October 11, 2007

Bad Darwinism

Blake Stacey at Science After Sunclipse ("Darwi-friggin-ists", 10/10/2007) was bothered by one word in Ed Caesar's characterization of Deborah Cameron as "a firebrand with an impressive list of pet peeves, including Tories, Darwinists, GNER's passenger service announcements, Big Brother's language 'so-called' experts, man-hating 'pseudo-feminists' and societies for the protection of the semicolon". The word that struck a nerve: "Darwinists".

Americans have grown sensitive to the word "Darwinism" and its variants, since in the United States, scientists are more apt to say "evolution by natural selection," without attaching Charles Darwin's name to the idea. It is the creationists who refer to modern biology as "Darwinism," perhaps projecting a religious view that truth derives from prophecy onto the science they despise.

Of course, "Darwinists" was Caesar's word in that case, not Cameron's. But Blake looked on the web and found a 1997 essay "Language: Sociolinguistics and Sociobiology", in which Cameron uses phrases like "[e]xplanations ... of a vulgar Darwinist kind" and "today's Darwinians". She concluded that

... paradoxically, its bleak certainty is what makes Darwinism so compelling: that may be why it is rapidly emerging as the most powerful secular grand narrative available to fin de siecle westerners. It's not just that the evolutionary narrative speaks to us about who we are and why; more importantly, it does so with a confidence and clarity other narratives lack. Darwinism affirms, contra Marx, that the point is not to change it, for we cannot change our nature. It thumbs its nose at most variants of feminism, suggesting that sexual difference in its most stereotypical forms is irreducible and essential. It cocks a snook at postmodernism, a movement dedicated to destabilising all master narratives, by robustly declaring that there is, indeed, such a thing as human nature (evolutionary psychology is the study of how natural selection has shaped it).

Language is an important test case for Darwinist ideas. Like sexual behaviour, language-using has both a clear biological basis and an obvious social or cultural element; unlike sexual behaviour, however, language- using is exclusively a human trait. Any story that purports to tell humans about our 'nature' is bound to be partly a story about language. When today's Darwinists attempt to annex for nature aspects of linguistic behaviour that were previously taken to the province of culture, they are continuing what is actually a very old debate, in which 'language' is a figure for humanity itself. Ultimately this is a struggle over competing narratives of human nature, one celebrating flexibility, variety and the possibility of change while the other, more austere, offers coherence and stability. Finally, I am less interested in which narrative is 'true' than in why these particular stories of language are ones we seem to want to hear retold in every age.

Blake's comment:

... oversimplifications which elevate gender stereotypes to gospel truth are the problem of evolutionary psychology, not evolution, biology or the scientific method, and it is deeply misleading to heap sins upon "Darwinism" while not bringing the specific subject of evo-psych into the discussion until almost the very end.

I'm sympathetic, and would go further -- simple slagging of "vulgar darwinism", however much deserved, feeds the religiously-motivated opposition to all thinking about biological evolution, whether structural, physiological or psychological. And contra Cameron, I'm more interested in which narratives are true than in why we want to hear them told; and I believe that biological evolution is a key part of the truth about what human beings are like, including how they think and act.

However, I think that Blake Stacey is wrong to accuse Deborah Cameron of importing negative associations from America to hook onto words like darwinist and darwinism. He wrote:

On this side of the Atlantic, hearing a person say "Darwinism" is a red flag that you're dealing with a creationist or, at least, a person whose knowledge of science derives primarily from creationist claptrap. To me, calling evolutionary biology "Darwinism" makes as little sense as calling all modern music "Beethovenism." The year is no longer 1859; we understand many things which Darwin did not, although we stand on his shoulders.

In British usage, "Darwinism" is much more synonymous with evolution in general. (Richard Dawkins is a prime example of this tendency.) I find this unfortunate, partly because it slights all the relevant discoveries we have made since, from Mendel's time to the present day, and partly because it provides unwarranted ammunition to creationists over here. Still, that's the way they talk.

The OED gives us a citation suggesting that derivatives of Darwin were terms of opprobrium even before Charles Darwin came on the scene:

1880 Nature XXI. 246 Coleridge invented the term 'Darwinising' to express his contempt for the speculations of the elder Darwin.

(This would have been Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather, who believed that "all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament".)

And another, suggesting that famous British writers continued into the 20th century to use darwin-derived words to suggest that certain ideas were not quite the thing:

1920 G. B. SHAW in Public Opinion 13 Aug. 160/2 It has restored faith in Providence to a Darwinised world.

And Cameron's 1997 argument, minus the linguistic focus, is closely foreshadowed in an 1876 poem by (British) Edward Dowden, "Darwinism in Morals":

1 High instincts, dim previsions, sacred fears,
2 ---Whence issuing? Are they but the brain's amassed
3 Tradition, shapings of a barbarous past,
4 Remoulded ever by the younger years,
5 Mixed with fresh clay, and kneaded with new tears?
6 No more? The dead chief's ghost a shadow cast
7 Across the roving clan, and thence at last
8 Comes God, who in the soul His law uprears?
9 Is this the whole? Has not the Future powers
10 To match the Past,---attractions, pulsings, tides,
11 And voices for purged ears? Is all our light
12 The glow of ancient sunsets and lost hours?
13 Advance no banners up heaven's eastern sides?
14 Trembles the margin with no portent bright?

