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In Defense of Evolutionary Psychology: Resisting the Butlerian Jihad


In the socio-political history of the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune, an event known as the “Butlerian Jihad” had occurred, in which thinking machines became too sentient and independent, and came to dominate and control human society. A revolutionary human priestess, Serena Butler, spurred a successful religious rebellion against the machines, which the humans eventually won. To prevent such a thing from happening again, thinking machines were forever banned from the universe.

This offers a metaphor I’m going to twist around a little bit and use to relate a couple of recent Sublation Media content items: Douglas Lain’s video How WOKE IDEOLOGY is replacing INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY, and Charles Roseman’s recent article in Sublation Magazine entitled Evolutionary Subjectivity.

In his video, Douglas Lain discusses the philosophy of Judith Butler, the heroine of our own version of the Butlerian Jihad. Like Serena Butler, Judith Butler is waging a religious war. Unlike Serena Butler, it’s in a different direction – it’s sentience and independence in human thought she wants to eliminate with her “ethics beyond calculation” and erasure of the free-thinking individual. This real-world Butlerian Jihad sees the proper role of the individual as a processing node in the computational fabric of society – everyone running the same routines in the same way with the same outputs to the same inputs, all in service to the single application running across all nodes.

Judith Butler’s call for “ethics beyond calculation” (or perhaps the less flowery-sounding yet semantically equivalent “abandon reason and follow me”) makes an important assumption about the nature of the individual. Specifically, it assumes that there is no individual human nature – that the individual is wholly a product of the social. It must assume that the same specific changes in social conditions will have the same impact on all individuals. Once that assumption is made, the struggle is simply over whose collection of social conditions will be implemented and thus bring about the transcendent change lifting humanity out of its current suffering. Judith Butler wants to help guide us to that truth.

To Judith Butler and others with similar political projects, challenges to this assumption regarding individual human nature must be denied or rejected, because an individual human nature means there’s always the chance that your selected social programming won’t run the right way on all nodes. Some nodes might not run at all, others may try and fail, still others may run it but produce unexpected results, and some might even find alternative programs to run.

All political theories make assumptions about the nature of the individual – from its definition to its wants and desires. However, these are all based on a variety of philosophical and religious traditions that provide often contradictory, sometimes incoherent, and certainly inaccurate portraits of who and what the individual actually it. It’s control over the individual that’s the goal of Butlerian political enterprises, even if that enterprise seeks to “free” the individual. You can’t free that which either can’t be freed in the way you hope, or doesn’t want to be freed in the way you expect, thus assumptions must be made about the nature of the individual and the freedom it seeks.

To me this often seems to take on a religious timbre – beliefs or assumptions about the individual are so central to the social/political model itself that challenges to it must be met with non-thinking disbelief of evidence to the contrary. Hence the Butlerian call for “ethics beyond calculation.”

A Spectre is Haunting Some on the Left – the Spectre of the Natural and the Just

Consider, for example, Charles C. Roseman’s Evolutionary Subjectivity. Roseman is concerned about findings over the last couple of decades from a frightening (to Butlerian projects) new development in the capitalist/science cabal called “evolutionary psychology.” In addition to a richly deserved bad reputation related to eugenics and being associated with “right-wing circles,” says Roseman, it hides the human need for networks and supports, and it fails as biology!

Roseman alludes to Jordan Peterson’s lobster as an example of this witchcraft, so let’s start with that. Everyone reading this essay in a left-wing rag such as Sublation Magazine has no doubt heard Jordan Peterson pontificate on the ideas of Karl Marx. And if you’ve read and studied Marx, even a little, you know that Jordan hasn’t and is simply misinformed. Or, more likely, he’s just making shit up because it’s what his audience wants to hear. Anyone with an actual understanding of “evolutionary psychology” has exactly the same reaction when hearing people such as Roseman talk about it. He’s factually wrong or extremely misleading, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

Let’s consider Peterson’s famous lobster. It’s often used as an example of what’s known as a “just-so story” – an untestable, and thus unscientific, narrative that explains some phenomenon. If someone were to make a claim that a particular evolutionary pressure resulted in a specific social or behavioral phenomenon we see today, and they were not able to state what they meant in a testable way, it would be a just-so story.  Peterson’s lobster claim is an example of this.

