Why do I really love my wife? Why do I feel a sense of warmth and contentment when we sit beside each other holding hands on a chilly autumn evening? Why do I feel a surge of joy and pride when I see one of my children shows maturity in her social judgments, or creativity in his artistic talents, or mastery of her school assignments? And what about my sense of purpose and satisfaction in writing this article, my hope that I might contribute to growth in the Christian community and the pursuit of truth? What even of my devotion to Christ, the Christian faith, and the moral life taught by the church? Are these and other feelings really what they seem?
The answers to these questions and more, Robert Wright tells us, are to be found in evolutionary psychology, a field of study that claims to provide a fundamental understanding of human motivation and purpose. The theory Wright expounds is at once elegant and strikingly counterintuitive. As he explained in a Time magazine cover story (Aug. 15, 1994), “The human mind, like any other organ, is designed for the purpose of transmitting genes to the next generation; the feelings and thoughts it creates are best understood in these terms.” Getting my genes into the next generation: that, according to evolutionary psychology, is the ultimate purpose of my life. And yours.
This Darwinian understanding of human nature is not universally accepted even among secular academics. It is, however, a perspective that is increasingly influential in the human sciences. As Wright observes, evolutionary psychology is a comprehensive world-view: “Once truly grasped . . . it can entirely alter one’s perceptions of social reality.”
Christians will have to contend with evolutionary psychology, much as we have had to contend with psychoanalysis and other psychological understandings of the person. Wright's book The Moral Animal is a good introduction to this world-view. A journalist specializing in science, Wright is a gifted popularizer whose work is accessible to the general reader, yet not at the cost of “dumbing down” essential concepts.
The Selfish Gene
While its roots go all the way back to Darwin's second major theoretical work, The Descent of Man, today's evolutionary psychology began to take form in the 1960s and '70s, when a pioneering group of scientists loosely associated with what was known then as "sociobiology'' began to explore how natural selection might have influenced the development not only of physical structures but also of social behavior, ranging from the coordinated work of ants to the powerful emotions and religious musings of humans. This widened the scope of examination beyond physical structures to include social and psychological behavior.
A second major change was the move from thinking of survival as the goal of natural selection to a focus upon propagation. We are accustomed to thinking of Darwinian evolution in terms of "survival of the fittest." Indeed, modern Darwinians argue, only those structures, traits, and patterns that abet survival will persist. But survival is not an evolutionary end in itself. Survive, but fail to propagate, and you are erased from history. Survive to propagate, and your genetic material may live forever! Propagation must, therefore, take conceptual precedence.
Wright is well aware that this perspective will be alien and unwelcome to many readers, but he does not attempt to soften the message of evolutionary psychology to make it more palatable. On the contrary, he repeatedly asserts that "essentially everything about the human mind should be intelligible in these terms. The basic ways we feel about each other, the basic kinds of things we think about each other and say to each other, are with us today by virtue of their past contribution to genetic fitness."
Obviously, most people most of the time are not consciously choosing strategies to ensure propagation of their genes. If told they were doing so, they would express incredulity and scorn. Like Freudian psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology posits sly unconscious motives beneath our everyday thoughts and actions. And like the analyst (most of whose cherished concepts are swept out with the Darwinian broom), the evolutionary psychologist claims to discern the underlying patterns in the fabric of human society.
The Mating Game
Consider what Wright calls our "breeding strategies." One major focus of evolutionary psychology is how men and women are at odds in their strategies for optimizing their chances for propagation. Evolutionary psychology says men can succeed through a few moments of copulation—get her pregnant and you win. Men are thus naturally promiscuous and sexually indiscriminate: It is to their genetic advantage to impregnate as many females as possible during their lifetime, as this optimizes their chances of passing their genetic heritage on to subsequent generations. This impulse is not felt as a conscious desire to procreate but rather flows from natural selection's sculpting of the powerful pleasures of sex and an impulse to engage in it.
