Darwinian (and Freudian) Cynicism - Morals of The Story

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Darwinian (and Freudian) Cynicism
Morals of The Story

The possibility of the brain having whole train of thoughts, feeling & perception separate, from the ordinary state of mind, is probably analogous to the double individuality implied by habit, when one acts unconsciously with respect to more energetic self ...

— M Notebook (1938)

The picture of human nature painted thus far isn't altogether flattering.

We spend our lives desperately seeking status; we are addicted to social esteem in a fairly literal sense, dependent on the neurotransmitters we get upon impressing people. Many of us claim to be self-sufficient, to have a moral gyroscope, to hold fast to our values, come what may. But people truly oblivious to peer approval get labeled sociopaths. And the epithets reserved for people at the other end of the spectrum, people who seek esteem most ardently — "self-promoter", "social climber" — are only signs of our constitutional blindness. We are all self-promoters and social climbers. The people known as such are either so effective as to arouse envy or so graceless as to make their effort obvious, or both.

Our generosity and affection have a narrow underlying purpose. They're aimed either at kin, who share our genes, at nonkin of the opposite sex who can help package our genes for shipment to the {313} next generation, or at nonkin of either sex who seem likely to return the favor. What's more, the favor often entails dishonesty or malice; we do our friends the favor of overlooking their flaws, and seeing (if not magnifying) the flaws of their enemies. Affection is a tool of hostility. We form bonds to deepen fissures.2

In our friendships, as in other things, we're deeply inegalitarian. We value especially the affection of high-status people, and are willing to pay more for it — to expect less of them, to judge them leniently. Fondness for a friend may wane if his or her status slips, or if it simply fails to rise as much as our own. We may, to facilitate the cooling of relations, justify it. "He and I don't have as much in common as we used to." Like high status, for example.

It is safe to call this a cynical view of behavior. So what's new? There's nothing revolutionary about cynicism. Indeed, some would call it the story of our time — the by now august successor to Victorian earnestness.3

The shift from nineteenth-century earnestness to twentieth-century cynicism has been traced, in part, to Sigmund Freud. Like the new Darwinism, Freudian thought finds sly unconscious aims in our most innocent acts. And like the new Darwinism, it sees an animal essence at the core of the unconscious.

Nor are those the only things Freudian and Darwinian thought have in common. For all the criticism it has drawn in recent decades, Freudianism remains the most influential behavioral paradigm — academically, morally, spiritually — of our time. And to this position the new Darwinian paradigm aspires.

On grounds of this rivalry alone, disentangling Freudian psychology and evolutionary psychology would be worthwhile. But there are other grounds, too, perhaps more important: the forms of cynicism ultimately entailed by the two schools are different, and different in ways that matter.

Both Darwinian and Freudian cynicism carry less bitterness than garden-variety cynicism. Because their suspicion of a person's motives is in large part a suspicion of unconscious motives, they view the person — the conscious person, at least — as a kind of unwitting accomplice. Indeed, to the extent that pain is the price paid for the {314} internal subterfuge, the person may be worthy of compassion as well as suspicion. Everyone comes out looking like a victim. It is in describing how and why the victimization takes place that the two schools of thought diverge.

Freud thought of himself as a Darwinian. He tried to look at the human mind as a product of evolution, a fact that — by itself, at least — would forever endear him to evolutionary psychologists. Anyone who sees humans as animals, driven by sexual and other coarse impulses, can't be all bad. But Freud misunderstood evolution in basic and elementary ways.4 He put much emphasis, for example, on the Lamarckian idea that traits acquired through experience get passed on biologically. That some of these misconceptions were common in his day — and that some were held by Darwin, or at least encouraged by his equivocations — may be a good excuse. But the fact remains that they led Freud to say many things that sound nonsensical to today's Darwinians.

