Thursday, July 2, 2009

Brooks vs. Evolution, Canada vs. the Human Spirit

One of the Canada-linked writers I mentioned this morning, David Brooks, wrote a column dismissing evolutionary psychology for over-explaining every facet of human nature (an overreaching of which some evolutionary psychologists are no doubt guilty, but then, every discipline tends to overreach at times). Though Brooks has said a lot of things I disagree with over the years — and I even had the chance at the last Phillips Foundation gathering to ask him in person about his tendency to defend government (which he defended in faux-Burkean terms as a sometimes-substitute for tradition when other institutions fail) — his attack on e.p. was the first time I actually offered some advice to someone planning to write a letter countering Brooks: a real evolutionary psychology expert, my friend Diana Fleischman. I’m not sure if she or her colleagues followed through, but the response letters the Times actually published are linked here.

It’s interesting that Brooks — who one might imagine loving e.p., given his tendency to adopt some new, often science-based paradigm in almost every column — based his argument mainly on the claim that e.p. makes us sound “hard-wired” whereas we in fact have complex, flexible mental structures, often evolved for one purpose but applicable to many others. I think evolutionary psychologists are well aware of that — indeed, they sometimes alarm conservatives by, for instance, describing human mating strategies as “variable” and contextual rather than one-size-fits-all-circumstances. But then, likable as Brooks is, I get the impression that his mental architecture is probably so wildly flexible that even the loose mental rubrics described by e.p. — or, for that matter, coherent ideology — seem like a straitjacket. Brooks, I suspect, is a nice but anxiety-wracked guy, a bit overwhelmed by this complex world and grateful for new theories that promise to somehow help us navigate the chaos without actually forcing us to take too certain a stand. He wasn’t visibly sweating with nervousness at the Phillips gathering, but somehow it would have seemed in character.

In response to Jacob Levy’s understandable bafflement about what the “Canadacons” (so to speak) who I listed this morning could possibly have in common, I will just say that like Brooks — and unlike the crusading zealots of the U.S. — they all seem to give the impression (for good or ill) of people who are a bit pained by having to juggle multiple competing philosophical principles and a bit angry at more conventional (especially more right-wing) ideologues who think we can move forward deductively from a few rock-solid principles.

This makes them all engaging, sophisticated thinkers but may also contribute to them seeming to be motivated at times — like many liberals and academics in general — by an almost masochistic love of “graceful surrender” (often manifesting as a natural submissiveness to the dominatrices of the left, as it were) — rather than a robust positive philosophy or old-fashioned, unapologetic love of liberty.

If I seem oddly prone to valorize pugnacity and denigrate civility at times, it is out of fear that the smartest and best among us are often drawn to value pleasant dialogue (such as that which dominates academia and the private chambers of the political elite) over the fighting screams that may be necessary to rescue us. It is not literally Canada that I worry about but a Canadianness of spirit, as Nietzsche might have said, that may render us too mild-mannered, eh, to resist ever-expanding tyranny.

1 comment:

Jacob T. Levy said...


‘motivated at times — like many liberals and academics in general — by an almost masochistic love of “graceful surrender” (often manifesting as a natural submissiveness to the dominatrices of the left, as it were)’

too long to adopt as a personal motto, or to put up on my blog like a back-cover blurb?


Anyway, setting myself aside, don’t confuse “actual substantive disagreement with Todd” “intellectual surrender and weakness of will.” Taylor, to take the goofiest example from your list, is many things, but a Seaveyite manque’ isn’t one of them. He is, after all, a Hegelian Catholic, and while juggling competing principles may pain him, that’s because he aims at their ultimate reconciliation. He’s got a strong and unified political-moral vision, and it isn’t mine and isn’t yours and isn’t something he surrenders on.

And Will, it seems to me, is *at least* as comfortable with rigorous argument from first principles as you are. (NB: Just *stating the names* of your first principles over and over again isn’t the same thing as rigorous argument.) I may be prone to a kind of mushy High Berlinism, but Will’s really not– you do him a silly disservce here.

Conversely, I think you give Brooks more credit than he is due…