Monkey on our Back: Unravelling the Evolution “Myth”

Natasha Moore calls out the unscientific ways we talk about human nature and the distant past.

Now that I've noticed it, I see it everywhere.

It crops up in ordinary conversation, talk of workplace politics or weight loss or parenting. It jumps out at me from dating blogs and time management literature, and from the comment threads of articles.

It's a fixture of mainstream journalism, especially when it tries to communicate (and, inevitably, spice up) the results of academic studies published by sociologists or economists or psychologists.

Though its roots lie in the findings of evolutionary biology, this way of thinking and talking about human behaviour is parascientific at best.

Perhaps best described as “pop evolutionary psychology” (as distinct from the discipline of evolutionary psychology itself), these days it's de rigueur among everyone from your physio to the latest celebrity chef.

It's basically a cultural repurposing of ideas about how humans have evolved and how our biology might affect us – one that trades on the respectability of actual science but modifies it for everyday use, casually neglecting its rules and rigours in the process.

Let me give an example. The long-form explainer site Wait But Why, with its (disconcertingly insightful) stick-figure sketches and millions of monthly page views, has a post titled “Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think“. It offers the following explanation for modern social anxiety:

Evolution does everything for a reason, and to understand the origin of this particular insanity, let's back up for a minute to 50,000BC in Ethiopia, where your Great2,000 Grandfather lived as part of a small tribe.

Back then, being part of a tribe was critical to survival. A tribe meant food and protection in a time when neither was easy to come by. So for your Great2,000 Grandfather, almost nothing in the world was more important than being accepted by his fellow tribe members, especially those in positions of authority. Fitting in with those around him and pleasing those above him meant he could stay in the tribe, and about the worst nightmare he could imagine would be people in the tribe starting to whisper about how annoying or unproductive or weird he was – because if enough people disapproved of him, his ranking within the tribe would drop, and if it got really bad, he'd be kicked out altogether and left for dead. He also knew that if he ever embarrassed himself by pursuing a girl in the tribe and being rejected, she'd tell the other girls about it – not only would he have blown his chance with that girl, but he might never have a mate at all now because every girl that would ever be in his life knew about his lame, failed attempt. Being socially accepted was everything.

Because of this, humans evolved an over-the-top obsession with what others thought of them – a craving for social approval and admiration, and a paralyzing fear of being disliked.

Now, I love Wait But Why. These are the guys that gave us “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook” and the Instant Gratification Monkey and who explained why Gen Y yuppies are unhappy. And I'm all for ceding less control to the voice in my head that obsesses over what other people think. And sure, this is humorous social commentary, not a treatise on prehistoric man (certainly the “Social Survival Mammoth” the article goes on to introduce us to isn't offered as a scientific hypothesis).

And yet, it offers a classic example of pop evolutionary psychology – and everything that's wrong with it. To start with, it makes the rookie but near-universal error of talking about evolution in terms of intention. Explicitly, in fact: “Evolution does everything for a reason.” I can only imagine how much this fallacy must irritate actual biologists. Evolution doesn't do anything for a reason; it doesn't, strictly speaking, “do” anything. Mutations happen. They may or may not be beneficial to the organism in which they happen, from the point of view of survival. The organism survives and passes on its genes, or doesn't. The flourishing or extinction of the species is a matter of supreme indifference to the process we personify as “Evolution”.

Of course, this language of agency or even design comes naturally to us because we find ourselves at a particular point in a long process of adaptations that “worked”, and so from our perspective, most of what's happened biologically to our species so far has been a good thing. Passing over the circular logic of this perspective – whoever chances to survive natural selection is going to view the process as a positive one, and themselves as its inevitable outcome – there's also the problem of simply equating certain social behaviours with genetic characteristics. Developing techniques for navigating the social pressures of tribal life isn't really the same kind of thing as developing an opposable thumb.

Secondly, this lively account of prehistoric social interactions may not be especially serious, but it exhibits the same latitude we all feel free to indulge in when it comes to describing the world of our remote ancestors. How much do we actually know about what life was like for Homo sapiens in 50,000 BC? Apart from bone structure, whether they used tools, a bit about diet, and (possibly?) some of their migration history, the cautious answer of biology seems to be: precious little.

But such reticence cannot dampen our enthusiasm for projecting just about whatever we like onto the blank slate that prehistory presents. Division of hunting/gathering labour along gender lines? Monogamous pairings? An ideally healthy diet? A flirtation with matriarchy perhaps? A life of communal solidarity and affinity for the land? A short, brutal slog, a battle against starvation and predators and neighbouring tribes? One long courtship ritual?

Nobody knows. Which you might expect to present a pretty substantial roadblock to the enterprise of seeking the key to modern human behaviour in the far-distant past. Instead, it simply democratises it. With no pesky or abstruse facts to limit play, this game is open to all.

