Brooks: Hardwiring not the only explanation

Has there ever been a time when there were so many different views of human nature floating around?

The economists have their view, in which rational people coolly chase incentives. Traditional Christians emphasize original sin, grace and the pilgrim's progress in a fallen world. And then there are the evolutionary psychologists.

For 99 percent of human history, they observe, our species lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. The people who survived developed certain mental modules, which have been passed down through our genes. Some of these traits serve us well today. Children have the capacity to learn language with astonishing speed.

Some of these traits don't. Humans have an insatiable craving for fatty and sugary foods.

In 2000, Geoffrey Miller, a leading evolutionary psychologist, published a book called "The Mating Mind," in which he argued that the process of sexual selection among early human groups hardwired many of the behaviors we see in humans today. Some are physical. Men generally prefer women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio (that's a 24-inch waist and 36-inch hips, for those of you reading this at the gym). Women generally prefer men who are taller and slightly older.

Some traits are more subtle. Men, Miller argues, tip better in restaurants, because they've been programmed to show how much surplus wealth they have.

Miller has published another book, "Spent," in which he takes evolutionary psychology to the mall. The basic argument is that each of us is born with our own individual level of six big traits: intelligence, openness to new things, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion.

We are all narcissists, Miller asserts. We spend much of our lives trying to broadcast our excellence in these traits in order to attract mates. Even if we're not naturally smart or outgoing, we buy products and brands that give the impression we are.

According to Miller, driving an Acura, Infiniti, Subaru or Volkswagen is a sign of high intelligence. Driving a Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford or Hummer is a sign of low intelligence.

Listening to Bjork is a sign of high intelligence, while listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd is a sign of low intelligence.

Evolutionary psychology has had a good run. But now there is growing pushback. Sharon Begley has a rollicking, if slightly overdrawn, takedown in the current Newsweek. And "Spent" is a sign that the theory is being used to try to explain more than it can bear.

The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the EP types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We're learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn't take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations. Moreover, we've evolved to adapt to diverse environments.

Different circumstances can activate different genetic potentials. Individual behavior can vary wildly from one context to another. A playground bully may be meek in math class.

Evolutionary psychology leaves the impression that human nature was carved a hundred thousand years ago, and then history sort of stopped. But human nature adapts to the continual flow of information -- ancient information contained in genes and current information contained in today's news in a continuous, idiosyncratic blend.

The second problem is one evolutionary psychology shares with economics. It's too individualistic. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us.

The allure of evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. But there's no escaping context. That's worth remembering next time somebody tells you we are hardwired to do this or that.