From the Science Wars to political emotions: philosophy, biology and justice

1235---base_image_4.1424271387by Fabrizzio Mc Manus

Nowadays, it is a cliché to invoke biology, psychology or the newest branch of cognitive science to defend the claim that there is such thing as a Human Nature. We find appeals to this notion every time someone explains in terms of intrinsic properties forged by Evolution why some particular group exhibits a different behavior or response when compared to a larger population or a different group. This has occurred in topics such as a intelligence, empathy, verbal and spatial cognitive capacities, and even on the realm of self-governance [1].

Most of these claims have to do with grouping people in terms of race, ethnicity, sex/gender, sexual orientation and any other trait that seems amicable to a purely biological understanding of the trait itself and how it is connected to the body of the Subject as a whole. Once these schemes of classifying humans are accepted, they are used to explain variations in a myriad of topics. Culture, understood in symbolic or material terms, is normally set aside in these approaches.

Good examples of this practice are all of those studies claiming that there is an I.Q. gap between whites and blacks in the U.S. Or all of those claiming that gay men have verbal and spatial cognitive capacities more similar to straight women than to fellow straight men (Rahman & Wilson, 2003). Finally, the gendered brain is probably the most well known example of the approach (see, for example, Fausto-Sterling, 2000).

Nonetheless, as most scholars, and not a few outsiders to the Republic of Science know, not all of those who invoke these concept are bigots, racists, homophobes or misogynists. There are indeed instances of the concept of Human Nature at the service of more progressive agendas. The very idea of Human Rights is more or less dependent on this idea.

A different and very instructive example can be found in all of those studies showing that sexual orientation or gender identities are at the core of the Self and are most likely inborn and fixed. This has served to reject the view that homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and trans individuals are sinners, criminals, perverts or sick persons. It has also served to repudiate those so called “reparative therapies” which claim to fix what is not broken.

Notwithstanding this last point, Human Nature is probably one of the most contested terms in the history of Western Modern thought. As such, it had a central role in the famous Science Wars of late 20th century. These wars polarized the academic world with the creation of two mayor blocks or, to be more historically accurate, with the strengthening of an already existing divide (see, for example DeLamater & Shibley, 1998, or Lloyd, 2005, who provides an excellent analysis of a particular case study). On one side of the divide, we had most biologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors and biologically minded psychologists. On the other side were sociologists, historians, cultural anthropologists, social psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc.

The now infamous dichotomy of Nature vs. Nurture became one of the axes of this debate regarding the (1) accuracy, and (2) political usefulness of the concept of Human Nature. More concretely:

1. The debate about how accurate this dichotomy is, as its central concerns, had questions such as: is culture in some sense derived, controlled or conditioned by nature?, If so, are we truly free? Do we have free will or are we controlled by our pre-cognitive, pre-reflexive instincts? How sensitive is this “nature” to environmental aspects such as education, morals, etc.?

This point brings into light the question of how well the dichotomy actually describes the relationship between our evolved animal bodies and minds and the culture we produce through them.

2. Political usefulness: a major concern in these debates had to do with the possible social consequences of embracing the concept of human nature. The fear of a new eugenic movement of some sort was in the background of this discussion — with the obvious reference to Hitler’s Germany as a good remainder of why this should be avoided. For most social scientists, the very idea of human nature erases the social and collective responsibility we have to each other, it also erases the responsibility of institutions such as the State. Moreover, it downplays the effects of major inequalities produced by colonialism, racism, capitalism, homophobia, etc. Finally, the opposers saw in this concept a negation of human variability through the mobilization of an assumed common nature that is inherently imperialistic and, so, characteristic of Western colonialism. But for those who embraced the concept, it represented a realistic diagnosis of a bedrock unable to be modified by current social policies and, hence, the necessity to design new policies informed by biology.

For the defenders of the concept of human nature, it showed how our actions, beliefs and moral intuitions are heavily dependent on our biology and, thus, on our evolutionary history; here, culture tended to be seen as a veneer layer just recently added to an old human core. For all of those in opposition, the very concept of human nature was a menace to be fought because it de-emphasized the role played by social institutions such as the State, it also failed to pay attention to processes of exclusion and intolerance and how they become embodied.

This is not the place to revisit the complex history of these debates, and I am very much aware of the nuances excluded by such a short reconstruction, but there are two major points that I would like to bring into light before discussing the main argument of this essay.

First, although the dichotomy of nature vs. nurture is now over a 100 years old — it was, after all, introduced by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton — there is no reason to believe that it will remain an axis able to structure the relationships among different fields within the academy. Thus, my point is that we should seriously consider this confrontational antagonism between the natural and the social sciences as an historical contingency and not a structural feature. This might be the first step to overcome the controversy.

Second, we need to keep in mind the specific context in which these confrontations developed in the anglophone world and, more specifically, in the United States. The rise of the American religious right with its rejection of evolution, on the one hand, and its decry on the rights of sexual minorities, on the other, has produced a very complex battlefield of ideas in which natural scientists, specifically evolutionary biologists interested in human evolution, are now facing not one but two front lines. One against the above mentioned religious right, the other against social scientists claiming that culture or nurture cannot and should not be discarded in any attempt to understand human history, including human prehistory.

This point is of the upmost strategical importance because it sheds light on why this confrontation has been so acerbic. It would seem that social scientists have largely failed to recognize how their critiques can be refunctionalized by the religious right as weapons against the legitimacy of natural science. It also explains why natural scientists have accused social scientists of being intellectual impostors in order to defend their epistemic authority.

Clearly, it requires a lot of imagination to devise new and productive forms of relating the natural and the social sciences. Recognizing the historicity of the conflict, the strategic positions of those involved, and the agendas they possess seems a fundamental first step. Offering common goals and arguments capable of promoting a more interdisciplinary attitude would probably come second.

Before discussing the role of political emotions in all this, it is fundamental to offer a common goal and, I believe, human welfare and dignity might be such a goal —after all, who is going to seriously reject this as a desirable aim. Nevertheless, aiming at human welfare and dignity is one thing, developing public policies suited for this task is a different and very challenging one. The contribution of philosophers to a task like this might demand engaging in a serious discussion of how to design and implement policies, on the one hand, and in clarifying the relevant terms and values guiding the discussion, on the other. Justice and dignity look like promising candidates for a serious philosophical examination.

If this is so, then paying attention to the very complex ontology of human (and non human) bodies might end up being an obligatory passage point for any theory of justice — here I am borrowing Bruno Latour’s term, although with a slightly different sense (Latour, 2005). After all, even though concepts such as justice or human welfare and dignity seem to be very abstract, their justiciability — i.e., their capacity to be operationalized in a legal apparatus — necessarily requires addressing both the materiality of human bodies as well as their cultural embeddedness.

The materiality of human bodies forces us to recognize how justice goes hand in hand with the elimination of poverty, disease and economic inequalities. These material aspects of the human body are inextricably intertwined with both the causal structure of the body itself and with the way in which our cognition is temporally extended, embodied, embedded and scaffolded by material devices and material arrangements that facilitate our actions and make our lives more fulfilling. One example here is instructive and easy to offer: let us imagine how our lives would be without gadgets such as the computer or the smartphones and the access they provide not only to knowledge of many sorts but also to apps able to guide us in foreign cities, or to help us keep in touch with friends in different places in the world.

At this point every constructivist should recognize how a radical deconstruction of notions like disease, sickness or vulnerability may be counterproductive if we arrive at the conclusion that these terms are purely the consequences of power or hegemony and lack any material and causal basis. Certainly, these terms have political histories and are open to a variety of social interpretations in which the boundaries of these categories or even their perceived moral valuation have more to do with politics than with biology, but it is a non sequitur to claim that they are purely political.

This materiality is fundamental for justice because we are not a Cartesian res cogitans. Freedom is more than freedom of speech or belief, and justice is more than the capability of choosing without coercion or being considered a citizen with just political and civil rights. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said long ago freedom from want and freedom from fear are also fundamental categories in any comprehensive understanding of what human rights should be. And both of these demand a recognition of our material embodiment and the necessity to search for political and institutional mechanisms that ensure our material wellbeing — including the recognition of how the causal structure of our bodies sets a common minimum for every person on Earth.

However, the cultural embeddedness of humans cannot be neglected because, even though we are animals with bodies and minds produced by evolution, we also have different cultural affiliations affecting not only how we think but also how we feel and what we strive to accomplish. Every human being possesses a consciousness and exercises a will and a moral conscience, thus making us epistemic, ethical, aesthetic and political agents. This agency might seem more ethereal than the causal structure of our bodies but nonetheless it arises from it.

Consequently, freedom of speech or belief necessitates a recognition not only of our agency but also of the fact that cultural embeddedness leads to different forms of experiencing this agency. Even freedom from want and freedom from fear are connected with this point because what we fear is not a psychological invariant and certainly neither what we want nor the livelihoods in which we engage to obtain it are invariants either.