Why would people have a death instinct ("thanatos")? Why would girls want male genitals ("penis envy")? Why would boys want to have sex with their mothers and kill their fathers (the "Oedipus complex")? Imagine genes that specifically encourage any of these impulses, and you're imagining genes that aren't exactly destined to spread through a hunter-gatherer population overnight.

There's no denying Freud's sharp eye for psychic tension. Something resembling the Oedipal conflict between father and son may well exist. But what are its real roots? Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have argued that here Freud conflated several distinct Darwinian dynamics, some of them grounded ultimately in the parent-offspring conflict described by Robert Trivers.5 For example, when boys reach adolescence, they may, especially in a polygynous society (such as our ancestral environment) find themselves competing with their fathers for the same women. But among those women is not the boy's mother; incest often produces deficient offspring, and it's not in the son's genetic interest to have his mother assume the risks and burdens of pregnancy to create a reproductively worthless sibling. (Hence the dearth of boys who try to seduce their mothers.) At a younger age the boy (or for that matter a girl) may have a paternal conflict that {315} is over the mother — but not with sex as its goal. Rather, the son and father are fighting over the mother's valuable time and attention. It the struggle has sexual overtones at all, they are only that the father's genetic interest may call for impregnating the mother, while the son's would call for delaying the arrival of a sibling (by, for example, continued breast-feeding, which forestalls ovulation).

These sorts of Darwinian theories are often speculative and, at this early stage in the growth of evolutionary psychology, meagerly tested. But unlike Freud's theories, they are tethered to something firm: an understanding of the process that designed the human brain. Evolutionary psychology has embarked on a course whose broad contours are well-marked and which should, as it proceeds, find continual correction in the dialectic of science.

The path to progress begins by specifying the knobs of human nature — the things that Charles Darwin, for example, shared with all humanity. He cared for his kin, within limits. He sought status. He sought sex. He tried to impress peers and to please them. He tried to be seen as good. He formed alliances and nurtured them. He tried to neutralize rivals. He deceived himself when the preceding goals so dictated. And he felt all the feelings — love, lust, compassion, reverence, ambition, anger, fear, pangs of conscience, of guilt, of obligation, of shame, and so on — that push people toward these goals.

Having located — in Darwin or anyone else — the basic knobs ot human nature, the Darwinian next asks: What is distinctive about the tuning of the knobs? Darwin had an unusually active conscience. He nurtured his alliances with unusual care. He worried unusually about the opinions of others. And so on.

Where did these distinctive tunings come from? Good question. Almost no developmental psychologists have taken up the tools of the new paradigm, so there's a shortage of answers. But the route to the answers, at least broadly speaking, is clear. The young, plastic mind is shaped by cues that, in the environment of our evolution, suggested what behavioral strategies were most likely to get genes spread. The cues presumably tend to mirror two things: the sort ot {316} social environment you find yourself in; and the sorts of assets and liabilities you bring into that environment.

Some cues are mediated by kin. Freud was right to sense that relatives — parents, in particular — have a lot to say about the shape of the emerging psyche. Freud was also right to sense that parents are not wholly benign, and that deep conflicts between parents and offspring are possible. Trivers's theory of parent-offspring conflict holds that some of the psychic fine-tuning may be for the genetic benefit not of the tunee (the child), but of the tuner (the parent). Disentangling the two types of kin influence — to teach and to exploit — is never easy. And in Darwin's case it's especially hard, for some of his trademark traits — great respect for authority, weighty scruples — are, in addition to being useful in the wider social world, conducive to sacrifice for the family.

