In Defense of Naturalism and Essentialism
by Alice Andrews
Often enough, and recently quite often, I hear (or hear behind my back) that someone has dismissed EP—and me—as ‘conservative’ or reactionary. The truth is, EP and its adherents probably cover the political spectrum quite well. But my guess is—contrary to the opinion of many—the majority of evolutionary psychologists will be found hovering somewhere in the center and on the left of the political spectrum. Peter Singer, who wrote, A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation is not alone!
And here's Daniel Dennett in his latest book Freedom Evolves:
"Where I think they go wrong [detractors of naturalism] is in lumping the responsible, cautious, naturalists (like Crick and Watson, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and myself) in with the few reckless overstaters, and foisting views on us that we have been careful to disavow and to criticize." [p.20] 1
This idea of the unjustified attack on naturalists from the left is a major theme in Pinker's The Blank Slate. And he explains that the essentialist/social constructionist battle during the 70s, where many sociobiologists were the targets of picketing, name-calling and water-dousing, was particularly rough. Of the anthropologist/sociobiologist,
Robert Trivers, he writes:
"The insinuation that Trivers was a tool of racism and right-wing oppression was particularly galling because Trivers was himself a political radical, a supporter of the Black Panthers, and a scholarly collaborator of Huey Newton's." [p. 111]
Pinker really is very clear on the question of EP/sociobiology and ideology in The Blank Slate (see my 'Meta Reviews'). But if you haven't read Pinker's 509-page book and want to read an exceptional defense against the left's characterization of the "naturalist" field as reactionary right now...here, in three pages in Evolutionary Psychiatry: A New Beginning, Anthony Stevens and John Price explain why "there are several reasons for the anti-biological prejudices which have, to a greater or lesser extent, persisted through most of this century” and why an evolutionary approach is "not an invitation to submit to 'biological determinism' or an encouragement to abandon a proper concern with ethical or value-oriented premises." [p. 276-7]
Ultimately, I think what we must strive for is a balance between "knowing" and "being." That is, I believe we are, as the philosopher Paul Churchland calls us, "epistemic engines." And that “we will be better men, braver and less idle if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know," as Plato wrote in Meno. This seems true enough. But there are also two big problems with knowledge. One is that ideology and subjectivity shape our epistemological framework: from the 'truth and value' of our operational definitions, to our methodology, right down to our interpretations of 'evidence.' The other problem with knowledge is what do you do with it? One of my students was justifiably adamant in class when we spoke of Bailey's female sexual etiology studies. "Who cares?" he said. “So what?” “And?” “What do we want to do with this knowledge?” he wanted to know. It's a fair enough question. It's an important question. And I think that if one is in the epistemology business (philosopher, psychologist, et al.) one ought to be always considering these questions at every moment. Is it okay if the answer is an honest, "to know"? I think so. But my nature tends to be trusting and not terribly cynical. (I wonder, too, if where one stands on these philosophical issues is not at least partially genetically determined.)
I am sympathetic with John Boswell, for example, when he writes in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: "In regard to the question of etiology, it should be noted that what 'causes' homosexuality is an issue of importance only to societies which regard people as bizarre or anomalous." Perhaps. But this gets to questions of our tools of knowledge, and it also becomes a chicken-and-egg problem. 2 Are there people in less technologically developed cultures (say, tribespeople in Paraguay or Botswana) who wonder about the heavens and wonder about the stars and wonder about their origins? Of course. Are their imaginings and musings limited to their epistemic tools? Maybe. Maybe not. But certainly not completely. The point being, one can have an imperative ‘to know’ without a political agenda and even without the necessary tools. Well, of course, the most powerful tool the Ache and the !Kung already have; they have brains. (I’m saying the obvious: that much of our curiosity and quest to know is innate.)
This tension—between epistemic desire and fear—I already feel and see in Dennett's Freedom Evolves, which I just started reading recently.