Instead of asking devastatingly clever questions like: How do you know that?, we frown thoughtfully and reflect on how we're all still savages at heart.

Thirdly, the assumption is that evolutionary psychology explains us exhaustively. Nothing in human behaviour lies beyond its explanatory power. If art and deceit and altruism and friendship are features of human life, then they must be somehow traceable to the primal need either to find food, or to mate and pass on our genes. The novelist Marilynne Robinson parodied this all-encompassing – and dissatisfyingly simplistic – perspective in her lectures on science and religion at Yale in 2009, subsequently published as Absence of Mind. She observes wryly:

What is art? It is a means of attracting mates, even though artists may have felt that it was an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand. The old conquerors may have meant to fling themselves against the barricades of fate and mortality, but in fact, through all that misery and disruption, they were really just trying to attract mates … So, it would seem, the first thing to know about art, whatever the account of its motives and origins, is that its maker is self-deceived. Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.

And, of course, the fact that accounts of our caveman ancestors are no more falsifiable than they are provable means that there is no data that cannot be made to fit within this explanatory framework. Altruism, to take one example, has traditionally presented a problem for evolutionary psychologists. But with a little jiggling, a little squinting, a little creative footwork, it's not hard to imagine some survival value for altruistic behaviour within the context of an almost-entirely-fabricated prehistoric social environment – or else, to label it an unintended by-product of something that does have more obvious survival value (a “spandrel”). Win-win.


We pride ourselves – “we moderns” – on our empiricism, our clear-eyed embrace of the evidence, all the evidence, nothing but the evidence. We think of ourselves as sceptical to the bone. But someone has only to spin a yarn about babies “extinguishing” their cries because they're evolutionarily hard-wired to fear predators, or about women being drawn to pink because it once made it easier for them to gather berries, and we drop our scientific principles like a superfluous tribe member. Instead of asking devastatingly clever questions like How do you know that?, we frown thoughtfully and reflect on how we're all still savages at heart.

I don't want to suggest that our biology, our millennial layers of socialisation, our nature and instincts as animals (of a kind) exercise no influence on our behaviour as men and women, parents and children, lovers and eaters and workers. I just want to draw attention to the curious ease with which we accept, and ourselves invent, narratives in this line. Even if the primary motivations for any and all of our actions can be traced back to the needs and developments of the Pleistocene, that should really only be to say that our motivations are in large part unknown, perhaps unknowable to us.

But surely this, too, is an error. There may be valid ways of reasoning from our actions back to our biological origins, and of extrapolating – cautiously, as historians of any period should – from the slender evidence we do have of prehistoric human life. But to casually pass over our own intense cultural conditioning, not to mention our conscious selves, in favour of a decidedly soupy, long-vanished past is both strange and inconsistent. Robinson again:

A bird is not a latter-day dinosaur. We can assume the ancestors ate and slept and mated, carrying on the universal business of animal life. Still, whatever the shared genetic history of beast and bird, a transformative change occurred over the millennia, and to find the modern sparrow implicit in the thunder lizard is quite certainly an error, if one wishes to make an ornithological study of sparrow behaviour. On the same grounds, there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry. It is a strategy of parascientific argument to strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and a concealment within which lurked the imagined primitive who is for them our true nature.

So why do we listen to, and internalise, and regurgitate at dinner parties the just-so stories of this pseudo-evolutionary mode of understanding our own behaviour?

One explanation might be that the distinctly “mythic” aspects of the caveman narrative afford it a special force over our imaginations. In common with myth, our treatment of the primitive human past shares qualities of inevitability, malleability and grandeur.

The lay version of evolutionary psychology strikes us as inevitable in the sense that it's neither discovered nor learned: we simply know it, and would struggle (if challenged) to point to a time when we didn't. We imbibe the image of the caveman dragging his girlfriend around by her hair with our mother's milk (or our early morning cartoons). Like the myths of old, it's simply a given of our culture – a story we tell about ourselves, about who we are, where we come from, and why we do the things we do. Its function has little to do with its historical reality or unreality.

Being tethered only very loosely, then, to a specific historical period or real historical events, the myth becomes doubly useful by its malleability. To invoke the prototypical tribe member in conversation, with his hunting prowess or her exemplary attachment parenting, is not to scan the memory banks for what that high-school textbook or that scientific study said about the early years of Homo sapiens. Instead, we improvise. We pluck free-floating elements from the cultural ether – things we heard once, how we imagine life in a primitive tribe would surely, presumably, play out – and stitch them together to form a supporting narrative favourable to the point we want to make (monogamy isn't realistic; you shouldn't let the baby cry; carbs are death; and so on).

