Pop philosophy gets it silly again

Last week, I tentatively defended the possibility of writing philosophy for a popular audience against Julian Sanchez's skepticism. Today's David Brooks op-ed (called, hubristically enough, "Human Nature Today" - as if such a topic could be adequately covered in less than 900 words) almost makes me want to give up. I have a new suggestion - let's say that you can definitely describe philosophical work that has been done in the popular press, but it's very very hard to actually do philosophical work in that forum.

Brooks is a smart guy, and I'm glad he's really taking the time to learn about psychology and cognitive science. In his op-ed today, though, he dismisses an entire school of thought by using a straw man and suggesting the vaguest of problems with the explanatory adequacy of evolutionary psychology and modularity of mind. He has no space to actually discuss this, so the majority of his readers, who are learning about this from him, might well take his word for it.

I don't mean to suggest I can adequately reply in a blog post. But I can sketch where a response to his article would lie.

He says:

The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations.

Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials.

The evidence for modularity is far more compelling than Brooks discusses, and I can't recount it all here. People working on modularity are aware that they need to account for creativity and fluidity, as well as g -- that is, general intelligence. Most think it can be done (by loosening restrictions on what it means to be a module). And as for adapting to different environments, almost everyone thinks that modules are more like capacities - you are hardwired to get certain capacities tuned on given certain environmental circumstances. It's similar to your genes in this way. Anyone who has a toddler will be struck by how cognitively undercooked they are, and yet how certain cognitive capacities get switched on. It makes sense that humans have evolved to be particularly flexible. We have modules that turn on in one way or another under certain circumstances.

Brooks also says:

The second problem is one evolutionary psychology shares with economics. It’s too individualistic: individuals are born with certain traits, which they seek to maximize in the struggle for survival.

But individuals aren’t formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn’t merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it’s also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.

To which I have the same response. Our modules, if we have them, are flexible and adapt to culture. There is a lot more to say on this, but blogs and op-eds are not where you can actually hash out what human nature is.

It is a disservice to his readers to suggest that the answers he has given are in any way adequate to the discussion of the problem at hand.

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