From an interview with Satoshi Kanazawa, co-author (with Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, a pop intro to “evolutionary psychology.” Kanazawa has just made the claim that “our brain (and the rest of our body) are essentially frozen in time — stuck in the Stone Age,” because “when the environment undergoes rapid change within the space of a generation or two, as it has been for the last couple of millennia,” there is not enough time for evolutionary adaptation to take place.
This reference to the environment undergoing rapid change, without mention that human beings themselves are the agents and initiators of such change, is strange enough. But Kanazawa goes on to say:
“One example of this is that when we watch a scary movie, we get scared, and when we watch porn we get turned on. We cry when someone dies in a movie. Our brain cannot tell the difference between whatâ€™s simulated and whatâ€™s real, because this distinction didnâ€™t exist in the Stone Age.”
The major claim here is entirely false and ridiculous. Because, quite evidently, our brains can and do tell the difference betwen what’s simulated and what’s real. Despite the legends — pretty much debunked — of people terrified by the train coming towards them at the Lumiere Brothers’ very first movie screening in 1895, nearly everybody alive today can easily and effortlessly tell the difference between something happening on a movie or television screen and something happening in real life. My 2-year-old daughter understands this difference without difficulty.
“Pretend” (as my daughters call it) or simulated experience is perfectly real in its own right, of course; and we get scared from movies just as “authentically” as we get scared when something dangerous or horrible threatens us in “real life.” But not only does this have nothing to do with not being able to tell the difference, it absolutely depends upon being able to tell the difference. Vicariousness is crucial to aesthetic experience (it is the basis for what Kant called “disinterest”). I eagerly go to watch horror films. I do not eagerly go to places where there is a strong likelihood of feral monsters or chainsaw-wielding psychopaths dismembering me limb from limb. And I cry much more readily at the movies than I do in real life situations.
Probably if I said this to Kanazawa, he wouldn’t disagree with me, exactly, but rather say something about how the fear response evolved in such a way that it operates on its own, on the assumption that what is being seen is real — before some other, more highly conscious, part of our mind can remind us that, after all, “it’s only a movie.” But I don’t think this gets him off the hook. For the point of the example — and, I’d argue, the point of aesthetics (among other things) overall — is precisely that the brain, or the mind, or “human nature” in general, is massively underdetermined by the particular biological traits of which the evolutionary psychologists make so much. In the example here, the dismissal of vicariousness, together with the unexamined assumption that the physiological fear-response is meaningful in itself and enough to account for all the varied situations in which human beings can possibly feel afraid, or give meanings to being afraid, exemplifies the extreme naivete to which evolutionary psychology in general is always prone.
I am inclined to think that William James is right in saying that we feel afraid because we have a certain physiological reaction, rather than we have the physiological reaction because we feel afraid. But this is precisely why it is a category error to think that fear can be defined in cognitive terms, which would have to happen in order for the question of whether the experience is real or simulated to even come up. A corollary of this is that, when the cognitive question does come up, it is not constrained by the physiological response in the way that Kanazawa assumes. This is the ground of possibility for the astonishing diversity, between individuals and even more among cultures, of the meanings that are assigned to fear, of the situations that give rise to fear, of the ways that fear is dealt with, and so on and so forth. Evolutionary psychology can dismiss these differences as inconsequential (just as it dismisses the question of vicariousness as inconsequential) only because it has already assumed what it claims to prove. Its cognitivist assumptions (such as the assumption that the physiological fear-response has something to do with a cognitive judgment as to whether something is real or simulated) leave it utterly incapable of dealing with the non-cognitive, affective aspects of human life, as well as (ironically enough) with the ways that “cognition” itself contains far more than it can account for.