Finally, it's the sheer grandeur of this story that has won it its place as the dominant myth of our time. C.S. Lewis saw this more clearly than anyone when, decades ago, he wrote his essay “The Funeral of a Great Myth”. He distinguished sharply between evolution and what he called “popular Evolutionism” or “Developmentalism”. In the popular mind, he suggested, “evolution” has become absolutely synonymous with “progress”. And the grand narrative that accompanies it – from the “infinite void” to the emergence of organic life “by some millionth, millionth chance”, through amoeba and reptile to mammal, from shivering biped to creator of tools, art, language, all the goods of civilisation – is as potent as any tale of Gilgamesh, or Jack the Giant-Killer, or Odysseus, or the twilight of the gods.

“To those brought up on the Myth,” writes Lewis, “nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge.”

Yet the myth, as we amateur evolutionary psychologists deploy it, is a two-edged sword. Sure, chaos has (to some extent) turned to order; ignorance to knowledge. Ancient tribes have become modern cities; primitive tools have given way to the iPad. But prehistoric man will not be left behind. He dogs our steps, breathing down our necks as we eat and date and parent and form social cliques and rescue drowning strangers and make economic decisions. He haunts our dreams, whispering that we'll never be free of him, never truly govern or even understand our own motives. He scoffs at our naive, stubborn belief in things like compassion and happiness.

It says a lot about our culture's self-image that our origin myth inverts the pattern of almost every version handed down to us. Most of our inherited myths – from the Norse or Roman gods to the Christian story of a lost paradise – reflect a strong intuition that we as humans find ourselves somehow diminished from of old. The world was once full of gods and giants, heroism and magic; our ancestors were twelve feet tall, mighty warriors, children of the gods. We walk in their shadow.

The Evolution Myth (again, to be sharply distinguished from the actual findings of evolutionary biology) casts us instead as the hero of a rags-to-riches tale, moving ever onwards and upwards from almost inconceivably humble beginnings to the glories of the modern world. Modern humanity is, implicitly, superior in every way (technologically, culturally, morally) to what came before – whether by 50 or 50,000 years. The contribution of the layperson's evolutionary psychology is that, rather than being dwarfed by mysterious, exalted forebears, we labour instead under the cloud of instincts and urges bequeathed us by our primitive precursors.

I wonder how this discourse will come across in a century or two. I wonder if future readers of our articles and books and Facebook threads (preserved, surely, for posterity) will baulk at the way we're constantly dragging our vividly imagined ancestors into discussions about sociology or ethics or economics – if they'll wonder how we could at once declare ourselves a “scientific” age and yet nurse a blind spot like this one in our thinking about such basic questions of day-to-day life and human society. If maybe we talk about evolutionary psychology the way that previous generations talked about race or the cosmos, or the theory of the four humours, entertaining what now seem obvious absurdities alongside other, legitimately empirical, observations.

Perhaps the oddest part of the whole business is this: that, while our thoroughly up-to-date vision of humanity dismisses out of hand the old mind/body dualism – the idea that there might be such a thing as a soul, a “ghost in the machine” – it then secretly smuggles it back in, in an even more perplexing form. As Marilynne Robinson muses in response to Stephen Pinker's claim that “Family feelings are designed to help our genes replicate themselves”:

Presumably we are seduced into collaborating in the perpetuation of some part of our genetic inheritance by those moments of love and embrace. But why are these seductions necessary? Why are they lovely to us? Why would nature bother to distract us with them? Why do we stand apart from nature in such a way that the interests that really move us should be concealed from us? Might there not be fewer of these interfamilial crimes, honor killings, child abandonments, if nature had made us straightforwardly aware that urgencies more or less our own were being served in our propagating and nurturing? There is more than a hint of dualism in the notion that some better self – the term seems fair – has to be distracted by ingratiating pleasures to accommodate the practical business of biology.

The way that we conventionally talk about modern behaviour and its prehistoric roots sets the selves that we deeply feel ourselves to be against a supposedly more authentic “we” that cares for nothing but survival of the organism and the family line. It's a fascinating – even whimsical – picture, but not one that tends either to adequately account for the range and complexity of our experience, or else to contribute much to our efforts to figure out what we're really like and how we should live our lives, individually or together.

“What are 'we' if we must be bribed and seduced by illusory sensations we call love or courage or benevolence?” asks Robinson. “Why need our genes conjure these better angels, when, presumably, the species of toads and butterflies … flourish without them?”

Whichever way you slice it, evolutionary psychology – and even less our free-and-easy adulterations of it – doesn't come close to an exhaustive explanation of who and what we are as humans. That mystery, grappled with over thousands of years by philosophers and theologians, artists and scientists, remains up for discussion – a richer, and saner, and more wonder-filled conversation than the reign of pop evolutionary psychology has lately permitted us.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Victorian Poetry and Modern Life: The Unpoetical Age.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.