We are awash in the language of the human sciences. Each new day brings a slew of hyperbolic headlines, each brandishing the results of some recently published study that claims, in the arid language of science, to have uncovered what we are like, where we came from and why we do what we do.
The results of these studies are incommensurable: each discipline offers its own means of reducing us to our most basic. Sociologists and social psychologists tell us that we are products of our social circumstances, that our desires and ambitions are shaped by the structures around us, and that our sense of ourselves as unique is a myth. Neuroscientists and biologists tell us that we are simply brains and bodies: the outcome of firing neurons and biochemical processes that operate far below our conscious awareness. Economists, with their abstract models of markets, paint us as rational, self-interested actors, always seeking to maximize our utility. And evolutionary psychologists — the cool kids of the human sciences — giddily inform us that we are simply talking mammals, no less susceptible to the overwhelming pressures of survival and reproduction than the lion or emu.
These various knowledge claims are no longer the exclusive remit of stuffy academics: today, they belong to the realm of popular knowledge, appealed to in common conversation, drawn on to make sense of the profound and the mundane. We live in a world obsessed with the human sciences: their grand pronouncements have become so much a part of everyday life in the twenty-first century that we take their presence and authority in our lives largely for granted.
A cynic might say that this is because we moderns are narcissists. But I think our love of the human sciences derives, first, from the peculiarly modern desire for total mastery — over nature, our bodies and our souls; and second, from the moral and existential functions they fulfil for us.
Pick-Up and Evo Psych
I recently had a conversation with a young man I will call Max, who is into pick-up (or what is sometimes called the Game) — a subculture in which men learn seduction techniques in order to sleep with unsuspecting women. A shy, somewhat socially awkward person, Max had never had much luck with women. Still, at first, he was sceptical of pick-up culture. He didn’t like the way many pick-up artists spoke about the female sex, and felt pangs of guilt at the emotional manipulation techniques used to attract a mate. However, his conscience was assuaged once he learned that the philosophy informing pick-up is supported by evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology (evo psych) has become the celebrity discipline of the human sciences. It begins from the assumption that we — Homo sapiens — are biological creatures with a built-in, genetically coded drive to reproduce. From this reasonable assumption, sophisticated and elaborate theories are formulated in order to explain human behaviour in a variety of contexts. Critical to the whole enterprise, however, is the notion that our biological makeup, combined with the evolutionary pressures to survive and reproduce and the way those pressures interact with specific social dynamics, serve to mould our deepest instincts.
Evolutionary psychology holds that men and women are innately different, as a result of evolutionary processes. Because it takes women nine months to bear a child, they are less promiscuous and more judicious when selecting a mate. Because males can spread their seed with ease, and because it is in their genetic interest to do so, men are more promiscuous and less selective. This, Max explained, is why men are so preoccupied with sex. He also explained that every social group has a dominance hierarchy. Men must compete with each other to become the alpha — the dominant male — for that is how one attracts females. Max lamented having been a beta male for most of his life: pick-up was teaching him how to become an alpha, thereby allowing him to fulfil his nature.
The Moral Limits of the Human Sciences
Evo psych has been used to justify a whole range of attitudes and social outcomes. Its findings are appealed to in debates about everything from gender and sex to race and inequality.
There is much to learn from this relatively young, yet burgeoning academic field, but the conclusions of evolutionary psychology cannot justify any behaviour whatsoever.
Evolutionary psychologists themselves have stressed this repeatedly. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker observes that “to explain behaviour is not to exonerate the behaver.” Implicit in Pinker’s remark is an acknowledgement of what philosophers since David Hume have called the naturalistic fallacy, which holds that you cannot derive an ought from an is. Even if, say, men are more prone to sleeping around, this does not justify their doing so. (Nor does it make it wrong.) If we learned that some people simply cannot help violently abusing others (because, for example, they have inherited murderous inclinations) that would not justify their behaviour.
As Pinker rightly points out, evolutionary psychology seeks to explain behaviour, not to justify it. What makes an action justified is that it is moral (or not immoral), and evolutionary psych does not and cannot decide that. Unfortunately, empirical claims are all too often appealed to as a dubious means of resolving difficult moral dilemmas.
