Human minds and cultures are playthings of primeval urges, according to this provocative treatise on evolutionary psychology.
We think of society, with its complex organization and advanced technology, as the triumph of reason over brute passions, but biophysicist Miller says that the rational intellect is the handmaid of emotional drives laid down by natural selection. Emotions hardwired in DNA are what generate desires and goals, Miller says, so a purely rational man would lack initiative and a survival instinct; having no emotional preference for safety over danger, he would sit passively as his house burned down around him. The author grounds this reasoning in a lucid, engaging overview of evolutionary theory and neurobiology—and then he’s off to the races with breezy evolutionary rationales for every behavioral and social norm under the sun. Natural selection, he says, gave us genetic propensities for both altruism and skepticism; for men to want slender women, and women dominant men; to love the Mona Lisa (a mother-figure smiling at our inner toddler) and hate child murderers (“such acts threaten the gene succession”); and to fear God, even if he is merely “a lie told by our genes to compel us to act in ways that increase our biological success.” Miller sticks mainly to confident assertion and rarely cites scientific evidence proving the genetic basis of these traits. (He does review, as a real-world model of natural man, an 18th-century account of a Canadian Indian tribe whose men wrestled over women, beat their wives and jubilantly massacred rival bands.) Not all scientists would follow him in ascribing cultural differences between European settlers and indigenous hunter-gatherers to genetics, or embrace his Nietzchean vision of human development. (“As we look back through the ages at the smoldering remains of a thousand fires of genocide, we see one figure only emerging from the hanging pall—Homo sapiens sapiens triumphant!”) Still, Miller dishes up intriguing food for thought about what makes us tick.
A stimulating, if simplistic, Darwinian take on human nature.