Exegesis or Caricature?

Contexts just published a piece by Alan Wolfe, One Liberalism, as part of our “One Thing I Know” series. It’s basically a short restatement of the argument in his new book, The Future of Liberalism, which Wolfe also discussed with us recently on the Contexts Podcast. (Ok, the Contexts linkfest ends now!)

I’m sympathetic to his main argument: that the classical liberalism of Adam Smith favoring the market, and the modern liberalism of Keynes favoring state intervention, are cut from the same cloth and are essentially compatible with one another. Liberalism, Wolfe argues, is about promoting autonomy and equality. In the 18th century that meant challenging feudalism and mercantilism with the free market, while in this century that means challenging contemporary capitalism. Different times mean different ruling orders and diffferent opportunities to advance autonomy and equality.

I’m a fan of classical liberalism, though I’m not a fan of the conservative appropriation of thinkers like Smith and the dogmatic strains of right-wing libertarianism popular in this country. So I’m predisposed to mostly agree with Wolfe here.

What bothers me though is Wolfe’s choice of target:

…in today’s intellectual climate, the great threat to liberalism comes not from those who assert the priority of God over human creativity but from those who claim culture is merely a byproduct of evolution, something that happens in spite of what individuals want and reflects processes of transmission driven by something like our genes. (Richard Dawkins calls these means of transition “memes”). Evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and their offshoots such as behavioral economics are anything but breakthrough sciences. They are, in fact, a throw-back to the ideas of such thinkers as Bernard de Mandeville and Thomas Malthus, who questioned liberalism’s understanding of human intentionality from the start and opted instead for one form of determinism or another.

First, I find it absurd to assert that popular, politically influential religious figures like Pat Robertson and James Dobson are less a threat to liberalism than a few relatively obscure, trendy academic subfields. But aside from that, two things really get me here:

This is a terrible caricature of the state of these fields. The first clue is the use of the phrase “sociobiology,” which is hardly used by anyone anymore. (Well, anyone studying human evolution at least: there is a journal Sociobiology, but browse their table of contents and you won’t find a thing about humans.) But aside from that, I’ve read quite a bit of this stuff over the last few years. The notion that either biology or culture are “deterministic,” and the idea that they’re just rehasing old ideas about “Social Darwinism,” are two topics virtually everyone in these fields go to great pains to refute. He mentions Dawkins, so let’s look at the original chapter where Dawkins coins the phrase:

The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight — our capacity to simulate the future in imagination — could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves’, and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism — something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

This basic rhetorical strategy runs through all of these fields: First, discover the biases humans have as a result of our genetic makeup, our neurological development, our cultural environment or our evolutionary history. Second, use this improved knowledge of ourselves and who we are to take better control of our lives so that we can live the way we want to. (Seems like a pragmatic, liberal strategy to me.)

Wolfe summarizes their view as “culture is merely a byproduct of evolution,” which may be accurate except for the “merely.” What does it mean to say something is merely the product of evolution? Does this somehow cheapen culture because evolution is, what, really simple and obvious? Of course, humans are not exempt from evolution, and culture coevolved along with humanity. It doesn’t cheapen culture, make it any less complex or flexible, or any more “deterministic” or all-powerful, to say it’s “merely” a product of evolution. And even the most hard-nosed evolutionists argue that an evolutionary view of culture does not lead to “determinism.” (For a fun read on the subject: see Dan Dennett’s Freedom Evolves. If you only know him from his recent book on religion, his earlier stuff is much more interesting—and I say that as someone who mostly agrees with him about religion.)

One response to my complaint here seems pretty obvious: he’s not talking so much about accurately representing everything scholars in these fields say internally, but about the public impact of their work. Anytime researchers make a discovery about the connection between our genes or evolutionary history and some particular behavior, character trait or illness, the public impact is for people to think, “Great, just one less thing we have control over.” This is, I agree, a big, big problem.

But wait a minute, let’s get back to the main argument about liberalism. The problem with the common view of a fractured liberalism is a problem of popular perception, right? The public impact of Adam Smith has been to justify the rise of unfettered corporate capitalism at the expense of equality and autonomy for a great number of people. But in the case of Adam Smith, we’re being asked to go back to the source and figure out what Smith really meant. So Adam Smith deserves an exegetical re-reading in spite of the current popular impact of his ideas. On the other hand, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics deserve to be evaluated solely on the public caricatures of their work? How do we decide who is deserving of which approach? We either respect scholars in other fields and take their words seriously, or we don’t. We can’t pick and choose depending on what fits our argument.

And briefly, about the gap between the nuances of research on genetics and evolution and the crude popular presentation of these topics seen in the media, I admit there’s not an easy solution. But before we resort to pretending the nuances don’t exist at all and rejecting entire subfields for their potential political abuses alone, I’d like to at least try pushing for better science journalism and improved scientific literacy in the general population first.