The Pills That Mother Gives You

Review: Theodore Dalrymple, ‘Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality’

Brain-scanning MRI machine
May 10, 2015

The first issue of National Review in 1955 included the essay "Why They’ll Never Get Me on that Couch," in which movie maven Morrie Ryskind declared himself a "non-conformist" for rejecting Hollywood’s latest craze, psychoanalysis. Five years later, in the same magazine, John Dos Passos put psychology on a level with communism when he wrote about "the twin myths of Marx and Freud." Modern conservatism had it in for shrinks from the get-go.

Now, Theodore Dalrymple, once a practicing psychiatrist, joins in with a new book called Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality. Dalrymple’s predecessors to this subject were mostly writers, not clinicians—laymen distrustful of an initiated class that sought to explain the troubles of adult life according to whether, as children, they had ever walked in on their parents having sex. Dalrymple’s background brings credibility to this tradition of skepticism.

If you have encountered Dalrymple’s work in City Journal then you will be familiar with his thesis: that psychology has been abused by man, who is ever eager to shift the blame for his moral shortcomings onto forces beyond his control. Dalrymple devotes most of Admirable Evasions to cataloguing the psychological fads that have rippled through the culture. He starts with Freud, who "was to human self-understanding what Piltdown Man was to physical anthropology." Outside of your average university English department, it is now difficult to believe how seriously Freud’s body of work was taken at its height, especially by cultural elites.

Today, psychoanalysis is largely discredited, Freud’s defenders reduced to writing articles like "Why Freud Still Matters—Even When He was Wrong About Almost Everything." Other fads have come and gone in Freudianism’s place: behaviorism, the self-esteem movement, and trends drawn from advances in neurochemistry and genetics. All come in for Dalrymple’s skepticism. In each case, the schools demonstrated their value to the distressed in certain limited circumstances, enjoyed a brief burst of wild speculation about what they could achieve, and were promptly discarded when wider application failed to have the desired effect.

Dalrymple contends that this boom-and-bust cycle stems from a "terrible temptation of the intellectuals, namely that of nothing-but-ism. History is nothing but a clash of class interests, human behavior is nothing but a response to economic incentives, etc., etc." While such reduction can sound compelling in a classroom, it cannot explain much of human life. "[T]o try to analyze human behavior by reference to genes and chemicals is to regard humans in the same light as Drosophila, the fruit fly." Homo sapiens is not so easily reduced.

A fine example of nothing-but-ism can be found in Tom Wolfe’s 1996 essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died." Wolfe recounts his interactions with the early disciples of neuroscience and genetics, who believed that PET scans and mouth-swabbing had proved "an uncompromising determinism." Once armed with a full genetic sequence and sufficiently beefy computers, these shamans with PhDs believed that "it would be possible to predict the course of any human being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea." Wolfe wrote that, as knowledge about the field was trickling down to the masses, they were coming to believe that the genetic "fix" was in, and that soon they would be reliably judged by the content of their genome, like Ethan Hawke in Gattaca. Popular fascination with this genetic predestinarianism seems to have faded.

Dalrymple believes psychology has taught people to think of the world in terms of pathology rather than evil. Confronted with the "tragic dimension of human life," as he terms it, we seek to explain behavior we don’t understand as illness, or as anything, really, other than human imperfection.

The proper response to human tragedy, the psychologists tells us, is a strict regimen of drugs. Counseling helps too. This is all well and good for the truly ill, Dalrymple concedes, but how many are truly ill? When the DSM-V clocks in at 1,000 pages and psychologists proclaim that a quarter of Americans suffer from a "diagnosable mental disorder" each year, they are likely guilty of over-diagnosis.

Dalrymple’s book has shortcomings. The book’s ostensible target is psychology, but the argument ventures far afield into discussions of neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary biology—discussions that, at times, lack focus. Dalrymple also has a habit of overstating his case. It is easy to see how destructive an all-encompassing belief in, say, psychoanalysis or psychotropic drugs can be, but are we to believe that all psychologists think in such uncompromising terms?

Nonetheless, Dalrymple makes a compelling case that there are holes in our culture, and in our nature, that cannot be plugged with pills. We are better aided in the search for wellness not by pharmaceuticals but by art and literature. The best of what has been written "assist[s] us to a deeper understanding of our own existence and that of the people around us." This volume may not rise to the level of a classic, but it ought to do much more good than most of the meds we are being prescribed.

Published under: Book reviews