If you recall, Peterson made the claim that a specific neurotransmitter substance was found to mediate social hierarchies in lobsters, and since that same neurotransmitter had been linked to emotional regulation in humans, it meant that capitalist social hierarchies were biological and thus natural and justified. This is a just-so-story because there’s no way to test such a claim. This is pure speculation mixed with personal political affinity, not science. To put it simply, questions about the proper way to organize society are beyond the scope of science.

The struggle to decipher what’s “natural,” and therefore just, is a search for a golden fleece. It assumes that humans are capable of doing both what’s “natural” and “unnatural,” and such a claim is simply not something science can address. From a scientific perspective, humans are part of the natural world, and subject to natural laws. Thus, anything humans do is “natural” by definition.

Can humans create a leftist utopia? There’s not a scientific answer to that, except to say that if we did, it would by definition be “natural,” simply because we created it. “Natural” vs “unnatural” is a judgment informed by culture and personal preference, not science. Science can’t say what’s natural or unnatural, and evolutionary psychology doesn’t make claims to that effect, even if Jordan Peterson does.

Capitalism, for example, is natural because people created it and people are natural organisms in a natural environment. Recognizing this in no way suggests that other forms of social order are any less natural. History could have unfolded in any number of ways; our current form of social organization could have been something radically different than what it is – for better or worse – and this includes but is not limited to forms we would recognize as socialist. None of these outcomes would be any more or less natural than any other.

Yet many among the leftist masses climb the walls zombie-apocalypse style to dismiss not only Peterson’s lobster but the very idea that human behavior might have biological roots, that these biological roots may create individual differences in thought and experience, that science can tell us anything about it, and/or that it might somehow prove what’s natural and therefore best. Why? Why not evaluate such fact claims on their own terms?

Jordan Peterson is, of course, outspoken about his political beliefs. But when he justifies them by invoking findings from evolutionary psychology (or any other scientific undertaking) he is not, in fact, doing evolutionary psychology. Neither is Gad Saad, Jonathon Haidt, or others who extrapolate from the lab to contemporary liberal politics. They are all entitled to their beliefs, and none of them will claim there aren’t other interpretations of the data.

As Charles Roseman mentions, one could focus on evolutionary or other biological forces that lead to cooperation and mutual concern among humans, and this could provide an argument against that of Peterson’s lobster (for example). However, the claim that human cooperation today is the result of specific evolutionary pressures from the distant past still runs the risk of being a just-so-story, in the same way Peterson’s lobster does.

Also, as Roseman mentions, it stands to reason that social processes themselves played a causal role in the evolutionary development of the biological apparatus for thinking and behavior. If we make this claim (and it seems at least a plausible claim to make), we confirm that such innate, biological mechanism exist, that the phenomenon itself is addressable via science, and thus pose the same challenge to the Butlerian Jihad.

In the end, the findings of evolutionary psychology do not support or refute any specific approach to organizing society. In a broad sense, for example, these findings neither support capitalism and refute socialism, or vice versa. The findings simply tell us something about people – what makes an individual, if and how individuals are the same or different, what’s the nature of the interaction between the individual and the social, etc.

These are things any political theory needs to have an accurate assessment of, and I don’t know that any really do. In my opinion, they all need some work. This includes yours, dear reader, whatever that might be. When you think about the implementation of your preferred political project, ask yourself a basic question: does it seek to apply specific, broad changes in social conditions with the expectation that people will respond to these changes in a predictable way?

Consider, for example, Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto. Sunkara presents a narrative in which systemic legal changes are made to corporate and organizational structure, such that employees are given a personal stake and responsibility in organizational governance – a form of democratization of the workplace. Employees react to this in predictable ways – either remaining and thriving within a corporate environment due to the new, egalitarian structure, or leaving the corporation to pursue a self-directed, entrepreneurial venture also made possible by the new legal and social framework.