If behavioral scientists are to use the new Darwinism to trace mental and emotional development, they will have to abandon one assumption often implicit in the thought of Freud and psychiatrists in general (and, for that matter, just about everyone else): that pain is a symptom of something abnormal, unnatural — a sign that things have gone awry. As the evolutionary psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has stressed, pain is part of natural selection's design (which isn't, of course, to say that it's good). Vast quantities of pain were generated by traits that helped make Darwin an effective animal: his "overactive" conscience, his relentless self-criticism, his "craving for reassurance," his "exaggerated" respect for authority. If indeed Darwin's father, as alleged, encouraged some of this pain, it may be a mistake to ask what demons drove him to do it (unless, perhaps, you then answer: "Genes that were working like a Swiss watch"). What's more, it may be a mistake to assume that the young Darwin didn't himself, at some level, encourage this painful influence; people may well be designed to absorb painful guidance that conduces to genetic proliferation (or would have in the ancestral environment). Many things that look like parental cruelty may not be an example of Trivers's parent-offspring conflict.

One condition that may resist comprehension so long as psychologists deem it unnatural is something Darwin suffered from: insecurity. Perhaps over the eons it has made sense for people who {317} couldn't ascend the social hierarchy through classic means (brute force, good looks, charisma) to focus on other routes. One route would be a redoubled commitment to reciprocal altruism — that is, a sensitive, even painfully sensitive, conscience, and a chronic fear ot being unliked. The stereotypes of the arrogant, inconsiderate jock and the ingratiating, deferential wimp are no doubt overdrawn, but they may reflect a statistically valid correlation, and they seem to make Darwinian sense. At any rate, they seem to capture Darwin's experience well enough. He was a good-sized boy but awkward and introverted, and at grade school, he wrote, "I could not get up my courage to fight." Though his reserve was misinterpreted by some children as disdain, he was also known as kind — "pleased to do any little acts to gratify his fellows," one schoolmate recalled.8 Captain FitzRoy would later marvel at how Darwin "makes everyone his friend."9

Sharp intellectual self-scrutiny, likewise, might grow out of early social frustration. Children to whom status doesn't come naturally may work harder to become rich sources of information, especially if they seem to have a natural facility with it. Darwin turned his fits of intellectual self-doubt into a series of polished scientific works that both raised his status and made him a valued reciprocal altruist.

If these speculations hold water, then Darwin's two basic kinds of self-doubt — moral and intellectual — are two sides of the same coin, both of them manifestations of social insecurity, and both of them designed as a way to make him a prized social asset when other ways seemed to be failing. Darwin's "acute sensitiveness to praise and blame," as Thomas Huxley put it, can account for his fastidiousness in both realms, and may be rooted in a single principle of mental development.10 And Darwin's father may have done much — with Darwin's implied consent — to nourish that acute sensitiveness.

When we call people "insecure" we generally mean that they worry a lot: they worry that people don't like them; they worry that they'll lose what friends they have; they worry that they've offended people; they worry that they've given someone bad information. It is common to casually trace insecurity to childhood: rejection on the grade-school playground; romantic failures in adolescence; an unstable home; the death of a family member; moving around too often {318} to make lasting friends, or whatever. There is a vague and usually unspoken assumption that various kinds of childhood failure or turbulence will lead to adult insecurity.

One can think up reasons (such as those I've just tossed out) why natural selection might have forged some of these links between early experience and later personality. (The early death of Darwin's mother is fertile ground for speculation; in the ancestral environment, complacency was a luxury that a motherless child could not afford.) One can also find, in the data of social psychology, at least loose support for such correlations. Clarity will come when these two sides of the dialectic get in touch with one another: when psychologists start thinking precisely about what kinds of developmental theories make Darwinian sense and then designing research to test those theories.

It is by the same process that we'll start understanding how various other tendencies get forged: sexual reserve or promiscuity, social tolerance and intolerance, high or low self-esteem, cruelty and gentleness, and so on. To the extent that these things are indeed consistently linked to commonly cited causes — the degree and nature of parental love, the number of parents in the household, early romantic encounters, dynamics among siblings, friends, enemies — it is probably because such linkage made evolutionary sense. If psychologists want to understand the processes that shape the human mind, they must understand the process that shaped the human species.11 Once they do, progress is likely. And unequivocal progress — growing, objective corroboration of ever-more-precise theories — would distinguish the Darwinism of the twenty-first century from the Freudianism of the twentieth.

