Tyranny of the Natural: David P. Barash's Natural Selections 

"Dangerous David" on the wonderful complexities and conundrums of our evolutionary selves

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008

David P. Barash grew up in Long Island, New York, and he loved the beaches in winter, when the people were gone and it was just him and the animals, many of which he ended up bringing home as pets. "If it walked, crawled, wriggled or flew, I had it," he says. "Also some that just sat there. My parents were very tolerant." Not much has changed. Barash now lives with his wife and children on a farm outside Seattle with "three horses, six house cats, three more barn cats, three dogs, two goats, a dozen chickens (depending on how many the coyotes leave for us), an increasingly large red-eared slider turtle and a cockatoo who bosses everyone around."

Barash went on to get a zoology doctorate and wrote his dissertation on the behavior of Olympic marmots, but over the years, his focus has returned to that most curious animal, the human being. As a professor of sociobiology in the department of psychology at the University of Washington, he has published a number of popular science books seeking to expose how humans, for all our trappings of culture, science, religion and consciousness, remain deeply rooted in our biological past, slaves in many respects to ancient adaptations in our anachronistic genetics, or, as he puts it, "the tyranny of the natural." Absurdly, Barash's "Peace Studies" class — an exploration of the roots of human violence and war — led neoconservative David Horowitz to label him as one of America's "101 Most Dangerous Academics." Barash, a balding, bearded man with an impish smile, has taken this in good humor, and now signs his e-mails "Dangerous David."

Truth be told, Barash's line of inquiry, like Richard Dawkins' or Steven Pinker's, does result in bracing and unsettling ideas. Through the lens of evolutionary psychology, we are forced to face our ancient self, that bestial creature that knows nothing of atomic bombs or jihad, marriage or MySpace, but still haunts our body, fuels our emotions and rules our lives — our genetic identity. For this single-minded creature, monogamy is a myth, free will is doubtful, and so-called altruism is merely a misguided attempt to protect people who might be carrying our genes. (Since humans once lived in small, closely related packs, protecting others made genetic sense.) In a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Barash wrote about how electrocuted rats develop ulcers and swollen adrenal glands unless they are allowed to fight other "innocent" rats. In short: Random acts of violence are never actually random; we are merely obeying a million-year-old code of behavior, a code of displaced aggression that Barash finds in The Iliad, in Sweeney Todd and in our current war in Iraq. Barash's latest book, Natural Selections, published by Bellevue Literary Press (a small press run out of the oldest public hospital in the United States, Bellevue in Manhattan), seeks to follow the concepts of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology to their logical conclusions. "Many people claim to accept the tenets of evolution," he says, "but few actually look at where these premises lead."

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I talked with Barash by phone about his book, his science and his philosophy:

L.A. WEEKLY: In Natural Selections, you suggest that our genes are almost like host-manipulating parasites (such as the lancet liver fluke that induces infected ants to cling to blades of grass until they are eaten by sheep — the fluke's preferred host).
DAVID P. BARASH: It's a challenge to our self-esteem to consider that we are porous to the outside, not to mention invaded on the inside by pathogens and parasites, and even by our "own" genes, which get us to behave in ways that serve their interests rather than our own — whatever "us" and "we" and "our" might be.

To what ends do you think culture should be willing to go to battle the more disturbing aspects of our genetic makeup? If we could genetically isolate the gene for violence, would you be in favor of altering it? Likewise, do you see the burgeoning market for neuro-pharmaceuticals as a way in which science might be addressing the regressive behaviors of our animal selves?
I'm skeptical about genetically modifying our seemingly "normal" behavior. It's part of what makes human beings human. But I'd be not only willing, but downright eager, to impose upon any particularly dangerous inclinations of world leaders with their fingers on "the button." If I could modify George W. Bush to make him smarter, wiser, more curious, less doctrinaire, more open to alternative views, and generally less thoughtless, selfish and destructive, I'd do it in a heartbeat!

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