Women, on the other hand, must copulate, carry a child for nine months, nourish it, and see it to independence. Compared to the young of other species, human children require an exceptionally high degree of parental investment. In our modern culture as in the past, it is hard for a single mother to survive on her own in raising her kids, and ample empirical evidence now exists that children raised by single mothers are at a significant disadvantage in their adulthood in terms of vocational, relational, and emotional stability. To be at a disadvantage in these areas is to be at a disadvantage in Darwinian terms as well, in that the disadvantaged child is going to have a harder time propagating the parents' (now its own) genes.
Because children favored by higher levels of parental investment by their fathers are advantaged in the race to propagate, a mechanism to make this more likely has evolved through natural selection. Our human capacity to fall in love, Wright tells us, serves to keep men around long enough to make an investment in their children; because it pays dividends in evolutionary terms, this behavior has become one of the defining characteristics of our species. Monogamy and romantic love favor women and children. If a man gets a woman pregnant and runs, she and her child lose. Make sex contingent upon commitment, and seal that commitment with a bond of romantic love, and woman and child win.
So what about men's notoriously promiscuous impulses? Evolutionary psychology suggests that, on balance, a man is most advantaged in evolutionary terms when he remains in a monogamous relationship with a woman, contributing to raising children that he knows are his genetic progeny, while having multiple affairs on the side, thus increasing his chances of siring even more children; this is what Darwinists call a "mixed strategy." This strategy, evolutionary psychologists believe, accounts for the historical prevalence of polygamy in human cultures. Polygamy allows powerful males to monopolize more "precious female eggs" in a legitimate and genetically optimized living arrangement.
You can see immediately why many feminists hate Wright's book: it is perceived as justifying infidelity, excusing sexist double standards (''Let me sow my wild oats with the women of the night, but I want to marry a virgin"), painting women as pathetically dependent upon male support, and depicting husbands as the suffering and self-sacrificing marital partners simply because they must rein in their impulses to promiscuity. Sure, it is offensive; but is it true?
What makes evolutionary psychology "scientific" is that these ideas are used to make predictions about the way people are, and data are being gathered to verify or disconfirm these predictions. There is ample empirical evidence, for example, supporting the age-old caricature of men as sexually indiscriminate. College undergraduates were asked how intelligent someone would have to be for them to consider dating that person, and the common answer for men and women was average intelligence. When asked how intelligent someone would have to be before they would consent to have sex with that person, women raised the ante to ask for higher intelligence, while men lowered the ante to markedly below average. In a different study, college students were approached by an attractive stranger on campus and asked either to meet on neutral turf for a date, to go to the person's apartment for the evening, or explicitly to have sex. Through this progression of questions, female respondents became less cooperative to male questioners, with 50 percent agreeing to a date but 0 percent agreeing to have sex. Male respondents increased their cooperativeness to female questioners, with 50 percent agreeing to a date and over 75 percent agreeing to have sex.
Evolutionary psychology purports to explain all of human interaction, not just our "breeding strategies." The greater frequency of physical and sexual abuse of children in cohabiting or blended households, for example, is explainable as the result of genetic disinterest of step-parent adults who inherit nongenetically related burdens.
Even grief is argued to be shaped by evolutionary concerns; Wright cites survey research showing that parents believe they would grieve more for the death of an older child or adolescent (which is nearer to breeding age) than for the death of an infant (which is further from serving us by breeding) or of an older parent (who is no longer a breeder).
Similarly, the steady rise in male violence in the impoverished lower classes is deemed the inevitable result of the frustration of the urge to mate, as men despair of acquiring enough social success to have the means to form a family and propagate.
Truth: An Endangered Species
So how should we evaluate evolutionary psychology? Let us first examine it on its own terms. Wright's book is a journalistic treatment of this topic rather than a scientific argument. He clearly aims to be provocative and seems deliberately to engage in speculation as a means of moving his audience.
Unlike a careful scientist, Wright surveys only research that supports his hypothesis—many of his arguments are undercut by the availability of equally plausible competing hypotheses or data contrary to his theory—and any methodological limitations or difficulties with the supporting literature are ignored or minimized.
