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

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I ended part I by simply asking, “What’s going on here?” In part I, I pointed to two major voices—one in philanthropy, the other in counseling psychology—talking about paradigm shifts, building consensus around social problems (which one author calls “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.

I’d like to try to answer the question “What’s going on here?” by using an unorthodox vehicle: a mini executive summary of a section from the book entitled The Solitary Self—Darwin and the Selfish Gene by psychology and biology philosopher Mary Midgley (a book I mention in my post of August 21st, 2013, and in part I of this series). The section of Midgley’s book that I’ll subject to “mini summarization” starts on page 55 and is entitled Intelligence and Remorse. This four-page section starts the chapter entitled The Natural Springs of Morality.

Why this particular section? Well, because in many ways this section nicely summarizes the philosophical position that Midgley takes throughout her book. So, yes, this particular mini executive summary will be a summary of a summary in many respects. In this age of declining attention spans, you have to go for the jugular (metaphorically speaking) to get a point across. More generally, I think this section by Midgley provides insightful information on where this “consenualizing” paradigm (which I talk about in part I) comes from and what purpose it serves. As it turns out, consensualizing paradigm shifts (or what Midgley calls “atomization” paradigm shifts—more on this in a moment) are nothing new. In fact there have been no less than three such shifts since the seventeenth century. To understand consenualizing trends today we have to go back and look at earlier examples. The key to the present is the past. Lets get started with my mini executive summary “vampirism.”

Allow me to provide you with a bit of background information to set the stage. It get the impression that Midgley wrote her book in large part to dispel the widely held belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution was (is) centrally about the popular idea of “survival of the fittest.” (As we will see, concepts like “consensualization,” “atomization,” and “survival of the fittest” express a similar worldview.) The idea of survival of the fittest was pushed heavily in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book entitled The Selfish Gene (a phrase that forms part of the title to Midgley’s book). Although Midgley admits that Darwin’s theory does have elements that fit with a “survival of the fittest” framework, she goes on to make the point that many other aspects of Darwin’s theory fit with a “survival of the fittest cooperative” framework. The former is known as “individual selection”; the latter is known as “group selection.” (For more on the theme of the “fittest cooperative,” see David Loye’s 2000 book entitled Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love: A Healing Vision for the 21st Century.) It may sound paradoxical but consensus is more about individual selection than it is about group selection. Toward the end of this post we’ll hear Midgley talk about this paradox. (Note: Dawkins has said that his book The Selfish Gene could have just as easily been called The Cooperative Gene, and that “selfishness” is a metaphor for “how” natural selection works, and not necessarily “why” it works.)

Speaking as a proponent of organismic systems theory (which I have described in earlier posts in the context of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work), Midgley reminds us that the complex process of evolution could be viewed as competitive (e.g., individual selection) or cooperative (e.g., group selection) depending on which level of the system hierarchy one chooses to focus on. Midgley cautions that by only focusing on one layer of the evolution system—competitive or cooperative—the entire system is objectified or atomized, that is to say, part is made to stand for whole (as mentioned in part I). In many respects Midgley tries to understand how this “survival of the fittest” myth or objectification process (which has implications for consenualization and atomization as well) got its start and became such a powerful political and social force. Lets listen in as Midgley opens up the section entitled Intelligence and Remorse:

This determined hostility of biologists to group selection is just one expression of the gulf that has opened between Darwin’s own approach and the social atomism preached by those who claim to be his followers: both the “social Darwinists” in his own day and the neo-Darwinists now.

Simply, social or neo-Darwinists are not true Darwinists in that they believe exclusively in such frames as “survival of the fittest,” “individual selection,” “genetic determinism,” and “every person for him- or herself.” Many followers of John Bowlby and his theory of attachment (aspects of which Bowlby pulled from Darwin’s writings) are also neo-Bowlbians in that they have likewise objectified Bowlby’s (and by extension Darwin’s) theory. I hate to say it but many present-day attachment researchers are hard at work trying to find the attachment gene, or attachment brain center, or attachment neurotransmitter (i.e., oxytocin or the so-called “cuddle hormone”). As Midgley puts it, we’re currently in a “reductive shift from organisms to genes.” What makes consensus a foe of Darwin is its focus on reductionism or atomization. Midgley draws our attention to the main motivation behind atomization and reductionism: a release from all dependency. Simply, you cannot have a group or cooperative process without dependency and dependency relationships. A desire to be released from dependency, contingency, or consideration relationships shares much in common with what sociologists call “free riding”—taking from but not giving back to a cooperative social system. Lets return to Midgley as she gives us the following “bottom line” concerning atomization:

Social atomism is not really an essential part of the idea of evolution. It is essentially political: an ideology shaped by Enlightened individualism, one that takes different forms according to the political and social pressures of the day.

