Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Decoding David Brooks

Brooks is a conservative columnist at the New York Times. Every once in a while he writes a column that seems to consist of just personal philosophical musings, something to ignore, unless one happens to be interested in personal philosophical musings. Warning! Brooks never engages in anything in his columns that isn't intended to prop up the status quo.

A good example is his last Sunday's column, entitled "The Age of Darwin". On the surface, it seems a bunch of thoughts caused by him visiting a museum:

Standing on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies, stands a musty old museum devoted to human progress. When you walk into the Rockefeller Museum with its old-fashioned display cases crowded with ancient pottery shards and oil lamps, you can begin by looking at the stone tools of early man. Then you proceed room by room through the invention of agriculture and cities, winding up finally with the statues and reliquaries of the medieval era.

What you're really looking at is a philosophy of history. The museum was set up in 1938, when scholars still spoke confidently of mankind's upward march from primitive culture to higher civilization. History is portrayed here as a great, unified story, with crucial pivot moments when humanity leapt forward — when people first buried their dead, when they moved from animistic faiths to polytheism, when they learned to cultivate reason and philosophy.

But then he goes on to argue that we all once looked up to God, then to Marx, then to Freud and that we all now look up to Darwin:

And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn't have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.

He's painting with a broad brush there, you might say. But what is wrong with his sentences? Nothing much if you are comfortable with a religious view of science, because that is how Brooks uses science, like a fundamentalist: He picks out the pieces he likes and ignores the rest of the findings. He then tells us that the pieces he likes are unavoidably how we are living and thinking and that we must just bow down in front of this new altar.

And why? Because Brooks' view of evolution explains why the rich are rich and why the poor are poor and why women are not good at mathematics and why none of this can be changed. Here is the crucial paragraph:

According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don't enhance the chance of survival.

Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food.

Think about that last sentence a little. How does David Brooks know this? What were our genes before they were formed while we were still hunters and gatherers? That makes no sense at all. But it isn't meant to make sense. It is meant to make the status quo seem impossible to alter, ever. It is meant to make change seem impossible, despite the fact that change over time is what you see in that museum of history Brooks visited, And it is meant to convey the idea of human beings as impossibly inflexible, despite all the evidence we have of our innate flexibility.