An Evolutionary Tale of Riders and Elephants

A helpful, colorful metaphor is something of a rarity in academic writing. Especially in the halls of science, where scholars across disciplines often invoke specialized concepts and technical jargon, the ability to transcend academic conventions and write for a mass audience is increasingly rare. This is exactly why Jonathan Haidt’s (pronounced “height”) 2012 work, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion seems so impressive.

People Ride Elephant On Path At Countryside

Haidt, a psychologist who spent 16 years at the University of Virginia before becoming a professor at the NYU-Stern School of Business, sets out to understand the crippling partisan divide that plagues the United States and, by extension, many other industrialized nations. At a time when political gridlock stifles broader public discussions about the common good, Haidt believes that only by understanding our mental, moral, and social makeups can we end put an end to the culture wars and achieve peace. With this ambitious goal in mind, Haidt then introduces us to the rider and the elephant.

Drawing from his research in evolutionary psychology, Haidt believes our moral reasoning is the product of both conscious (rider) and unconscious (elephant) processes. Just as an elephant ultimately dictates where the rider goes, our unconscious habits and preferences largely influence what decisions we make. All of us have evolved to lean towards those things that protect us and promote our tribes, allowing us to survive social worlds that are characteristically Hobbesian—nasty, brutish, and short. Put differently, survival is primary, and all the stuff we think—from morality to metaphysics—is just a means to promote survival.

For all its merits, Haidt’s metaphor goes a step too far when it enters metaphysical and moral territory. Unlike the New Atheists, who perceive religion to be a poisonous virus that has somehow outlived its usefulness, Haidt actually has a higher view of religion. Like Robert Putnam, Haidt believes religion provides enormous social benefits to its members. But the real intellectual influence for Haidt is the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. For Durkheim, religion, though functionally useful in binding individuals into social groups and providing a shared set of values and rituals, is ultimately a false attempt to explain reality. Thus, when moral and religious issues surface, Haidt’s innovation is to use the insights of Durkheim and evolutionary psychology to say that the metaphysics and morality may be functional, but false.

The problem with this line of thinking, I would suggest, is its prioritizing of survival over truth. On the one hand, Haidt gives us a serious text that probes into the depths of human nature, morality, and religion and attempts to explain how it all works. Haidt clearly believes his account is true and that evolutionary psychology, combined with the insights of Durkheim, explains why people think and behave differently. But then, on the other hand, Haidt undermines his entire argument by saying that truth is simply a handmaiden to survival. If that’s the case, is Haidt’s argument true? Is anything for that matter ultimately, cosmically true? Or are all moral philosophies and religious systems (and arguments such as Haidt’s) simply clever rhetorical instruments intended to help us survive?

Of course, survival of the fittest and the pursuit of truth are not mutually exclusive domains. Our minds and bodies are probably wired to do both. Like a rider atop an elephant, our moral and religious reasoning may in fact be guided more by our intuitions (the elephant) than by rational propositions, doctrines, and truth claims (the rider). But when survival of the fittest becomes the panacean explanation for human behavior and everything else, as Haidt claims, it crowds out the very things we’re after in the first place: the desire for peace and the ability to understand our true mental, moral, and social makeups.

Paul McClure


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