Can evolutionary psychology explain the human condition? | The Daily Star
03:43 PM, June 07, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:48 PM, June 07, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: NON-FICTION

Can evolutionary psychology explain the human condition?

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is not an actual science. A scientific endeavour should invariably include scopes for experimentation that should lead to the nullification, or consolidation, of the hypotheses formulated on the general premises put forth by that branch of science. The be-all and end-all of EP, however, is the pursuit of the optimisation of reproductive fitness of the human individual. In broad strokes, a male human is genetically predisposed to mate with as many female partners as possible due to his seemingly endless reservoir of seeds, while the female human seeks to solely colonise the genetic and financial resources of a superior man because her eggs are in short supply. The tug-of-war that ensues from these two differing reproductive ideals purportedly has the capacity to explain much of what goes on around us. As convenient as it may seem, there is a rather inconvenient rub: you can explain anything and everything by resorting to this line of thought.

The eminent neuroscientist VS Ramachandran effectively demonstrated this innate weakness of the EP argument. He wrote an article titled "Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?" in the highly respected Medical Hypotheses journal, arguing that since it is relatively easier to detect parasitic infestation in a blonde (in retrospect, it sounds both ridiculous and hilarious), men prefer blondes over brunettes. Since the manuscript came from a renowned scientist from another field, the editors of the journal simply lapped it up. Ramachandran subsequently revealed that his entire article was a hoax. He simply made up his arguments using EP vernacular in such a way that he knew would win him support within the community. The author of Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology (Lulu Publishing Services, 2015), however, is not deterred by such limitations. Rather, he truly believes, and tries in his book to demonstrate, that this new discipline is "capable of offering profound insight into nearly every aspect of human nature".

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A S Amin's Conflicts of Fitness is an attempt to explain that the yawning gulf between western and Islamic cultures fundamentally stems from the mismatch between the overall reproductive climate prevailing in the two societies. Right-off-the-bat, there are a couple of issues. First of all, "the west", as defined by anthropologists, starts from the easternmost part of Russia, cuts through the northern regions of the Eurasian landmass, scuttles the Atlantic, and ends in the westernmost parts of North America (in the global south, it also incorporates Australia and New Zealand). Hence, the use of the word "America" in the title is rather sensationalistic, since no discussion of how Islam interfaced with America in particular is presented.

Secondly, to set aside the enormous corpus of literature dealing with the historical and political grievances of different Muslim peoples and focus solely on reproductive fitness to explain Islamic societal structures is rather reductive. For example, the author explains away the violent Algerian civil war with recourse to the innate conflict between two groups of people who were trying to bring about diametrically opposed reproductive climates. In reality, however, the civil war in Algeria was an inevitable offshoot of the Mujaheddin movement in Afghanistan, which was bankrolled by the CIA to hobble the Soviet regime—as deftly presented by political scientist Mahmood Mamdani in his seminal book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (Pantheon Books, 2004).

In any case, to justify conflicts of reproductive fitness as a major contributor to the socio-political ills of Muslim societies, Amin should have pitted it against other major factors in order to show that it holds water. For example, he could have attempted to show that the civil war in Algeria would have been just as bloody and gruesome even if US was not involved in nurturing and training an army of blood-thirsty Jihadists in Afghanistan who knew nothing but rape and carnage for well over the past decade. Undoubtedly, such an analysis would have led to conclusions undesirable to the author.

Nevertheless, the chapter on polygamy should be quite illuminating to those who are not aware of such arguments. The author incisively elucidates how polygamy, in the Islamic juridical sense of the word, is a rather efficient compromise between the male and female reproductive extremes. The fact that such arguments are incompatible with modern feminist discourse is not lost on the author. He prefaces the chapter by quoting a female friend of his as saying "[Polygamy is an] inherently misogynistic institution set up to cater to the perverted fantasies of men." In the chapter titled "Women and Islam", Amin presents analysis from a number of Islamic scholars—running the gamut from Islamic enlightenment-era giants like Imam Al-Ghazali to modern day intellectuals like Abou El Fadl—yet he does not refer to a single woman intellectual in a chapter that seeks to address the position of women within the religion.

What he does accomplish is to show that Islam is not a monoculture since there is no one way ideations within Islamic scholarship transpire. In other words, contrary to western representation, the ideal reproductive climate of Islamic societies is not dictated by the Taliban of Afghanistan, nor the Ayatollahs of Iran, and a vast range of interpretations can and does take place. Barring these few key points, this book fails to deliver on its core promise, that is, to provide a unified field theory of human behaviour, or for that matter, human history.

Zihad Azad is currently doing his PhD in applied nanophotonics at University of California, Santa Barbara.

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