In my New Yorker article, to which Professor Barash has replied in these pages, I argued that his new book, “Homo Mysterious,” inadvertently “shows how far we still are from knowing how to talk about the evolution of the mind.” I am disappointed, though not surprised, to see that in his eyes making such a criticism puts me in the company of the Victorian bishop’s wife who hoped that Darwin’s theories were not true. It is all too common for evolutionary theorists in psychology to regard any attack on their own work as an attack on the basic ideas Darwin stood for.
I am, however, surprised at the number of inaccurate statements in Professor Barash’s reply. Almost every one of his concrete assertions about the contents of my article is demonstrably false.
First, he accuses me of skimming his book to find the “good parts”, like an adolescent skimming “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. Thus: “Mr Gottlieb notes my discussion of various hypotheses for the evolution of concealed ovulation, conspicuous breasts and the female orgasm, while ignoring consciousness, the arts, language, homosexuality, menopause, menstruation, and so forth.” But it is Professor Barash who has skimmed for the sexy bits, and even sometimes found them when they aren’t there. Nowhere do I mention breasts, conspicuous or otherwise. I deal at length with two of his discussions: on ovulation, and on religion. I do, in passing, mention his discussion of female orgasm, but I also mention in passing the arts, and our mental abilities.
Secondly, he claims that I do not acknowledge that the regrettable dependence of much research in evolutionary psychology on an “atypical sub-population”, namely English-speaking college students, affects nearly all of psychology. Not so. I introduce the topic as “the guilty secret of psychology and of behavioral economics.”
Thirdly, he says that I “criticize[s], but apparently without comprehending or perhaps without even having even read” a study by David Schmitt on sex-differences in various societies. Barash cites this study as an example of work that seeks to overcome the local biases of narrower studies. I do not in fact criticize this study; what I do is quote its author’s admission that its findings are of limited value, because, among other things, most of its subjects were college students. It seems that, once again, it is Barash who has skimmed—an impression that is reinforced in this case by the fact that he says the study dealt with 37 populations. In fact it deals with 49. (My guess is that Barash has confused it with an earlier study on a similar subject by David Buss.)
Lastly, Barash asserts that I take his book (and evolutionary psychology generally) to task for often failing to “come up with definitive answers”, thereby missing the point of his book, which is to highlight some unresolved mysteries. Where exactly do I say this? True, I cracked a joke about his discussion of orgasms failing to come to any gratifying conclusion. But the gist of my argument is just the opposite of what he asserts, namely that the evolution of culture and behavior are harder to trace than he thinks.
Barash refers to “Gottlieb’s numerous mis-characterizations”, but does not specify any others.
Anthony Gottlieb is a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars & Writers at the New York Public Library and the author of The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance (W.W. Norton, 2000).