The material-cultural duality of the body might resemble the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, though here the emphasis is not on what divides and contrasts but on how the material and the cultural embeddedness of bodies arise from a complex material ontology in which culture can and usually is materially realized. Hence culture literally constructs and causally affects human bodies through the very structure of these and not by its systematic denial.

If I am right, then the Science Wars were a particularly counterproductive period in the history of science because they led us to a partial and dichotomous view of the body and, thus, instead of allowing us to develop and execute a more integrative notion of justice, what they actually did was to undermine justice by fundamentally denying how personhood, just as cognition and emotion, is always temporally extended, embodied, embedded and scaffolded.

In a sense, we could say that what I am advocating here is the admission that in justice development meets development. One of the intended senses is close to the very idea of social development as found in the Human Development Index created by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and further developed by Martha Nussbaum in her “Capabilities approach.” The other intended sense has more to do with recent theoretical insights in evolutionary biology, specifically in the fields of Evolutionary Developmental Biology (EvoDevo), Ecological Evolutionary Developmental Biology (EcoEvoDevo), Niche Construction and Extended Inheritance [2].

Curiously, what all of these very different programs have in common, among other things, is an emphasis on how the material scaffoldings of development are what produces a form that was not pre-formed or pre-given in any kind of blueprint. These scaffoldings are paradoxically responsible for both plasticity and robustness because they not only allow the organism/person to cope with her environment and its unexpected challenges by being resilient but also by being innovative.

In the concrete case of human development, the capabilities approach has emphasized on one hand material as well as cultural aspects such as bodily health and integrity and control over one’s material environment, and on the other hand political control over one’s social environment, access to education in order to develop practical reason and thought and, also, the necessity of affiliation with others. A fulfilled person is one who has had access to the entire spectrum of capabilities and, so, realizes her potential and is able to strive and enjoy.

This implies a rejection of biological determinism without rejecting biology. This is especially clear regarding handicapped persons. The capabilities approach acknowledges how the causal structure of our bodies might lead to disabilities, but also how our social scaffoldings might be able to compensate for these, thus allowing persons to have fulfilled and happy lives.

In the other case, Evo-Devo and allied fields, we find a variety of proposals in which genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, ecological and symbolic inheritances are scaffolding each other not only in the production of animal form but also in the production of its habitat and behavior [3]. The capacities of animals are not thus written in their genes in a sort of blueprint but are the result of a causal construction that, even though it is not rigidly deterministic, it is clearly influenced by biology. As in the previous case, the disruption of a particular inheritance channel might be detrimental and corrosive but it might as well be manageable if other channels remain functional.

Obviously, a deeper analysis is required if we are going to defend any profound connection among all of these programs to further develop this insight. Nonetheless, our preliminary discussion already promises a decentering of the topic of justice from the locus of human agents: if development meets development, then most living organisms might become subjects of an extended theory of justice concerned with the environment and animal rights. At least Sen and Nussbaum have expressed these views and to attend to the ontology of bodies and their development might be useful if we want to ground this sort of ethical claim.

Finally, I would like to offer an example in which this new arrangement among fields might already be visible: this is the case of political emotions. Martha Nussbaum is again a good example of this shift. In one of her most recent books she discusses the link between homophobia and disgust as a paradigmatic example of a political emotion (Nussbaum, 2010; see also Nussbaum, 2013). It is an emotion because it involves not only rejection and moral disapproval but also disgust, including those bodily sensations characteristic of it. And it is political because homosexual persons are not a primary source for disgust but are constructed as such through social dynamics of exclusion in which homosexuals are symbolically associated with feces and decay.

It is important to add that not all political emotions are negative: sympathy and empathy are examples of positive political emotions. Anyway, political emotions are interesting because they emphasize the bodily nature of emotions and feelings without reducing them to purely physiological  processes. In political emotions the intentional content is not discarded but included and politicized by acknowledging how such content is conditioned by social dynamics.

This again sheds light on the connections between development and politics because, up to now, no one has seriously claimed that homophobia is inborn and fixed. Disgust might be a universal emotion, it most likely has an evolutionary history and, nonetheless, the fact that it admits historical and social conditioning evidences the very plasticity of emotions and how they are recruited into culture. We might actually say that, contrary to the ethos of the Science Wars, affirming that people become homophobes throughout their development when they are exposed to bigotry and intolerance and claiming that this has a bodily nature, is not at all tantamount to asserting our incapacity to fight against it but, paradoxically, it might come in handy when we design public policies against homophobia. This is so because we are not dealing with a purely discursive and cognitive intolerance but with a deeply entrenched emotional attitude that might become pre-reflexive and pre-critical very early on in our lives (Mc Manus, 2015).

So, to conclude, the relationships among philosophy, biology and justice are complex and keep evolving. The Science Wars and the nature vs. nurture debate might have structured the relations among fields as if only antagonism and mutual distrust were possible. A lack of attention to the historical contingency of this arrangement and how it was also shaped by a conflict of natural science with the religious right, on the one hand, and with the humanities and social sciences, on the other, has led to a very acerbic confrontation. But both biology and humanities have continued their internal developments towards new ontologies that now might be much more compatible than we normally realize [4]. Political emotions are maybe the best example of how, in justice, development meets development.

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Acknowledgments: thanks to Rasmus Winther for encouraging me to write on these topics. Thanks as well to many colleagues in Mexico and abroad, specially to Edna Suarez, Vivette Garcia, Gisela Mateos, Teresa Ordorika, Adriana Murguia and Octavio Valadez and the seminars at UNAM and UAM-C.

Fabrizzio Mc Manus is an Assistant Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) where he works at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities (CEIICH). Currently, his main lines of research are concerned with the construction and medicalization of sexual identities in Mexico, the concept of explanation in developmental biology, and analytic feminism applied to biology and biomedicine. He has written a book — in Spanish — on science and homosexuality in light of philosophy of science.

[1] Jonathan Marks (2012) has accurately named these approaches as Evolutionary Ideologies.

[2] Loci classici are Jablonka & Lamb (2015), Oyama (2000), and Laland et al (2001) to name but a few.

[3] The topic of behavior, in general, and emotions, in particular, has been insightfully analyzed by Griffiths (1997). He has also connected this discussion with the topic of human nature in his (2011).

[4] I have also argued in favor of this point in my (2014).

Suggested Readings:

DeLamater, J., & Shibley, H. J. (1998). Essentialism vs social constructionism in the study of human sexuality. The journal of Sex Research, 35: 10-18.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Griffiths, P. (1997). What Emotions Really Are. The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Griffiths, P. (2011). Our plastic nature. In S. B. Gissis, & E. Jablonka (Eds.), Transformations of lamarckism: From subtle fluids to molecular biology (pp. 319-330). London: The MIT Press.

Jablonka, E. and M. Lamb (2005). Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Boston: The MIT Press.

Laland, K., Odling-Smee, J. and Feldman, M. (2001). Niche Construction, Ecological Inheritance, and Cycles of Contingency in Evolution. In Oyama, S., Griffiths, P. and Gray, R. (eds.) Cycles of Contingency. Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reensemblar lo social. Buenos Aires: Manantial.

Lloyd, E. (2005) The case of the Female Orgasm. Bias in the Science of Evolution. Boston: Harvard University press.

Marks, J. (2012). Evolutionary ideologies. In A. Poiani (Ed.), Pragmatic Evolution: The Applications of Evolutionary Theory (pp. 297- 312). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mc Manus, F. (2014). La Filosofía de la Biología y los Estudios de Género. Una simbiosis demorada. Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, 46(137): 113-118.

Mc Manus, F. (2015). Emociones Políticas y Constructivismo Social Evolutivo. El Asco como sustento de la Homofobia. Interdisciplina, 3(5): 161-186.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2010). From Disgust to Humanity. Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2013). Political Emotions. Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Oyama, S. (2000). Evolution’s Eye. A systems view of the Biology-Culture Divide. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rahman, Q., & Wilson, G. (2003). Born gay? The psychobiology of human sexual orientation (Review). Personality and Individual Differences, 34: 1337-1382.

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45 thoughts on “From the Science Wars to political emotions: philosophy, biology and justice

  1. This essay would have benefited from an abstract, or at least from a clear and concise statement of the point somewhere. As I understand it, the basic assertion is that our concept of justice should be revised to take into account the lessons of modern evolutionary developmental biology. Unfortunately I’m unable to get any concrete sense of what sort of revisions Dr. McManus would like to see.

