Imagine a fence hidden in the middle of a desert. You might not immediately see its purpose and think, Lets get rid this useless fence! You might be at the edge of an angry wildebeest field, so removing the fence could make you vulnerable to being crushed in a stampede, Mufasa-style. It is better to find out the reason for the fence before you attempt to remove it.
GK Chesterton's 1929 argument that you must understand things before you can change them is still valid. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, evolutionary biologists, are some of the people you might have seen from 2017, when they left Evergreen College in Washington State. They wrote a book using Chestertons fence as the central metaphor. They argue that the modern world, in all its novelty, has destroyed Chestertons fence, making us miserable, unhealthy, and headed for social collapse.
We eat the wrong foods. We are too dependent on drugs. Our children are not educated and raised well. Heying and Weinstein offer evolutionary self-help advice in order to correct the imbalance between hi-tech society and stone-age brains. It seems that we can heal our ailments by showing more respect for the evolved parts of humanity.
Let's admit, for argument's sake, that modern society is really bad for us. (Although, with the huge increases in life expectancy we shouldnt). How can we determine which aspects of human nature we should be paying more attention to? Heying and Weinstein's answer is basically everything. It is likely that it is a complex, expensive (in terms of energy and materials) and has been around for some time in evolutionary and cultural history.
This is a disservice to readers. This is not the way to solve the long-running debate about adaptationism in biology. Heying and Weinstein slammed evolution's Gordian knot with their blades, but fail to even nick it. Yet, they smugly claim that they have cut it in half.
Even though everything is an adaptation there are still many good tips. Some of the advice in the bullet points that close each chapter are merely boilerplate (get more exercise and sleep more), some is more specific (go barefoot a lot more often), some is just plain odd (don't let the markets become involved in comedy or music), It seems that very little of this science is based on real research.
Rock carvings from ancient Native American cultures depict deer being hunted. Photograph by Hal Beral/Getty Images
The authors are not better at engaging with studies. Alarming statements are made based only on weak data. For example, they claim that water fluoridation can cause neurotoxicity in children based upon one pilot study. They repeat lies from pop-science books like the fact that all species of animals sleep, but some, including certain amphibians do not. They embrace degrowth and the final chapter contains the most stupidest economics paragraph ever written. It claims that inventions of better products like fridges will bring down the economy.
Heying and Weinstein are, above all, really irritating. From page five, their "know-it all" attitude becomes more irritating as they pontificate through each chapter. You would be able to organize society if you knew as much as they do about evolution. Genetically modified foods would be avoided (those millions of lives that have been saved by them seem not to merit a mention). Casual sex would be forbidden. You wouldn't look at your phone so often. You could go on.
They have not solved all the fundamental questions of biology. They also seem to be the best teachers. They quote a student who described their classroom as an ancestral mode that I was trained for, but didn't know existed. They believe that their self-esteem is so high that they can make up for it by believing that all their arguments, including the books premise which is a repackaging 18th-century Burkean conservatism with faux-Darwinian paint jobs are incredibly innovative.
Heying and Weinstein: Where is all this evolutionary reasoning, that respect for Chestertons fences? They have been a leading proponent of Covid pseudoscience for months. Weinstein has not only spread misinformation about mRNA vaccination safety but also both authors enthusiastically joined the internet movement obsessing over the drug ivermectin's (Weinsteins words) properties to prevent coronavirus infection. In reality, the jury is still out on ivermectin.
These Covid positions, along with Heying and Weinsteins advocacy of the still-unproven lab-leak hypothesis, gel nicely with the dont-play-God, mind-the-unforeseen-consequences, stick-to-the-traditional worldview that the book promotes. They are, however, the best way to refute these worldviews. If people could be killed by respecting these metaphorical fences during a pandemic then maybe our instinct to tear them down was right.