I want to try to pin down what rubs me the wrong way about pop-Darwinian behavior science. Not the real science, but the part where the scientists try to evaluate ethical choices using their evolutionary insights.
What has set me off is this piece from Tim Lockney, The Daily Tar Heel's “behavior columnist,” which asks what the evolutionary point of alcoholism might be. I shouldn't be too hard on him, because he's just a biology major trying to write a weekly column, but I have to wonder what he thinks the point of his argument is.
His thesis is that college students get terribly drunk and do stupid things on the weekend out a deep instinctual drive to impress potential mates. I'm not sure what part of Amotz Zahavi's handicap theory is “new” to Lockney, but that's the basis for his claim:
“Because I can drink so much without dying, far more than my peers, then I must be the most evolutionarily fit male to father your offspring. This theory goes deeper than sociological explanations (peer pressure, pleasurable tastes and feelings, lowering inhibitions, etc.) and concludes that our animal instincts to impress females enough to impregnate them drive our consumption.”
He concludes on an ambiguous note, claiming both that the ability to consume great quantities of alcohol was once a useful demonstration of sexual prowess, but also that alcohol consumption only demonstrates liver capacity, so “maybe the sociologists are right” (in which case the entire article is pointless).
My question: how does knowing the biological origins of our desires help us decide how whether to act on them? I don't see how this knowledge can do anything to help me order my own life, though I suppose it could help you if you were trying to control other people. From my subjective perspective, how can I know whether a particular desire is maladaptive? Trust the scientists? And even if it is maladaptive, what if I decide to do something with my life besides doing my utmost to ensure the continued existence of my own genetic material?
It seems to me that you can only call something maladaptive when you can study it through several generations of other organisms. As a decision-making individual, you have to evaluate your needs and desires on a “non-evolutionary” standard.
The recent New York Times science article, by Marlene Zuk on “paleofantasies,” which considered why we yearn for a time of ancient biological balance, was a better article, but my reaction comes along the same lines. Here's the opening:
“Maybe our woes arise because our Stone Age genes are thrust into Space Age life. That beer gut? It comes from eating too many processed carbohydrates; our bodies evolved to eat only unrefined foods, mainly meat, and we get out of kilter veering from our ancestral diet.
Food allergies and digestive woes? We, like other mammals, aren’t meant to consume dairy products after weaning. When politicians fall from grace after committing adultery, some commentator will always point out that such behavior has evolutionary roots: weren’t the best procreators alpha males with roving eyes?
In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello called ‘paleofantasies.’ She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to nostalgia for the very old days as a touchstone for the way life is supposed to be and why it sometimes feels so out of balance.”
Zuk's basic response is that there never was a perfect balance. Surely, ancient men had their woes as well, and the process of adaptation is continual. Genes for adult lactose tolerance, for example, appeared quite recently. So don't imagine that there was some time when man had a the perfect healthy diet.
What Zuk says seems reasonable to me, and I'm glad that I learned a little bit about lactose tolerance. But I still don't see how this information will play into any basic decisions I will make. So my descendents might someday be better adjusted to a modern diet. But even if they get a gene that lets them eat Snickers Bars like salads and still be fine, I don't have it. Again: I have to make my own decisions on non-evolutionary criteria.
The problem I have with pop-Darwinism, then, is that it takes a worthwhile field of human knowledge—the study of our genes and how they came to be—and tells us that understanding the origins of our desires is enough to make good decisions about them. But this understanding isn't enough.