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  2. Very interesting. By talking about the whole body rather than just the brain. I think you are also breaking down yet another dichotomy that has always bothered me. I call it the skull dichotomy. To see how important the skull dichotomy is to the discussion of mind v body, think about what happens if instead of talking about “brains in a vat” and Boltzmann Brains, instead we talked about “bodies in a vat” and Boltzmann People. These famous thought experiments for some reason assume that the non-brain part of the body falls into the category of “world”. What an odd assumption! If the locus of mind (or at least substrate of mind if you’re a dualist) is the entire body, it becomes even easier to make your point (if I understand it) that any complete discussion of freedom most include a discussion the body and its place in culture.

    I’d also like to underline your point that development and change are critical to this topic. I think the word “plasticity” is lamentably static in connotation. I would just say “changeable”. Bodies and brains and minds become. They change. No matter how distinct you want to pretend these things are from one another, you cannot deny that to the extent one changes, so does the other. A real commitment to this notion sidesteps some of the philosophical questions and demands a more nuanced and practictal political discussion. If you are arguing that black brains have lower IQs than white brains (which is a dubious claim to start with), you are floating those brains out in the ether somewhere, without asking the hard questions about WHEN black brains might have lower IQs. At birth? At 60? In prison? When hungry? You are sidestepping the question of what is going on with the black bodies in which those brains reside.

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  3. Our brains being sufficiently general-purpose vs. dedicated hardware (beyond other animals), their software — which comes from philosophical, ideological, political, artistic domains — not biological — can lead us to make all kinds of cultures, from ISIS to Stark Trek.

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  4. Oh dear, sorry for writing “mayor” instead of “major”. In Spanish is “mayor” and my Computer kept correcting the word. My bad.

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  5. So much for moderation, eh? Since it occurred four times, I even looked up “mayor” to make sure you didn’t intend it in some technical way. No luck. But “mayor” does seem to have roots in “major.”

    I need to reread this piece several times. The topic is an important one. I’m not totally clear, though, on where you stand. That has more to do with me than you, however.

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  6. I guess I should have provided an abstract. I’m trying to defend two points. First, the tensions between the biological and the social and human sciences are a historical contingency and not the consequence of a structural opposition. Second, right now we are watching the rise of new ontologies that allow us to better grasp what we humans are. This has consequences in the realm of politics and justice that are desirable.

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  7. Scientific American has an article on the Teenage Brain which is relevant to this discussion.

    On another topic, I have speculated that thinking and consciousness likely involves the entire nervous system, reaching down to even our little toes!

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  8. Great post. It’s interesting to think about how historical contingency in various debates sets us on unnecessary political trajectories. I was really happy to see the essay come to the capabilities approach. The CA and its treatment of the “social context” threads a dexterous needle in discussing how we’re socially constructed while remaining cognizant of biological universals. Its commitment to a multiplex of ends and values also fits in nicely with virtue ethics, which has been popular with Pigliucci lately. I’ve begun a long, lonely journey of trying to popularize the capabilities approach within my own little political tribe of libertarians.

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  9. Hi Fabrizzio,

    I very much appreciate what you’re trying to do here. I see you as an optimist who is thus telling us that the sciences must work together in order to make progress, not just fight each other… that we must identify our various biases for what they actually are, not engage in traditional turf wars. I do of course agree, though I also think that you’ve merely scratched the surface of a far greater problem. What if our vast institutions of mental and behavioral sciences, do still remain quite primitive? What if founding principals from which to effectively explore such fields, have not yet become established? In this day and age, could this really be the case?

    If your own observations do not sufficiently convince you of this, or even epweissengruber’s input above regarding a hilarious 1996 hoax, (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/from-the-science-wars-to-political-emotions-philosophy-biology-and-justice/comment-page-1/#comment-14953) consider modern psychiatry. Traditionally these scientists are known for diagnosing a person’s mental disturbances in order to then suggest ways to help. But apparently they’ve been so ineffective actually helping people in this manner, that the pharmaceutical industry has now altered their field quite radically. Today we can get mental advice from friends, family, social workers, or even licensed therapists. Modern psychiatrists, however, are generally in the business of finding the right pills for a given person’s mental disturbances — not exactly a ringing endorsement for their mastery of human dynamics!

    There are two things which I myself would like to do over the (presumed) second half of my life. The first would be to sufficiently propagate the notion that our mental/behavioral sciences (which lack even a functional model of consciousness!) still need to find their “Newton,” or founding principles from which to interpret human dynamics. Then the second would be to have my own theory in this regard, become earnestly assessed.

    Though a response here to my radical position would be nice, I’d certainly love to hear from you privately whenever you do get just a bit of time!

    Email: thephilosophereric@gmail.com

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  10. In my comment above I meant “Star Trek” (referring to a cultural-direction alternative to ISIS), not “Stark Trek”. 🙂

    I noted Pete Williams (NBC/MSNBC reporter) say yesterday that US government employees working on how to counter pro-ISIS ideology are concerned about what content to produce without it appearing “dorky”.

    I don’t quite get the human biology/evolution connection with determining what our culture and society should be (though new science and technology like synthetic biology and brain/computing interfaces are relevant for the future). So I’m a little lost about what the “argument” is to begin with.

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  11. I agree that the false dichotomy between nature and nurture has largely been historical rather than an real substantive difference. Unfortunately, you still see the false dichotomy further rehashed by academics like Pinker (Blank Slate) and while it doesn’t really take hold in academic circles, it’s something I’m constantly having to address when speaking to people outside of the field.

    What does seem to be a problem in academic circles is lack of interconnections and collaborations. I think the biggest bridge that needs to be made is collaborative efforts where people working at human behavior related sciences (and non-science fields related to human behavior; ethicist) from many different angles work together and find ways to integrate their work together. Judging from the center you work at (Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Sciences and Humanities), it seems like you are already working on building such a collaboration! I think David Sloan Wilson’s Evos program is another good example.

    Additionally, I also would argue that perhaps we need to take a closer look at the dichotomy of natural and social scientists, which itself implies that there is something different about the sciences and somehow the social world is outside of the natural world. This probably skirts the issue of what is “science’ but I think it’s worth addressing if we really want to see the dichotomy change.

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  12. Hi Fabrizzio,

    First, let me echo the comments saying that the article would have benefited from a clearer thesis. You do clarify that in a comment:

    First, the tensions between the biological and the social and human sciences are a historical contingency and not the consequence of a structural opposition.

    On that I agree with you. The “wars” seem to have been caused by two ideas. First, the fairly ridiculous “blank slate” idea that human society and culture are independent of our underlying biology, and second, the even more ridiculous idea of post-modernism. However, if the relevant fields have now returned to sanity then great!

    It’s also worth remarking that the “wars” didn’t really affect the “natural sciences”, since they were never infected by the above two ideas.

    One thing that never works well is regarding different domains of knowledge as distinct from and independent of each other. The contrary stance, that different areas of knowledge are different aspects of the same ensemble, always works well.

    … to defend the claim that there is such thing as a Human Nature.

    The article rather conflates the issue of whether there is a “human nature” encoded in our genes with the question of how much this nature differs among sub-populations. The answer to the first is quite obviously “yes”. The answer to the second seems to be “not much”, likely thanks to various population bottlenecks in the Pliestocene that have left modern humans with rather little genetic diversity across sub-populations. It’s important to keep the difference between these two questions clear.

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  13. From the article:

    “Finally, the opposers saw in this concept a negation of human variability through the mobilization of an assumed common nature that is inherently imperialistic and, so, characteristic of Western colonialism.”

    With the utmost respect, it’s language like this that confuses the hell out of me and makes me incredibly suspect when it comes to the verbosity of those who might be closer to the sociological/historical/anthropological schools than the hard sciences (or analytic philosophical tradition). Only a few sentences before you have me agreeing with you in relation to avoiding eugenics and being sure to take sexism/racism concerns seriously when it comes to human nature. But it seems that this would be a result of one group, let’s say a European or Japanese (yes imperialism/colonialism tendencies exist outside the West) power, thinking they are better than another group of humans. I don’t understand how assuming a common nature would allow for this, as this would mean the inhabitants of subjugated nations are the same as the colonizer, making such activity inherently immoral (as they could be considered kin).

    This grandiose theorizing is what gives me pause. I’m really not sure if I’m understanding this correctly, and if not please elaborate on it. But it’s articles like this that have me wanting to embrace the work of Sokal and others. I’m completely for sociological/historical study, as knowing about our past is incredibly important. But the methods need to include precise language while incorporating some empirical support if at all possible.

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  14. The current nature of humanity is to measure, divide, and conquer a nature that is truly immeasurable, indivisible, and free. No matter how hard we try, freedom cannot be conquered for then it is no longer free. The nurture of nature by and by, begins with this knowledge of truth and is followed by the practice of truth, the absolute; Nature is truly the unity of One.

