Creative Ideologies Versus Reliable Knowledge

Sexual selection for creativity raises some worries about the reliability of human knowledge. According to traditional views, animals with delusions should be eliminated by natural selection. Evolution should produce species with brains that interpret the world more and more accurately, enabling behavior to be guided more adaptively. Such reasoning is central to the field of "evolutionary epistemology," which studies how evolutionary processes can generate reliable knowledge. Evolutionary epistemologists such as Karl Popper, Donald Campbell, and John Ziman have credited evolution with a tendency to endow animals with reasonably accurate models of the world. This idea seems to solve many of the traditional philosophical worries about the validity of human perception and belief.

For most kinds of knowledge embodied in most of our psychological adaptations, I think that their argument is correct. Natural selection has endowed us with an intuitive physics that allows us to understand mass, momentum, and movement well enough to deal with the material world. We also have an intuitive biology that allows us to understand plants and animals well enough to survive, and an intuitive psychology that lets us understand people. Especially since the 1980s, psychologists have been busy investigating these intuitive forms of knowledge in children and adults. Our hundreds of adaptations for sensation, perception, categorization, inference, and behavior embody thousands of important truths about the world.

However, when we come to verbally expressed beliefs, sexual selection undermines these reliability arguments. While natural selection for survival may have endowed us with pragmatically accurate perceptual systems, mate choice may not have cared about the accuracy of our more complex belief systems. Sexual selection could have favored ideologies that were entertaining, exaggerated, exciting, dramatic, pleasant, comforting, narratively coherent, aesthetically balanced, wittily comic, or nobly tragic. It could have shaped our minds to be amusing and attractive, but deeply fallible. As long as our ideologies do not undermine our more pragmatic adaptations, their epistemological frailty does not matter to evolution.

Imagine some young hominids huddling around a Pleistocene campfire, enjoying their newly evolved language ability. Two males get into an argument about the nature of the world, and start holding forth, displaying their ideologies.

The hominid named Carl proposes: "We are mortal, fallible primates who survive on this fickle savanna only because we cluster in these jealousy-ridden groups. Everywhere we have ever traveled is just a tiny, random corner of a vast continent on an unimaginably huge sphere spinning in a vacuum. The sphere has traveled billions and billions of times around a flaming ball of gas, which will eventually blow up to incinerate our empty, fossilized skulls. I have discovered several compelling lines of evidence in support of these hypotheses. .. ."

The hominid named Candide interrupts: "No, I believe we are immortal spirits gifted with these beautiful bodies because the great god Wug chose us as his favorite creatures. Wug blessed us with this fertile paradise that provides just enough challenges to keep things interesting. Behind the moon, mystic nightingales sing our praises, some of us more than others. Above the azure dome of the sky the smiling sun warms our hearts. After we grow old and enjoy the babbling of our grandchildren, Wug will lift us from these bodies to join our friends to eat roasted gazelle and dance eternally. I know these things because Wug picked me to receive this special wisdom in a dream last night."

Which ideology do you suppose would prove more sexually attractive? Will Carl's truth-seeking genes—which may discover some rather ugly truths—out-compete Candide's wonderful-story genes? The evidence of human history suggests that our ancestors were more like Candide than Carl. Most modern humans are naturally Candides. It usually takes years of watching BBC or PBS science documentaries to become as objective as Carl.

Runaway sexual selection for ideological entertainment would not have produced accurate belief-systems, except by accident. If ideological displays were favored as fitness indicators, the only truth they had to convey was truth about fitness. They need not be accurate world-models any more than the eyes of a peacock's tail need to represent real eyes. Das Kapital demonstrated Karl Marx's intelligence, imagination, and energy, but its reliability as a fitness indicator does not guarantee the truth of dialectical materialism. The majesty of Brigham Young's religious visions were sufficient to attract 27 wives (who averaged 24.5 years old at marriage— with wives number 12 through 21 marrying him when he was in his mid-40s), but that does not guarantee the veracity of his belief that dead ancestors can be retroactively converted to the Mormon faith.

When we considered the evolution of language, we saw that sexual selection rarely favors displays that include accurate conceptual representations of the world. Across millions of species throughout the Earth's history, there have been only two good examples of sexual selection for world-representing truth: human language and human representational art. Even so, human language's ability to refer to real objects and events does not guarantee the reliability of human ideologies expressed through language.

Sexual selection usually behaves like an insanely greedy tabloid newspaper editor who deletes all news and leaves only advertisements. In human evolution, it is as if the editor suddenly recognized a niche market for news in a few big-brained readers. She told all her reporters she wanted wall-to-wall news, but she never bothered to set up a fact-checking department. Human ideology is the result: a tabloid concoction of religious conviction, political idealism, urban myth, tribal myth, wishful thinking, memorable anecdote, and pseudo-science.

Richard Dawkins has suggested that these ideological phenomena all result from "memes"—virus-like ideas that evolved at the cultural level to propagate themselves by grabbing our attention, remaining memorable, and being easy to transmit to others. The meme idea offers a novel perspective on human culture, but it begs several questions. Why do people display such ideas so fervently in young adulthood, especially during courtship? Why do people compete to invent new memes that will make them famous? Why were most memes invented by men? Why did natural selection leave us so vulnerable to ideological nonsense? Perhaps by viewing ideological displays as part of courtship, we can answer such questions. Mostly, we use our memes to improve our sexual and social status; they do not just use us.

This sexual selection theory of ideology poses a serious challenge to evolutionary epistemology. Natural selection can favor accurate intuitive models of the world, but it seems incapable of producing communication systems that allow those models to be shared. Sexual selection can favor rich communication systems such as language, but it tends to distort verbally expressible world-models, making them more entertaining than accurate. There seems to be a trade-off between reliable individual cognition and social communication—we can be mute realists or chatty fabulists, but not both. This is far from the evolutionary epistemology view, in which truth-seeking cognition evolved with truth-sharing language to give us a doublebarreled defense against falsehood.

Our ideologies are a thin layer of marzipan on the fruitcake of the mind. Most of our mental adaptations that patiently guide our behavior remain intuitively accurate. They are our humble servants, toiling away at ground level, unaffected by the strange signals and mixed metaphors flying overhead from one consciousness to another during the mental fireworks show of courtship. Sexual selection has not impaired our depth perception, voice recognition, sense of balance, or ability to throw rocks accurately But it may have profoundly undermined the reliability of our conscious beliefs. This is the level of epistemology that people care about when they challenge other people's claims to "knowledge" in the domains of religion, politics, medicine, psychotherapy, social policy, the humanities, and the philosophy of science. It is in these domains that sexual selection undermines the evolutionary epistemology argument, by turning our cognitive faculties into ornamental fitness-advertisements rather than disciples of truth.

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