(A good question, if a bad poem.)

A quick scan of {Darwinism} in Google News suggests that it now has specific and mostly negative connotations on both sides of the Atlantic, occurring mostly in just two contexts: as the opponent of "creationism" or "intelligent design", or in the phrase "Social Darwinism". Looking over the first four pages, I found that about 60% of the hits put "Darwinism" into opposition with creationism or intelligent design; about 30% were in the phrase "social darwinism"; and the remaining roughly 10% were discussions of Richard Dawkins, or extended uses like "technological darwinism" (invoked to explain the success of the iPod), or things like this screed from David Warren, "The limits of science", 9/23/2007:

The philosophical position corresponding to scientism is called "Positivism," and was systematized by Auguste Comte (the man who coined the term "sociology") in the 19th century. He was building upon the revolutionary heritage of the French Enlightenment; but he was also expressing the God-like aspirations of parlour atheism in the Victorian age -- its "determinism," or faith that once everything is known, everything can be predicted. Lamarckianism, Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, and Phrenology were, to my mind, five other expressions of this naive determinism, that belong today in a Museum of Failed Victorian Ideas.

I didn't find any examples at all of "Darwinism" in the context of a simple evolutionary explanation without piles of explicit ideological baggage heaped on top of it.

Searches for {Darwinism} and {Darwinist} on Google Scholar produce similar results, except that (of course unflattering) references to "social darwinism" and "social darwinist" now outnumber references to the creationism-v.evolution debate. In particular, it's notable how reliable these terms are as indicators of negative sentiment (either directly on the part of the writer, or indirectly in discussions of the views of others). For example, Jerry Fodor's 1998 LRB review of Pinker's How the Mind Works and Plotkin's Evolution in Mind ran under the headline "The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism", and darwinism is just about as good an indicator as trouble that Jerry is not going to be dispensing praise.

In this case, darwinism is not just the London Review's choice for a convenient headline word -- Fodor uses it in contexts like these:

It's their Darwinism, specifically their allegiance to a 'selfish gene' account of the phylogeny of the mind, that most strikingly distinguishes Pinker and Plotkin from a number of their rationalist colleagues [...] I'm particularly interested in how much of the Pinker-Plotkin consensus turns on the stuff about selfish genes, of which I don't, in fact, believe a word.


But it's the inference from nativism to Darwinism that is currently divisive within the New Rationalist community. Pinker and Plotkin are selling an evolutionary approach to psychology that a lot of cognitive scientists (myself included) aren't buying. There are two standard arguments, both of which Pinker and Plotkin endorse, that are supposed to underwrite the inference from nativism to psychological Darwinism. The first is empirical, the second methodological. I suspect that both are wrong-headed.


The literature of Psychological Darwinism is full of what appear to be fallacies of rationalisation: arguments where the evidence offered that an interest in Y is the motive for a creature's behaviour is primarily that an interest in Y would rationalise the behaviour if it were the creature's motive. Pinker's book provides so many examples that one hardly knows where to start.

Anyhow, I agree with Blake that what's happened to the terms darwinism and darwinist is a darn shame. But it's not Deborah Cameron who did it. And at least on the evidence of her recent book, The Myth of Mars and Venus, she often deploys her terminology and her rhetoric just in the way that Blake would like.

Chapter 6 is "Back to Nature: Brains, Genes, and Evolution". Cameron starts with a 2005 headline in the London Evening Standard, "Men are Better Shoppers than Women: It's in the Genes". She then describes evolutionary psychology in general terms:

Arguing that some apparently modern phenomenon, like shopping or eating junk food, can best be explained by going back to the Stone Age is the hallmark of a branch of science known as evolutionary psychology. According to evolutionary psychologists, many behaviour-patterns which we might asume to be products of culture are actually the results of biological evolution: they reflect the ways in which our earliest ancestors adapted to the conditions of life on the prehistoric plain.

She then surveys a number of examples, from Simon Baron-Cohen to pop psychology books like Why Men Don't Iron, and discusses and evaluates the evo-psych arguments as they apply specifically to matters of language and communication. I have to say that her tone is much less, well, shrill than Jerry Fodor's -- there are no words like "stuff", "wrong-headed", "fallacies", and so on. This is a dissection, and a rather careful and limited one, not a bludgeoning.

And the words darwinism and darwinist don't occur anywhere in the chapter.

[Note: this post originally characterized Ed Caesar's treatment of Deborah Cameron as "spectacularly sexist". That was (and remains) my impression, but one British reader (whose comments are given in a separate post here) strongly disagrees, and the point is not really relevant to the current discussion, so I've removed the parenthetical.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 11, 2007 09:37 AM