    = is

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  15. Thanks for a stimulating essay.
    Some millions of years ago we animals, like any other animal, were subject to the strict dictates of genetic inheritance. And then something surprising happened. We developed a general purpose, reprogrammable brain together with language. From then on our ongoing development was no longer controlled by strict genetic inheritance because a second path for development had been added. This path was the transmission and accumulation of culture. This path allowed us to much more rapidly and effectively adjust to environmental challenges. This second path greatly outpaced the genetic channel, as a means of selection, with the result that the genetic channel was no longer dominant. Being no longer dominant in contributing to selection, this genetic channel is being slowly erased by natural random genetic variation. That is because random variation exceeds selection effects.

    This mechanism has set us on the path towards the ‘blank slate’. Today we are on a trajectory from biological determinism towards the ‘blank slate’ where our development is wholly culturally determined. We are a work in progress and the real question is how far that work has progressed. The destination is clear. It is the erasure of genetic determinism where our minds(behavioural traits) are concerned. Except, of course, where genetic selection contributes to better, general purpose, re-programmable brains.

    Then how far are we along this trajectory? The figures vary greatly but IQ is estimated to have a 38% contribution from genetic inheritance(Kaplan). Or one can put it another way and say we have progressed 62% on that trajectory. That is an unreliable figure, because it varies so much across behavioural traits but it is enough to convey the general idea. But in any case the rate of change is probably not linear but exponential because it becomes a positive feedback loop, resulting in ever faster gains. Our inability to associate behavioural traits with clearly defined genes indicates how far natural random genetic variation has erased the genetic construction of the mind.

    Therefore there is no inherent contradiction between nature and nurture. That is because we are on a trajectory progressing from nature to nurture and we are probably on the last segment of that journey.

    I suggest the real reason for the so-called science wars(as the author calls them) is ideology. This ideology is called scientism. It is an ideology that is founded on a fundamentalist belief in reductionism and determinism. It has also been called preconceptual science. Like all fundamentalists, they take a rigid, uncompromising stance that minimises, dismisses or refuses to countenance countervailing evidence.

    Thankfully, scientismists are an extremist fringe of science but their thinking has been influential.

    The countervailing evidence, as one should expect, is found in our culture and in our history. Therefore it is not surprising that those most alive to the strong effects of nurture are those who study our culture and history.

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  16. Some sing the praises of the genus Homo: how special we are! How subtle! We don’t have just culture, but culture wars! A few millions years ago, we evolved, and became special!

    In truth, though, not only culture is not restricted to us, but so the ability to switch among cultural regimens.

    Ethology is the study of behavior (god, that is, evolutionarily given). Morality (in Greek, ethos, or in Latin) means, indeed, behavior has it usually occurs. In other word, ethology.

    An article just published in Science argues that baboons are intrinsically democratic: they have evolved as a democratic species.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/evolution/2015/06/signs-democracy-seen-typically-authoritarian-baboon-society

    From the review of the article:
    “When it’s time to travel, wild olive baboons make democratic decisions about where to go, even though they live in hierarchical societies. The discovery is a surprise, researchers report online today in Science, because large, alpha males typically get their way—pushing subordinates aside to get food or mates. But when choosing where to travel, a baboon’s social rank or sex is irrelevant, perhaps because the decision affects the entire group.”

    The “typical authoritarian” behavior of baboons intervenes in a different regime, namely, war. War (with alien species) happens everyday, when looking for water. Culturally, baboons, just to survive, have to be able to switch from one regime of behavior, to the other.

    That does not mean the two cultures are at war: instead, they are complementary. Meta-culture also exists, or the ability to find, among various cultures, the most appropriate, at that instant.

    Studies on chimpanzees have shown that females are often carefully studying nature, and often devising new behaviors that way. Call that proto-science. Culture is not new, nor are culture wars, they are tens of million years old, and thus, all the deeper.

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  17. I would like to second what Coel wrote about the conflation between collective human nature and differences between different groups of humans. This made the text a bit murky at times.

    Although I further agree that as far as I can tell (this was before I could have had an informed position on them) the “science wars” were mostly driven by irrationality and ideological bias on one side of the divide, it is not as if there isn’t also an irrational fringe on the other side. There really are biologists and more specifically evolutionary psychologists who argue along the lines of “look, chimpanzee children do such and such, therefore women will actually be happier in the kitchen and don’t need to go into science”. Don’t think people who actually admit to thinking like that have lately had as much influence as Pomo in the humanities, but they are there.

    One thing that I find odd about this essay is that there is an undercurrent of concern about how useful certain ways of looking at empirical facts are for furthering “justice”. I am all in favour of equality, empowerment, freedom and so on, but as a stodgy scientist I have to say that there are facts, and if the facts don’t turn out to fit well into my desired progressive narrative then tough luck; they are still facts. This sounds a bit too much like only wanting to talk about things that are and only in a way that is politically expedient.

    (Also, as with the current fad term “Social Justice” I wonder: why justice? I thought that word referred very specifically to re-compensating the wronged and punishing the wrongdoers, and not to giving people the resources and freedoms they need to flourish. Why not equality or something?)

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  18. Hi labnut,

    This second path greatly outpaced the genetic channel, as a means of selection, with the result that the genetic channel was no longer dominant.

    It is wrong to think of genetic and environmental effects such as culture as independent channels. Rather, they both contribute in a complexly inter-twinned way to one sole channel.

    Then how far are we along this trajectory? The figures vary greatly but IQ is estimated to have a 38% contribution from genetic inheritance(Kaplan). Or one can put it another way and say we have progressed 62% on that trajectory.

    This shows a gross misconception about such studies. The figures in such studies are percentage contributions to the variation in a trait across the population studied. They are not percentage contributions to the trait! (And they include all environmental factors, not just culture.)

    The variation between humans is actually pretty small compared to the things that are common to all of us. Indeed, most of us could meet up with nearly any another person (of the opposite sex) plucked randomly from anywhere in the world, randomly shuffle half of our genes with half of theirs, and produce a viable child. You couldn’t do that with, say, Ford cars and Volkswagen cars. That shows how similar we are. And all of that in-common human nature is genetic. The overwhelming majority of what makes us human is genetic. Indeed, even much of our culture, most of the culture that is common to humans worldwide, is also genetically programmed. It is only a fraction of the rather small differences between humans that is not genetic.

    Those two points refute your rather fanciful comments about where humans are heading. But, your ideological desire to write genes out of the picture and your desire for a blank slate are noted.

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  19. Baboons may have culture — I’m scratching my head though over the mapping of code (models) of human culture to baboons, but it’s interesting — but do they have ideological splits (“egalitarian” Democrats vs. “authoritarian” Republicans)? We would like to think human culture makes progress vs. remaining static. For example, with recent Supreme Court decisions supporting marriage equality and health care government subsidies, there is hope that it does.

    (It seems that what labnut wrote and what Coel wrote are opposites. I guess that’s the “science wars” thing.)

    People say that human behavior can’t be “reduced” to the science of biology. But what about network science* (in particular, the study of social networks). Does it matter to the “science wars” that “science” is in the name “network science”?

    * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_science

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  20. A topical example is the recent Academy of Science of South Africa (in collaboration with the Uganda National Academy of Sciences) report

    http://www.assaf.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/8-June-Diversity-in-human-sexuality1.pdf

    – apparently an answer to the Ugandan president’s claim that “experts prove there is no connection between biology and being gay”.

    As to Labnut’s comments – yeah, we’re at least 2/3 of our way to the Omega Point 😉 I think the 70’s science wars (against say Jensen and later Wilson) were not driven by rigidity on the part of the scientists, but by a willingness to follow where the data seemed to lead. The self-correcting wandering course of sciencific knowledge runs a lot slower than social and political forces. As the OP points out, the scientific idea that sexual orientation seems to have strong biological features and is resistant to change by cultural or psychological interventions, is just as unpalatable to some people as the idea that differences in individual intellectual ability might persist, no matter how rich and equal the environment, absent biology-based interventions of some kind.

    Actually, I’ll give a quote from my favourite rigid scientistic philospher of the moment (Mario Bunge,
    Matter and mind: A philosophical inquiry):

    My reason for advocating a scientistic approach to ethics is that I take this discipline to be concerned with moral dilemmas, all of which are social problems ­ – the domain of social science. Indeed, I suggest that moral problems arise when scarce resources are handled by persons with unequal power. This is why the more divided a society, the more severe the moral problems that arise in it. I also suggest that the best way of resolving such conflicts in a fair and peaceful way is to discuss and bargain in the light of what is known about the social systems in question, so that the stronger party may compensate the weaker one, e.g., by offering it a share in a bunch of desirable items. Obviously, the scientistic approach to morality opposes moral relativism as well as moral absolutism (or dogmatism). Contrary to the fashionable opinion, that we should tolerate all values and norms because they are only rooted in gut feelings or in custom, a science-oriented moral philosophy will promote fairness and reciprocity, for they favor individual welfare and social progress. The same approach will also favor close contacts between ethics and ontology, because moral behavior is a form of social behavior, the justification of which calls for a social ontology. Indeed, different social ontologies suggest different moral philosophies…

    Not only scientistic determinism but ontological determinism as well! I’ll mention he promotes a “scientia” where philosophy is central to scientific practice, but science strongly constrains what kinds of metaphysics, for example, are sensible in a Pragmatic kind of way.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Hmm. It seems to me that a person who thinks that philosophy is central to scientific practice but roots his philosophy in the contingent world of human society may be a little muddled about what philosophy actually is.