Sunkara’s model assumes a consistent set of motivations across individuals with regard to work – among other things, that people will thrive when given greater work autonomy. However, I suspect that innate, individual differences will throw a wrench into the gears of Sunkara’s program; while work autonomy and democracy in the workplace would in fact be a true emancipatory event for many workers, for others it will be a nightmare, and the project would ultimately fail because of this.

In order to be successful, the change in social conditions must accommodate these individual differences. While I’m critical of Sunkara’s program and others that make similar assumptions, I have no robust, mature political theory or model to direct you to.

Can We Truly Identify the Effects of Evolution on the Contemporary Individual and Society?

As I mentioned earlier, there is evidence for innate, biological differences in cognition and emotion across many fields, not just evolutionary psychology. I’m sure Roseman would agree that if we remove the evolutionary explanations from evolutionary psychology, we still have the issue of explaining the biologically-driven individual differences that evolutionary psychology seeks to explain. Whether these differences are the result of specific evolutionary forces, a fungal infection or alien space rays, they are there, and they matter.

It’s important to note that, despite other claims, Roseman does in fact identify the potential Achilles Heel of evolutionary psychology as a field of study – the extent to which evolutionary forces acting on the species in the distant past can be identified as causal mechanisms for behavior we see today. This assumption seems legitimately questionable to me. Evolutionary psychology makes this assumption in an attempt to invoke functional explanations of behavioral phenomenon. Theoretically, this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do and has a long tradition.

However, the extent to which evolution of the species can be brought to bear in service of functionalism might not be so clear or tenable. Criticism of evolutionary psychology on these grounds may very well be legitimate. In the end, the field will survive to the extent it is able to make testable predictions from the theory it builds, so we’ll all see what ultimately happens. But here’s the thing – even if we remove that fundamental assumption upon which evolutionary psychology theoretically depends, and reject all evolutionary explanations produced by it, we still have its data and the fundamental findings its theory seeks to explain – innate, individual differences in human physiology that impact thinking and feeling. So even if we reject evolutionary explanations for these individual differences, we’re still left with the individual differences.

This evidence presents a problem for quotes such as the following from Charles Roseman, which seems to fit well within the zeitgeist of the Butlerian Jihad:

” Human nature cannot, therefore, be located in the mind of individual humans. Rather, to the extent that the concept is recoverable, human nature is best thought of as being distributed across the relationships of mutual care and other social relations that are necessary conditions for human existence. “

Like Judith Butler’s vision of human nature, Roseman’s isn’t to be found within the individual human mind – it’s in the group. In other words, you are what the group says you are, and thus the group defines the individual. Of course, it will be the values, goals, desires, etc. of the hegemonic group that ultimately define the individual. But since Judith Butler’s (or pick your favorite) political theory is the right one, it will be whatever the Butlerian Jihad says it is.I seriously challenge the assumption that the individual mind is completely defined by the social, and reject the religious-like devotion to this assumption I sometimes see in leftist writing. Rather, my claim is simple – we really don’t know what the individual is, and to the extent we do know, it seems to have some innate uniqueness that political theory must account for.

It also seems obvious that the individual is influenced by the social, and greatly so. But there’s a mitigating force in the mind of the individual. Something no less unique than your own body, because it is your body. No two are exactly alike, we’re not going to start chopping off or stretching legs to make people fit a standard slot, and few political theories assume that all bodies wear the same size clothes. Yet when applied to thinking and feeling many people seem unwilling to extend the metaphor.

Innate Individual Differences are Real – What That Means is Up to You

If there is no individual separate from the group, then the individual is defined by the hegemonic social milieu, and political theory need not concern itself with the “…mind of individual humans…” On the other hand, if there is some bit of uniqueness in the individual human, something that makes each individual respond differently to the same social forces, it seems to me that any political theory or philosophy whose goal is an emancipation of the individual should understand the individual, or at least try very hard to so.

