David Brooks is more open than the next pundit to considering the world in terms that go beyond the political, and to endorse the notion that while culture and politics are symbiotic, the former often trumps the latter.
So here he is on that theme today, in a column entitled The Deepest Self. In it, he acknowledges that we rely greatly in today’s world on an evolutionary account of human behavior, but expresses some caveats nonetheless. One has to do with the reductive ends to which evolutionary thought can be put: this is what the genes suggest underlies our behavior therefore this is who we are. Of course, we are a lot more than our programming, and much of what we are, and what we have, has come as a result of fighting against instintive tendencies.
So he also frets over a related tendency to view underlying instinctives drives, being “deep down” if you will, as being the deep part of what we are. No, he argues, that’s the easy part. The hard part–the part that rightly should be called “deep”–is the part that does the hard work of transcending, or attempting to transcend, our reptile selves.
This evolutionary description has become the primary way we understand ourselves. Deep down we are mammals with unconscious instincts and drives. Up top there’s a relatively recent layer of rationality. Yet in conversation when we say someone is deep, that they have a deep mind or a deep heart, we don’t mean that they are animalistic or impulsive. We mean the opposite. When we say that someone is a deep person, we mean they have achieved a quiet, dependable mind by being rooted in something spiritual and permanent. . . .
There’s great wisdom embedded in this conversational understanding of depth, and it should cause us to amend the System 1/System 2 image of human nature that we are getting from evolutionary biology. Specifically, it should cause us to make a sharp distinction between origins and depth.
We originate with certain biological predispositions. These can include erotic predispositions (we’re aroused by people who send off fertility or status cues), or they can be cognitive (like loss aversion).
But depth, the core of our being, is something we cultivate over time. We form relationships that either turn the core piece of ourselves into something more stable and disciplined or something more fragmented and disorderly. We begin with our natural biases but carve out depths according to the quality of the commitments we make. Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.This amendment seems worth making because the strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. It leaves the impression that we are just slightly higher animals — thousands of years of evolutionary processes capped by a thin layer of rationality. It lops off entire regions of human possibility.
So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. People make commitments — to a nation, faith, calling or loved ones — and endure the sacrifices those commitments demand. Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions.
I could not agree more that there’s far too much of a kneejerk tendency to treat biology as destiny. But I finish Brook’s column with a nagging feeling that he is eliding too neatly over the way it really works.
There’s a kind of ghost in the machine quality to Brooks’ argument. There’s the machine–that’s the predispositions–and then there is this magical self, too, the mysterious being capable of “freely chosen suffering”, enduring sacrifices and the like. Could be.
But isn’t a fully naturalistic account a more reasonable one? One in which both our animal urges and our saintly corrections are bonded together as one? Isn’t the whole magillah part of the evolutionary process?