- Evolution, Human Enhancement, and the Narrative Self
But philosophy has no direct influence on the great mass of mankind; it is of interest to only a small number even of the top layer of intellectuals and is scarcely intelligible to anyone else. On the other hand, religion is an immense power which has the strongest emotions of human beings at its service.Sigmund Freud1
In casual conversation a while back, a psychiatrist colleague of mine asked a question that set me to thinking about the relationships between science, the self, and the odd amalgam of the two that is psychiatry. “Why all this talk now of narrative?” he asked. “It’s a word that has long been with us, but it seems to mean much more now, to stand for something else that we can’t talk about any more.” His question suggested that something vital, while not absent from medicine and psychiatry, has retreated underground. The answer I came up with is that narrative is important because it is a device that economically and holistically captures crucial elements of human experience—self, identity, and notions of value, free will, and even spirituality—that seem increasingly questionable these days in the context of reductionist science on the one hand and social constructionist theories on the other. The term “narrative self” neatly captures that blend of biophysical reality and abstract representation that is human experience. With respect to literature, autobiography, and psychotherapy, the self and its values, reluctant to vanish altogether into the anatomy and physiology of the brain or into the fractured postmodern text, live on in the guise of narrative. The broad phenomenon of narrative—stemming naturally from linguistic consciousness—was the original self-enhancement “technology,” [End Page 1] but the accelerating growth of science and social theory has variably offered both empowerment and distortion.
In what follows, my aim is twofold. First, I will explore the implications of evolutionary psychology for the self and the crucial role of narrative in enabling the self to manage its own ambiguous and multidimensional nature. Secondly, I will apply the considerations of evolution and the narrative self to ongoing debates over genetic, physical, and especially psychological enhancements of human beings.
Neurobiology and evolutionary psychology, as well as their common meeting ground, behavioral genetics, have clearly grown exponentially in explanatory power vis a vis human psychology and psychopathology. While much remains to be discovered, and disputes over some facts will always exist, scientists understand more than ever not only how motivation, emotion, and cognition work on a neurological level, but also why human beings are the way they are, based on our historical need to survive and reproduce in the context of natural selection. It is ever more apparent that a host of features crucial to personal identity— social proclivities, temperament, intelligence, and even religiosity—may be under significant genetic and evolutionary control.2 Moreover, evolutionary concepts increasingly find their way into mainstream psychology and even into the popular realm, and thus influence the ways people view themselves. For instance, in his blog for Psychology Today, The Scientific Fundamentalist, Satoshi Kanazawa applies evolutionary psychology to matters of everyday behavior related to sexuality, family relationships, and even social policy.3 Similarly, in a political context, Jonathan Haidt includes evolutionary perspectives in his account of the differing motivations of liberals and conservatives.4
Apart from inevitable disagreements over the facts, evolutionary psychology’s controversy stems mainly from concerns about reductionism, eugenics, and fears of complacency with regard to our moral imperfections. Evolutionary psychology theorists argue that such atrocious behaviors as sexual jealousy, rape, and even abuse of stepchildren can be at least indirectly explained by past evolutionary advantage. The concern is that blinkered scientists and a credulous public will assume that because certain behaviors came about in such transparently explicable fashion, they must be alright. To be sure, evolutionary psychology arguably tends toward a view of human nature that is potentially both [End Page 2] tragic and lenient: evil, in its various guises, is a predictable result of human beings subjected to unmodified natural selection, while human weakness in general seems more comprehensible when viewed in its animal aspects.