Allow me to pause the summary tape long enough to make the following point: Social atomism, consensualization, and survival of the fittest are all expressions of Enlightened individualism. And Enlightened individualism takes a strong stance against true Darwinian evolution theory with its focus on biologically-mediated behavioral systems, animal–human connections, and organismic systems. Enlightened individualism seeks to separate mind from body, or to separate so-called rationality from our animal or social instincts. As Midgley puts it, atomization is about separating mind from body by raising mind to the level of myth. “[Enlightenment] has seen human intelligence not as organically linked to the material [biological] world,” writes Midgley, “but as something separate, something higher and extraneous, an alien spiritual tribe, called upon to exploit and colonize matter for its own ends.” (Note: Jung, at the end of his career, looked at how the phenomenon of UFO sightings mapped the desire to separate mind from body.) Merging biological mind with mechanical mind as a part of a Singularity process (talked about in part I) is the ultimate and final separation of body from mind. Whereas postmodernism drives a wedge between mind and body, posthumanism disposes of body altogether.

Side Bar: For an uplifting article that comes out decidedly in favor and is an example of true Darwinian evolution theory, see the following article on new research that sheds light on why wolves howl (spoiler alert—the explanation involves the process of attachment and bonding):

Why Do Wolves Howl? Love, Scientists Say—abcNews column by Lee Dye

Ergo, the paradigm shifts being called for within the worlds of philanthropy and counseling psychology are centrally about opposing Darwinian evolution theory. In fact, the paradigm shifts being called for take the form of, “Embracing the theory of no theory.” This in part explains why the form email mentioned above in part I rambled about and made no sense: it espouses no theory or model. When mind becomes cutoff from body (which is nature’s primal model), the mind is able to wander around aimlessly. Back to Midgley.

Midgley tries to convince us that when we uncover objectification (and the myths used to promulgate that objectification, like “survival of the fittest”), we should endeavor to also uncover the associated political motive and process. According to Midgley’s research, the “first strong expression” of atomization or objectification can be found in philosopher “Hobbes’s sharp reaction against [the] religious wars” that raged all around him during the seventeenth century. Midgley calls this type of reaction “simplistic.” (I see it as “dissociative” but that’s a topic for another day.) Such simple reactions are “not interested in relating its findings to the emotional complexity of our actual lives,” writes Midgley. (See part I and my description of Dr. Corvo’s work and his attempts to resist simple reactions.) Like Darwin, Bowlby tried to bring to life “the emotional complexity of our actual [attachment] lives” (quoting Midgley again). As Midgley puts it, “Anyone can become clearer by becoming more abstract, by ignoring certain ranges of facts.” Here are the three simplistic reaction patterns (along with the social pressures of the day) that Midgley points to in her book (quotes by Midgley):

  1. Philosopher Hobbes ===> a reaction against mindless engagement in religious wars ===> promoted “self-interest as a way of combating self-sacrifice”
  2. Philosopher Nietzsche ===> a reaction against mindless engagement in a bourgeois lifestyle and attitude ===> promoted “solitude and self-assertion to debunk the complacent humbug of nineteenth-century life”
  3. Psychologist R.D. Laing ===> a reaction against the mindless love (or dependency) relationship between mother and infant, and within families ===> promoted “do your own thing” while shunning “all outside influence”

Here’s how Midgley describes Laing’s simplistic reaction pattern (which has implications for all of these simplistic reaction patterns):

Of course, the problem [that Laing] faced here is real. How can bad traditions ever be broken if children are constantly influenced by their parents? He evidently hoped, like Plato, that children could be insulated [e.g., atomized] from those traditions provided that their parents did not get too close to them. But unfortunately close attachment [my emphasis] is necessary if people are to grow into social beings at all.