"But it should still be obvious that the innovations of science—not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers—but its commitment to reason and evidence—are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach. The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become." [p.6]
But he also writes:
"Saying the truth as best as we can muster is our first responsibility, but truth is not enough. The truth can hurt, especially if people misunderstand it, and any academic who thinks that truth is a sufficient defense for any assertion has probably not thought very hard about the possibilities. Sometimes the likelihood of misunderstanding (or other misuse) of one's true statements, and the anticipatable harm such misunderstanding could propagate, will be so great that one had better shut up." [p.17]
But the question is, who determines what is valuable research and science, and what is not; what is hurtful and dangerous, and what is not ? And who (and when we) should shut up? It seems to me any number of people from the left—or the right—could adopt such a position. And then we are left with just a battle of values and wills. Which is all fine and good—but is it the place to fight?
Those of us involved in the epistemological machine must always remind ourselves that the 'will to know' is related to the 'will to power.' And that this 'will to power' spans the political spectrum. For example, a progressive might be interested in biological etiology studies of male homosexuality in order to prove its immutability, so as to garner legal protection for gays under the constitution. Or a reactionary might want to discover the etiology of male homosexuality in order to find ways to prevent male homosexuality via gene manipulation or what-have-you. But there are plenty of others who are moved ‘to know’ just for knowledge’s sake. And there a lot of reasons why—some proximate and some ultimate.
So, those who are more cynical and less trusting (whether it is by dint of nature or nurture or both) must remember that sometimes a 'will to know' is just a 'will to know'—it's in our program, hard-wired. And we more open and trusting, optimistic types (again, probably genetically-loaded) must remember to be, in the words of Dennett, “cautious and responsible.”
Plato was right about being brave; because "truth is ugly," as Nietzsche wrote. A case in point (but there are many): it looks like the science is in on our (and other primates') propensity to "form hierarchically structured societies, in which individual rank has important social and psychological consequences." (Stevens & Price, 2000) Of course, many on the left don't want to hear this. But, as anyone who has ever thought about this knows, having a deep, evolved psychological mechanism or module for a particular way of being or thinking does not mean that one has to be or think in such a way. That some men who say they have not raped and that they are not turned on by the thought of rape have been found, indeed, to be aroused by images of rape, means what? It means that at some point in our evolution (if you buy the researchers’ methodology, etc.), it is possible that men who raped left more genes and that an evolved psychological mechanism may possibly exist in men today that takes the form of a proclivity toward such an act. Maybe. But it also means that we are plastic and shaped by culture and 'nurture' and words and 'the social'—and even other parts of our brain. (Freud saw it as a battle between id and superego; I sometimes wonder if it’s a battle between modules or brain structures: maybe the hypothalamus versus the prefrontal lobes.)
Having an understanding of our dark and atavistic nature, our id, can actually help us—as long as we don’t commit the naturalistic fallacy and extract values from facts. Man is hierarchical; therefore capitalism is good and the only way is fallacious. We can and do go against our deep, dark nature all the time. Freud wrote a lot of books about just this fact. One I remember was called Civilization and Its Discontents and another The Future of an Illusion. Anxiety and the resulting defense mechanisms (sublimation being the only valuable one for society), as well as self-deception and the superego (our prefrontal lobes?), all work to help stabilize and maintain our social world. Our prefrontal lobes, in fact, separate the boys from the chimps…Without our prefrontal lobes, I think men would be more likely to rape. And that’s the point that anyone can see— that we are human and have free will, and can, in fact, go against our program if we but have courage to look at it, understand it and, if we don’t like it—choose something else. Sounds pretty existential, actually.
So the trick here is not to excuse behavior. The trick is to have a better understanding of behavior, so as to be beneficial. Rape is immoral and should be punished regardless of whether we find that there is some biological basis for it. But seeing it in an evolutionary light, may foster new ways to prevent it. That certain things are hardwired is real and true, and that the brain is plastic is also real and true. However, there are individual limits on how far one can stretch. I will never be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist, no matter how much I try. But I could, with much effort and training, begin to understand some of the principles, maybe. And perhaps some physicist may never, no matter how much he tries, be as musical as I am, or be able to decode emotional cues and signals as well as I, but with effort and training, could get better at both, too. This seems obvious.
