Ok Charlie, here is my Topic A for discussion (I will list some
additional topics later.)
It is evident that a new paradigm for explaining human behavior,
tastes, emotions and motivations is rapidly gaining ground:
evolutionary psychology. The main reason for success of this paradigm is
less its tremendous success as a research program or the soundness of
its claims, but rather a combination of its false concreteness, its
apparent similarity to other reductionist arguments, and its ideological
suitability to present libertarian and anti-feminist politics— and one
more thing: it may not be great shakes as a research program, but
because of its conceptual simplicity it is rapidly catching adherents.
It largely had the field to itself; sound and sophisticated critiques
are not forthcoming in sufficient density; and no alternative research
program is around that can draw in adherents. The challenge then is to
pose an advanced and sharp critique of evolutionary psych, and if
possible to propose a counter-paradigm that is strong and supple and
attractive enough to win adherents in the research community, e.g. among
graduate students in psychology or the social sciences.
What are the best means to get such a project off the ground?
I am not sure, but I do want to begin with an outline of a critique.
(Does anyone want to help in this? Can you think of any ueseful
resources, allies, etc.?)
II. A critique of evolutionary psych should probably begin with
1. It is true that humans evolved
2. As we are animals, it is certainly the case that our physical makeup
including that of our brains is considerably constrained and shaped by
genes (though by genes acting in concert with environment) . It is
obviously the case that there is some animal basis of every trait and
behavioral or ideational possibility; the organism has to be compatible
with each possible behavior. There has to be some fairly
(evolutionarily) primitive emotional and somatic-based behavioral
matrix, which will make certain kinds of understandings and behaviors
more difficult to develop than others.
3. There may be some, possibly quite a few traits that evolved in the
period after the human family tree broke off from that of our closest
living primate relatives, though it is extremely difficult to know what
the salient factors were that might have contributed to such evolution.
III. But it does not follow that the best way to understand the
complexities of human psychology and behavior is assume that genetic
evolution can explain them. Here are some reasons evolutionary psych
must come up short.
1. Small number of genes. 30,000 or so genes, most of which we share in
common with chimpanzees cannot explain much about complex human actions,
assumptions, tastes, drives, etc.
2. An evolutionary story cannot overcome the lack of knowledge of when
different important traits would have evolved if they did.
3. Nor can we know why a trait would have evolved, or under what
circumstances; we are left with little better than just-so stories.
4. Human nature is not perfectly plastic, but we have very clear
evidence from many sources of the great plasticity of the human brain
compared with any other organ.People can specialize their behavior,
skills, attitudes and emotions to a remarkable degree.
5. What makes humans human is precisely the way in which we are capable
of going beyond the somatically given. We have invented tools of all
sorts, art, the symbolic, language, etc.Language and symbols by their
very nature have to be largely social inventions, not the result of
purely genetic evolution.
6. Learning in the social sphere is a far more efficient way of adapting
to surroundings than is gene-based evolution, and one aspect of our
bodies that has evolved is clearly the tremendous ability to learn.
7. Humans alone can engage in what amounts to social, symbolic, guided
evolution of behaviors and attitudes, in which values, foresight and
judgement can partially replace the randomness and long timespan of
evolutionary change. The social matrix just works much better than the
somatic matrix for change.
8 Further the rapidity of social change in bringing about new
environmental conditions for human survival makes genetic evolution
9,Finally there is the false concreteness of genes as a basis of
understanding of psychological phenomena. The claim of a strong genetic
basis of a trait can mask the possibility of similar micro-cultural
(e.g. family) environments leading to the trait.
IV. I’ve already alluded to the politics of all this. Viewing people as
genetically and evolutionarily pre-programmed computers controllable by
genetic change or drugs is a convenient route to deny those who are on
the bottom any chance of social equality or amelioration. Sometimes
certain “diseases”, e.g. autism or addictive behavior may have genetic
components, but that does not prove that social environment isn’t even
Charles Schwartz wrote:
> GO, Michael, give it a try. Leapfrog the naysayers.
Michael H. Goldhaber
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