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  22. I’ve been gaining a familiarity with many terms since September 2014 when Scientia Salon first crossed my path. “Scientism” is one of them, and as an extreme ontological physicalist I had no qualms about accepting it for myself. I’m being introduced in this thread to a “blank slate” idea, opposed above by Coel and Imad Zaheer, though supported by Labnut. I suppose it makes perfect sense that I would once again (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/everyone-has-moral-obligations-and-were-talking-about-them-way-too-much/comment-page-2/#comment-14793) come down on the wrong side of Labnut’s position. The real question, however, is whether I can maintain the objectivity that I presumed of myself in isolation, or shall I now be converted into a standard partisan? I do hope that by at least acknowledging the dangers of partisanship, that a reasonably objective position can be maintained.

    Imad you said:

    Additionally, I also would argue that perhaps we need to take a closer look at the dichotomy of natural and social scientists, which itself implies that there is something different about the sciences and somehow the social world is outside of the natural world. This probably skirts the issue of what is “science’ but I think it’s worth addressing if we really want to see the dichotomy change.

    If all of reality has a cause/effect connection to itself, then yes it must be human failure which permits us to place “the social world outside of the natural world.” This certainly helps support the radical position I’ve stated above — or that perhaps our mental and behavioral sciences remain quite primitive today. More connections will surely be required, though if we are still working without various fundamental principals, those connections should be hard to come by.

    I believe that so much trash has now accumulated in the system today, that it’s hard for us to identify and begin from the very essentials. Let me ask you all: What is biologically good/bad for the conscious entity? If you say that positive qualia is inherently rewarding for it, and negative qualia is inherently punishing for it, then you are at least from this perspective, a (gasp!) ulilitarian. I believe that from this basic principal, we can properly found our mental and behavioral sciences.

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  23. First, let me thank you all for your great comments, remarks and questions. It is certainly something I appreciate. And let me try to offer a few answers that might help us all in continuing this discussion.
    Regarding the claim that the natural sciences were not affected by the science wars, as Coel claims. I would argue that the science wars actually produced a wall that made unpalatable for some scientists to engage in discussions regarding sexism, homophobia and racism because they associated these discussions with flaky knowledges. In that regard, I do think that the natural sciences were affected because it became harder to seriously analyze their own biases.
    By the way, I have always thought that Sokal has been misunderstood in a number of ways. In his book “Intellectual…” he claims several important things. First, he is sympathetic to the work of Eric Hobsbawn and he sees himself as someone who defends a marxists proletarian left. He even says this is the left in which he grew up and the left he finds important for the world. So, Sokal is a radical in political terms and he sees postmodernism as essentially weak in its capacities to actually engage the problems of the world.
    He actually recognizes how economic forces can and have modeled the sciences (see, for example, some remarks he does in pages 245-255). As I see him, he is defending the human and the social sciences against some version of them that would be rather politically inefficacious; so, we should have talked about the humanities civil war. But he also admits that the authors he criticizes are not always wrong, that sometimes he will endorse their claims. Just, not always and not with this particular ideology.
    Regarding my use of the word “Justice”, mentioned by ALexSL. In this I am following a few philosophers of law within the CA that claim that we should recognize four varieties of justice: (i) commutative, (ii) distributive, (iii) retributive, and (iv) contributive. I cannot explain them here but they are present in numerous discussions on agroecology, ecosocialism and food sovereignty, to give just one example.
    Regarding the conflation between human nature and differences among different populations, also mentioned by Coel. You are obviously right if by human nature we understand the genome. But what about other aspects: the symbiome? The connectome? If we understand, as some persons think we should, human nature as a nature-culture (as Donna Haraway does), then variation among populations might be much more important. By rejecting gene-centered views of evolution, eco-evo-devo seems to pint in that direction.
    Lastly, for Pete1187, I was characterizing some of the arguments against the notion of human nature when I described it as inherently imperial. This is NOT my position but my interpretation of some of the most radical within the humanities.

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  24. Coel,
    The variation between humans is actually pretty small
    The overwhelming majority of what makes us human is genetic. Indeed, even much of our culture
    (for the sake of the discussion I will call your position ‘genetic determinism‘)

    We agree on the low genetic diversity but your claim spectacularly fails to account for: 
    1) the high cultural diversity, 
    2) the high rate of change within a culture and 
    3) the highly adaptive nature of culture
    in the presence of very small genetic diversity.

    1. We see large cultural diversity across the human species(languages, cultural practices, belief systems, political systems, crime rates, etc). One small example – 52 homicides/100,000 in my province, 1.0 homicides/100,000 in the UK. An astonishing difference, given that our genetic constitution is nearly identical.

    If your claim of genetic determinism was true, the small genetic diversity should be accompanied by small cultural diversity. But we don’t see that, do we? We see the exact opposite of what your claim implies.

    2. We see rapid cultural change that far outpaces the rate of genetic change. Even the most casual reading of history reveals extraordinarily rapid cultural change in almost every aspect of culture.

    Once again, if your claim of genetic determinism was true, we should see a rate of cultural change that matched the rate of genetic change. In other words, our culture should have changed at a positively glacial pace. Once again, we don’t see that, do we?  In fact we see the exact opposite.

    3. Our culture has successfully and quickly adapted to a great variety of changing environments, from tundra to desert, from mountains to lowlands, from savannah to jungle, from nomads to densely populated agricultural plains. from rural to industrial to late modernity, etc. We are undoubtedly the most adaptive species on the planet.

    In the rest of the animal world, adaptability to many environments is assured by having a large genetic diversity. If genetic determinism was true, our narrow genetic range would make it impossible to adapt to such a large environmental range. Our highly adaptive nature is the exact opposite of what we would expect if genetic determinism were true.

    In summary. Given our small genetic variance and if genetic determinism were true, we could not have the high cultural diversity, rapid cultural change would not be possible and we could not have adapted to such a large range of environments.

    Each of my three arguments, on their own, are enough to demolish your claim. Taken together, they overwhelmingly defeat your claim. Your claims are simply not supportable. Our inability to find clear genetic markers that account for our behavioural traits makes my argument even stronger.

    The only possible conclusion is that our mind is no longer wholly confined by the genetic structures of our brains.
    In other words, our mind has become partially decoupled. As I said before, we are on a trajectory from nature to nurture. The only issue left to decide is how far we are on that trajectory. Quite a long way it seems.

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  25. Philosopher Eric

    I’m being introduced in this thread to a “blank slate” idea, opposed above by Coel and Imad Zaheer, though supported by Labnut. I suppose it makes perfect sense that I would once again

    Well to be clear, I would be careful about using the term “blank slate” at all as it’s “multi-biguous” (multiple ways of being ambiguous) in how it’s used. I think that is part of the reason why people argue around it so much as it’s often used to mischaracterize others (as Pinker does) or used to emphasize the role of culture in response to perceived threat of biology (as some social scientists do).

    I much rather prefer to the term “open ended systems” that are characterized by great flexibility capacity for change that are themselves innate, which allow a little bit of ideas that Coel and Labnut both support and I would argue is more supported the scientific literature.

    If all of reality has a cause/effect connection to itself, then yes it must be human failure which permits us to place “the social world outside of the natural world.” This certainly helps support the radical position I’ve stated above — or that perhaps our mental and behavioral sciences remain quite primitive today. More connections will surely be required, though if we are still working without various fundamental principals, those connections should be hard to come by.

    For me personally, I don’t think it’s a matter of the mental/behavioral sciences being primitive and to the contrary, I think they are far more mature than most people realize. I think the main issue is real or perceived imperialism of one field towards another. Many people in emphasizing their own field inevitably turn to downplay research that is not their own focus and may even limit some of their own conclusions.

    As such, I think it’s much more of a cooperation problem where scientists (and non-scientists) in each of their respectful fields need to feel welcomed table and contributions respected.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Most of the points I wanted to make have been made by others (e.g. about the tendency to twist the science to fit preconceived ideological commitments). It is just this kind of jargon-ridden and highly politicized study which gives the Academy such a bad name, in my opinion.

    In his comments, the author makes his political motivations even clearer.