Luckily, most scientists recognize the moral limits of their disciplines. But there are other limits that far too many fail to acknowledge. In The Blank Slate, Pinker argues, that, while evo psych cannot exonerate behaviour, its findings can encourage us to reconsider the scope of human malleability. Directly addressing would-be social engineers and utopian revolutionaries, he writes:
Since we are not just products of our environments, there will be costs. People have inherent desires such as comfort, love, family, esteem, autonomy, aesthetics and self-expression, regardless of their history of reinforcement, and they suffer when the freedom to exercise these desires is thwarted. The issue is not whether we can change human behaviour, but at what cost.
This is insightful. But Pinker overestimates the degree to which evo psych can contribute to debates about how to structure a society.
Pinker makes a persuasive case that differences between the sexes are clear, identifiable and constant across regions and cultures and that they are the result of evolutionary pressures. But, while men and women surely do have innate differences as a result of evolutionary processes, once we take into account the overwhelming power of cultural and social norms to channel, stifle and mould those differences in highly variable ways, our ability to say anything truly interesting about those foundational differences (and what we should do about them) is drastically reduced.
Too often, evo psych and other human sciences are appealed to in order to endorse specific social policy proposals. For instance, some attempt to settle debates over gender norms by appealing to facts about sex differences. But the question of which, or whether any, gender norms should be institutionalized has very little to do with whether men and women are innately different. This is a question of values — of what we think ought to be the case — and science must remain silent on such matters. It also follows that those who claim that gender norms are merely socially constructed and therefore ought to be abolished also fail to make a coherent argument. Calling something socially constructed does not in itself undermine its legitimacy.
Some might object that, if men and women are innately different, that justifies endorsing gender norms that reinforce those differences. But this would be is akin to saying that, if some people are wired to steal and lie, we should not only let them do so, but institutionalize norms that encourage this behaviour. Simply because something is the case does not make it morally right.
Pinker contends that we can change human behaviour, but only at a cost. No doubt, evo psych may be able to shed light on the consequences that would follow from any specific social reform, but to speak of a cost is to enter the realm of value: it is to reflect on what we are ultimately willing to live with, given what we care about.
For instance, as a society we accept that paedophiles, regardless of their deep-seated desires, should have to suppress their sexual inclinations for the good of society. The sympathetic among us acknowledge that this might be difficult for them, but we nevertheless feel it is justified because we value protecting children from harm. In short, we accept the cost of this social demand because we view it as necessary in order to bring about what we value.
We can apply this same thinking to gender norms. Imagine a world where a single gender norm (let’s say female) is imposed on all persons by the state. If Pinker is right, this could only be achieved at great cost to the male sex (and, in all likelihood, some cost to the female sex as well). But if our values were such that achieving gender uniformity trumped all else presumably we would be willing to accept this cost.
Let me be clear: trying to wipe out gender norms, or imposing one gender norm on all, would be grave mistakes. The gender binary serves quite useful social and moral functions, although I can see good reasons for trying to reform the specific content of our twenty-first century norms in significant ways. I also recognize that, if evo psych is correct, differences in social outcomes (e.g. the presence of more men in STEM) may not always indicate inequity, but may be the result of innate differences.
Still, this alone does not constitute a definitive case against social policies motivated by an ideal of gender parity. Evo psych, for all its strengths, cannot resolve these issues. Discussions about value cannot be settled by appealing to empirical facts.
Thus far, we have been assuming that the claims of evo psych and the other human sciences accurately describe what is. But there is reason to doubt this, at least in part. We humans are interpretive animals: that is, we do not act according to instinct alone, as nonhuman animals do, but form self-understandings and act on those.
In addition to biological, we are cultural beings. Who we are is always the result of a complex interaction between nature and nurture. The human sciences can therefore never be as stable or predictive as the natural sciences.
As social theorist Anthony Giddens has observed, once social scientific accounts of human behaviour are made public and popularized , they become part of how we understand ourselves. This makes conducting research in the human sciences like trying to shoot a moving target, in which the arrow is itself part of that target.
