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Friday, December 31, 2004

Steve Jay Gould: Evil Genius

In common parlance, an evil genius is someone who wants to take over the world. He has an agenda, an evil plan, and with a cackle wants to upset the applecart of the righteous. Evil geniuses are great for movies, are wonderful topics for popular history books, and are marvelous ways to mobilize the population, the troops, or the stock market. In the halls of academe though, evil genius is usually cause for, well, apathy. The answer is simple. Intellectual conquest usually occurs without muss or fuss, and if its easy to delude yourself that you are taking over the world of academic or popular opinion, it's just as easy for others to ignore your smiling face on that book cover in an isolated corner of Barnes and Noble. Moreover, if bad intellectual thought is bereft of any concrete impact on our lives (like bad economic policy), and doesn't cause train wrecks, economic depression, or world wars, it just hangs around in the minds of a coterie of true believers, who generally ignore everybody else, including true disbelievers.

Sometimes though, a scientist comes along who has the intellectual wattage to attract a lot of readers, and to dispute popular intellectual ideas. It is here that intellectuals rise up like a horde of army ants to bite on the reputation of the evil genius who stomped on their hill. Such a writer was the late Steven Jay Gould. An eminent evolutionary biologist who just happened to be an eloquent essayist on biology, Gould perceived his discipline from separate perspectives of history, literature, and the arts. He advocated a pluralistic tradition, whereby knowledge was informed by many intellectual venues. Gould argued that it was impossible to have a monolithic perspective that gave precedence to one metaphorical perspective on how organisms develop and behavior, namely that everything had to be explained by natural selection, or survival of the fittest. Accident may have as much to do with the development of species as selection, and the idiosyncratic behavior of humans may owe more to the ability to learn than any inborn instinct.

Naturally, this was anathema to those Darwinians (e.g. Dennett, Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, Dawkins) who saw evolution in everything, and Gould was roundly ostracized for not keeping the Darwinian faith. Now this writer is as attracted to bad psychology as a gourmet is to stinky cheese, yet bad psychology as well as bad science is characterized not by a Renaissance taste for an integration of general knowledge, but by the one track mind set that has given us fundamentalists of the religious, political, and now Darwinian sort. For a Darwinian or evolutionary psychology, the one track of evolution has led to a mind that has many different tracks, or modules if you will, where the experience of millennia is engraved by evolution.

The core principle of evolutionary psychology is concept of 'massive modularity', which holds that the human brain has developed through evolutionary selection separate neural engravings or instincts to be altruistic, selfish, monogamous, ambitious, or misplacing the remote. Since postulating evolutionary modules rises above proof, as we can't go back in time to see how our ancestors evolved the tendency to misplace soup bones (in present times replaced with the remote control), it's as easy to be a evolutionary psychologist as it is to be a spinner of fairy tales. Gould said as much, and therefore lies his notoriety. Science is not necessarily a hard thing, but it does require a bit more than a healthy imagination. Perhaps that was Gould's evil genius after all, that he indirectly told us that genius does not come cheap.

It's worth noting that recently the distinguished neuropsychologist Jaak Panksepp, addressed the neural reality of the concept of massive modularity, Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology, concluded that it indeed was a fairy tale.

For a good debate between Gould and Darwinian fundamentalists, the following link is most instructive:Darwinian Fundamentalism

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