A Postscript to “Monsters of the Night”

“Monsters of the Night”, my review of The Myth of the Born Criminal by Jarkko Jalava, Stephanie Griffiths, and Michael Maraun, is now live at the Literary Review of Canada. Unfortunately, I had to excise a few sentences to keep within the magazine's word limit, and a bit of context was lost in the shuffle. Count this, then, as a very brief postscript. 

As I wrote in my review, the authors suggest that the concept of the psychopath is something of a mirror, reflecting our fears about others. In making their case, they raise several interesting problems with the study of psychopathy. But their arguments suffocate under heaps of pointless rhetoric about biology. Because of this, I called the book a predictable disappointment.

I neglected to show, however, just how predictable a disappointment it was. Nearly thirty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Dick Alexander exposed the rhetorical techniques used in cultural critiques of human social biology—books like The Use and Abuse of Science (1976), The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Not In Our Genes (1984), and Evolution as a Religion (1985)—techniques that come from the Humanities rather than from Science. Alexander described the practice of lumping scholars together and attacking the weakest versions of an idea:

The critic or competitor, among humanists, packages the ideas of his competitors so they can be attacked as a unit, and in this and other ways personalizes his attack. Thus, he may speak of the ‘programs’ of particular individuals, or label endeavours headed by one or a few individuals and then set out to destroy the entire package so identified… The method of destruction of a competitor’s work or ideas, rather than including locating a core of ‘truth’ or correctness and building from it, is likely to involve identifying the weakest parts of the opponent’s arguments and using them to argue that the entire package is useless.
— Alexander (1988, p. 320)

And, a few pages later, he recounted the tactic of misrepresenting biology and linking modern biologists to racists and classists throughout history:

All of this misleading nonsense uses the word ‘biology’ to mean ‘genetic’ or at least ‘physiological’, rather than ‘the discipline which studies life’… [The rhetorical methodology] begins by trying to link modern evolutionary biologists either to 19th century racism or to more recent efforts to show that IQ differences are genetic, or both.
— Alexander (1988, p. 322)

Consult The Myth of the Born Criminal, published decades after Alexander's piece, and you’ll find all of this and more. Though the authors claim that their book “is written in the spirit of logical and historical inquiry, not in the spirit of controversy” (p. 16), it’s hard to take them at their word. 

The full Alexander reference is: 

Alexander, R. D. (1988). Evolutionary approaches to human behavior: What does the future hold? In L. Betzig, M. Borgerhoff Mulder, & P. Turke (Eds.), Human reproductive behaviour: A Darwinian perspective (pp. 317–341). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cover image: “The Mirror” by William Merritt Chase, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).