When I shared with my students the research on the difference between men and women's brains in terms of multi-tasking etc., one student said she was glad to know of it, because now she might not be as angry at her son about certain things. (And maybe her 'acceptance' and diminished hostility might actually allow her son to 'change' some.) Being able to appreciate and see people's limits while understanding they can move beyond them to a certain degree, is a part of what makes us human. (It allows for forgiveness, but at the same time allows for movement and change.)
Is it possible to hold the view that certain patterns of behavior, and/or certain characteristics of people etc., are hard-wired, while recognizing culture plays an important role in behavior? While recognizing people can change? While understanding that what is 'true' isn't necessarily good or right or completely immutable? Of course! But perhaps it is not easy for everyone.
Borderline personality disorder is a disorder characterized by an overuse of a defense mechanism called ‘splitting.’ In splitting, a person is unable to hold or reconcile two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time, so they use black-and-white thinking to protect themselves from contradictory feelings, gray areas and ambiguities.
Dennett and others like him, who are fearful and distrusting and want to tell scientists when to shut up, have good reason. We live in a borderline personality disordered world; and a world where many have committed and will commit the naturalistic fallacy—a way of thinking, by the way, which is also probably ancient and hard-wired.
But to fight illogical and psychologically unhealthy people by covering up the truth or shutting up, seems infantilizing and the wrong way to go. (We should be working toward helping people to become more logical and healthy!) Plus, when people see and feel certain truths as self-evident, and are told these 'truths' are not true, it makes people angry and crazy. And rightfully so. Here are several 'truths' about human nature that many people feel and see, but have been told (by some) are not true, from Pinker's TBS. It comes from a long list of 'discoveries' about human nature that he believes makes unlikely "the Utopian Vision that human nature might radically change in some imagined society of the remote future." (I'm a tad more optimistic than Pinker.)
"The universality of dominance and violence across human societies...and the existence of genetic and neurological mechanisms that underlie it....The partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies, implying that some degree of inequality will arise even in perfectly fair economic systems, and that we therefore face an inherent trade-off between equality and freedom....The biases of the human moral sense, including a preference for kin and friends, a susceptibility to a taboo mentality, and a tendency to confuse morality with conformity, rank, cleanliness, and beauty.") (p.294)
I don't want to fight research and scientific inquiry into who we are—no matter who is doing it. If it's good science, so be it. 3 What I will happily fight is evil—laws that hurt people. The fact is, we can fight for or against all sorts of issues on moral, legal, and political grounds, regardless of whether a human trait is considered innate, immutable, hard-wired, and/or essential. The place to put our oppositional energy, then, I think, is in the legal and moral sphere, not the scientific one. Because, regardless of what ‘knowledge’ researchers find, there’s no reason public policy has to be anything other than decent and humane. 4 g
1. Re this line from Dennett, says a philosopher engaged in the field:
"This is a self-serving and self-promoting attempt to form a new inquisitorial committee whose views must be taken as sacred. It's an attempt to displace the old inquisitors of evolutionary psychology—Margo Wilson, Martin Daly, and the clique at HBES—with a new clique. It's also an attempt by Daniel Dennett to put himself on a par with the discoverers of DNA, with E.O. Wilson, and with Richard Dawkins. In fact, Dennett's contribution to evolutionary psychology—or to "naturalism"—seems marginal to me (with the exception of his phrase "the theory of self").
2. I see it all as epigenetic/cyclical process: epistemic tools shape minds, which shape knowledge and tools and minds, which shape....ad infinitum; but I don't know what comes first, or if it's an appropriate question or even answerable!
3. And since the study of human nature is still, after all, a soft science, science can be fought by challenging such things as faulty assumptions, bad methodology, and specious conclusions.
4. Just recently, neuroscientists at Dartmouth published a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience which purports that we are now able to detect racism in the brain (via MRI scans). In response to the findings, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in Great Britain, was quoted in the The Guardian as saying:
"We spend far too much time worried about trying to detect racism in people rather than circumscribing the behaviour which leads to bias," he said. "There are people who have racist attitudes who are perfectly fair and even-handed in the ways they treat people, and there are people who would think of themselves as committed anti-racists who consistently show bias in the way they behave."
Copyright by Alice Andrews,
2003. All rights
Copyright © 2003 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. All rights reserved.