When Evolution Doesn’t Answer Everything

In this essay on evolutionary psychology, Anthony Gottleib argues that understanding precisely how our minds evolved has no practical benefits. Indeed, he suggests that the field of evolutionary psychology has essentially fallen for one of the older seductions: a simply myth that explains everything in one fell swoop. At the heart of his case is the fact that “the footsteps of evolution can be as hard to retrace as those of a speckly leopard in the forest.”

Gottleib is critical of one author who tries to determine how religion and evolution intersect. Gottleib isn’t opposed to speculation – which is fun and interesting – but he does object to concluding one way or the other. We can’t know and so we can’t – in any serious way – know.

The problem is choosing a starting point. In order to track evolution, we need a starting point – in the case of human behavior in fields like religion and spirituality, we would need to know what was on hand twenty thousand years ago. Or one hundred thousand. And we don’t. We can say something about skeletal structure because we’ve got those. We can say something about tools for the same reason. But we cannot make a similar argument in terms of mind because we literally don’t know what our ancestors were thinking and how they thought. We can make some inferences, of course, from the afore-mentioned tools and skeletons and so forth – but in the end, that is thin gruel for the sort of conclusiveness that evolutionary psychologists are after.

These are important points. Evolution is often used as a sort of shorthand for “blueprint” or “plan.” In truth, it is not so precise. As Gottleib summarizes, it works with the materials at hand and does the best job it can. But it’s hardly infallible – Dodo bird anyone? – and it is not always as organized and effiicient as we’d like.

Although he does not use the word, I think Gottlieb is really saying that the evolutionary psychologists – and their adherents – are being incoherent. They want answers and -they are backing the data into the answer that they want. It sounds good and it’s highly attractive, but it’s not always functional. We might appreciate believing that our brains are little more than prehistoric computers frantically keeping pace with a modern world, but what if it’s not true?

And – more to Gottlieb’s point – what if it doesn’t matter?

Coherence requires some discipline. It requires a willingness to question everything and to be aware of the questioning as it is happening. We want to avoid those conclusions that come first and have a tendency to close off debate or discussion. When we say, “this is why something is the way it is,” we are concluding. We are coming to an end. David Bohm suggested in much of his work that there is no such thing as final knowledge. Ideally, we are constantly coming into contact with what is new, moment by moment. The idea that knowledge can be boxed and wrapped and topped with a bow was itself a kind of incoherence.

When it comes to the mind, it is helpful to reflect on what science teaches us – to follow its suggestions and see where they lead. But we have to remember that we are in intimate contact with the subject matter. We have it – it is always at work and we can always observe its activity. When we watch our thought closely – when we think in an aware sort of way – then we are going to learn something. We are going to be – in a lower-case way – enlightened.

Students of A Course in Miracles are asked to question everything, to ask specifically: what is it for? Why do we need to understand the mind? What is such understanding for? And if we agree that such understanding is necessary for some reason, then how are we to go about acquiring it? We might begin by asking what it is about us – about our minds – that so longs for simple answers to apparently insoluble problems? Can we stay with that in our own minds – seeing the inclination as it arises and then staying with it? Noticing when we slide into our “outs.” Jesus said so, Buddha did so or whatever?

Perhaps by simply being attentive to the challenge – to the issue as it arises, moment by moment – we might achieve a level of coherence┬áthat would eschew the simple in favor of a more peaceful and less-fragmented now.

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