Evolutionary Psychology’s Flaw

Evolutionary psychologists attempt to explain human behavior in terms of Homo sapiens’ evolutionary history. They study selective pressures that guided the evolution of our ancestors’ genes, and they draw connections between those pressures and general patterns in human behavior that we observe today. The problem with this approach, however, is that humans can choose to act against their genetic coding—to resist their inborn impulses. All other animals are incapable of making such choices, which is why we can explain their behaviors purely in terms of their genetic evolution. But people are different: we can criticize and defy our inborn impulses—for any of an infinity of reasons—and this simple fact spoils any explanation of the form, “He did it because his genes programmed him to do it”. Supposing an inborn impulse does happen to govern a person’s behavior in a particular instance, even that behavior can’t be satisfactorily explained in terms of the person’s genes. For that person, unlike any other kind of creature, could have chosen to do otherwise.

Combining Ambition with Gratitude

A grateful person is a person who, at least in a sense, is satisfied with their situation in life. An ambitious person is a person who, at least in a sense, is dissatisfied with their situation in life. So ambition and gratitude are—in some sense—in tension with each other. Yet ironically, feeling either of these emotions without the other leads to unhappiness, whereas feeling them together leads to happiness. Ambition without gratitude manifests as an unquenchable thirst that can never be satisfied, whereas gratitude without ambition produces stagnation, which is inherently depressing for a creative entity such as a human being. But if a man manages to feel both gratitude and ambition—being appreciative of the good things in life while also aware of how life could be better—then he will be well poised for happiness. Like everyone else, he will encounter problems in life, but he will determinedly seek solutions to his problems. If he solves one of them, he will rejoice in having discovered a solution. But he will not allow this feeling of joy to cloud his vision and prevent him from seeing new problems. His ambitious mind will seek further problems, which he will be prepared to try and solve, meaning he might actually solve some of them. And with each new solution will come yet another reason to be grateful.

Why Scientific Reproducibility Matters

Scientists often repeat experiments to determine whether an initial result is reproducible. Reproducibility is crucial to science, but not for the reason most people think it is. The mistaken idea that scientific experiments can “verify” theories leads people to think that successive instances of an identical result can, in effect, reverify theories (this idea is often expressed in terms of increasing a theory’s “Bayesian credence”). But nothing, not even empirical data, can verify our theories. Empirical data serves only to criticize our theories. In other words, if a scientific theory predicts that a particular observation will occur under the conditions of a specified experiment, then scientists can perform the experiment and see what they see. If the experiment, or any number of successive repetitions of it, reveals any mismatch between the predicted observation and the actual observation, then the scientists will have detected a potential error in the theory, which they can then work to correct. And crucially, detection and correction of errors in our scientific theories constitutes scientific progress. So, reproducibility matters not because repeatable results serve to verify (and reverify) whatever theory predicted those results. It matters because unrepeatable results alert us to errors in our theories, which we can attempt to correct in order to grow our scientific knowledge.

The Limits of Animal Models

We humans share with other mammals much of our evolutionary history and physiological makeup. Because of these shared physiological characteristics, scientists can use nonhuman mammals to test experimental therapies for various human disorders and diseases. These tests, which are called animal model studies, provide insights into whether a therapy might work in humans without risking human safety. The problem with animal model studies, however, is that in many cases the human disorder or disease of interest involves not only physiological dysfunction, but also psychological attributes that nonhuman animals may not experience (e.g., pleasure, pain, motivation, and addiction). Animal model researchers specify animal behaviors that they assume can serve as proxies for these psychological attributes. Yet these assumptions are substantive theories in their own right, which may be false, but which are taken for granted by the study designs. And if such an assumption is false, then the study results don’t mean what we think they mean and can’t be legitimately extended to humans.

The Irrationality of Authoritarianism

“Authoritarian” political systems concentrate power in a lone authority and lack countervailing institutions to meaningfully challenge that authority. All authoritarian political theories and systems derive from what we might call authoritarian theories of knowledge, which designate an authority as the ultimate source of truth. Extended to politics, they designate an authority as the ultimate source of political wisdom: the sovereign who alone possesses the knowledge required to rule. Although different authority-based political theories assert different authorities to be the rightful ruler (e.g., The King or perhaps The People), such theories all assume that the task of politics is to designate an ultimate authority to rule over society. This authoritarian assumption, the core attribute of all such theories, is more fundamental than comparatively superficial disputes over which authority is legitimate. And it is why all authoritarian political theories, and the systems they give rise to, are irrational: all people are fallible, so no one person, nor any group of people, is fit to serve as an ultimate authority.

The Problem with Education

Children enrolled in traditional educational systems spend most of their time striving to meet other peoples’ criteria for success, or suffering because they don’t meet those criteria, instead of pursuing their own interests and solving their own problems. They endure a staggering imposition on their time and attention, which distorts their priorities. It diverts them from creating, criticizing, improving, and striving to meet their own criteria for success; it steals their attention away from their own interests and problems, sabotaging their ability to solve those problems and defeating the ostensible purpose of their education: to prepare them for life as autonomous individuals. But it shows that traditional educational systems are optimized for another purpose, one that diminishes the joy of childhood, conflicts with the liberal values of our society, and undermines the long-term dynamism of our economy: instilling obedience.