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  • Jane, Meet Charles: Literature, Evolution, and Human Nature

I

In the social sciences since the 1900s and the humanities since the 1960s, the world and the mind have increasingly been seen as socially, culturally, or linguistically constructed. Culture, not biology, shapes what we are; language, not the world, determines what we think. If we are what culture, convention, discourse, or ideology make of us, then there is no such thing as a universal human nature, and to believe in such a thing would be to commit the naive error, or the reactionary crime, of “essentialism.”

When the sociologist Emile Durkheim at the end of last century and the anthropologist Franz Boas at the start of this one tried to sever the study of humanity from biology, they had good intellectual and social reasons for doing so in a world where the muddled and heartless doctrines of Social Darwinism and eugenics held popular and even “scientific” sway. 1 But there was no such excuse when literature departments around the world became mesmerized by the way Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan drew on the limited linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure to concur that “Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual.” 2 The new gospel of Theory, propelled by the messianic self-assurance of its prophets, spread through the humanities and the social sciences. What their converts failed to realize was that to follow parochial Paris intellectual fashion meant not only to exclude the world outside language but to ignore some of the major intellectual developments of our time in the understanding of human nature.

Over the last few years the Theory wave has started to break under [End Page 1] the inherent weakness of its arguments and the strength of the welling counter-evidence. 3 It has also simply exhausted itself by repetition. How many times do you need to “demonstrate” that what may look like biology is really culture in essay after essay about the social construction of the body? 4

Those reluctant to read outside Theory’s approved reading lists may not be aware of it, but evidence has been accumulating for more than thirty years, and with steadily mounting momentum, that not only is it not the case that biology is a product of culture but that culture is a product and a part of biology, and that it is impossible to explain cultural difference without appreciating the complex architecture of the human mind, of a “human nature [that] is everywhere the same.” 5

The evidence comes from many fields, at first working separately, but now genuinely converging in a way very different from the professed interdisciplinarity of much Theory: 6 from evolutionary theory, 7 ethology, 8 linguistics, 9 artificial intelligence, 10 neurophysiology, 11 evolutionary anthropology, 12 analytic philosophy, 13 evolutionary epistemology, 14 and many branches of psychology. 15 Among the key factors that led to the emergence of evolutionary psychology as a discipline were ethologists’ recognition that behavior is a biological adaptation; neurophysiologists’ increasing ability to localize particular brain functions; perceptual psychologists’ tracing of the diverse and convoluted tasks of human and other perceptual systems; artificial intelligence’s discovery of the complexity of many computational tasks we and other animals perform naturally; developmental psychologists’ refining of infant attention experiments that allow them to study the understanding prelinguistic infants have of their world; evolutionary theorists’ clarification of the constraints on the evolution of reciprocal altruism; and linguists’ discovery of the extent to which language is preprogrammed into the human mind.

The evidence converging from these many sources indicates that there is a universal human nature, reflecting the complex organization of the mind, and that the local differences of culture cannot be explained without understanding our common mental makeup. 16 What seems transparent and natural to us in the way we respond to the world should not be taken as givens. Our senses, emotions, and thoughts are intricately shaped by evolution and in turn shape our world for us. The human mind is not simply a general-purpose mechanism, a formless clay until stamped by culture. Evolution has fashioned the mind in highly specific modes, not...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 1-30
Launched on MUSE
1998-04-01
Open Access
No
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