Nonetheless, I cannot ignore the deep-seated feelings I hold for my wife and children. The usual media response at this time of year is to explain these feelings away by invoking evolutionary psychology. In the hands of the evo pysch people, love becomes a bodily reaction honed by natural selection on the African savannah thousands of years ago.
The goal of evo psych is to sever the ties between common mental terms and biology, in much the same way that modern germ theory has severed the ties between malevolent spirits and disease. Its supporters hope that folk psychology, like folk medicine, will be explained (away) in terms of its underlying physical causes.
Everything from love to religious belief is sucked into the evo psych vortex, and the media plays right along. An article in the January 5, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune announced that gossip is good for us. According to these guys, gossip is a form of curiosity, and curiosity was necessary for survival among our evolutionary forefathers. The column, which appeared in the “entertainment” section of the paper, draws its moral and scientific authority from an article in the October 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind. In that same magazine, by the way, we can find an article purporting to explain why dogs like music. Another groundbreaking piece claims to show that irony is hardwired into the human brain. This is quality stuff, ladies and gentlemen. I wonder if sarcasm is hardwired into the brain as well? Anyway, now we know that gossip is perfectly “natural,” we can immerse ourselves in rumors of celebrity divorces, fashion faux pas and baby daddies without feeling any guilt.
Despite the ongoing popularity of evo psych, the enterprise has already hit rock bottom with the publication of Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2000). Thornhill and Palmer argue that rape confers an evolutionary advantage. After all, why be satisfied generating offspring through one willing, lifetime partner when you could spread your genes through any woman you wanted? Apparently, the authors never consider the evolutionary pressures coming from irate fathers and brothers.
When it comes to Valentine’s Day, Time magazine is one of the worst offenders. The cover of their February 15, 1993 issue promised to explain the “chemistry of love.” Its feature article mixed evolutionary “just-so” stories about our hunter-gatherer ancestors with dubious conclusions drawn from current divorce statistics and biochemical analyses of the euphoric high that arrives with the first flush of romantic attraction. Time revisits this theme every few years (most recently, as of writing, in their January 18, 2008 issue), and the story is always the same.
David Berlinski, who is probably smart enough to be both romantic and a curmudgeon, expressed his skepticism this way: “If sexual preferences are rooted in the late Paleolithic era, men worldwide should now be looking for stout muscular women with broad backs, sturdy legs, a high threshold to pain, and a welcome eagerness to resume foraging directly after parturition. It has not been widely documented that they do” (The Devil’s Delusion, 2009, p. 167).
As usual, Charles Darwin is to blame for all of this madness. Here is a guy who was able to say, with a perfectly straight face, that “animals not only love, but have the desire to be loved” (Descent of Man, 1871, p. 42). When we try to explain the bond between husband and wife in terms of primate behavior or underlying physio-chemical processes, we have to ignore the layers of culture and morality that separate humans from animals. Even worse, we have to ignore the mystery that is revealed in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. His self-sacrificial love for the church was hidden in the divinely ordained relationship between husband and wife (Ephesians 5:22-33). That kind of love defies reduction to biology, roses, greeting cards and yes, even chocolate.
[A version of this article appeared in Think, February 2010, p. 9.]
© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.