Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Good overview of The Blank Slate

However, the problem with all happy disclaimers along the lines of "we aren't really talking about biological determinism" is that at some point nature and nurture are going to come up against each other as rival expanations in a zero-sum game. Was this action done because of "biological cause" or "cultural reason"?

And it's not so easy to make a coherent blend of the two as you might hope.

What are your options?

You can argue that an act is commited for both biological and cultural reasons.

But then this supposes a miraculous (inexplicable) agreement between the two. And if you think that reason is always naturalized to, or constrained to be compatible with, biology, you've pretty much eliminated it in favour of biological determinism anyway.

You can argue that in the absence of cultural reasons, biology gives you the default "presets" for behaviour. But that, once there are cultural reasons, they trump the biology.

But this, of course, puts culture on top, because now biology only has an effect when given permission by culture. If it's sooo easy to over-ride biology, then it looks like appeals to biology are themselves just a cultural political choice.

So you may prefer a variant on the above, that says biology gives you tendencies which must be struggled against by culture. They can be over-ridden, but only at some effort.

But this throws the question back. What about about the act of struggling, the decision to fight your nature? Is that itself culturally or biologically caused? What determines whether such a struggle is sufficient - reason or cause?

Another way to go. You might think certain, very fundamental or primitive acts are biologically determined. But that most acts are complex, (represented in "software"), and this means that culture can intervene.

This is often the most popular intuition. However, it throws a huge burden of proof on the "naturist". What acts are absolutely immune to cultural intervention? The favourite domains : eating, sex, staying alive, can all be demonstrably trumped by culture. People adapt their diet, become vegetarian, prefer gay sex, fetishize inanimate objects, die for causes and commit suicide (sometimes by starving themselves to death.) And it only takes one example of each of these to falsify the claim that this behaviour is necessarily biologically determined without any culture involved.

The point I'm trying to make here, is not that there's no human nature. Or that the huge amount of scientific evidence of biological differences between sexes, or observable statistical preferences by men for young, symmetrical females must be discounted. But that a good coherent "compatibilist" theory which allows for biological causes, but denies biological determinism is much harder than is given credit here.

Some of the most striking and sophisticated attempts to negotiate the rivalries between reasons and causes are from Donald Davidson and John McDowell (who was here giving a talk a few weeks ago).

McDowell pretty much dissolves all talk of causes into reasons, arguing that the two can't be separated and the world (as understood through science) must already be coloured by our cultural assumptions. While Davidson buys a compatibility between the two called anomolous monism which claims that the biological, causal world has no "semantics". Maybe there are biological causes that push the body around, but we can't make sense of them as being "about" or "directed towards" the kind of things we care about. Biology can't give us a taste for "symmetrical mates" because the concepts of "symmetry" and "mates" only have meaning (and reference) when taken within our conceptual framework, which is part of our culture.

These are some of the real positions from which smart leftists are rejecting evolutionary psychology claims, and it might be more interesting for other smart people like Steven Johnson to address them rather than worry about dinner-party guests who equate Darwin with neo-nazis.


Oli Sharpe said...
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Oli Sharpe said...


You seem to be suggesting that whenever there are two potential influencers on a given behavioural act that we must decide which one is the primary and which the secondary.

Imagine a simple case: he did it because he would make money - despite the fact that it would upset his father.

Now we could say that these are both 'influencers' that contributed to the final decision to act or not to act.

However, we could also try to say things like:

a) clearly the desire to please his father was unable to overcome his underlying desire to make money


b) clearly the desire to make money was able to overcome his underlying desire to please his father.

... but I see no reason to suppose that either influencer needs to be more 'fundamental' in a sense of being more likely to determine action.

In my mind it's the same for biological influencers and cultural ones. In humans, culture has probably been an influencer for at least 10s of thousands of years if not 100s of thousands.

Both forms of influence have evolved together and help us make effective decisions.

Why should one dominate as being more fundamental - more deterministic - in humans?

phil jones said...

I think this is OK in terms of causes (ie. the force due to acceleration was sufficient to overcome the friction). And it's OK for reasons, as in your example.

But I'm not sure if it works for a comparison of a reason *and* a cause. The two don't seem to be the same sort of thing such as to allow comparisons of the kind : "this was weaker than that"

But, actually, maybe you're right. I can imagine some kind of answer like yours that doesn't make universal claims of the "sex is always biologically determined" kind but focuses on the particular saying "in this particular case, in this individual, on this question, culture overrode biology". But which denied that we could make any generalizations about this. (Perhaps because of something like anomalous monism) This certainly is a viable position which I didn't consider in the main post.

Kaunda said...

Johnson writes that the weakest argument against “evolutionary psychology” and the one “mostly offered up” is the Nazi-baiting one. I suspect he's being candid about the the latter and devious about thinking it's the weakest argument. What I see in his review of Pinker's “The Blank Slate” is not so much engagement with the ideas of “evolutionary psychology,” which I take it he views as broadly correct, as relief in discovering that since Pinker, Dawkins, Wilson, et al. are politically progressive then Nazism doesn't necessarily follow.

I do worry about Nazi talk because, and I may be peculiar here, since childhood I always took the talk of death and dismemberment personally. Most scholars aren't Fascists, but some are and scholarship filters down, usually in quite corrupted ways.

Back in the 70's homosexuality was popularly discussed in terms of choice, now it's popular to say that it's not choice at all, but biologically determined. That is, if one is arguing against death and dismemberment of gay people, those in favor continue to insist homosexuality is a choice. I'm a little slow on the uptake, but the problem with the emphasis on the "God made me homosexual"--or some biological variant of the assertion--is that it seems just as reasonable to say "God made homophobic"-- or to argue from "evolutionary psychology" that homophobia provides an evolutionary advantage.

I think Johnson is more interested in the ways that “evolutionary psychology” will be received in popular culture than he is with the development of knowledge within the field. He embraces E.O. Wilson's idea of consilience. Johnson wants us "to all get along" rather that to address the problems of knowing about behavior and culture in rigorous ways.

My own, very superficial, view is that both Wilson and Johnson find it easy to propose consilience because they're sure some mechanistic approach to knowledge will win the day. I'm not so confident about a mechanistic approach winning the day, but it's a hunch (and I may be wildly of the mark in suspecting that Johnson and Wilson are acting on a hunch as well— projecting perhaps).

Phil's raising Donald Davidson and John McDowell's efforts “to negotiate the rivalries between reasons and causes” as real positions for rejecting “evolutionary psychology's” claims is encouraging to me. But his suggestion that Steven Johnson address them “rather than worry about dinner-party guests who equate Darwin with neo-nazis” not so encouraging.

The problem is I doubt that Davidson and McDowell's thinking about epistemology, if that's the right word, are going to filter into everyday conversation. Whereas “the selfish gene” is already well ensconced in everyday jabber. Everyday conversation, at least here in America, is becoming more chauvinistic and the resemblance of social-Darwinism of yore with today's “evolutionary psychology” isn't far fetched.

So I fault Steven Johnson for not looking more skeptically at the claims of “evolutionary psychology,” but am sympathetic to his arguing against fascism.

Ah, but a really good thing is that smart and nuanced discussions of philosophy are much more available to us regular folks these days through blogs like this. I see Steven Johnson as a popularizer of scientific topics whose job is being made much harder by the likes of Phil. Way to go Phil!

Off the mark this link to download a PDF of Norman Barry's "The Tradition of Spontaneous Order" got a lot of traffic via Marginal Revolution

I think the online version is easier to read