For over a year now I've had mounting suspicions about Evolution, but since I know very little about evolutionary theory, the most I can really say about why I raise an eyebrow is that, well, maybe Darwin isn't 100% right about heritability, genetic fitness, natural selection, and the survival of the fittest. And yes, I fully acknowledge that beyond those "catch phrases," there is literally very little else that I am able to say. I don't know the lingo, let alone the theory, to say much more about it. And I think that's significant for reasons that I will later explain.
My doubts, vague as they are, are not, however, leading me down the path toward Creationism. Actually, it's even more ridiculous, naive, or foolhardy than that because I want to challenge evolution on its own terms. But let's face it, I've been educated in the liberal arts and I'm not in a position to read or study enough to intelligently argue against the droves of scientists who have been trained to revere Darwin as the evolutionary king of the life sciences. That's why people with science backgrounds scoff (usually as politely as possible) if I even mention my rebellious plans. To speak on their levels would require lots of education, but while I'm finishing my own degree, the last thing I could imagine doing right now is getting myself up to speed in the basics of biology.
For now, then, I've decided to let this project of identifying the problems and finding the loop-holes in Darwinism sit for a later date, but I do have him on the periphery of my mind. I allow my ears to perk up when my favorite podcasts mention Darwin and evolution, and I listen with an imaginatively skeptical ear for hints of where things could be understood differently. And much like I've done before with other philosophical hunches, I already purchased a four volume collection of Darwin's "greatest hits" earlier this summer. Ever since it arrived in the mail, the collection has been dutifully stationed on my kitchen table but the books remain entirely unopened. I don't want to force things between Darwin and me, but I do keep him close.
As Irony would have it, now that I've resigned myself to the fact that I won't be able to dive deep into the hard sciences for a good long while, which means that my chance at uncovering any new scientific breakthroughs will have to wait, evolution has only become an even bigger problem. In the past few weeks I have been teaching my summer class, "Philosophy of Love and Sex," and evolution has developed into nothing short of my theoretical and pedagogical arch-nemesis. This is because, when it comes to matters of sexuality and the related topics of sexual intercourse, men and women, and the pulls of our desires, my students seem to think that evolution can explain almost anything. It's like I am Bill Murray in a twisted philosopher's version of "Groundhog Day,"--no matter how hard we work one day to critically engage topics of sex and sexuality and how far I think we have traversed into new theoretically territory, by the next day, it's as if none of that ever happened. Once the discussions begin, we are back at square one. Back to evolution.
But just because one can play the evolutionary card doesn't mean that "evolution" is the best explanation, the whole explanation, or even a good explanation with which we should find ourselves content for why things are the way that they are or why people do the things that they do. In fact, I am beginning to realize that the more "acceptable" and comfortably satisfactory an "explanation" is, perhaps the more we ought to critically think about it again. I let my frustrations shine through last week in class after one student evidenced the typical, uncritical recourse to an argument from unquestionable, evolutionary natural facts. She defended herself by saying, "But it's the easiest way to explain why this happens." I said, "Yes, it is easy, but I don't want us to fall back into that so quickly." "But I can't think of any other reason if it's not evolution," she replied, herself now pretty visibly frustrated. To which I responded, "Perfect! All the more reason for us to think harder." I pointed to my head and said to the class, "Make it hurt!"
I feel that as a philosopher and an educator I have a certain kind of duty to direct my students towards their own greater intellectual freedom. (This is super hard.) I tell them from the beginning of the class that I don't ever need for them to agree with the texts that we read, but neither do I want to hear them explain why things are the way the way they are based on what they already thought before reading the material. The idea is to use the material so that we have a shared ground for our discussion and to provoke our thinking. Sometimes, it’s better if they disagree. I tell them, "I don't want to know what you already think. I want you to demonstrate to me and the rest of the class that you are thinking." This is an incredibly difficult task for any educator, and it is made even more difficult since thinking is itself a really hard thing to do, especially for students if they haven't been shown what it means to really think or how to do it. Because evolution, day in and day out, has become one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in order to have real, genuine thinking in my class, I have become a lot less worried about evolutionary theory per se and much more concerned about the role of "evolution" in our thinking. So while I still may not be able to say much about evolution as a scientist, as a philosopher, this experience has led me to a few insights about "evolution."
One of the scariest parts about "evolution" is that, in a sense, my students are right about something: evolution can be used to "explain" almost anything. Consider the following:
1. Why is that most people are heterosexual? Because in order for the human species to perpetuate itself, men and women must procreate, so they are naturally attracted to one another. The continuation of the human race depends on it, so it must be natural.