    What stunned me, however, was the fact that, amid all this talk about science, the ghost of Teilhard de Chardin is lurking in the background. Someone has already, in criticizing labnut’s take on these issues, alluded to the Omega Point idea, but it seems that old Teilhard is also popular in so-called Science and Technology Studies. Fabrizzio Mc Manus recommended Donna Haraway, so I looked her up. [From Wikipedia] “After college, Haraway moved to Paris and studied evolutionary philosophy and theology at the Fondation Teilhard de Chardin on a Fulbright scholarship.”

    She is also a neo-Marxist and a postmodernist, apparently.

    If I were to engage on substantive issues, it would probably be on the question of rights and justice. But I have the sense that no real dialogue would be possible as it seems these concepts have been redefined within what I see as a closed ideological space.

    The author’s reply to Alex makes my point for me:

    “Regarding my use of the word “Justice” … I am following a few philosophers of law within the CA that claim that we should recognize four varieties of justice: (i) commutative, (ii) distributive, (iii) retributive, and (iv) contributive. I cannot explain them here but they are present in numerous discussions on agroecology, ecosocialism and food sovereignty…”

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  27. Mark English,

    What you wrote is a somewhat harsher way of putting exactly what I wanted to express. It is not even just about “giving academia a bad name”, it is also about how to phrase the opener if one wants to be taken seriously by scientists. It is one thing to say, you know, we may all just have had an extremely unproductive discussion, and here is a better, clearer way of looking at human nature. It is quite another to say, this is how we need to discuss human nature to make it easier to achieve my leftist political goals.

    As far as economic redistribution and personal liberty are concerned I am probably somewhere in the left 2.5% tail of the frequency distribution across the political spectrum in Western societies. If a few years from now my home country would have nobody earn more than, say, four times what the poorest person in the country earns, and if its chancellor was a transsexual person of colour, I’d be quite satisfied. But, kind of aping Sokal here, I am also a scientist, so I get an extremely bad feeling when somebody’s concern is not first and foremost how to accurrately describe human bodies but how to describe them in a way that is “useful if we want to ground this sort of ethical claim“.

    labnut,

    I do not see where Coel has made the claim of 100% genetic determinism. He quite sensibly argues that genes and environment “both contribute in a complexly inter-twined way” in response to your assertion “we are on a trajectory progressing from nature to nurture and we are probably on the last segment of that journey”, which made it sound as if we are ascending into spirit form.

    As long as we have bodies and genes there is no escaping from that part of us. We are biological systems, in fact our minds are the workings of biological system, so to assume that our biology has negligible to no impact on what we are is… I don’t really know a word for this. Its like saying that better computers are increasingly becoming independent of their hardware configuration. If you are a guy, just imagine for a moment you were a woman and would have to worry about getting pregnant under certain conditions. If you are tall, just imagine for a moment you were 1.2 metres only in a society where most people are tall. Or imagine you were born with a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes chronic depression. How can any of these genetic variables not have a severe formative effect on the personality of the human in question?

    (Even as they are utterly irrelevant for the question of whether people should have the same human rights and economic equality.)

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  28. Hi Fabrizzio,

    Regarding the conflation between human nature and differences among different populations, also mentioned by Coel. You are obviously right if by human nature we understand the genome. But what about other aspects: the symbiome? The connectome?

    By “human nature” I was referring to the set of ways in which we think, feel, act, and interact with each other. While plenty of questions are about the differences in those things amongst us, we should not lose sight of the fact that we all have a vast amount of human nature in common.

    Hi labnut,

    for the sake of the discussion I will call your position `genetic determinism’.

    That, of course, is a loaded term. The wiki page on the term starts: “The term genetic determinism has sometimes been mistakenly applied to the unscientific belief that genes determine, to the exclusion of environmental influence, how an organism turns out. Such views have sometimes been attributed to opponents, or forwarded in hypothetical arguments, without having been actually held by anyone …”.

    I have never wanted to downplay either genes or environment/culture (unlike yourself who is clearly hankering after a future blank-slate utopia). But we note the ideological tendency to interpret any statement about the influences of genes as a claim that genes are the only influence; the ideologue then ritually burns that straw effigy, and can relax back into the purity of a vision untainted by the original sin of genetic influence.

    To quote Alex: “It’s like saying that better computers are increasingly becoming independent of their hardware configuration”. Indeed, it’s worse than that since, in a neural-network computer such as our brains, there is no distinction between hardware and software. The hardware configuration is the software. To say that the outcome could be independent of the recipe for developing that neural network is preposterous.

    Note that you only quoted half of one of my sentences. The second half was crucial, and I add it back in with added emphasis:

    “Indeed, even much of our culture, most of the culture that is common to humans worldwide, is also genetically programmed.”

    I was attributing to genetic influence much of what is common to human nature and to all human cultures worldwide and over history. That is a huge amount, as is obvious if one considers trying to adopt a baby polar bear or a squirrel and bringing them up as a human; it wouldn’t work. In contrast, one could translate a human child from one place and time to just about any other culture, and they’d fit right in, since “people are the same wherever you go”.

    The fact that humans are social animals (like dogs, chimps and dolphins) whereas polar bears and tigers are solitary, is a result of genetic programming!

    Each of my three arguments, on their own, are enough to demolish your claim.

    Nothing you’ve said rebuts any claim that I’ve actually made.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. The problem of the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate only arises when one side is asserted to subordinate the other to the extent that rich explanations of human behavior are simply discounted. There is always going to be political interests at work in such assertions, since dismissal of an explanation is a diminution of the interests of both those offering the explanation and those the explanation promotes or supports.

    The article could have been written more carefully. What appears to be its central thesis – that a biologically informed Capability Approach ethics can direct us toward a stronger politics of social justice – could have been introduced earlier, and stated more forthrightly; the ‘Science Wars’ discussion could have been discarded, and indeed was something of a distraction.

    Reading the background material in the article and the comments has led me to consider research into some authors I haven’t read much before – Sen, Nussbaum, de Chardin, and, just by the way, Franz Boas – and also, just BTW, has convinced me to continue to ignore Steven Pinker.

    Blanket rejection of any thinker for simple (and simplistic) political reasons, however, are not of any interest to me. (I don’t reject Pinker, but nothing I read concerning his ideas interests me, and that doesn’t have to do with politics, since he and I share many of the same political interests.)

    As to the ‘scientism’ squabble that bubbled up in later comments – I really don’t have much to say on that any more, it is getting rather exhausted.

    I think that labnut is making some interesting points; cultural diversity is a reality presenting problems to any unified theory of human behavior, scientific or otherwise. So too with the seemingly indefinite (or at least indefinite-within-a-range) capacity for individual response variation, creativity and innovation. Coel makes some good points too; but perhaps diversity and variation is fundamental to whatever we want to call human nature. That compounds the problem, but also suggests that the problem involves unnecessary and probably futile attempts to impose one perspective on another.

    It is nature that we eat, it is nurture that we prefer tacos to pizza. Attempts to deny that we will do what we must to eat are naive, attempts to find genetic bases for a preference for tacos over pizza are at best misguided.

    So it is both nature and nurture; justice is a matter of which we need to emphasize, politics a matter of which we wish to emphasize. Pretending otherwise wastes everyone’s time.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. On a serious blog devoted to philosophy one would expect the comments to consider what was actually said. The excerpts below are disappointing exceptions.

    DavidDuffy,
    As to Labnut’s comments – yeah, we’re at least 2/3 of our way to the Omega Point

    As you well know, I have never used, implied, or supported this idea in any form whatsoever. Why drag it in when it is not at all relevant to my argument?

    Mark,
    What stunned me, however, was the fact that, amid all this talk about science, the ghost of Teilhard de Chardin is lurking in the background. Someone has already, in criticizing labnut’s take on these issues, alluded to the Omega Point idea

    All you have done is stun yourself by imagining that de Chardin was an issue in the post or discussion. Neither the original post nor I mentioned or supported his ideas. You are over-reaching badly. 

    Coel,
    unlike yourself who is clearly hankering after a future blank-slate utopia

    Where? How? Can you quote my words that express ‘clearly hankering’?

    your ideological desire to write genes out of the picture and your desire for a blank slate are noted.

    Where and how did I ‘desire’ it? Can you quote my words that express such an ‘ideological desire’?

    AlexSL,
    which made it sound as if we are ascending into spirit form.

    What on earth did I say that implied spirit form? You too are over-reaching badly.

    I urge you guys to stick to what was really, actually said and then to argue in good faith.

    Some good advice:
    1. confine yourself to what has really been said.
    2. do not attribute to someone things they never said. It is quite simply dishonest to do so.
    3. do not try to sneer or smear, make serious arguments instead.
    4. if you want to disagree with someone, disagree with what they really did say, and back it up by quoting their exact words.
    5. do not smuggle  ideological considerations into the argument unless it actually is substantively relevant.
    6. having differing ideological backgrounds is not a crime. Do not treat it like one.

