May 2002


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Ivan Handler <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 16 May 2002 23:21:34 -0500
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Thank you Chandler. I am a little saddened that you needed to make such
a tortously explicit analysis of arguments that have been going on for
so long, it is hard to believe that anyone would not understand them.
Then again, that is one of the things I most of us find so exasperating
about this endless debate.

There are several things that keep on coming up that have not been
adequately covered (in my opinion). One is the idea of human nature.
Pitchford points to an article that apparently contains his views. It is
basically a long winded paper that for all kinds of reasons eventually
seems to recognize that the old idea of human nature is not very useful
anymore (he wants to replace it with a more "dialectical" one). What is
telling about this approach is the starting point (again). The starting
point of this paper is

"I want to subject the concept of human nature to the searching scrutiny
of some naive questions. My starting point is that much of the
literature of biological fatalism about human nature holds out the hope
that once we learn the laws of human nature we can choose how to be -- a

This paper appears to me to take the view that the burden of proof on
the existance of a fixed set of human behaviors that are invariant in
time and are more specific than just breathing, eating, mating,
communicating and deficating is on those who would debate their
existance (the author seems to feel that human nature is historical and
dialectical, that is it is fixed by class and other social relations). I
think this is one area that we (that is SftP folks as a whole) clearly
disagree. Why should the burden be on those who think this concept is
nonsense? One of the things pointed out by John Dewey in "The Influence
of Darwin on Philosopy" (available in a book by that title) is that the
idea that nature was fixed (and thus the same for a human nature)
originated with the Greek concept of species over 2000 years ago. When
Darwin intoduced "The Origin of Species", this idea was overthrown and
(in Dewey's mind at least) so was the western traditions of metaphysics
which depended on it. This may appear to be subtle, but it seems to me
that it is one characteristic of the sociobio/ev-psy narratives that
they seem to hold on to particularly naieve views such as human nature
or that everything must have a purpose (narrow adaptationism). Even a
"dialectical view of human nature" presumes fixed behaviours among large
numbers of humans during particular historical epochs. First, why should
this be so and what elements are indeed fixed then? While social classes
and class conflict clearly affect human behavior, it seems far from
clear to me that there is any order or predictability to this (if it
were possible to predict the consequences of particular class conditions
then in theory it would be possible to forever crush resistance, this
seems to be dubious given what we know of history). This is where ev-psy
appears to start, the science appears to come in to fill out the social
order as they see it.

I want to be careful here since many times we walk away with the idea
that this means the proponents of these views are racist and/or
reactionary. I believe that in truth most are probably liberal because
this is probably the most common political point of view among the
intellegencia right now (or see themselves as liberals for those who are
tempted to flame on this point).

These debates are emotional for several reasons, one is that we all hold
science very dear and the label of unscientific is a very serious
charge, secondly we all have a very large stake in the outcomes of these
debates since they deal with things that are very close to home and can
easily influence social policy, let along challenge a person's identity.

I think this is a reason for halting this debate. The sides are drawn,
we don't seem to be exchanging any new ideas and it doesn't seem like we
can talk about this stuff with causing offense, unless we want to
concede the possible vaidity of ev-psy which I don't see happening. I am
wondering if members of this list should be more concerned about how
these ideas are being used in policy circles and among teachers, etc.
This may be an area we should address because it has a clear social
impact. Endlessly debating these issues with the human nature folks
seems to me to be pointless at this time. Finally we probably have more
political unity with many of them than with your average Republican, why
stir up the dust?

For those that want to participate in specific debates around particular
items that run on Pitchford's site, I think he has the mechanism for
that and that this list is redundant.

-- Ivan

Chandler Davis wrote:

>Well, I had no trouble understanding what Ivan Handler meant when he
>talked about adaptationism conjecturing rape as an adaptive behaviour.
>At least, I thought I understood, and Ian Pitchford thought such a
>formulation absurd.  I thought Handler meant that a certain community
>believing in adaptationist "explanations" accepts as appropriate the
>question, "As we observe rape, we must seek a mechanism by which it
>is selected; i.e., a past environment in which rapists had higher
>fitness (in the usual sense) than others."  Further, that this
>community regards a behaviour as explained in evolutionary terms only
>if such a mechanism has been adduced and the required fitness
>calculation checked.  Handler may dismiss such a community on the
>basis that there are many observed behaviours for which he would seek
>explanations as by-products of an organism's endowment of responses
>which had been selected by other behaviour alternatives; he may
>include rape among those; then he would accuse Thornhill not of having
>supported his mechanism by a wrong fitness calculation but of having
>raised an unpromising question.  He may feel this without taking up
>the effects on contemporary non-scientist males' behaviour of being
>told that their putative impulse to rape is "natural."
>        Then if I have understood Handler right, Pitchford's challenge
>to offer evidence is a broader one than Pitchford sensed it was.  It
>is a challenge to support a general attitude toward kinds of
>evolutionary explanation.  This is a debate which has been ongoing.
>It is larger than the process of assessing each proposed identification
>of adaptivity of a trait "on its merits" (which assessment may be a
>mere demonstration that if there were a gene A prompting males to rape
>and an allele a without that property, and if everything else were held
>constant in some difficult-to-specify sense, and if the environment
>were suitable, then.... ).  I infer that Pitchford has not taken part
>in the debate but Handler has.
Ivan Handler
Networking for Democracy
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Ivan Handler
Networking for Democracy
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