Phil + SB, reply to Rahul

Rahul Mahajan rahul at hagar.ph.utexas.edu
Sat Apr 15 19:36:39 MDT 1995


Lisa, I'll try to respond to all of your points without using the format
that everyone seems to find so odious. First, you say you don't practice or
believe in "objective science," which is fine as it stands, but what do you
mean by it? You obviously aren't a relativist, but do you have some
reasonably well-articulated general position? I'm tired of the leftist
attacks on science, too, and they don't seem to realize that in order to
challenge the status quo, you need a rock to stand on, even if it's not a
perfectly 100% objective rock.
    With regard to Gould, I'm rather surprised to hear the critiques you
have made. I have read at least half a dozen articles whose main point is
to attack the Chain of Being-type arguments. I think he actually goes too
far in that direction, with his repeated attempts to show that, not only is
humanity not some special crown of the living world, but that in fact there
has been no overall tendency toward increasing complexity or intelligence
or anything that we can anthropomorphically identify as "better" in the
animal kingdom. One need only look at statistics like the increasing
average encephalization quotient of mammals in the last 60 million years to
give him the lie. I assume you're not seriously criticizing a mildly
leftist agnostic Jew of believing that rich white Christians are at the
pinnacle of life's achievement. As to species-chauvinism, he has also
written a number of articles to refute the popular preconception that human
beings are somehow set totally apart from the rest of the animals. He has
written approvingly, for example, of Darwin's speculations about the
connection of various behavioral traits of ours (e.g., facial expressions
like snarls) with our animal existence. However, it is clear to him (and
me) that our brains set us considerably apart from other animals and that
there's no point in talking about our very complex behaviors simply from
the point of view that we're animals, because you're not going to get very
far. For example, even if (as many sociobiologists claim) there is some
genetically-based universal human tendency toward incest-avoidance
(definitely not true if you believe everything you read in the papers), how
much does that or results like it do to give one any understanding of any
human society?
    I haven't read Wilson at all, but then from my reading of people like
Gould and Lewontin, etc. (who wrote Not in our Genes) -- and I believe I
read them critically -- there isn't much reason to waste one's time with
most of this stuff. Even Gould admits that most of Wilson's famous book was
reasonable stuff, but his howlers about, e.g., the role of women, do tend
to make one think he's a crank grinding out some justification for a
reactionary political philosophy(As far as I'm concerned, your arguments
stand or fall independent of whether you disavow Wilson, or believe like
Shockley that blacks are born inferior -- I'm no more interested in
"leftist" pseudoscience). How do you explain away the careful analysis of
various experiments by genetic determinists done in Not in our Genes and
even by Gould (although most of his pertains to early twentieth-century
stuff)? One sees so much shoddiness in works that are published and, I
suppose, at least not violently rejected by the field, that it does tend to
make one suspicious of the field. Now the egregious case of Cyril Burt is
certainly atypical -- most sociobiologists or biological determinists do,
I'm sure, believe that their results are genuine -- but, how do you explain
the fact that nobody criticized his obviously faked results for 25 years
and that, furthermore, the figure of 80% (whatever the hell they think it
means) that is still constantly thrown about is largely based on his work?
I'm sure you will agree that there are many idiots, crackpots, and
charlatans in the field, but how does once reconcile that with the fact
that there aren't in other fields with genuine scientific content, because
they get driven underground? BTW, another interesting book to check out on
the subject is Myths of Gender, by Anne Fausto-Sterling. Please cite some
works (not incredibly technical) that are good sociobiology by your
standards.
     You use the word "culturists" -- do you mean cultural determinists?
There, again, as far as I can recall, Gould inveighs equally against that
as just as blatant a form of reductionism as BD. I don't think either G or
Lewontin would claim that only humans have culture -- unless by culture you
mean more than a society with certain learned rules and patterns of
behavior. If you mean a body of lore that is transmitted from generation to
generation, there are almost vanishingly few examples of that outside
humanity. Also, don't you think there are fundamental differences between
humans and the rest of nature? We do happen to be animals and our mental
processes work by the same interactions of elementary particles that other
animals' do, but surely there's more to be said?


>I don't see why Rahul distinguishes between "when does it pay one to
>help others?" and "how did such behavior evolve?"  Aren't these flip
>sides of the same coin?  If evolve means to increase in frequency
>within a population, the answer is it increased because it did pay
>off.