Remarkably missing from his discussion is an awareness of the relatively small absolute size of many of the findings he does report. For instance, he confidently claims as support for Darwinian psychology the "finding" that women desire intercourse more when they are ovulating; but this effect has been researched for years, and the results of the various studies show that either this effect does not exist or is a profoundly weak correlation. (Wright does state in a footnote that this issue is "unsettled," a much less confident statement than in the text of the book.)
Though it was released after The Moral Animal went to press, there would seem to be scant support for evolutionary psychology in the recent Sex in America survey; the supposedly powerful drive toward infidelity receives tepid empirical support from the best research.
Which leads us to the question of human thought and the search for truth. Like psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology sees primitive animality at the core of our being. As such, it should come as no surprise that evolutionary psychology contributes to the postmodern depreciation of rationality and our capacity to know truth, much as psychoanalysis has. If evolutionary psychology is true, Wright says,
then we will tend to believe things that lead to behaviors that get our genes into the next generation .... What is in our genes' best interest is what seems "right"—morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of rightness is in order. . . . Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth. For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth—moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse—are, by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles. . . . Already many people believe what the new Darwinism underscores: that in human affairs, all (or at least much) is artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image. And already this belief helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability to take things seriously.
In the Darwinian view, moral and religious traditions do not survive because they are true, but because they contribute to genetic fitness generally; those traditions must have helped some individuals and groups to survive and propagate. Wright argues that "there is definitely no reason to assume that existing moral codes reflect some higher truth apprehended via divine inspiration or detached philosophical inquiry." Similarly, in his concluding chapter on religion, Wright suggests that "the Darwinian line on spiritual discourse is much like the Darwinian line on moral discourse. People tend to say and believe things that are in their evolutionary ingrained interests."
If our moral and religious traditions are merely functional models, to be discarded when they no longer serve their purpose, do the evolutionary psychologists have something better to offer? What about drawing morality from this system itself? Wright gives a profoundly mixed message regarding the "cash value" of this view of persons for developing a working system of morality and transcendence.
On the one hand, Wright argues that evolutionary thinking cannot generate morality. He explicitly seeks to avoid the naturalistic fallacy of inferring what ought to be from what is observed to be. In an essay in The New Republic, Wright argues, ''What's natural may or may not be good, but it's certainly not good by virtue of the fact that it's natural." He goes on to argue that what evolutionary psychology can do is to inform our understanding of the costs of and resistances to change. In The Moral Animal, he argues, "There is no reason to adopt natural selection's 'values' as our own," and that Darwinism "cannot . . . furnish us with basic moral values." He also argues that what is true for people as a group cannot become a guide for individual action. For example, while it is to the genetic advantage of males in general to be promiscuous, no individual male should feel himself thereby licensed to pursue promiscuity.
On the other hand, Wright is willing to say explicitly of evolutionary psychology that this "true understanding of human nature will inevitably affect moral thought deeply and, as I will try to show, legitimately."
He cannot have it both ways: moral neutrality and moral guidance. In fact, Wright leans heavily toward guidance. The internal structure of his book suggests strongly that he means to apply this reasoning to the analysis and guidance of individual life, despite his protests to the contrary. Indeed, what keeps The Moral Animal engaging (beyond the outrageousness of Wright's pronouncements) is his narrative reconstruction and analysis of the life of Charles Darwin from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. The most odious example of Wright's evolutionary analysis is his account of the profound grief of Charles and Emma Darwin on the death of their daughter Annie. Bluntly, Wright argues that she was the child with the most reproductive potential—thus the grief. Wright turns explicitly prescriptive when he opines that "parents should . . . dole out investments in their various children with all the discernment of a Wall Street portfolio manager, the goal always being to maximize overall reproductive return on each increment of investment." A parent, by this rule, would be a fool to devote much time to a retarded child, or any child whose reproductive potential is diminished. Passages such as this suggest that Wright's declarations that Darwinian theory cannot be applied to individuals are mere window-dressing. If Wright makes such specific applications, why in the world shouldn't single male readers use his arguments to justify their rampant sexual promiscuity? Since Wright disavows direct moral guidance from the Darwinian paradigm, he feels compelled to offer a grounding for moral decision-making. All that he can offer to buffer the harsh Darwinian ethic is the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, a contemporary of Darwin who proposed that morally "right" actions are those that promote the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people. This moral calculus is, in the words of Wright, "just about all that we have left." After all, "everyone's happiness can, in principle, go up if everyone treats everyone else nicely."