Theories about human behaviour, once widely accepted, often serve to cause the same processes they once sought to explain. Max, for example, now firmly believes that his involvement in pick-up is justified by evo psych. For this young man, evo psych is not merely a scientific explanation of human behaviour, but a theodicy, a moral framework, a kind of social Darwinism, which explains the order of the universe and how he should orient himself within it. This empirically derived theory has become a part of his self-understanding, helping him to make sense of who he is (a beta trying to be an alpha) and how he ought to live (I should seek to become an alpha because that is what nature intends).
What makes the human sciences unstable is that our interpretations of their knowledge claims are never wholly predictable. Max’s unique response to evo psych was not inevitable. We could just as easily imagine a different young man encountering the same account of sex differences and having the opposite reaction: Phillip learns about alphas and betas, and that it is in his genes to be promiscuous. He also learns that he will be prone to violence, competition and aggression. But he is a feminist in a committed relationship. Moreover, he espouses an egalitarian ideal and champions what might be called feminine virtues in himself and others.
Phillip interprets this newfound empirical knowledge as a challenge: he consciously decides that he will defy his instincts in order to demonstrate that men do not need to be the way evo psych describes them. He remains hyper-vigilant, suppressing any inclinations toward violence or aggression, becoming instead extremely docile and meek. He also recommits to his partner, and closely monitors any thoughts he has that might suggest a promiscuous nature. Moreover, he derives a deep sense of moral satisfaction in doing so (just as a monk might take satisfaction in denying his carnal desires). Phillip’s encounter with evo psych leads him to become even more different from the typical male, as described by evo psych, than he was before.
Of course, Pinker might argue that a case such as Phillip’s does not disprove the findings of evo psych: his fundamental instincts remain those of a man, forged by evolution, and they cannot be erased by even the most fervent commitment to twenty-first century gender ideals.
But the possibility of such cases drastically reduces the discipline’s ability to contribute meaningfully to discussions about gender norms in liberal democracies. For neither Max nor Phillip can be adequately understood from within the limited confines of evo psych: we must factor in their self-interpretations, which have themselves been influenced by their encounters with the discipline.
The human sciences are unstable because they affect the thing they seek to describe. Once an interpretive animal like us has knowledge of evo psych (or neuroscience, sociology, economics, etc.) this may become part of our self-understanding, and, in turn, inform how we act.
Those who read psychological or neuroscientific studies that claim that we lack free will tend to become less moral; when members of racial minorities read sociological studies claiming that they suffer from structural disadvantage their feelings of powerlessness increase; and students who study economics become more selfish as a result of learning that individuals always act in their own self-interest.
This is the crux of what distinguishes the human from the natural sciences: the natural sciences can upset people by clashing with their preconceptions about the way the world is, but the human sciences don’t just clash with our preconceptions about the world, they ultimately become a part of how we understand ourselves. The human sciences reshape our identities in ways that the natural sciences cannot, because they are implicated in how we conceive of the human condition.
There is much to learn from the human sciences. I am a social scientist myself. But we need to recognize when they are not applicable, and distinguish between what they can and cannot provide.
We can only ever glimpse a snapshot of what human nature is like, for, once we take that snapshot, our object of study is no longer what it was before. We are biological beings. But we are also interpretive animals, who form and act on our own self-understandings. Moreover, we are also valuing beings, who, as Nietzsche put it, can bear nearly any how, so long as we have a why.
The human sciences cannot serve as the sole sources of moral or existential authority on how we ought to live or structure society. These questions require us to enter the realm of ought, and to grapple with who we wish to be, and what kind of world we wish to live in.
That we can appeal to the sciences of man to resolve these problems is a myth with which too many of us are enamoured. The human sciences are incalculably useful and illuminating, but they cannot provide an answer to these foundational questions. For such questions belong to that elusive realm we call the sphere of value, which we moderns are both fascinated and terrified by.
It is high time we acknowledged the limitations of the human sciences. How should we live? and who should we be? are questions that cannot be answered by empirical observation alone. These moral and existential questions require an altogether different sphere of inquiry.