Tuesday, March 11, 2008

An Evolutionary Perspective on Vice

Every now and then I encounter a Huffington Post blogger whom I know through his/her more professional publications. Gary Marcus is such a blogger; and his post about Eliot Spitzer, "Client 9: What was he Thinking?," has helped me to sort out the issues in a scandal that has surprised me more for the media attention it has received (even from the BBC World Service) than for the act itself. What is most important about this post is that Marcus has been academically precise in his terminology at a time when most representatives of the media are fulminating in language that, while vague and sloppy, is probably driving up the price of those advertising slots I mentioned in conjunction with another controversial issue.

It is in the interest of such precise terminology that I feel it is important to frame Spitzer's behavior with the fundamental premise that all actions have consequences. It is within this frame that we can best appreciate Marcus' strategy of appealing to Freudian theory for an explanation:

This is not just a case of a man being led about his hormones, to the exclusion of the rest of his brain, but something more complicated: a case in which an extraordinarily intelligent man used all of his rational capacities to form a track-covering plan -- yet seemingly focused none of his cognitive wherewithal on evaluating whether that plan was worth pursuing in the first place.

Freud, wrong about so much else, was certainly right that the mind is forever locked in internal conflict; where he talked about "id" and "ego", modern scholars see something slightly different, a clash between "ancestral systems" and more modern "deliberative cognition", but for present purposes the point is much the same. Id beat ego, just as it has so many times before.

Why does this happen so often? The answer, in a nutshell, is this; evolution blew it. When our fancy new deliberative reasoning systems evolved, evolution, which lacks foresight, took what amounts to the lazy way out, crudely grafting the new capabilities onto the older ancestral systems, with nary a thought as to how the two would work together. The ancestral mate seeking systems that led Client 9 by the nose thus still receive extremely high priority, whether or not their actions are in the interests of our minds as a whole.

One of the great advances in brain science in recent years has been in our understanding of how the human brain can "reason about the future," so to speak, particularly in terms of "envisioning" the consequences of an action being considered. The Freudian model gives us a "conceptual" (rather than physiological) localization of such brain activity; and that localization is the Ego. However, no matter how good the Ego may be at dispassionate reasoning about consequences (and, as has been amply demonstrated, Spitzer was very good at this), it is always in conflict with those "drives" that are the domain of the Id; and Marcus was right to reduce this whole argument to the question of why Id is so good at beating Ego.

Personally, I like his appeal to evolution but dislike his portrayal of evolution as an agent with intentions (which he may have done for the sake of a more readable text). It is not a question of what evolution intended but of who has survived the process of selection. This introduces the hypothesis that, while both Ego and Id clearly contribute to our survival as a species, when "push comes to shove," as it were, the Id carries more weight in survival value. Think of all those situations in which survival depends on aggression unattenuated by reflection, such as, at the risk of taking a sensitive example, what it takes to have an effective military force. This is not to say that Spitzer's specific behavior had survival value; but, like it or not, it was part of the baggage that came along in the relationship between Ego and Id that led to the survival of our species. As Jimmy McNulty (a paragon of unbridled Id) said on The Wire, "It is what it is!"

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