    EJ,
    So it is both nature and nurture; justice is a matter of which we need to emphasize

    Exactly, you put it well.

    My point was that we are on a trajectory from a past that was controlled by nature towards a future that will be dominated, or more probably, controlled, by nurture. The real issues are 1) how far we are along that trajectory and 2) how rapidly we progress along that trajectory. How far and how rapidly are open to debate but it cannot be doubted we are moving along that trajectory.

    As the author said “we should recognize four varieties of justice: (i) commutative, (ii) distributive, (iii) retributive, and (iv) contributive“. This is the pre-eminent issue of our time that is crying out for more attention.

    The relevance of the human trajectory is that our progress along it is what is enabling us to realise the goals of justice, love and peace.

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  31. labnut,

    This is some serious chutzpah right there; the whole point was that you would have done well to follow your own advice in this thread! You attributed genetic determinism to somebody who explicitly said that both nature and nurture play a role, and indeed the idea that the environment doesn’t play a role in forming a personality is entirely a straw-man. Nobody in science believes that.

    On the other hand, when I wrote about ascending into spirit form, the following sentences make very clear that my idea was this: No, you didn’t write that, but your claim of moving towards 100% nurture only make sense if such a fantasy novel scenario is what happens.

    Coel,

    Yes, bad analogy, should have come up with something better.

    Like

  32. I am more or less surprised by the development of this discussion. Let me express a few points.

    First, I believe you are seriously biased regarding how anyone should write. Not everyone in every language writes in the same way; that is also true for many different fields within the Academy. I intended this text as a friendly, literary reflection with an open ended horizon in which biology, philosophy and justice are intertwined. It is not intended as an academic paper.
    Jacques Derrida used to said that good text always hides secrets. His point was that the author should try to challenge the reader, not offer him/her a core of pre-digested ideas that s/he can just reject/incorporate into his/her belief system. Sorry, I like that way of writing.

    Second, the idea of justice is complex and has always been complex. There is indeed a paradox regarding the execution of justice -and please pay attention to the double meaning. Some interpretations of justice execute it by killing other possible readings. Justice is not only the satisfaction of material needs -freedom from want- implied in the notion of distributive justice. Justice is also the right to identity and memory -freedom of belief and speech- implied in the notion of retributive justice for those that have suffered oppression. But justice is also the right to exercise our agency and be a contributive subject -contributive justice.
    Why this matters? Because it evokes the duality of the body as something material and symbolical. Justice can be executed -as in killed- if it is executed -as in perform- with only a partial view on what we humans are. Everyone within the nature vs nurture debate is thus executing justice in a different way.

    And no, I am not trying to impose my moral beliefs into facts. Let us just ignore how epistemically naive that sounds. There is a fact: we evolved. Also a fact: we have a causally structured body. Another one: society provides institutional, material and symbolical scaffoldings that allow us to become what we are. Those are facts. Handicapped persons know this, trans folks too. Even people with glasses!

    These led us to two important points. On the one hand, which ontology best accommodates this. I belief modern biology does. And I mean ecological evolutionary developmental biology. Thus the motto. On the other hand, what are the consequences of this. I think this allows us to execute justice without falling pray of false dilemmas. And it allows us to recognize the relevance of a human body that cannot be thought of in terms of natures vs. nurtures.

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  33. Fabrizzio,

    I hope you did not think my comment as dismissal; I think the essay could be tighter in construction, but the substance of it is not without merit. I simply wish to do further research on your major discussion here.

    Please consider comments here engaging your main thought. Those dismissing your article out of hand are not really worth consideration.

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  34. “Justice can be executed -as in killed- if it is executed -as in perform- with only a partial view on what we humans are. Everyone within the nature vs nurture debate is thus executing justice in a different way.”

    Yes. If we have no well-developed metaphysical view then concepts like justice have nowhere to stand and no basis in argument. Justice becomes a matter of opinion or social utility. For a well-grounded view of justice a partial view on what humans are would be no good, so ontology would be prior to justice. .

    “… which ontology best accommodates this. I belief modern biology does.”

    I believe modern biology has no ontology. This would be because modern philosophy has no ontology. Existence remains paradoxical and our view of human beings remains partial. Consequently, our concept of justice is ill-informed.

    So while I cannot quite see what is being argued here and don’t have an opinion, I’m wondering if ‘ontology’ is the correct word to be using. .

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Labnut

    I was not going to respond to your criticism of me (it’s a small issue), but since I have now decided to reply to Fabrizzio, I thought I may as well say something. An ellipsis always helps if you are not quoting the whole sentence, by the way! I thought my choice of words (ghost, lurking, etc.) would signal that I was in my references to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin deliberately being a bit mischievous. That bit was meant to be taken lightly. Even so, I think what I said stands up. A leading theorist in the area (referred to by the author) appears to have a background in Teilhardian theology. Seems interesting to me, may not be to you. And the reference to the comment about you was just a(n accurate) reference to a comment which — fortuitously or not — happened to mention the Omega Point notion.

    Fabrizzio

    Interesting issues of style and substance…

    It’s obvious that there is a bit of a cultural divide here hindering communication, though I think that most well-educated people (even in the anglosphere!) are at least aware of Derrida and deconstruction and postmodernism and the various forms of radical (if that is the right word) thought to which you are appealing and with which you identify.

    You say you intended your essay “as a friendly, literary reflection with an open ended horizon in which biology, philosophy and justice are intertwined.” Sounds nice, but some of us see great dangers in not keeping a clear distinction between purely scientific and values-based questions.

    You write: “Jacques Derrida used to [say] that good text always hides secrets. His point was that the author should try to challenge the reader, not offer him/her a core of pre-digested ideas that s/he can just reject/incorporate into his/her belief system. Sorry, I like that way of writing.”

    The dichotomy is a false one. Critical readers never just incorporate ideas into their belief systems, whatever the style of the text.

    When you strip away the rhetoric and so on, what you are really saying (correct me if I am wrong) is that anyone who wanted to talk about justice and rights etc. on the basis of a different kind of framework from the one you are advocating (in a more restricted or traditional way, say) would be somehow betraying (“executing”) the (true?) expansive form (or forms) of justice to which you happen to be committed.

    You say: “Some interpretations of justice execute it by killing other possible readings.”

    But I can recognize other possible readings without necessarily embracing them, can’t I?

    In fact, that’s the basis for most productive discussion, in my opinion (which is why I am very wary of slogans and group-defining jargon).

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  36. Thank you Imad for your response above. (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/from-the-science-wars-to-political-emotions-philosophy-biology-and-justice/comment-page-1/#comment-14976) Yes I also find your “open ended systems” term far more useful than “blank slate.” I’m not surprised that you’ve tagged this one with a “multi-biguous” classification, since I actually find such human discrepancies to be common. This does remind me of your first comment above where you fretted about what science “is”? Today we commonly ask “What is…” time, space, life, consciousness, and so on (like we’re a bunch of platonists!). Instead I think we should just inquire about “useful” definitions for our various terms. Furthermore when considering the work of another, one should simply use the author’s presented definitions in an attempt to comprehend, not dispute such definitions. I suspect that you’ve noticed this unfortunate tendency in as well.

    Your observation that we tend to place more prominence on our own specialties, thus hindering collaboration, is most certainly a good one. But also consider it regarding my own position. If your education and career happen to be in mental/behavioral sciences (just a guess), then maintaining objectivity concerning the progress of these fields, should naturally be difficult.

    I’ve been critical of these fields since my university days half a life ago, though respectfully rather disrespectfully — I consider them incredibly important! It is my belief that they will ultimately teach us how to “properly” lead our lives and structure our societies, and thus finally help us balance our disproportionately great modern power with equally solid theory of how to effectively use it. But first these fields should require proper founding. How indeed might we understand involved human dynamics, without an understanding of the more basic conscious entity itself?

    I’m sure you know that Ned Block has become prominent for his “access consciousness and phenomenal consciousness” model, though apparently this hasn’t done us much good — it certainly doesn’t found our mental/behavioral sciences! Thus you might tell me, “See? Such fundamentals haven’t actually helped.” Though I do believe that Ned is working in the proper direction, his model seems far too primitive to actually get this job done. In the comment section for Ned’s recent interview here, I introduced a much broader model of the conscious mind (with diagram!), which unfortunately does seem to have been ignored (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/ned-block-on-phenomenal-consciousness-part-ii/comment-page-2/#comment-14404). Nevertheless I do find it quite improbable that we can effectively study psychology, psychiatry, sociology, cognitive science and so on, without accepted understandings regarding the basics of what we are. Please do have a look.

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  37. Eric – “Nevertheless I do find it quite improbable that we can effectively study psychology, psychiatry, sociology, cognitive science and so on, without accepted understandings regarding the basics of what we are.”

    This would be the point to which I’d want to keep returning. It is widely ignored and the result is a lot of theorising in a vacuum. If we have no awareness of what we are and no systematic ontological theory of what we are then we have nothing. Our theories of justice, ethics, psychology and so on will be built on sand and powered by conjectures.

    And so we arrive at mysticism, the study of what we are.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Hi Fabrizzio,

    I very much hope that we here haven’t been rude to such a friendly guest! As I’ve just mentioned, the job of the reader is to interpret the writer (and surely one who makes the effort in the reader’s language). I appreciate your point that “hiding secrets” within a text can help prevent readers from using their existing biases to categorize what is said into a lazy core of pre-digested units. Furthermore perhaps this sort of decoding work does tend to bring general enlightenment.

    Nevertheless a skeptic who suspects that our mental/behavioral sciences remain quite primitive today (such as myself), can theorize that “hidden arguments” can have an entirely different effect (or even purpose). Here it may be charged that a vast ivory tower labyrinth has been constructed to hide progress deficiencies from the funding public. If common people are unable to decipher what is said in these fields, criticising them could potentially make a person look quite uneducated.

    Furthermore if there are indeed problems in these fields (and I’ve now implied this in a few ways here) plain speech will surely be required in order for cures to be found and implemented. Note the potential for academics themselves to become trapped within their own labyrinth — perhaps progress would require plain speech, though plain speech would bring greater public scrutiny. Regardless I do find “accessibility” to be one of many great virtues of Scientia Salon!

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Hi Fabrizzio, while proper understanding of the human condition has been hindered by needless debate regarding nature v. nurture and conflict between the natural and social sciences (incl. humanities), I found myself repeatedly disagreeing with statements in the essay.

    Both Mark English and AlexSL have already done a good job pointing out an apparent call for (re)injecting ideology as a solution to the problem rather than excising it from research altogether. The first big stumbling block for me may have been this claim…

    … it is fundamental to offer a common goal and, I believe, human welfare and dignity might be such a goal —after all, who is going to seriously reject this as a desirable aim. 

    Regardless one’s field of investigation, doesn’t a common goal already exist? Many humans are driven by the value of curiosity or “knowledge-building” and so share the common goal of “understanding.”

    It is not clear how imposing further goals would avoid interference with scientific/philosophical investigations or add anything constructive. For example the religious conservatives discussed in the essay would likely embrace your suggestion and claim (I think justifiably) that they are largely concerned with human welfare and dignity. It just happens to be from their political perspective. As such, this seems to invite division and bias rather than rooting it out. As it is, I was taken by how the interests of religious conservatives were singled out as affecting science in some historical context, as if liberals have not interfered for their agendas?

    Potential biases affecting research and conclusions don’t need to be identified by their source (conservatism, racism, sexism, etc) but by their mechanism. The shared goal of understanding should be strong enough to eliminate errant mechanisms, based on practical considerations, without having to appeal to political goals.

    … it is political because homosexual persons are not a primary source for disgust but are constructed as such through social dynamics of exclusion in which homosexuals are symbolically associated with feces and decay… people become homophobes throughout their development when they are exposed to bigotry and intolerance…

    This seems another example of bias introduced by the proffered solution. Certainly cultures can manipulate people through emotions, including along the lines described. But the idea that homophobia is impossible without being exposed to bigoted cultures, seems to miss the question of where the bigots who made the cultures came from and the fact that bigots can arise in otherwise socially tolerant cultures. By stressing political/sociological explanations (particularly in advocacy of one’s political goals) one a priori undercuts understanding individual-level factors underlying personal belief, which may override (and come to create new) cultural conditions.

    Or maybe I missed something? I don’t have a problem with people using different definitions than I use (for example the extended one for Justice in this essay), or challenging me by hiding secrets in the text… but then the author shouldn’t be surprised if people need clarification later 🙂

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  40. In the debate between Coel and labnut, I think both sides hold partial truths. Coel is right that contribution to variation is not the same as contribution to a trait, and so Labnut is incorrect in thinking we are slowly slipping our genetic leash based on such data. However, I think Labnut’s discussion of cultural diversity is problematic for Coel’s idea that human cultures (or even parts of them) are somehow genetically programmed. Sure, genetic material allows for humans to live and process information so as to construct societies. But the nature of individual humans (and more so their societies) have been largely decoupled from base genetic constraints, given what our level of information processing capacity allows.

    Other than our basic needs/urges, little if anything else is shared or dictated by genetic necessity (and even then I might cite chemical or cellular needs as a better focus).

    Cultures arise from habits that are ingrained and passed on through mental/social activity (such as education and experience), not genetics. It might be true to say that common interests found across human cultures worldwide (e.g. obtaining necessities and desires) is generated by our biology, and so genetic inheritance, but it would be errant to suggest that how cultures go about pursuing their interests is programmed by genes.

    ejwinner beat me to the punch with this excellent summary…

    … perhaps diversity and variation is fundamental to whatever we want to call human nature. That compounds the problem, but also suggests that the problem involves unnecessary and probably futile attempts to impose one perspective on another.

    It is nature that we eat, it is nurture that we prefer tacos to pizza. Attempts to deny that we will do what we must to eat are naive, attempts to find genetic bases for a preference for tacos over pizza are at best misguided.

    Of course my pedantic nature forces me to point out genetics can give rise to food preferences. Many Europeans can’t stand coriander, while others love it. Northern Europeans can generally consume milk based products while many in Asian and African countries can’t. And that’s all genetic-based influences.

    On the flipside, many Italians don’t like Chicago pizza, but that’s just because they are wrong 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  41. Fabrizzio,

    I enjoyed your article and found it helpful.

    Coel,

    “The overwhelming majority of what makes us human is genetic”

    I think I disagree, wouldn’t that be somewhat like saying the overwhelming majority of what makes up a city is its collection of blueprints.

    Mark,

    “You say you intended your essay ‘as a friendly, literary reflection with an open ended horizon in which biology, philosophy and justice are intertwined.’ Sounds nice, but some of us see great dangers in not keeping a clear distinction between purely scientific and values-based questions”

    I’m also worried about the potential dangers of believing there is a purely scientific realm that is distinct from values-based questions.

    Liked by 2 people

  42. Hi dbholmes,

    … cultural diversity is problematic for Coel’s idea that human cultures (or even parts of them) are somehow genetically programmed.

    I’d phrase it that genetic programming is a huge part of the recipe for human culture. The recipe then plays out with all sorts of environmental and contingent factors — we can never really separate the genetic from the environmental.

    But, yes, I do think that a large amount of human nature derives from our genetic recipe, and consequently a large part of the ways in which we humans interact with each other, and form societies and culture,s also derives from our genes (though, again, the environmental factors as the recipe plays out are also important).

    All of our emotions (anger, fear, lust, love, happiness, sadness, disgust, and all the others), much of our moral feelings (about loyalty, betrayal, cheating, comradeship, and all the rest) and really a very large part of how we humans interact with each other (rivalry, cooperation, trust, forming coalitions, et cetera) will all derive from our genetic recipe. Ditto mate bonding, parental-child bonds, wider-family bonds, tribal bonds, et cetera, et cetera.

    What I’ve just outlined is human nature that is common to nearly all of us. Even the variation in such traits between humans is roughly 50% owing to genes (round numbers), the trait itself, the nature that is common to nearly all of us, will be much more a matter of genetics.

    But the nature of individual humans (and more so their societies) have been largely decoupled from base genetic constraints, …

    I don’t accept that the “nature of individual humans” has been decoupled from our genes. As above, I’d argue that very great swathes of human nature derives from both genetics and environment, and that genetics is integral to everything, to the way we think, feel, interact with each other, and thus to our societies.

    Twin studies show that much of the variation in our attitudes — political opinion, for example, whether we vote right or left — has genetic influences. And again, that’s merely about the differences between us, whereas I’m mostly talking about the nature we all have in common.

    Other than our basic needs/urges, little if anything else is shared or dictated by genetic necessity …

    But we should always avoid words such as “dictated” and “necessity”! Everything is always a matter of entwined genetics and environment. But the idea that genes only do the “basic needs/urges” and that they’re irrelevant to everything beyond that is preposterous, and is also refuted by twin studies.

    Hi marclevesque,

    … wouldn’t that be somewhat like saying the overwhelming majority of what makes up a city is its collection of blueprints.

    No, not at all. That again is the idea that genes only do rather basic stuff, leaving a blank slate for culture to write-on at will. That’s a prevalent idea, but it’s utterly preposterous.

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  43. Coel,

    “No, not at all. That again is the idea that genes only do rather basic stuff, leaving a blank slate for culture to write-on at will. That’s a prevalent idea, but it’s utterly preposterous”

    I don’t see how the idea that genes do ‘basic stuff’ implies a ‘blank slate’ view of developmental biology. But maybe more so, I don’t think ‘genes’ *do* stuff.

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