What are we getting ourselves into when we say that we welcome the insights of science as part of our spiritual appreciation of nature? Scientists, evolutionary psychologists in particular, have some unsettling perspectives on our minds. In my last post I wrote about Stephen Pinker’s 1997 book How the Mind Works and focused on what Pinker says about our genes as the “recipe” for our emotions but not their “puppetmaster.” In this post I’ll look at Pinker’s discussions of a few specific emotions and mental phenomena and at how his approach might complicate as well as clarify our understanding of ourselves.
Disgust and Sex Two strong emotional experiences, disgust and sex, have their source in the evolution of humans since, or even before, early humans branched off from chimpanzees about 7 million years ago. “Disgust is a universal human emotion” (Kindle location 7865), a sign of how thoroughly we are programmed to resist eating any animal parts or products that might contain infectious microorganisms or other toxins. Humans are disgusted by the smell, the sight, or the idea of eating most animals and animal parts. “The nondisgusting animal parts are the exception. …Many Americans eat only the skeletal muscle of cattle, chicken, swine, and a few fish” (7903). Every other animal is a source of contamination. We won’t drink a beverage stirred with a flyswatter, even a new one. We “find a sterilized cockroach every bit as revolting as one fresh from the cupboard.…People won’t eat soup if it is served in a brand-new bedpan….You can’t pay most people to eat fudge baked in the shape of dog feces.” Such reactions are irrational. With rare exceptions, food today is safe. But our bad-meat alarm is still set where it was several million years ago.
As for sex, its function would seem to be straightforward. Not so for Pinker.
Why is there sex to begin with?…Why don’t women give virgin birth to daughters who are clones of themselves instead of wasting half their pregnancies on sons who lack the machinery to make grandchildren and are nothing but sperm donors? Why do people and other organisms swap out half their genes for the genes of another member of the species, generating variety in their offspring for variety’s sake? It’s not to evolve faster, because organisms are selected for fitness in the present. It’s not to adapt to environmental change, because a random change in an already adapted organism is more likely to be for the worse than for the better….The best theory…is that sex is a defense against parasites and pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms). …[Your body’s defenses against germs do evolve, but the germ’s tricks for evading those defenses evolve much faster.] Sexual reproduction is a way of changing the locks once a generation. By swapping half the genes out for a different half, an organism gives its offspring a head start in the race against local germs. (9577)
Pinker’s descriptions of the disease-resistant functions of disgust and sex stretch our imaginations. For some readers the functions he explains may seem meaningless, rooted so far in the past and too far from our conscious experience to make much sense. It is difficult to embrace a scientific insight when it seems to make us strangers to ourselves.
Happiness and Religion Two other areas of emotional experience have thin roots in human evolution but have become important through their role in human culture over the last few thousands years. These are happiness and religion.
Pinker writes that it might seem at first that happiness serves as an incentive to spur us on to enjoy those conditions that have made us biologically fit: being “healthy, well-fed, comfortable, safe, prosperous, knowledgeable, respected, non-celibate, and loved” (8097). (I admit this has been my amateur’s view of the adaptive function of happiness.) The trouble is that happiness doesn’t actually kick in for the length of time that we are enjoying any of these conditions. In fact, the longer that such conditions or almost any conditions persist without change, whether they are illness or health, modest income or prosperity, celibacy or marriage, the more likely we are to describe our mood as “content” or “satisfied.” In reality, studies show, we usually describe ourselves as “happy” at those times when we succeed in achieving more than we have already had (a professional reward, a hopefully better spouse) or even when we find out that we are a little better off in some way than those around us. Happiness, rooted in comparison and newness, is, for Pinker, a rather dismal treadmill. Its status has soared in the modern era, so much so that the pursuit of it forms part of our national purpose. But for Pinker, this single bubbly emotion is not cut out to serve as the goal for one’s entire life.
The other emotional and social experience that is a mix of evolution and culture is religion. Religion may have remote roots in such puzzling experiences as dreaming, death, our shadow, and our reflection in water, when the self seems to leave the body. But the complex establishment that is religion has coexisted alongside the nation-state as an alternative culture of laws and customs that has produced great art, powerful social institutions and hierarchies, and methods such as prayer by which desperate people try for success when other attempts at courtship, achievement, or recovery from illness have failed (11439).
While other evolutionary psychologists have different theories about happiness and religion, Pinker sees both topics as ones that people expect too much from and about which science cannot give the upbeat answers that many people are looking for.
Self, Consciousness, and Free Will Finally, in the last pages of the book, Pinker writes about some philosophical puzzles that people have never been able to wrap their minds around fully. These are such phenomena as the self (the “I” that we are so aware of), consciousness (our awareness, and our awareness that we are aware) and free will, (no matter what we’re told, we think we make choices). Solving such philosophical enigmas by referring them to God is, for Pinker, no solution at all.
Instead, the solution that intrigues him is the possibility that “the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. …Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking” (11570). Such mysteries as the self are holistic phenomena of a kind that does not lend itself to being understood by “the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with” (11639), an apparatus that works methodically from parts to the whole, example to category, cause to effect, subject to predicate. Perhaps we can’t wrap this kind of mind around what seems to be the essential us.
In summary, there are for Pinker emotions that are deeply rooted in our early human period, others that are more historical than evolutionary and that elude a satisfying scientific description, and still other experiences of mind that we may not be capable of fully understanding. All of these may challenge as well as reward the non-scientist looking to science for spiritual insight about people themselves.