Tyranny of the Natural: David P. Barash's Natural Selections
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."
I talked with Barash by phone about his book, his science and his philosophy:
TicketsTue., Oct. 24, 8:00pm
Mike Birbiglia: The New One
TicketsWed., Oct. 25, 7:00pm
- Lucha Vavoom Halloween featuring Live Masked Mexican Wrestling, Stript
- The Real Good Comedy Show W/ Jonny Loquasto & Evan Cassidy
- Hamilton (Touring)
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!
One of the more controversial claims in your book is when you advocate the "creation" of half-person/half-animals ... chimeras, hybrids or mixed-species clones; "humanzees." Could you explain your support for this somewhat outlandish idea?
If successfully done, it should provide a nail in the coffin of the most pernicious myth of all time: that human beings are somehow discontinuous from the rest of the natural world. How, in the face of "humanzees," could even the most narrow-minded religious fundamentalist argue that Homo sapiens are uniquely blessed and possessing a spark of the divine?
You enjoy breaking down the walls separating humans and animals ("Wolf is wolf to wolf as well," you write), demonstrating examples of altruism, deceit, murder and war in the animal world. Is suicide a uniquely human activity? And what of celibacy?
No clear evidence of suicide in animals, although perhaps male honeybees come close: After mating, the lower part of the male's abdomen literally explodes under fluid pressure, killing him and jamming his genitals into the female. As to celibacy, the social insects once again demonstrate it: Worker bees, ants and wasps don't reproduce but labor instead for the success of their mother, the queen. As for humans, there is evidence that celibacy is more claimed than actually practiced, and in many societies, having offspring or siblings in monasteries enhances the overall genetic success of other relatives.
You mention in the book that animals having a lethal attack (rattlesnakes, scorpions) typically refrain from using their poison on their own species, whereas the "harmless" Homo sapiens attacks with everything it has at its disposal. Does this suggest that if we had evolved from scorpions, we might have a greater genetic awareness of the dangers of guns, nuclear weapons, etc.?
Exactly! The key point, as I see it, is that we "evolved" our horribly destructive weapons nongenetically — via cultural evolution — and without the restraining benefits that would have been there if, like rattlesnakes or scorpions, we evolved our weapons along with equally "biological" restraints on using them.
In your article about displaced aggression in The Chronicle of Higher Education, you suggest that suffering animals have a biological need to commit aggressive acts, regardless of the target. Might animal sacrifices or the Roman circus or burning effigies serve some pacifying effect on a populace?
Also add, for individuals: running, having a basement punching bag, and maybe even having a bit of insight.
Do you believe in free will?
As a technical matter, I have no belief whatever in free will. Given that every effect has a pre-existing cause, how can the slightest twitching of any neuron not be caused by some immediately previous condition? So where is the free will? On the other hand, I live my life — and you doubtless live yours — convinced that everyone is largely a free agent. It's a curious paradox. We aren't limited to our biologically given tendencies, which, after all, are tendencies, not rigid requirements. More than any other species, we are able to examine our situation and decide to act in our own best interest (and that of our planet), once we understand the issues. In short, we have great big, fat brains, and can use them.
Can we overcome our genetic "parasites"?
I don't believe we can truly defeat our genetic impulses, any more than we can overcome the tendency of our kidneys to filter blood or our hearts to pump. Much as we would like to think of ourselves as conscious, free-willed, "enlightened" creatures, history and science have shown that our genetics and our animal impulses can never be fully tamed by cultural laws or individual willpower. In fact, when people attempt to put up a wall against their evolutionary cravings, the result is typically a nightmarish, dystopian situation (as in Brave New World), or at least an absurd one (as in the case of Jonathan Swift's Laputa). But that doesn't mean that we are helpless puppets dancing at the end of strings held by our DNA. In some cases, we can literally say "No" to some of our more troublesome inclinations. Evolution whispers within us; it does not shout.
At other times, I like to advocate a kind of "genetic jujitsu," in which we take the raw force of our genetics, but redirect that force towards ends that we view as more humane, ethical, or at least less perverse and single-minded. Even when we can't defeat our genetics, we might be able to toss them in the right direction. For example, given our biologically based fondness for sex with a variety of partners (especially true for those of us burdened with a Y chromosome), we can essentially fool ourselves into maintaining sexual enthusiasm with a longtime partner if we do "it" in different places and in different ways. We can trick our genes into faithfulness.
So you're not a cynic?
Am I a cynic? A good question. Certainly, it can be disheartening once you begin to explore the true motives behind human behavior. I like to compare it to someone listening to modern classical music for the first time. It might sound like a dreadful din, strange and dissonant. However, with proper musical training, you can come to appreciate the nuances of the work. The same is true of evolutionary psychology. At first blush, it certainly doesn't sit easily with many of the beliefs we like to hold about ourselves. But as you venture further, you begin to see the wonderful complexities and conundrums of our evolutionary selves, and can appreciate the grandeur of it all.
Like how in medieval times, people were excommunicated for playing a diminished fifth on the piano, but without it, we wouldn't have Debussy?
Right. I know that the moon isn't made of green cheese, and doesn't have a man in it, but that doesn't in any way interfere with my enjoyment of moonlight.
NATURAL SELECTIONS | By DAVID P. BARASH | Bellevue Literary Press | 192 pages | $25 hardcover
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.