2. What is considered to be "real sex," and why? Well, when a man finally puts his penis in a woman's vagina (sorry to be so crude, but this is what they say...), that's sex. Anything else is at best just foreplay but not the real thing. At worse, anything else is unnatural and perverted, like when two guys have anal sex. This is because sex is for reproduction, and clearly, penis-in-vagina sex is the necessary element for making babies.
3. Why are the penis and the vagina recognized as the most obviously sexual body parts? Why not the breasts, the clitoris, the prostate gland, or any other area on one's body that could also be experienced as an erogenous zone? As stated before, because you need a penis and a vagina for biological reproduction. Duh. The rest might be fun to play with, and having them played with might make one more interested in actually having sex, but all of that would in the interest of has-the-potential-for-baby-making sexual intercourse with a penis and a vagina.
3. Why is it that men seem to struggle more than women to be monogamous (Dan Savage is a huge fan of referring to "human nature" and evolution with this topic)? Because, by virtue of the sheer body mechanics of it all, men can "spread their seed" to an many, many women in one day, whereas if a woman gets pregnant, she can only select to mate with one man. So, clearly, men are on the prowl to propagate their genes to as many people as possible, while women will have to be choosier and just cling to the one man who gets her pregnant.
4. Why is it that women are so frequently attracted to jerks and are less attracted to the nice guys? Because men are stronger and more powerful which, in terms of survival, means that they would be more capable at providing and protecting the young. A woman is then naturally attracted to men who can demonstrate their power, which these days means anything from muscles to money.
5. Why do many women find it erotic to be "taken" by a man, or overpowered, even to the point of fantasizing about rape? Because women are weaker than men, and they have to be taken care of, eroticizing the power differences between men and women might make it more "enjoyable" for them to be where they naturally are; i.e., weaker than, and submissive to, men. If you are naturally going to be weaker and submissive, you might as well find it hot. (A couple of students even stated that because women are weaker when pregnant and they can't do as many things as they normally could, they need a strong man to take care of them. So, again, it's a matter of survival and protection over the young...no need to worry about basing such a view on the relatively short period of time in a woman's life during which, if she has ever babies, she is actually "weakened" by pregnancy...)
It's amazing to me how quickly my students can develop explanations like these to account for so many different phenomena. The more I teach, the more wary I become when the first words out of someone’s mouth are “This is the case because...” or “The reason why is that...” since this just screams “I’m not going to take even a second to ponder the question itself.” More important to note, however, is that a very bizarre epistemological insight is revealed in how people who espouse such views often fail to see that there are at least two sides to the evolution coin. Claims to survival of the fittest and natural selection for the sake of biological reproduction can also be employed to argue in the other direction. For instance, homosexual behaviors can be found throughout the animal kingdom (thereby not just in the acts of sinners or pedophiles) which would seem to indicate that it is completely "natural" and not just a symptom of some prior trauma, disease, or the consequence of being exposed to gay culture or being raised by gay parents. Since homosexual behavior has been around throughout human history and across cultures, one would think that it would have been "bred" out by now if it was not somehow beneficial to the species. Perhaps, one could say, homosexual behavior hasn't disappeared on its own because it is actually good for the species by encouraging particular social bonds and the building of communities. Furthermore, biological reproduction can't be the only important end, at least in the sense that not everyone should be or would be driven to procreate (evolutionarily speaking). In fact, if everyone had babies, that would probably be to the detriment of the species, right? At least it would be in terms of overpopulation and the planet's carrying-capacity. So rather than specifying that homosexuals, people of "degenerate" races, or those with mental illnesses are the particularly unfit who should not be reproducing, perhaps we should question the idea that the main goal of our human existence is reproduction at all. What if it was something else, like pleasure? We could say instead, then, that the reason why humans have evolved to be such smart, rational, and technologically advanced creatures is so that we could come up with even more tools, toys, procedures, and contraptions to increase our pleasures. Now isn't that a fun alternative to imagine?
These counter-examples can be creatively thought up in many different ways, and although it took a little while, eventually a couple of my students identified this strategy of argumentation and started using it to pose counter-points to those students who are the most incessantly devoted to evolutionary explanations. It’s a classic case of giving someone a taste of their own theoretical medicine. Unfortunately, this only goes so far. After a few rounds of tit-for-tat battle, in the end, both sides usually have to acknowledge that they will just disagree on matters. I get the sense though that pretty much everyone in the class views the side that offers counter-points from an evolutionary standpoint as only playing the role of "devil's advocate" while the side that defends the naturalness of heterosexuality as the necessary means for biological reproduction is still judged to be more compelling. This is because, as I have tried to explain to my students, the counter-arguments engaging with the other side work on the same level of "scientific explanations" and with reference to "natural facts."