When the topic turns to the unconscious mind, differences between Freudian and Darwinian thought persist; and again, some of the difference revolves around the function of pain. Recall Darwin's "golden rule": to immediately write down any observation that seemed inconsistent with his theories — "for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones." Freud cited this remark as evidence of the Freudian tendency "to ward off from memory that which is unpleasant." This tendency was for Freud a broad and general one, found among the mentally healthy and ill alike, and central to {319} the dynamics of the unconscious mind. But there is one problem with this supposed generality: sometimes painful memories are the very hardest to forget. Indeed, Freud acknowledged, only a few sentences after citing Darwin's golden rule, that people had mentioned this to him, stressing in particular the painfully persistent "recollection of grievances or humiliations."

Did this mean the tendency to forget unpleasant things wasn't general after all? No. Freud opted for another explanation: it was just that sometimes the tendency to discard painful memories is successful and sometimes it isn't; the mind is "an arena, a sort of tumbling-ground," where opposing tendencies collide, and it isn't easy to say which tendency will win.14

Evolutionary psychologists can handle this issue more deftly, because, in contrast to Freud, they don't have such a simple, schematic view of the human mind. They believe the brain was jerry-built over the eons to accomplish a host of different tasks. Having made no attempt to lump the memory of grievances, humiliations, and inconvenient facts under the same rubric, Darwinians don't have to hand out special exemptions to the cases that don't fit. Faced with three questions about remembering and forgetting — (1) why we for get facts inconsistent with our theories; (2) why we remember grievances; (3) why we remember humiliations — they can relax and come up with a different explanation for each one.

We've already touched on the three likely explanations. Forget ting inconvenient facts makes it easier to argue with force and con viction, and arguments often had genetic stakes in the environment of our evolution. Remembering grievances may bolster our haggling in a different way, making us remind people of reparations we're owed; also, a well-preserved grievance may ensure the punishment of our exploiters. As for the memory of humiliations, their uncom fortable persistence dissuades us from repeating behaviors that can lower social status; and, if the humiliations are of sufficient magni tude, their memory may adaptively lower self-esteem (or, at least, lower self-esteem in a way that would have been adaptive in the environment of our evolution).

Thus, Freud's model of the human mind may have been — believe {320} it or not — insufficiently labyrinthine. The mind has more dark corners than he imagined, and plays more little tricks on us.


What is best in Freud is his sensing the paradox of being a highly social animal: being at our core libidinous, rapacious, and generally selfish, yet having to live civilly with other human beings — having to reach our animal goals via a tortuous path of cooperation, compromise, and restraint. From this insight flows Freud's most basic idea about the mind: it is a place of conflict between animal impulses and social reality.

One biological view of this sort of conflict has come from Paul D. MacLean. He calls the human brain a "triune" brain whose three basic parts recapitulate our evolution: a reptilian core (the seat of our basic drives), surrounded by a "paleomammalian" brain (which endowed our ancestors with, among other things, affection for offspring), surrounded in turn by a "neomammalian" brain. The voluminous neomammalian brain brought abstract reasoning, language, and, perhaps, (selective) affection for people outside the family. It is, MacLean writes, "the handmaiden for rationalizing, justifying and giving verbal expression to the protoreptilian and limbic [paleomammalian] parts of our brains... ."15 Like many neat models, this one may be misleadingly simple; but it nicely captures a (perhaps the) critical feature of our evolutionary trajectory: from solitary to social, with the pursuit of food and sex becoming increasingly subtle and elaborate endeavors.

