Thursday, October 14, 2004

Evolutionary psychology has been getting a bad press of late. It gets mixed up with social Darwinism, eugenics and various other nasties. Progressives hate it because it goes against two of their cherished principals: that we are all nuture rather than nature, and that man can make himself perfect. The idea that there is such a thing as a perfect society has driven idealists since Plato and millions have died in the twentieth century in pursuit of the dream. But, if evolutionary psychologists are right, we are hardwired to behave in ways that make a perfect society impossible. This makes the whole idea very unpalatible to those who believe in progress and great for conservatives who claim that the tradition ways are best as these are the ones our wiring best suits us too.

As for the Christian, or at least Catholic, they could say they knew it all along. St Augustine is not flavour of the century with liberals but his insight into human nature makes him one of the great psychologists. He realised that human beings have instincts to behave in ways that they know are wrong and furthermore that those instincts can never be fully resisted. In other words, we always end up sinning. Augustine's later years were taken up arguing with a British fanatic monk call Pelagius who went around dressed in rags and refusing all luxuries. He claimed that just as long as we were all as ascetic as him, we could get to heaven from our own efforts. Augustine replied that if we all had to behave like you then most of us are off to hell anyway. Unlike Pelagius, Augustine recognised that it is human nature to sin and that we cannot escape that nature through out own efforts. Again, this is terribly unpopular with idealists.

However, Augustine's insight went even further. He realised that human nature was a universal and that we must be born with it. Therefore, it must be inherited and have resulted from events that formed the creatures that humans are today. Of course, he know nothing about genes which is how we inherit part of our nature. But he would agree with evolutionary psychologists who claim that much of how we behave today is due to events that took place to our distant ancestors. Augustine postulated that the cause was the Fall of Man that meant that humans inherited a propensity to sin from their parents. But the effect on our behavior today is the same and Augustine perfectly worked out both the proximate cause and the effect.

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