Here I think we get to the crux of the matter, which may also have
application to the rest of our discussion. There is a fundamental
difference between these two concepts. To take a ridiculous example,
picture a prehistoric tribe of humans, to some of whom you gave guns and
taught them how to use them. This would confer on them a tremendous
benefit, but the trait of gun ownership would not increase in frequency
down through the generations -- in fact, as the guns stopped working, it
would end up declining. The first point, then, is that a trait that helps
one evolves by natural selection only if there is a genetic basis for it
(this does not mean necessarily one gene, or even seventeen that code
directly for said trait). We are, of course, not talking about human (or
highly advanced animal) cultural evolution. The second point is that you
echo the strict adaptationist position when you say that if a trait
(although here you should really mean a gene or complex thereof) increases
in frequency in a population, this must mean that it pays off. Not true at
all. There are many other reasons for shifts in gene frequencies and even
more gross phenotypal traits -- genetic drift and inherent constraints that
force some genes to vary when others are selected for, to name two. There
is considerable controversy about the primacy of natural selection as the
mechanism for evolution.
    I think there is a problem here with, as Gould puts it, the confusion
of current utility with historical origin. The human brain has many
capacities that could have been of no possible utility before the
development of culture (after which the biological evolution of human
beings has been virtually nil) and therefore could not possibly have been
selected for. It was originally a clear case of evolutionary overkill.
Thus, the questions that an evolutionary analysis can really hope to answer
are a relatively insignificant part of the total (presumably) and can at
best put very loose constraints on human behavior.
>I also don't get why he says that the first question only applies
>when comparing different species with each other.

I didn't mean that at all. I think I used the phrase "different species"
just to mean that I included humans and nonhumans.

>Next he implies that I must specify the detailed mechanism by which
>genes affect behavior in order to justify my position.  I reject that
>idea for several reasons.

I didn't say that at all. The point is that if the relationship between
them is too complicated, then natural selection can't really act on it.

>I do not claim that "genes determine behavior".  I do not expect that
>natural selection would make us like that.  After all, what is a
>vertebrate's gray matter for?  We are "designed" (if you'll forgive a
>metaphor) to interact with, respond to and influence any environment
>(especially social) in which we may find ourselves.  I could go on
>about learning mechanisms and such.  Early experience actually
>changes brain structure and function, and neither the brain nor the
>rest of the body responds randomly to circumstances!

I couldn't agree more. Which results of sociobiology stand up in the light
of that understanding?

>And where did we get this complex, imperfect, mysterious, wet
>machinery?  From evolution, I think.  And if it was produced by
>natural selection, shouldn't we expect that to show?  We've got the
>creator's fingerprints all over us, just like all other living
>things.
>
>I don't think we have to know every biochemical detail of the
>connections from nucleus and cytoplasm and environment and the
>mechanisms of development in order to make a reasonable call about
>the bigger picture.  If I have to wait until then, I may wait for
>ever.

I'm not saying you have to wait. However, adaptationist arguments and
appeals to game theory do not answer the historical questions involved
here.

>The general picture is already apparent to me - the brain is an
>adaptation, along with its capacity for culture, language, love,
>hate, cooperation, murder and every other thing that people can do.
>So, to say that "sociobiology" paints an ugly or inaccurate picture
>of human nature is not true.  It's better to say that there is no
>"human nature", just "life-form nature" which is [darwinian] fitness
>oriented.  Each individual of each species may use a different
>method, but the goal is the same.

It's not at all clear to me that this is true of human beings. We are quite
capable of acts that cause failure in the Darwinian game. I don't care
whether sociobiology paints an ugly picture if it's true, I just think it's
despicable that they give the cachet of "science" to what seems to be
largely a statement of prejudices.

>Humans may have more variable behavior, including social formation,
>than any other species.  But evolution is not expected to produce an
>infinitely malleable organism - the reason this fancy brain and all
>the other gear evolves is because it is used for evolutionary ends,
>survival and reproduction, mainly of the individual and its immediate
>relatives.

Again, this is a logical fallacy. You seem to be putting evolution in the
place of God, carefully measuring and meting out exactly what is needed. It
seems quite clear that our brain is an evolutionary anomaly -- this doesn't
mean that it's not a natural object with a history and constrainst imposed
by nature, but cavemen had no need of an instrument that could formulate
the general theory of relativity.

I find myself in the odd position of thinking that you are extremely
sensible and agreeing completely with your rational, hard-headed approach
to leftism (I'm sick to death of mushy leftists who want the whole world to
live like the "indigenous people" and pomo "leftists" who put the whole
world in quotes) and even with your recognition that nature strongly
constrains individual humans and humanity at large, while disagreeing very
strongly with several of your specifics. On the whole, however, I think we
pretty much agree on the importance of nature and nurture in their complex
interaction -- which a bunch of shoddy thinkers have attempted to reduce to
an allocation of percentages.

Rahul




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