Freud's "id" — the beast in the basement — presumably grows out of the reptilian brain, a product of presocial evolutionary history. The "superego" — loosely speaking, the conscience — is a more recent invention. It is the source of the various kinds of inhibition and guilt designed to restrain the id in a genetically profitable manner; the superego prevents us, say, from harming siblings, or from neglecting our friends. The "ego" is the part in the middle. Its ultimate, if unconscious, goals are those of the id, yet it pursues them with long-term calculation, mindful of the superego's cautions and reprimands. {321}

Congruence between the Freudian and Darwinian views of psychic conflict has been stressed by Randolph Nesse and the psychiatrist Alan T. Lloyd. They see the conflict as a clash among competing advocacy groups, designed by evolution to yield sound guidance, much as the tension among branches of government is designed to yield good governance. The basic conflict — the basic discourse — is "between selfish and altruistic motivation, between pleasure-seeking and normative behavior, and between individual and group interests. The functions of the id match the first half of each of these pairs, while the functions of the ego/superego match the second half." And the basic truth behind the second half of the discourse is the "delayed nature of benefits from social relationships."16

In describing this tension between short-term and long-term selfishness, Darwinians have sometimes used the image of "repression." The psychoanalyst Malcolm Slavin suggests that selfish motives may be repressed by children as a way to stay in the good graces of parents — and retrieved moments later, when the need to please passes.17 Others have stressed the repression of selfish impulses toward friends. We may even repress the memory of a friend's transgressions — an especially wise trick if the friend is of high status or otherwise valuable.18 The memory could then resurface should the friend see his status plummet or for some other reason merit a more frank appraisal. And, of course, the arena of sex is rife with occasions for tactical repression. Surely a man can better convince a woman of his future devotion if he isn't vividly imagining sexual intercourse with her. That impulse can blossom later, once the ground has been prepared.

As Nesse and Lloyd have noted, repression is just one of the many "ego defenses" that have become part of Freudian theory (largely via Freud's daughter Anna, who wrote the book on ego defenses). And, they add, several other ego defenses are similarly intelligible in Darwinian terms. For example, "identification" and "introjection" — absorbing the values and traits of others, including powerful others — may be a way of cozying up to a high-status person who "distributes status and rewards to those who support his be liefs."19 And "rationalization," the concoction of pseudoexplanations that conceal our true motives — well, need I elaborate? {322}

All told, Freud's scorecard is not bad: he (and his followers) have identified lots of mental dynamics that may have deep evolutionary roots. He rightly saw the mind as a place of turbulence, much of it subterranean. And, in a general way, he saw the source of the turbulence: an animal of ultimately complete ruthlessness is born into a complex and inescapable social web.

But when he got less general than this, Freud's diagnosis was sometimes misleading. He often depicted the tension at the center of human life as essentially between not self and society but self and civilization. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he described the paradox this way: people are pushed together with other people, told to curb their sexual impulses and enter "aim-inhibited relationships of love," and told not just to get along with their neighbors cooperatively but to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Yet, Freud observes, humans are simply not gentle creatures: "[T]heir neighbour is for them not only a potential helper ... but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. [Man is a wolf to man. ]" No wonder people are so miserable. "In fact, primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of instinct."

This last sentence contains a myth whose correction underlies much of evolutionary psychology. It has been a long, long time since any of our ancestors enjoyed "no restrictions" on these "instincts." Even chimpanzees must weigh their predatory impulses against the fact that another chimp can be "a potential helper," as Freud put it, and thus may be profitably treated with restraint. And male chimpanzees (and bonobos) find their sexual impulses frustrated by females that demand food and other favors in exchange for sex. In our own lineage, as growing male parental investment expanded those demands, males found themselves facing extensive "restrictions" on sexual impulses well before modern cultural norms made life even more frustrating.