But there are at least two levels of concern at stake: 1) Even if science could be shown to support something like the naturalness of homosexuality or the outrageously insatiable sexual appetites of women, that is, even if counter-factual discoveries were made by further scientific investigations into gay genes or that support increasing recognition for women’s sexual pleasures, these are small pebbles that will not be able to crack the fortress of "naturalness" that has been built up and reinforced by centuries of what is trusted and recognized as "good," objective science. 2) Furthermore, such an approach still reflects an attitude that places unwavering faith in science’s ability to uncover pre-social truths about the REAL, natural world, where neither science nor the world itself are considered to have been shaped or influenced by politics and values. But this simply is not how science has been developed nor how it has been used. All scientific inquiry has been pursued by particular individuals within a particular historical, social, political, and cultural context. Rather than throwing small stones at the tower and arguing at the same level of scientific facts, another strategy with greater political promise can be employed that works to undermine “scientific facts” by paying close attention to these “extra-scientific” influences.
On this note, I can't really get into the ways that scientists have approached evolution in particular right now because it's a long, involved discussion that brings up challenging approaches to metaphysical things like truth and reality (ya know, the simple stuff). What should be mentioned, though, is that plenty of philosophers have issued many compelling and very important critiques of notions like pure objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality in science and knowledge production. They have also revealed the influences that things like identity, social values, cultural metaphors, and political interests have on shaping the direction and evaluation of scientific inquiry. Despite the recognition of these critiques within some philosophical circles, however, their force appears to be hardly felt by most within scientific communities and are even less acknowledged by the general public (as evidenced by the brute assumptions that my students boldly assert upon entering the room on the first day of class). But again, since I'm skipping over the issues with scientists in particular for now, it's time to explore this latter issue of how "evolution" works on the streets.
The conversations I have been having with my students have helped me realize a very important thing: Most people have heard of evolution, but very few would be able to say a single intelligent thing about it that wouldn't be able to fit on the little slip of paper in a fortune cookie. I think this is both philosophically and politically significant. As I confessed at the beginning of this post, I may be one of those highly-evolved apes, but I am also shamefully ignorant when it comes how I actually have evolved in relation to the apes or the amoebas or the dodo birds.
However, thanks to the story I have been told throughout all of my growing up, I can tell a quick story about "evolution." It goes a little something like this: Life begins with small, rudimentary, simple organisms that contain the basic building blocks of life in their genes. Through a series of many mutations, organisms develop different characteristics and behaviors that enable them to adapt to the external forces that they encounter (such as predators, diseases, bad weather), which increases their ability to survive against these conditions. This is survival of the fittest. Those organisms that are too weak, sickly, or poorly protected from the elements will be killed or die off on their own...that is, nature will run its course and clean out the gene pool of weakness. But it's not enough to live; Life seeks to reproduce itself. So for those that survive because they are fit enough to live, we can say that "nature has selected them" (natural selection) as fit enough to reproduce and pass on their good, strong genes.
What might not be fully acknowledged by the general masses but that is implicit in this story is the idea that life develops toward a higher goal, and that the direction is one towards greater perfection, a higher realization of...something. There is a teleological development on a mostly-one-directional path, which allows for a recognition that development can be stunted, leaving some at the "more primitive" stages of life, like lower animals, or those organisms with less complex nervous systems, or even certain types of humans may be "less developed" than others. With this developmental march toward the highest realization of the species, or of life, or whatever else we think we're talking about, whenever someone or some things step off of the path of higher development, it is presumed that they or it will eventually be "corrected" and brought back on track, or be eliminated ("You shouldn't have stepped off the path in the first place!").
I believe that many people are quite familiar with this story of “evolution.” In order to understand why I am so concerned about it and how familiar everyone is with it, we must first note what is at stake here. Aside from the fact that the view of linear, consistent, teleological development to the highest realization of life already represents a view form a particular lens that identifies what it wants to see (in other words, other scientific studies could show that this is not actually how things go...but we’re not engaging on that level, remember?), I find it terrifying that so few of my students seem concerned about the implications of what they say when they bring up arguments from evolution. If we uncritically buy into this stories about how human nature has evolved and accept it at face value, one only has to go a half-step further along this path of thinking to see how it can be used to support discriminatory practices, unjust institutions, hateful attitudes and behaviors, and even multiple forms of violence on individual and state levels.
If we return to the series of questions above about phenomena that can be explained away by evolution, a really rudimentary half-step ahead reveals that "heterosexuality" (as we have come to think of it today) assumes and maintains the status as the natural sexual orientation for humans, thereby making anything else (for example, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality) unnatural, a deviation from normal behavior, which then can (or even should) be regulated, corrected, or extinguished for the sake of the species. Since this thinking also associates what is natural with what is morally good, right, and justifiable, whereas unnatural things are things to be shunned, heterosexism is not considered a matter of political bigotry, but rather a plain, "straight-forward" defense of the natural order of things.