Apart from the anemic character of this broad appeal for niceness, the problem with Wright's alternative is obvious. One of the classic weaknesses of utilitarianism is its inability to articulate any persuasive reason why, when my interests run counter to the general good, I should sacrifice my advancement for the welfare of others. The mindset of evolutionary psychology merely compounds this problem. The Bosnian Serbs could argue that by "cleansing" their Muslim neighbors off the map, they are simply increasing their resources for child-rearing in difficult times. When the going gets tough, why shouldn't we circle the wagons and protect our own genetic self-interest? · It is for this reason that Wright's silence on the topic of racism is so disquieting. There is precious little within this system that can serve as a basis for opposing eugenics or racial warfare.
Acknowledging Our Biological Nature
How should Christians respond to this movement? Scientific creationists will, of course, have no trouble handling Wright's arguments: evolutionary psychology is founded upon a false dogma and therefore wrong. For theistic evolutionists, the claims of evolutionary psychology are more problematic. Yet, as Phillip Johnson wrote in a recent Christianity Today article (Oct. 24, 1994, pp. 22–26), for Christians of all persuasions, ''The primary issue is whether God created us at all."
If God created us, regardless of the means, then perhaps our motives are not so base as evolutionary psychology would suggest. Perhaps there is a basis for parents to love an adopted child, for a husband to remain faithful to his wife, or even for someone to forgo marriage and serve God as a celibate single. Only a view of persons as created beings can make sense of these human drives.
Still, there is a great danger that, in rightly rejecting the world-view of evolutionary psychology, Christians will reflexively reject genuine knowledge about our biological nature. Modern science, with its ever-growing documentation of the biological foundations of human life, challenges us to a deeper understanding of what it means for God to have intentionally made us as biological creatures. The unique witness we have to offer to the world is the testimony that we are not merely biological. But we err if, in declaring our unique qualities, we implicitly or explicitly deny our embodied nature.
If Christians can acknowledge sexuality and the desire for procreation as important basic motivations, for example, then we will not object to analyzing human behavior in terms of how certain patterns may be explainable by their influences upon mating and procreation. What we will object to is the elevation of this motivation to the status of the Master Drive to which all other motivations are secondary.
We are sexual, but we are not merely sexual. We are biological, but we are not merely biological. We were created for more than that—we were created first for a loving and intimate relationship with our Creator, and also for loving connectedness with spouse, children, family, friends, and neighbors, with our brothers and sisters in Christ and with the people of a hurting world who do not know Christ, and for meaningful work in a real world as responsible stewards over the created order. Procreation is not the end-all and be-all of life.
Some Christian apologists have urged us to defend the faith by pushing non-Christians to the logical limits of their world-views. If I accepted evolutionary psychology's vision of life, I would feel compelled to move in one of three directions: (l) to become a "family values" racial supremacist, dedicated to the advancement of my clan; (2) to become an amoral psychopath pursuing my personal advantage in terms of sexual conquest and social advancement; or (3) to kill myself and get it over with since there is no point anyway.
Surprisingly, Wright envisions the good society as characterized by sexual restraint before marriage, faithful monogamy in marriage, shared loving investment of parents in their children, and interpersonal cooperation, peace, and accord. Ultimately, his philosophy cannot produce this outcome. It is a sterile world-view, and we can only hope that it will soon be extinct since it cannot fulfill its intended function. Only a transcendentally grounded understanding of human character and purpose can deliver on the vision Wright paints for us.
Stanton L. Jones is chair of the Department of Psychology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois; with his wife, Brenna, he is the author of God's Design for Sex, a family sex-education series (NavPress).
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