One of my persistent problems with evolutionary psychology is its consistent lack of interest in the way culture affects human nature. Instead of trying to understand the way pop jingles, political systems and pulp fiction novels influence our behavior, evo psychers prefer to explain away our culture by referencing some innate congitive module or hard-wired habit. In other words, they see culture as just a secretion of our psychology, and only find it interesting when it signifies something about our evolutionary past.
Too harsh a judgment? Take this example from Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (excerpted from a chapter entitled “The Meaning of Life”), in which he disregards Hamlet as little more than a mediocre self-help book: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?” Of course, Pinker’s shallow analysis of Shakespeare misses the play’s real purpose. Shakespeare was infamous for the contrivances and unoriginality of his plots. The story was merely a vehicle for his language. Besides, if Hamlet has an evolutionary moral, it is in direct contradiction to the tenets of evolutionary psychology. Evo-psych claims that men are designed for wanderlust and extra-marital affairs, while women are designed to stay at home and warm their precious eggs. Shakespeare explodes this oversimplification. It is the lust of Hamlet’s mother – “Frailty, thy name is woman” – and not his father – who is the epitome of faithfulness – that brings Hamlet’s whole world crashing down.
And now there’s news that men want women who remind them of movie characters. So even our sexual preferences – an evolved instinct if ever there was one – are strongly warped by culture, and not the habits of our Pleistocene ancestors. Granted, the New York Observer isn’t Nature, but this anecdote fits my own experiences better than the current mating models of evo psych:
According to Ms. Serota, the failure of men like Mr. Deemer to find a girlfriend online has little to do with the quality of women available and everything to do with … Garden State.
“Guys all say they’re looking for the same woman. They’re looking for this whimsical, beautiful girl who’s really a geek inside,” said Ms. Serota. “They’re all looking for Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, or at least that’s what they write. They’re looking for the quirky girl who’s going to save them from themselves. They’re looking for these girls that are, like, manic-depressive without the depressive.” (In Ms. Serota’s estimation, this syndrome is endemic to “basically anyone in an urban area who doesn’t dress like they work at Blockbuster Video.”)
“They’re looking for Amélie,” she continued. “And if you read girls’ profiles, they’re trying to sell themselves as Amélie.”