blueprint for what?

[Content notice: discussion of rape, genocide]

Last spring, Nicholas Christakis published his latest book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. The title already sets the stage for some old-fashioned biological determinism.1 For anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology, it is 520 pages of mostly the same claims, logic, and citations as any other recent evopsych writing aimed at a general public readership. He’s a fan of Steven Pinker’s theses in Enlightenment Now and Blank Slate, and Pinker’s endorsement is prominent on the front cover of Blueprint. For those unfamiliar, the field is riven with “just-so stories,” or simplistic, largely unverifiable assertions about our evolutionary past that justify modern stereotypes and inequalities. The New Yorker summarizes and historicizes this pattern well. When it makes normative claims, evopsych tends to engage in the same is/ought fallacy that structural functionalism did: whatever we observe people doing must serve some necessary function—or else it wouldn’t have evolved—and so whatever is, ought to be. Social reformers beware: you’re meddling with forces beyond your comprehension and fighting against human nature.

Christakis takes up some of the most inflammatory arguments of evopsych, but he manages to make them sound relatively innocuous. For example, readers are casually told that human “males at risk of being shut out of reproduction may rationally respond to this state of affairs by taking riskier, potentially even violent, actions to secure a mate … this is sometimes known as the ‘crazy-bastard strategy’” (p. 179-80). If you think that sounds like rape, you’re right. He cites Henrich et al., quoting them to say that polygyny “will result in higher rates of murder, theft, rape, social disruption, kidnapping (especially of females), sexual slavery, and prostitution” (p. 660, quoted on p. 138). Henrich et al. in turn cite Thornhill and Thornhill, “Human Rape: An Evolutionary Analysis.” Randy Thornhill has long been at the center of the controversy over this argument. By omitting Thornhill from the references and writing primarily in euphemisms, Christakis gives readers the impression that these ideas are innocuous and uncontroversial. To be clear: for Christakis & company, rape is a “rational response” by men to situations when no one wants to have a child with us. Further, rape is part of our genetic “pre-wiring.” This position has been extensively criticized, but in Blueprint it is slipped in as an uncontroversial fact.

Christakis, Thornhill, and others who have advanced this position all say that rape is bad, and that knowing this genetic truth about men can guide our efforts to prevent rape. But they say precious little about what that guidance is. Christakis puts considerable effort into biological justifications for things like rape and men’s violent crime, while leaving the path to a his title’s promised “good society” a vague afterthought. He offers a single sentence about how to reduce rape: “in humans, cultural factors that flatten out status differences among males… can reshape male behavior by rendering males less violent across evolution” (p. 180). “Status differentials” on the previous page meant the number of wives / sexual partners men had. Efforts to redistribute women among men, to ensure that all men have a child-bearing partner, don’t sound particularly concerned with women’s agency or consent. That seems like a bad approach to ending rape. The most charitable reading would be that we should ban polygyny, but again, Christakis puts more ink into making rape seem natural than into ending it.

Chirstakis isn’t shy about his advocacy of monogamy, though. Drawing on the same research, he argues that in polygynous societies “men lacking spouses resorted to violence,” and “political entities, nations, and religions that adopted monogamy had a reduced rate of this sort of violence and could deploy their resources more productively” (p. 138). Indeed, “the spread of cultural monogamy… may even have contributed to the emergence of democracy and political equality” (p. 139). So monogamy makes societies superior. But for Christakis, monogamy is “hard to explain” from biological perspectives (p. 133). Instead, it rose “for cultural reasons, first in the West (beginning two thousand years ago), and then … spreading around the world” (p.133). He goes on to tell readers about ancient Greece, Rome, and the European Industrial Revolution, contrasting them with “virtually all parts of the world, including in the Americas before European contact” and “until quite recently… East Asia” (p. 136).

To scholars of fascism or contemporary populist right wing movements, this narrative is all too familiar. “Western culture,” localized in “classical” Greece/Rome and the Enlightenment / Industrial Revolution, is the source of a civilizational pride and cultural superiority compared with an uncivilized, Oriental Other.2 When “the West” exported its laws governing sexuality—the spread of monogamy that Christakis lauds—this was seen as part of a civilizing mission to improve the rest of the world. In reality, of course, “exporting laws” was generally accomplished through colonial occupation and genocide. Christakis manages not to mention that part. I don’t know whether Christakis realizes the extent of the overlap of his vision of Western Culture as superior and civilizing with contemporary far right movements and centuries-old colonial governments. But it is fascinating that this is the place where he asserts the goodness and primacy of cultural causes, rather than the biological causes which stand center stage in the rest of the book.

Christakis is up front about his motives and agenda. He writes:

Choosing cultural over genetic explanations for human affairs is no more forgiving. After all, culture has played a huge role in slavery, pogroms, and the Inquisition. Why should the social determinants of human affairs be considered any better—morally or scientifically—than the genetic determinants? In fact, belief in the sociological mutability of human beings has, in my judgment, done more harm to people through the ages than the belief in their genetic immutability….3

Efforts in social engineering, sponsored by leaders such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, have killed countless millions of people, and they are often driven by a false belief that fundamental, genetically encoded, and universal aspects of human behavior and social order can simply be swept aside (p. 407).