In many respects Laing (who died one year before Bowlby in 1989) appears to be reacting to Bowlby’s idea that attachment or parent–child relationship patterns can be evolutionarily passed from one generation to the next via what Bowlby called Inner Working Cognitive Models. In essence, Laing takes a decidedly anti-evolution stance. Back to Midgley.

The point that Midgley makes is that abstract concepts such as self, self-esteem, self psychology, resiliency, etc., typically arise during periods of confusion and chaos, and take the form of simplistic (or possibly dissociative) reactions. Again, these simplistic reactions are designed to bring order to chaos, but at what price? Bowlby took a dim view of such simplistic reactions as self-esteem and behaviorism because he viewed them as simple reactions to his (and others) efforts to extend the complex and systems-oriented theory of evolution via the equally complex and systems-oriented attachment theory. The idea that the self arises during times of confusion and chaos (and as a simple or dissociative reaction) can be found in a manuscript by history professor Robert Artigiani entitled Science, Hope and History—The Meaning of Human Evolution.

Side Bar: I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the concept of “self” is being rapidly replaced by the concept “brand.” Soon psychotherapists will be helping clients with their “brand-esteem” or how well they are able to market their self or selves. Self is now a commodity that is bought and sold on the reputation market known as social media.

At its core atomization tries to rid us of our obligation to balance and harmonize what Darwin called the social instincts. Balancing and harmonizing social instincts is the topic that Midgley turns to next. In earlier posts I talk about what I call the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (GBAE). In my view the GBAE holds the behavioral systems (e.g., social instincts) of attachment, caregiving, and sex. Bowlby (clearly influenced by Darwin) argued that one of the biggest challenges facing both humans and higher order animals is how to balance and harmonize the demands arising from often conflicting behavioral systems. Bowlby pointed out that humans have a great advantage over animals in that they can use higher order cognitive skills such as mental modeling, perspective taking, and planning to bring peace and harmony within the GBAE. These higher order cognitive skills often fall under the rubric of Executive Function (EF) skills. Lets listen in as Darwin himself talks about the above in a passage delivered by Midgley (emphasis by Midgley; my editorial comments in brackets):

Firstly, the social instincts [i.e., attachment, caregiving, and sex] lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows and to feel sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them …. Secondly, as soon as the mental faculties [such as EF] had become highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be incessantly passing through the brain of each individual [i.e., the EF skill of mental time travel] and that feeling of dissatisfaction which invariably results … from any unsatisfied instinct, would arise, as often as it was perceived that the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature nor leaving behind a vivid impression.

To close out her section Intelligence and Remorse, Midgley provides the following interpretation of Darwin’s position (again, my editorial comments in brackets):

The central peculiarity of humans is not … just their improved power of calculation. It is their wider perspective, their more comprehensive viewpoint [which are both aspects of EF]. They have a longer view backwards and forwards in life [again, the EF skill of time travel]. Their increased power of reasoning is not just a pocket calculator; it is a general intensification of inner [instinctive] activity. Besides recalling isolated acts, these more thoughtful [e.g., mindful] beings now see the continuous course of their own conduct and can compare their own conduct [which are both aspects of EF] and compare it with that of others [more EF]. They cannot always avoid thinking about these things and—because they have to see them in part from the point of view of others [which is the EF skill of perspective-taking]. That is the context in which the question of judging particular acts [within a system of morality] begins to be important.

In the interest of time, allow me to offer up bullet points summarizing how postmodernism and its close cousin posthumanism attack Darwin (using Midgley’s work as a backdrop—quotes are by Midgley). Postmodernism and posthumanism tend to:

  • deny our animal nature
  • deny the existence of innate behavioral systems (the idea that we are all Blank Slates)
  • deny body and biology while exalting mind
  • express a belief in the “people are machines” metaphor
  • express a belief in the Hobbesian mantra “war of all against all”
  • express a belief that self and self interest should be used as protests against the status quo
  • express a belief in simplistic (possibly dissociative) reactions that are overly reductionistic and “reduce life’s distinctive patterns to ones found in things that are lifeless”
  • express a desire to balance and harmonize innate behavioral systems by denying that they even exist at all
  • express a desire to reduce the complexity of human motivation (and motivational systems) to that of self- as opposed to social interest

