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Worst Column Ever by Times Pundit David Brooks: “When the Good Do Bad”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Evolutionary psychology, which traces what we do and think to instincts embedded into our ancestors by natural selection, is a dangerous meme. It can make even the smartest intellectuals say not-so-smart things. One is Steven Pinker, whose recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking Adult, 2011), while in many ways a monumental scholarly achievement, was marred by his commitment to the notion that war is an inherited disease for which civilization is the cure.

Another is New York Times columnist David Brooks. I like Brooks for the same reasons that I liked his conservative precursor at the Times, William Safire. Like Safire, Brooks often draws on science for guidance in the realm of politics, and he is unpredictable. Being predictable is a much worse sin for a columnist than being wrong.

I was thus delighted when, at a graduation ceremony I attended recently at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, my alma mater, Brooks got an award and gave a charmingly self-deprecating speech. He said that, although he is a narcissist, as all columnists must be, he considered many of his columns to be half-baked failures, which he rushes into print before they’re ready. When Brooks made this confession, I immediately thought of his March 19 column “When the Good Do Bad,” which wins my award for  “Worst Brooks Column Ever.”

Pondering the alleged massacre two months ago of 16 Afghan civilians by American soldier Robert Bales, Brooks wrote that “when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused. But of course it happens all the time. That’s because even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.”

In support of this claim, Brooks cited a survey by evolutionary psychologist David Buss, who found that 91 percent of male students and 84 of females had fantasized about killing someone. Brooks continued: “These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures that killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”

First of all, Buss is like a parody of an evolutionary biologist, who spins surveys of modern, mostly American college kids into cartoonishly simplistic proclamations about human evolution. As I noted in an October 1995 article in Scientific American, “The New Social Darwinist,” Buss’s speculations–which discount the role of nurture, culture and reason in shaping our behavior–are prime examples of what the biologist Stephen Jay Gould mocked as Darwinian “just-so stories.”

Also, as I have pointed out ad nauseam on this blog and in a new book, the evidence that most people are “natural-born killers” is flimsy to non-existent. As primatologist Frans de Waal and anthropologist Douglas Fry suggest in a special section of the May 18 Science on “Human Conflict,” war, genocide and other forms of mass murder seem to be relatively recent cultural phenomena that culture can help us transcend.

As former soldier and West Point psychologist Dave Grossman points out, most soldiers make reluctant killers. And as psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the infamous Stanford prison experiment in 1971, has shown, most war crimes are the result of bad situations, not bad dispositions, bad barrels, not bad apples. In other words, war makes even ordinary, empathetic people act like psychopaths.

Gemli, the first online commenter on Brooks’ March 19 column, made this point: Robert Bales “was a soldier in a prolonged and brutal war that has persistently raised troubling questions about the limits of pressures that people can endure. Nothing can excuse his rampage, but it might be explained by a combination of battlefield exhaustion, brain trauma, and PTSD.”

Evolutionary psychology, instead of giving Brooks fresh insights and leading him in unpredictable directions, seems merely to validate his dark, Hobbesian perspective on human affairs. Instead of blaming American war crimes on our killer genes or even “original sin” (yes, Brooks actually invoked that medieval superstition in his column), he should look more closely at political leaders, voters and pundits who have helped turn the U.S. into the world’s most warlike society. This is a cultural problem, not a genetic one.

Addendum: The British newspaper The Guardian is surveying readers on the question posed by The End of War: Is war inevitable? Chime in here. How, I wonder, would Brooks respond?

Addendum #2: I just started tweeting! My tag is @Horganism. I invite the two commenters to be my first followers!

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John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. memills 11:03 am 05/21/2012

    I would like to say that this is the worst column ever by John Horgan. Unfortunately, it is his typical viperous, misinformed rant against evolutionary psychology. Tiring, if not inexcusable.

    Horgan is a psychological creationist / cultural determinist. I’m not sure what part of nature-nurture interactionism, or the naturalistic fallacy, is too difficult for him to grasp.

    And when he suggests that “…Buss is like a parody of an evolutionary biologist” is he aware of Buss’ publication productivity in peer reviewed journals? It is Horgan himself who is the parody — of someone who still doesn’t quite get the distinction between Social Darwinism and evolutionary psychology. After all this time, he should do some homework.

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  2. 2. Asgard 3:42 pm 05/21/2012

    Pinker is committed to “the notion that war is an inherited disease for which civilization is the cure”? Did Horgan even make the effort to understand the book? I don’t think so. This is irresponsible journalism. Horgan should look in the mirror first if he is looking for a reprehensible columnist.

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  3. 3. steevo 6:04 pm 05/21/2012

    Many thanks to memills and Asgard for echoing my sentiments so precisely as to render thoroughly superfluous the response to Horgan that I was crafting in my head as I read his screed.

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  4. 4. naya8 12:51 am 05/22/2012

    I realy don’t understand the fear of “culture determinists” from genetic determinism. I am convinced that science of today is missing the main point of evolutionary behavior that was established by Darwin himself.I have many proofs that we are exactly like other animals behave from instincts. However, we are a “superior organisms” could not admit this simple fact.

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  5. 5. mounthell 2:06 am 06/2/2012

    1 – 3, you conveniently overlook the fact that ev psych is little more than opinion supported by flaccid research, just-so stories tarted up with scholarly pretense and devoid of physically verifiable evidence. Ev Psych is merely evolution for dilettantes.

    I think John Horgan’s take is just right. In my view, Brooks puts out partisan product tinged, if not inevitably slanted to appeal to the conservative, antiscience tribe. Given that tribal badge, is it any wonder that Brooks would spice his yada with the EP pseudoscience?

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  6. 6. tim333 10:16 pm 06/10/2012

    ” the evidence that most people are “natural-born killers” is flimsy to non-existent”
    Yeah, right. I expect that goes for other species too like lions and wolves, who only picked up killing from recent culture. This idea that evolution shapes behaviour is just so flaky.

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