Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Economist on Darwinism : Celebration or Slander?

Now, I realize that the Economist is a conservative paper but this article on Darwinism shocked and horrified me. Conservative it may be, but it's still journalism; whence the lack of research??

The author begins by dismissing ALL of philosophy, sociology and theology: none of these disciplines has succeeded in the view of the Economist in sufficiently applying Darwinism to political policy. Apparently even the most thoughtful people in all of these disciplines believe "that human anatomy evolved, but human behaviour is culturally determined. " (What thoughful philosopher, analytic to continental would make such a blanket statement?) With that quick remark, the authors lose even the few thoughtful allies -- e.g. Dennett or Pinker -- in evolutionary psychology and philosophy that they might have, and simply revert to hearsay and poor reading of Darwin. (Even if I profoundly disagree with Pinker, I at least respect his work) Apparently, the Economist does not consider that in intervening 150 years, thinkers in these various disciplines might have had very good reason for a cautious application of the Descent of Man to policy changes.

The Economist writes "What is extraordinary, though, is how rarely an evolutionary analysis is part of the process of policymaking. To draw an analogy, it is like trying to fix a car without properly understanding how it works: not impossible, but as likely as not to result in a breakdown or a crash." Perhaps what this analogy show is quite apropos but in relation to the authors themselves: without researching or understanding many developments in philosophy in the last 150 years, he should not attempt to "fix" the situation with pseudo-Darwinian theory.

The authors suggest wild theories on the nature of sexual selection -- on how women choose mates based on status -- when in fact, as Helena Cronin puts it, " the modern conception of sexual selection is not about discriminating animals but about discriminating genes" (cited in Slotten's The Heretic in Darwin's Court 297).

And consider their fantastic choice of the phrase "distribution of women" to describve contemporary monogamous relations ships.

Perhaps most galling is the author's revelation that the reason women after childbirth and marriage make less than men is NOT due to discrimination, as popular liberal mythology would have it, but that "Once they have found the best available mate, the calculation changes: a woman no longer needs to show off. " That's right, Economist: the only reason a woman might pursue a career is to show off to her potential (only male!) mates. (All debates on gender and sexuality are apparently irrelevant to this brand of so-called Darwinism)

The Economist seems to have missed one of the pretty basic distinctions we need to make: between description and prescription. I can describe the situation of people tending toward discrimination, rape or murder, but I do not prescribe it in policy. Darwin himself was a profoundly cautious thinker and writer, however constrained by the prejudices of his era, taking decades before publishing definitive claims. I'm sure he would never make the mistakes now that the Economist makes in his name.