By way of summing up this section, Midgley laments, “It does seem strange that Darwin’s speculations in The Descent of Man, exploring ways in which we can try to understand our social nature, should have been so widely ignored, even by those who claim to follow him.” The same could be said of Bowlby and his attempts to reveal our attachment nature. Allow me to quote Midgley at length as she reflects on this neglect and how this neglect has lead to the paradox of consensus as a form of individualism (a paradox mentioned above):

This neglect is, as I am suggesting, just one aspect of the Enlightenment’s intense commitment to the individualistic side of the dialectic that always goes on between private and public interests. Politically, that commitment has increasingly built up institutions in the West that are designed to give each citizen his or her own voice, and they do indeed sometimes manage to do this [as in consenualizing]. With that in mind, reformers have rejected and abandoned Hobbe’s preference for despotic rulers [thankfully]. Instead, they have increasingly tried to organize government [and philanthropy, and counseling psychology] by consent, while still keeping things peaceful enough to make people feel that their lives are safe.

Does this project count as individualistic? It is so in the sense that it aims to do equal justice to everyone. But of course, in large and complex societies, it involves very elaborate arrangements that actually limit people’s personal choices in all kinds of ways. We have to obey the majority. Institutions designed to protect our lives—which Hobbes saw as everyone’s prime aim—chronically limit freedom. In fact the first two ideals of the French Revolution—liberty and equality—are in chronic conflict. And as people gradually begin to feel that their lives are secure, they increasingly resent these restraints. It turns out that each person’s aim is not to stay alive but to find his own kind of fulfillment while doing so. (p. 132)

Here’s my “take home” thought: Consensualization, survival of the fittest, atomization, reductionism, self-esteem, people as machines, etc., are actually forms of self-hatred, a hatred of the social dependency and obligation foisted upon us in large part by the attachment behavioral system. For more on this theme, see Peter Marris’ 1996 book entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life (Routledge) (executive summary available). OK, I’ll give Midgley the last word: “Of course our dependencies are dangerous, but who wants to live safely like a billiard ball or a doll [or avatar] that never leaves its package [house]?” Do you wish to live this way? Are you living this way? Feel free to leave a comment.

In a follow-up post to this blog series I’ll try to offer up some suggestions on how to live a more “Darwinian worldview.” The one suggestion I’ll make here is to make an effort to understand why there are currently so many movements that advocate separating body from mind, or, as Pinker puts it, denying human (and by extension, animal) nature. The sole purpose of the posthuman movement is to do away with the body altogether. This blog series was designed to bring this type of understanding to the table. If I have failed then I would suggest that you give Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature a read. Here are three more books on posthumanism that I have mentioned before. Sadly, I cannot find books or articles that critically look at the influence of the postmodern movement in areas such as psychology or philanthropy (The Death of Truth, mentioned in part I, the lone exception). If you know of one, please leave a comment.

  • How We Became Posthuman—Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by Katherine Hayles
  • Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Technological Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
  • Representations of the Post/human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture by Elaine Graham (executive summary available)

Postscript: As I was putting the finishing touches on this blog post, I began reading the 2007 book by Robin Dunbar and his colleagues entitled Evolutionary Psychology (Oneworld Books). If Dunbar’s name seems familiar to you that’s because he wrote the book Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (executive summary available). I just thought I’d pass along the following observation from Evolutionary Psychology made in the opening pages. I think it speaks to the topic of consensualization and its inherently anti-evolution stance: “The statistical nature of evolutionary explanations is important—indeed crucial—because evolutionary change cannot happen if everyone behaves in the same way. Organisms have to constantly test their environment, whether this be physical or social, in order to determine whether they are behaving in an evolutionarily optimal fashion.” A bit further along Dunbar et al. give us this “bottom line”: “Anything that causes a correlation between parents and offspring [such as attachment] has the capacity to be a Darwinian process.”

Acknowledgement: I’d like to say thanks to attachment researcher Jeremy Holmes—author of Exploring In Security—for recommending that I read Midgley’s book. I can see clearly why you made this particular recommendation. It definitely is a book that anyone truly interested in the work of Darwin or Bowlby should read. Sorry it took so long for me to give it a read.