference any scientific studies. I studied sections of the DSM (the fourth edition) in graduate school and I cannot believe that this fact escaped my attention. I grabbed my copy of the DSM off my bookshelf and, yup, not one reference to a scientific study.

According to Greenberg, various DSM committees go out and poll psychiatry and psychology practitioners concerning what they are seeing in their clinics, and then these committees distill the information down into diagnostic categories. It’s effectively a process of “category consensus” or “consensus category.” Hmmmm … Pink Floyd is wafting in again: “How can you have any categories without consensus? … You can’t have any consensus without categories.” As Greenberg describes, sadly, the consensus process can be Shanghaied. As an example, Greenberg talks at length about how one very influential psychology professional (who, after the fact, was found to have strong financial ties to the psychopharmacology industry to the tune of millions of dollars) brought about the diagnostic category of pediatric bipolar disorder. Suffice it to say that pediatric bipolar disorder has become a diagnostic “black eye,” and the shift to “diagnosis across a multidimensional landscape” in the DSM edition 5.0 (again, released in May, 2013) is designed in large part to protect against future corruption of the consensus process.

Call me crazy but I thought the shift to science was designed in large part to protect against corruption of the consensus process. Even though the DSM 5.0 is shifting toward a multidimensional landscape (which sounds very postmodern to me), science is not a part of that landscape. As Greenberg points out, the DSM is designed to bring a scientific veneer to an otherwise unscientific discipline, namely, psychiatry. I guess you could say that consensus is designed to bring a veneer of theory to an area that is decidedly anti-theory: the postmodern focus on connecting for the sake of connecting. Even the military had a plan for Internet connection networks: create a distributed communication system that would be resistant to widespread disruption in case of nuclear attack. Even the military had a method for their prescribed madness of connecting for the sake of connecting, which we now know as the Internet.

If the “consensus agenda” has a method or theory, I’d love to hear it. Heck, the method to the consensus agenda that surrounds the DSM is clear: legitimize the psychology and psychiatry professions so that its practitioners can make money without concern for such messy things as science (according to Greenberg). As Greenberg points out, consensus is great for creating reliability, however, like using freckles to diagnose cancer (which is highly reliable), validity drops to the level of chance. The next time you watch a TV commercial for antidepressants, note the key word: “belief.” (For more on the myth—known as “biogenic amine theory”—that in large part legitimizes the billion dollar antidepressant drug industry, see anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin’s 2007 book entitled Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class (Carroll & Graff).) Call me crazy but I view the consensus agenda currently percolating into psychology and philanthropy as, well, crazy. I guess I need a bit more method (e.g., theory) to my madness. How about you? Feel free to leave a comment. See you in part II.