I suspect this is why fields such as evolutionary psychology generate such hostility in some circles. Evolutionary psychology dares to seek factual evidence in the search to understand whether human behavior may have biological predispositions, and the extent to which those predispositions may vary between individuals. To those for whom a political philosophy insistent on a socially-derived individual has begun to serve a religious function, I suppose evolutionary psychology is heretical. It’s simply beyond the bounds of allowable discourse and epistemological strictures to consider such a thing.

Often, discussions about the validity of psychological and behavioral research such as this devolve into deflections about unanswered issues in the philosophy of science, with the assertion that scientific inquiry into human behavior and thus any collected data is either conceptually flawed from the outset and therefore uninterpretable, epistemologically impossible, or a tool of capitalism not to be trusted. Such arguments simply belie a misunderstanding of the operation of science in the real world. In an effort to combat that belief, please read on and do some investigation for yourself.

Sometimes research on biological individual differences is dismissed outright with the claim that only western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (also known as WEIRD) research participants are used in the investigation. This is potentially a valid criticism – if research is conducted on one subgroup of people only, we have reason to question the generalizability of any findings. However, this research is maturing, across a wide variety of areas, with an increasing number of both cross-cultural and physiological measures having been made. This doesn’t mean generalizability shouldn’t be evaluated or can’t be criticized, but it does mean that such concerns are becoming increasingly difficult to raise as time goes on and research accumulates.

P-hacking and outright data fraud are additional concerns many people raise with this sort of research. P-hacking is a technique for “lying with statistics,” and making a claim that a particular research finding had a significantly greater-than-chance probability of being obtained, and observed differences are thus meaningful, when it fact such a claim is not warranted. Unfortunately, p-hacking is a very real problem, across many fields. Worse yet is data fraud – in this case the researcher simply invents data to get an interesting, and thus publishable, result.

However, the impact of these fraudulent practices is mitigated over time by additional research and analysis. P-hacked results, for example, can often be identified by other clues in the data and analysis, such as lack of other meaningful tests, removing specific participants, or running tests until a significant p (probability) value is obtained.

Ultimately, the findings won’t be replicated, and we frequently find the discovery of non-replicable results in the scientific literature. What this means is that over time p-hacked and fraudulent results tend to fall out of use, and become less and less influential. But this takes time, and any good researcher should be vigilant for these sorts of things in the literature, because they do exist and do lead to bogus interpretations of data.

Restricted participant pools, p-hacking and fraudulent data are certainly among the biases you should be mindful of when evaluating any scientific research. As a specific area of research grows, these issues become less worrisome as findings are replicated across a wider range of participants and with a wider range of techniques. I feel confident that few people, after reading the scientific literature on the subject of biological individual differences as I’ve discussed here, would deny that the Butlerian assumption of a mind defined purely by the social is difficult to support. Even with bias in the literature.

However, please don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to spend a few hours looking at the scientific literature on this topic. Do a few Google Scholar searches on phrases such as innate individual differences in human behavior, biological differences in political behavior, or individual differences in cognition and emotion. Read the research for yourself. As you do so, consider the following:

1.     Are “just so stories” or other untestable explanations used to describe the results?

2.     Are the data only from WEIRD participants or another restricted subject pool from which generalizability might be poor?

3.     Are important findings from a single study replicated in other studies? If not, to what extent does the explanation depend on it?

4.     Pay special attention to our single, over-arching concern when evaluating research such as this: Is the interpretation of the data provided by the authors the only logical interpretation one could reasonably provide? Is it the most likely?

What you’ll find is a hard-to-escape conclusion – there do in fact seem to be innate, individual differences, and they do matter to any political theory. So where does this leave the Butlerian Jihad, and its attempt to erase the free-thinking, biologically unique individual human mind? As Judith Butler declares, the only way to deal with this is via an ethics beyond calculation – an abandonment of reason in favor of her preferred social narrative into which all individuals must be fit.

Evolutionary psychology, even if we remove its evolutionary rationale, challenges the assumptions of the Butlerian Jihad. Of course, it’s not alone in this by a long shot, and that’s the real challenge for the science-less or science-hostile assumptions of political projects such as that of Judith Butler. Some of us aren’t so willing to abandon reason and follow.