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« Science As Escapism | Main | The Psychedelic Revival »

Chomsky Versus Trivers

What a great idea! Throw two of the world’s smartest, crankiest, most influential, iconoclastic thinkers into a room together and see what happens. The linguist Noam Chomsky and evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers are renowned for speaking their minds and not giving a damn whom they offend. Better yet, one has devoted himself to understanding human behavior in Darwinian terms, and the other has pooh-poohed this project. This will surely be a titanic collision of unpredictable outcome! Godzilla vs. King Kong! Spiderman Vs. Superman! Hillary Vs. Condi! That was my reaction on spotting “Noam Chomsky + Robert Trivers” in the September SEED.

But SEED deserves a whack for a missed opportunity. Instead of a battle between colossi, we get a lovefest, as fluffy as a Larry King interview. Chomsky (whose book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance vaulted into improbable bestsellerdom last week after Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez brandished it during a U.N. speech) bashes the Bushies and their corporate and media lackies for self-deception—for claiming and apparently thinking that their aggression is actually altruistic. Trivers eagerly agrees with Chomsky about the Bushies and lectures on the ubiquity of self-deception in the animal kingdom, and how it might stem from sexual selection.

OK, this is mildly interesting. But Trivers, by proposing concepts such as reciprocal altruism--you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours--almost single-handedly conceived the field of sociobiology, which has mutated into evolutionary psychology. Chomsky helped establish that language is not entirely learned but is at least in part an innate capacity. But he has thrown water on the larger enterprise of explaining human actions in Darwinian terms.

When I interviewed Chomsky for The Undiscovered Mind, he disparaged evolutionary psychology as “a philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in.” He suggested that the field is not really scientific, because it can account for every possible fact. “You find that people cooperate, you say, ‘Yeah, that contributes to their genes’ perpetuating.’ You find that they fight, you say, ‘Sure, that's obvious, because it means that their genes perpetuate and not somebody else’s. In fact, just about anything you find, you can make up some story for it.”

Fighting words! Oh how I hoped Chomsky would say that to Trivers’s face! He also might have asked Trivers if he thought evolutionary psychologists, or evo psychos, as critics snidely call them, fall prey to self-deception themselves when they applaud their own intellectual courage and bash their critics as politically correct sissies (as they did at an evo psycho meeting I attended in 1995).

But this was not to be. Instead of clashing, Godzilla and King Kong sit down, sip tea and chit-chat. I wanted to see Chomsky and Trivers battling for the sheer spectacle, of course, but also because such conflict, every now and then, gives rise to something rare and precious, a new idea.

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