The point is that repression and the unconscious mind are the products of millions of years of evolution and were well developed long before civilization further complicated mental life. The new {323} paradigm allows us to think clearly about how these things were designed over those millions of years. The theories of kin selection, parent-offspring conflict, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and status hierarchy tell us what kinds of self-deception are and aren't likely to be favored by evolution. If present-day Freudians start taking these hints and recast their ideas accordingly, maybe they can save Freud's name from the eclipse it will probably suffer if the task is left to Darwinians. {322}


All told, the Darwinian notion of the unconscious is more radical than the Freudian one. The sources of self-deception are more nu merous, diverse, and deeply rooted, and the line between conscious and unconscious is less clear. Freud described Freudianism as an attempt to "prove to the 'ego' of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on un consciously in his own mind."21 By Darwinian lights, this word ing almost gives too much credit to the "self." It seems to suggest an otherwise clear-seeing mental entity getting deluded in various ways. To an evolutionary psychologist, the delusion seems so pervasive that the usefulness of thinking about any distinct core of honesty falls into doubt.

Indeed, the commonsense way of thinking about the relation between our thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and our pursuit of goals, on the other, is not just wrong, but backward. We tend to think of ourselves as making judgments and then behaving accord ingly: "we" decide who is nice and then befriend them; "we" decide who is upstanding and applaud them; "we" figure out who is wrong and oppose them; "we" figure out what is true and abide by it. To this picture Freud would add that often we have goals we aren't aware of, goals that may get pursued in oblique, even counterproductive, ways — and that our perception of the world may get warped in the process.

But if evolutionary psychology is on track, the whole picture needs to be turned inside out. We believe the things — about morality personal worth, even objective truth — that lead to behaviors that get {324} our genes into the next generation. (Or at least we believe the kinds of things that, in the environment of our evolution, would have been likely to get our genes into the next generation.) It is the behavioral goals — status, sex, effective coalition, parental investment, and so on — that remain steadfast while our view of reality adjusts to accommoderate this constancy. What is in our genes' interests is what seems "right" — morally right, objectively right, whatever sort of Tightness is in order. In short: if Freud stressed people's difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing, truth, period. Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth. For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth — moral discourse, political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse — are, by Darwinian lights, raw power struggles. A winner will emerge, but there's often no reason to expect that winner to be truth. A cynicism deeper than Freudian cynicism may have once seemed hard to imagine, but here it is.

This Darwinian brand of cynicism doesn't exactly fill a gaping cultural void. Already, various avant-garde academics — "deconstructionist" literary theorists and anthropologists, adherents of "critical legal studies" — are viewing human communication as "discourses of power." Already many people believe what the new Darwinism underscores: that in human affairs, all (or at least much) is artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image. And already this belief helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability to take things seriously. Ironic self-consciousness is the order of the day. Cutting-edge talk shows are massively self-referential, with jokes about cue cards written on cue cards, camera shots of cameras, and a general tendency for the format to undermine itself. Architecture is now about architecture, as architects playfully and, sometimes, patronizingly meld motifs of different ages into structures that invite us to laugh along with them. What is to be avoided at all costs in the postmodern age is earnestness, which betrays an embarrassing naivete. Whereas modern cynicism brought despair about the ability of the human species to realize laudable ideals, postmodern cynicism doesn't — not because it's optimistic, but because it can't take ideals {325} seriously in the first place. The prevailing attitude is absurdism. A postmodern magazine may be irreverent, but not bitterly irreverent, for it's not purposefully irreverent; its aim is indiscriminate, because everyone is equally ridiculous. And anyway, there's no moral basis for passing judgment. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

It is conceivable that the postmodern attitude has already drawn some strength from the new Darwinian paradigm. Sociobiology, however astringent its reception in academia, began seeping into pop ular culture two decades ago. In any event, the future progress of Darwinism may strengthen the postmodern mood. Surely, within academia, deconstructionists and critical legal scholars can find much to like in the new paradigm. And surely, outside of academia, one reasonable reaction to evolutionary psychology is a self-consciousness so acute, and a cynicism so deep, that ironic detachment from the whole human enterprise may provide the only relief.

Thus the difficult question of whether the human animal can be a moral animal — the question that modern cynicism tends to greet with despair — may seem increasingly quaint. The question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke. {326}