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October 07 2009

'Mal's Morals' - a free essay taken from The Psychology of Joss Whedon. Smart Pop Books are posting free essays from their books and this particular one is about Captain Malcolm Reynolds and moral pornography.

I love that book and "Mal's Morals" was one of my favorites from the book.
Hee. Character porn. Moral succulence. Yum.
Nicely written. I almost navigated away without reading the footnotes; do not do this.
Already got the book.
Whatever, I got to the point where it mentions evolutionary psychology as a positive, actually even as just a reasonable thing, and gave up.

Plus I wasn't impressed by the following non-logic in the introduction:

In some ways, you might think audiences would react negatively to such extravagance. We have only scorn for the penniless man who, finding a couple of bucks, buys a sixer of Strohís. Isnít Mal foolish for such indulgences?

I was just like, what? That's not a valid comparison, what the hell are you trying to do? But yknow, it was about Mal so I kept reading, and then uh oh...

The answer to this mystery comes from a relatively new approach to understanding human nature, evolutionary psychology

Jeez louise I had hoped evolutionary 'psychology' was dying a painful death. "Alas, poor Darwin".
I enjoyed reading this essay, though didn't agree with most of it and I'm completely with digupherbones about evolutionary psychology. It's an embarassingly awful field, and evolutionary psychologists should be flogged for wanton misuse of anthropology and 'paleoarchaeology'.
Evolutionary Psychology or not, I think the same principles can be applied, with even more contrast, to Dexter.
The 'why' of this essay may be in contention, but the 'is' should not be; we do precisely like our stories in the manner described.
Whatever, I got to the point where it mentions evolutionary psychology as a positive, actually even as just a reasonable thing, and gave up.

I can understand issues with the methodology and the unfalsifiability of (some of) evolutionary psychology and certainly with evolutionary psychology "run amok" (the straw-man extremist position - which almost no-one actually holds but which this essay skirts dangerously close to a few times - that all thoughts, actions and desires must originally have had some evolutionary advantage/purpose) but I don't really get not seeing it as "a reasonable thing" in principle - our brains evolved, our minds come from our brains therefore how we think is shaped by evolution. To me if you believe in evolution then it's a pretty inescapable conclusion.

That said, I think the essay is off in a few ways, not least in quotes like:
The function of these appetites is relatively easy to understand: Evolved creatures should be attracted to things that are GOOD for them.
Cos, y'know, no they shouldn't, not necessarily. Evolved creatures should be "attracted" to things that improve their chances of reproducing. That's not necessarily good for the individual creature by any stretch.
Well, to be more accurate I would probably agree that many of my problems with EP are related to the way that it's used and abused in pop culture and many 'soft' subjects. But even the good evolutionary psychologists are often guilty of dismissing the entire debate over nature vs nuture. Everything is about hard wiring and innate biological impulse, and the very concept of culture is reduced to an adaption.

I could go on and on about this, but the idea of 'cumulative cultural evolution', which is pretty commonly held amongst evolutionary psychologists, is hugely problematic and highly simplistic. It views human society as fundamentally adaptive and 'advancement' (a very loaded term) as primarily a result of our reaction to the natural environment. The environment naturally plays a part in our lives and always has done, but it's only one element amongst many other factors (social organisation, belief, ritual, technology, etc) which are all inter-dependent. The truth is that evolution and the environment are the easy elements to identify and decipher, but it's only the tiniest portion of human possibility and complexity.

I do agree that our brains evolved (one of my favourite papers as an undergrad was "Are we smart because we're sexy, or sexy because we're smart?") but I also think that our brains and our minds aren't necessarily the same thing. Brain size in species doesn't correlate to intelligence or empathy, and our minds are made up of much more than just our biological brains.
Hmm, I doubt many evolutionary psychologists claim there's a simple correlation between how big your brain is and how intelligent you are (though there're various ways of measuring brain "size" - e.g. brain/body mass ratios etc. - which correlate more or less closely to intelligence, difficult though it is to measure a quality we barely understand in ourselves across different species) and I also suspect most realise that brain complexity, neural density and connectedness etc. all play a large part in the sorts of things a brain is able to do.

...but it's only one element amongst many other factors (social organisation, belief, ritual, technology, etc) which are all inter-dependent. The truth is that evolution and the environment are the easy elements to identify and decipher, but it's only the tiniest portion of human possibility and complexity.

Well, those other factors are part of our environment as (most) evolutionary psychologists see it. Large chunks of EP are devoted to discussing how various strategies for dealing with other people (one of the most important parts of any human's environment) arose as well as where beliefs and rituals come from and what purpose they might serve. It's all very well pointing out that these things affected our development (they most certainly did/do) but simply stating their existence isn't providing an explanation of where they came from in the first place - that's what evolutionary psychology tries to do.

But then if you don't believe our brains solely determine our minds (i.e. if you believe our minds may have a non-materialistic component, a supernatural element) then I guess you may see things like belief as coming from some other plane of existence, of not necessarily evolving naturally ?

To me biological brains are where minds "live", minds don't (and can't) exist without a brain (of some description, not necessarily organic - though all brains we've seen up to now are) and nothing that happens in our minds didn't originate in some physical process in our brains (immensely complex and intertwined though those processes may be).

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