There are lots of worrisome implications if "real sex" is considered only that which involves a penis and vagina for the sake of reproduction. For one, contraception becomes a problem, though most people have somehow gotten around having any qualms about preventing reproduction, which indicates, I think, that it's the kind of sex that matters, not necessarily whether or not it actually brings any subsequent generations into the world. If it's the kind of sex that matters, namely that which could result in biological reproduction, then any other sex acts are superfluous at best, unnatural at worst. Lesbians can't actually have real sex. Gay men are gross perverts. And all the other things people can do (even if done by heterosexual couples) can be judged as "dirty" or so kinky that it's freaky. Pleasure is displaced as an unnecessary bi-product of sexuality. If penises and vaginas are the only parts that matter for sex, and pleasure is not a main concern, then other pleasurable parts and practices are dismissed, ignored, or rejected. Let's not forget how this affects people with certain types of disabilities. Furthermore, given that it doesn't matter if a woman gets off for reproduction, concerns of woman's sexual pleasure in particular can be completely dismissed as unimportant. But since I doubt that babies really care if their parents thoroughly enjoyed the process of conception, limiting views of what counts as "real sex" by focusing on a reproductive goal is really only preventing people from being open to even greater pleasures (and giving lazy dudes a good excuse to not be worried about satisfying their lady partners). If people won't allow themselves to pursue pleasure for the sake of pleasure and only for reproduction, this certainly has implications for straight men, but it has even more serious implications for women, non-heterosexual, and non-normatively-heterosexual people. (As for my own two cents: Because it applies so widely to many situations and people, I think that the sheer act of expanding notions of sex for the sake of pleasure itself would be enough to make the world a significantly better place.)
Finally, to say that men have a naturally hard-wired urge to impregnate everything that moves works as a wonderfully comprehensive "get out of jail free" card. Sometimes, literally, because this explanation doesn't just bring up issues around monogamy and infidelity, but also makes excuses the apparently uncontrollable male sex drive that leads men to sexually harass and assault other people, especially children and women. But if we say that women are naturally attracted to meat-head jerks who push them around as an assertion of their power, and go even further to say that its "natural" for women to like it and find this erotic, this easily develops into the first-cousin of "blaming the victim" rhetoric. "No" is taken to mean "Yes." And while this way of thinking is, once again, a convenient way to say that women have lower sex drives than men and that having pleasurable sex is less of a concern for them (and the lazy dudes win again!), such a naturalized conception of men and their power paints a rigid yet precarious portrait of masculinity without accountability. This view is detrimental to men, gay and straight alike, since if you cannot act like a hard, strong, powerful, and horny man then you are inadequate, weak, unattractive, and undesirable....I mean, unfit for reproduction. And we wonder why so many men are insecure with their masculinity.
Aside from the fact that these "reasons from evolution" are the justificatory building blocks of so many social and political ills like homophobia and sexual violence (not to mention that pretty much any talk about evolution easily links more generally to things like eugenics practices; here's a quick story that was recently published in the Huffington post this week), the role "evolution" plays in our thinking is one of deflection. It distracts attention away from particularly political issues and thwarts the ability to seriously consider the mechanisms of systems of oppression. Forces and institutions like white racism, compulsory heterosexuality, and gender policing are less readily recognizable in terms of their actual operation and are rather quickly explained away with "evolution." And because evolution is a fact of the natural world, whatever forms of oppression might be accounted for in terms of "evolution" are also naturalized in a way that suggests that this is how things just are. In other words, the status quo is what it is naturally, on its own, and has not been produced through the maintenance of economic inequality, social limitations, techniques of medical interventions, violence and terrorism, or even the progress of scientific discovery itself.
What this means, then, is that "evolution" functions more like a place holder that, while itself a pretty empty concept, fills an epistemological space so that there does not appear to be a reason to question what people assume to know about sex, sexuality, gender, and the lot. This is another example of what Charles Mills coined as an epistemology of ignorance. With respect to matters of race, Mills notes that an epistemology of ignorance is "a pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional),. producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made" (18). Understood in this way, ignorance isn’t about getting things wrong and erring in scientific discoveries--it’s about setting the conditions up for something to be or not be. With respect to heterosexism, heteronormativity, partriarchal sexism, ableism, and racism in conjunction with sexuality, "evolution" is a key element in an epistemology of ignorance that "precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities" so much that heterosexual and/or white and/or men can say and act as they do under the safety of it all being presumably natural, instinctual, biologically motivated thanks to the force of "evolution." In many ways, then, to explain oppressive systems and behaviors in light of "evolution" is to be complicit in the maintenance of this ignorance, upon which oppression depends.
Here's the video I did a while back about discussing the concept of an epistemology of ignorance: