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mercoledì 26 gennaio 2011

A propos of evolutionary psychology

[ I wrote this about a week ago, it could be updated regarding the specific discussion I'm referring to, this time, but the general points stand on their own, I think ]

I have always found very annoying all the evo-psy-bashing that typically goes on in any online community of mildly left-wing intellectuals.
It's typical, because anybody who is a liberal or a femminist, or both, has bought to some extent into the Stephen Jay Gould's bullshit about sociobiology being a right-wing conspiracy to keep the world going as it is in the interest of the white male capitalists...
Luckily for myself, I've never really been neither a liberal nor a femminist, and I've not broken with my ancient Marxist mode of thought only in order to accept some other ideology, thank you.
The amount of research that has been generated by the pro-sb/pro-ep scientists is so huge that it's really hard to sift through it. (A book like "Genes in Conflict" by Robert Trivers and Austin Burt, 2006, is a clear example). A certain amount of this research is obviously biased, or it could be just plain wrong; and there are always opportunists who are trying to build or enhance their own career with an apt use of sensationalism. But if you compare that research not simply with the "Dialectical Biologist" school of thought, but even with the rest of research into human behaviour, Evo-psy doesn't come out too badly.

As an outsider, and furthermore as someone who has approached it with extreme prejudice, surrounded by voices clamouring against it, I find it perversely fascinating to try and figure out why all this bru-ha-ha.

I'll try to address a couple of issues.

Why does it irk so much other evolutionists?
Why almost to a man (or a woman) its opponents have to resort to distortions to describe evo-psy?
How come some of the most brilliant minds around are favourable to it, if it so patently wrong, as its opponents claims?

The short answer to all three question is very unpleasant, but probably true: because evo-psy doesn't let anybody's pet left-wing ideology (or bias) untouched. If Darwin's theory can be regarded as the "universal acid" (Dennett) that upsets every teleological claim to mankind's special place in the universe; similarly, evo-psy undermines the whole complex of what it calls "SSSM", which includes the entire development of social sciences in the West for the past century and a half.

Not that you needed evo-psy for that, actually. Reality should be enough. Think of how much Freudianism has been discredited in recent decades; on a smaller scale, perhaps, think of the way Margaret Mead's resurrection of Rousseau's "noble savage" theories has been savaged recently. Not to mention the overwhelming crumbling of Marxism as a viable weltanschauung. There you have it: facts have torn apart some of the pillars of this mushy leftism ideology, which stands exposed as wishful thinking, at best, or at worst as a tool for the continuation of the long tradition of authorities stifling the search for knowledge. "Whatever is not in line with the lofty principles that we stand for, is to be suppressed". Just think of this: even fascism stood for lofty principles, IN ITS OWN UNDERSTANDING OF THINGS....
Nobody, really, claims to be in favour of bad and evil stuff. It's usually just "a necessary evil for the good of the cause".
And yes, I agree so much with Mead and Boas that one should have put a stop to the horrid racism that pervaded "anthropology" until then. Just like I agree with Freud and Jung that one has to go into the minds of human beings to try and understand how we function. And I even agree with Marx and Trotsky that there are working people who are "exploited" by those who own the banks and the factories, and that one should take the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.
But how much have these great people also contributed to prevent further studying and understanding, whenever this seemed to contradict their views?

Now, evo-psy (which is not just sociobiology under a different name, but certainly takes its starting point there) has done a number of extremely valuable things, precisely because it provides a methodology that puts to rest not only those theories which have already gone into the dust, but that also enables us to question any other ideology, including evo-psy itself, whenever it comes to that!

Take the question of the accumulated knowledge of mankind, not as it is written in changing textbooks and described in books about the history of philosophy and science, but rather as it has percolated through the ages orally, and is partially studied in books talking about Folkbiology, Folkphysics, and so on. The "Folk" prefix indicating that is knowledge transmitted from generation to generation by way of examples and tales.

One of the strongest points of evo-psy is precisely its way of putting the entire stretch of human existence on this planet (our human and non-human predecessors not excluded) as something that has crucially shaped who we are and what we are – not making an exception for our behaviours.

This is the heart of evo-psy. Every evolutionist who opposes it, every atheist who is at pains to find faults with it, leaving aside any personal additional bias, does it for one reason only: because evo-psy blows out of the water any semi-religious (or teleological) notion that humans are somehow "special", ie. so different and detached from the rest of the natural world that we can maintain a dualistic view of nature: human/non-human; spiritual/material; divine/bestial, and so on and so forth.

It's easy to retort that an atheist doesn't really hold a "dualistic view of nature", unlike, say, a believer in God or Allah or Jehovah – for them it's an undebatable "given". Yet, we have all been raised in societies where such religious views were dominant or prominent – but even if we grew up in a non-religious family or community, you bet they held on to some kind of teleological approach, say a strong belief in the role of the working class as an emancipating force for all mankind.

And truly, it's a sliding scale of dualistic views. None of these ideologies puts us in our real place in nature. Darwin's theory smashed open the big fortress – which is why all religionists either hate it or have to build some secondary wall to keep it at bay – and evo-psy simply shows you that there is no way for you to build any such wall unless you are prepared to recant Darwin or Newton or Galileo.

Arguments from authority are shunned in the scientific community. Then people call your attention to an important article by so-and-so... which you are supposed to read because it was written by so-and-so. (Can I say it's more often a ruse or a pretense than a real thing?)

But as I don't formally belong in the scientific community, I can put up my feet on the table and into the plate. To me Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker, or Trivers, Hamilton and Williams, or E.O. Wilson, Mayr and Dobzhansky were obscure names until I read their books, and then started seen them referencing one another, as well as other scientists. And one the nicest things I read was Mayr's trashing of Gould's objections to "adaptationism" in his "How to carry out the adaptationist program".
And, hey, it's hard to find many serious scientists in opposition to sociobiology. In fact, it boils down to Gould and his ideologically-motivated friends and fans. Read how Meyr, who actually liked Gould a lot (he was one of his best students ever, I gather), makes mincemeat of Gould's supposed strong points, while including in very diminished form Gould's contribution to Darwin's theory -- which Gould had initially put forward in the early 1970s as some kind of revolution that went beyond (or against?) Darwin -- and his creationist admirers jumped on this right away.
Wikipedia's entry on Dawkins includes this terse summary: "In a set of controversies over the mechanisms and interpretation of evolution (the so-called 'Darwin Wars'), one faction was often named after Dawkins and its rival after the American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, reflecting the pre-eminence of each as a populariser of pertinent ideas. In particular, Dawkins and Gould have been prominent commentators in the controversy over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Dawkins generally approving and Gould generally being critical. (...) Two other thinkers on the subject often considered to be allied to Dawkins are Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett; Dennett has promoted a gene-centred view of evolution and defended reductionism in biology" (retrieved on 26-1-2011).
[ end of part one ]

2 commenti:

  1. Hi just left you a nice big comment but it seems it isn't working? If you're interested in a comment and this gets to you (but my former comment didn't) please let me know.

  2. Well it looks like it's working now so let me just say that I utterly agree that:

    - Atheists can be dualists, and that you cannot simply have 'reality' just because you choose to say so.
    - EP is indeed continuing the power of Darwinism to alter our understanding of the universe, minds and ideas not in principle excluded

    I wanted to ask you what you think of the EP conjecture that the origins of religion lies in the need for the young brain to recognise agency, due to pressures in its social environment which select for it, and the incredible development of this power having God/supernatural agency as a side-effect?

    Thanks, I'll be reading more of your great blog.

    While I think about it what's your distinction between Marxism and Feminism? I thought they were in principle in agreement and that many Feminists are properly Marxists and vice versa.