He goes on to enumerate Gulag body counts and more as illustration of his point. Leveraging atrocities like this to score political points is odious, but also telling. People who disagree with Christakis—social reformers who seek to change and improve the world, along with all of his sociologist colleagues who emphasize social rather than biological influences on society4—are analogized to some of the biggest villains in popular history: slavery, Stalin, Mao. This is a variant of the “big, bad social constructionist” strawman tactic that I describe in my dissertation and a forthcoming book chapter.5 Like many other scholars who insist upon biological causes for social outcomes, Christakis cherry-picks a few egregious things done in the name of social construction and uses them to tar and feather all who disagree with him. This conveniently sidesteps any need to engage substantively with his critics’ work.6

Any serious engagement with the history and scholarship on the atrocities he mentions would undermine his story. Christakis seems unaware of the fact that American chattel slavery, along with many other forms of racial violence, domination, and genocide resulting from colonialism, was intimately tied into biological notions of human (and sub-human) nature. Similarly, it is absurd to suggest that pogroms were more about the “sociological mutability of human beings” than the extermination of an ethnic group—Jewish people—viewed in partly biological terms. Notably, the Holocaust, other genocides, and Apartheid are entirely absent from his discussion, perhaps because they’re on the “wrong side” of his crass body count math. He does briefly comment on eugenics:

Concerns about eugenics and discrimination are obviously profoundly legitimate, but they are not justifications for persistent, willful ignorance of the scientific underpinnings of our social lives. Acceptance of this evidence alone does not inexorably lead to discrimination. That requires a further ugly moral and political overlay (p. 406).

There is a long and sordid history of using genetics in ways that divide and alienate people from each other. Some have responded to this by ignoring the empirical evidence about evolutionary origins of human behavior and social organization in the hope that the evidence would simply disappear. But the fact that the truth could be dangerous—if misunderstood, misapplied, or combined with faulty moral premises—does not mean it should be suppressed (p. 408).

Some argue that even if knowledge of scientific reality lead inexorably to eugenics and racial discrimination, it would not justify ignorance of that reality, because of the supreme value is recognizing the truth, whatever it may be and whatever the costs of that knowledge (p. 503, note 47).

Here we see a stark double standard: Christakis is not to blame for people doing terrible things in the name of his theory, but Christakis’ opponents are responsible for terrible things done in their name.

Inevitably, some readers will accuse me of “denying biology,” of being a “blank slatist” or the “PC police” for writing this review. In reality, there are numerous people and labs doing quality, worthwhile research on social-biological interrelationships.7 My critiques are aimed at the harmful, biased, and counterproductive ways that some scholars present research. Christakis could have avoided many of these problems and others that I don’t have space for if, instead of breathlessly recounting gonzo ethnographies of remote communities, he spent some of his 520 pages reflecting on the relevant historical and sociological literature.

1 Christakis anticipates my use of the word “determinism” on pages 404-5. His response is to say that we are not “wholly tethered to our biology.” Those three paragraphs, out of 520 pages that overwhelmingly argue for the ways we are tethered to biology, serve as little more than a “gotcha” for critics.

2 Edward Said and Jasbir Puar are my favorite authors on this, but there are a wealth of excellent, relevant chapters in this forthcoming volume I am a part of.

3 The omitted sentence asserts that a “biological basis for homosexuality” is the way to protect queer people from violence. There are great critiques of this by Shamus Khan, Jane Ward, and Steven Epstein. Further, Christakis is internally inconsistent on this point. He argues, for example, on page 150 that “men having a homosexual orientation” is the result of their inability to get wives in polygnous societies (just like men raping women supposedly is), thus implying that “homosexuality” could be cured by provisioning wives to men. Eew.

4 In note 46 on page 503, he writes “Such extreme adherence to the doctrine of the blank slate is very common in sociology.”

5 Preprint link coming as soon as the book is printed (when the publisher’s embargo ends). Citation: Jeffrey W. Lockhart, “‘A Large and Long Standing Body’: Historical Authority in the Science of Sex,” in Far Right Revisionism and the End of History: Alt/Histories, ed. Louie Dean Valencia-García (New York: Routledge, 2020).

6 Especially relevant critics include Aaron Panofsky, Angela Saini, Rebecca Jordan-Young, and dozens more.

7 For one paradigm-setting example, see Fausto-Sterling’s “Bare Bones of Sex.” For reviews, see Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, or the much better writing from Christakis’ sometimes co-author, Jeremy Freese. See also work from my colleagues like Jessica Faul and Colter Mitchell at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.

Author: Jeffrey Lockhart

Jeff is a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan, writing his dissertation on the scientific debates around biological sex essentialism. He tweets @jw_lockhart.

One thought on “blueprint for what?”

  1. Interesting… I wonder if Christakis would agree that undergraduates at risk of being shut out of collective decision-making may rationally respond to this state of affairs by taking riskier, potentially even violent, actions to secure more political recognition … this is sometimes known as the ‘surround and, allegedly, spit on your professor strategy.’

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