It Ain’t Necessarily So: How Much Do Evolutionary Stories Reveal About the Mind?


Anthony Gottlieb

In response to David Barash’s “Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature,” Anthony Gottlieb attempts to dissuade us from reducing everything in life to the basest scientific level—in this case, a simplistic evolutionary story about why people act the way they do. What Gottlieb finds is that there is a lot about humans that we do not understand and for which we cannot find strict evolutionary warrant. As such, when we try to extend the reach of psychology’s use of evolution to answer questions such as why people are religious, the most likely result is that we will fail. Teasing apart the source of a current human trait is, of course, incredibly difficult—especially when we take note of the Western bias to the research into “universal traits,” as Gottlieb does.

Instead of trying to put together the evolutionary puzzle, Gottlieb encourages his readers to consider the current research on how our minds work rather than look to the possible stories of how we came to be the way we are. In doing so, we need to resist our “fondness for simple-sounding explanations that may be false” as well as our “fondness for thinking that one has found the key to everything.”

What might we as Christians make of this? First, we know that we are more than just the product of an evolutionary process. The story of Genesis is unequivocal in its portrayal of humankind as part of the created order and yet set apart. Consequently, we should expect that any purely evolutionary story will fail to explain the entirety of human life. Nonetheless, when we come to Gottlieb’s encouragement to look at evolutionary research, we should see this as an encouragement to take seriously the task of holding psychology, evolutionary biology, and other disciplines together with biblical accounts, thus presenting a richer, deeper, and fuller understanding of humanity.

Source: The New Yorker

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