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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  November 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE November 2002

Subject:

Re: Genetic basis of language

From:

NEWMAN STUART <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 30 Nov 2002 14:37:29 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (180 lines)

Josť,

The only place I would differ from what you are saying is in the emphasis.
We could also agree that chemistry is part of the material reality of the
human species that could be approached scientifically.  We could look at the
atomic, or protein, or polysaccharide composition of men vs women, or blacks
vs whites, and try to draw conclusions about behavior.  Why should genes
have a privileged role in all this?  Even if protein composition really
turns out to have predictive value for individual performance, such
differences cannot even be uniquely traced to genetic differences because of
environmental effects on gene expression, alternative splicing, and so on,
even though genotype is mainly involved in designating potential protein
composition.  If cultural productivity and instituional progress waxe and
wane independently of genotype (the Maya, Inca, Arabs, and Teutons have
sustained dramatic swings in the last 1500 years), why even look to genes as
a component of the scientific explanation for this?  On the other hand, all
human groups and no animals have human-type language.  Should we look to
biological explanations for what separates us from apes?  Certainly.  My
guess, however, is that the differences between us and apes are more
epigenetic than genetic.  Currently it is not in the zeitgeist to study
this, mainly because of the hegemony of neo-Darwinism and the identification
of "biological difference" with "genetic difference."  The latter, of
course, also spills over to accounts of human differences.

Stuart

-----Original Message-----
From: "Josť F. Morales"
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: 11/30/02 12:44 PM
Subject: Re: Genetic basis of language

>"Josť F. Morales" wrote:
>
>  > .  For all complex phenotypes, behaviors included (ie. language),
>biology and genetics has to  be part of a progressive description of
>human behavior.
>
>Josť, let me throw your earlier question back at you. Why?

Because that's the way that human beings work.

>What is progressive about such a  description?

In my opinion, in so far as we are talking about the way in which
natural processes are relevant to a progressive view of something
(ie. role of biology in human behavior), any description has to
include an accurate description of the relevant aspects of the
natural world.  It has to be based on the best understanding of the
facts as we know them.  While, I am not an expert in the field of
human behavior, at least to me, its self-evident that biology has to
have something to do with human behavior.  Genetics is part of
biology, so genetics has to have something to do with human behavior.
What that "something to do" is as Cantiflas would say,  "alli esta el
detalle"  (there is the detail).

I wouldn't want anything to do with a progressive view of something
that doesn't have a grasp of the relevant facts.

>Let's suppose the behavior in question is voting behavior. Why is it
>in any way helpful or progressive to explain why, say, people vote
>Republican even partly by  biology and
>genetics? On the contrary, it seems evident to me that in this example,
such
>an explanation would be unscientific and Nazi-like at the same time.
The
>fact that without certain genes people couldn't cast ballots fails to
shed
>light on their voting behavior.

To answer you straight, I'd say voting behavior is like any choice
and the capacity for choice derives from some brain structure
dynamics that emerge from complex sensory-neuronal interactions.
These are built from specific cellular characteristics that emerge
from complex genic interactions.  What is the causality of the single
neuronal gene to that dynamic complex sensory-neuronal structure is a
relevant question.  Do we know how to answer it now? Probably not.
However, we are probably in the best position we've ever been in to
answer it.  Should progressives be interested in this?  Probably.  I
sure would like to know behavior arises.

>Likewise, genetic modifications that led to voluntary control of the
vocal
>tract were probably necessary for speech (  see e.g. Terrence W.
Deacon,
>"The Symbolic Species" (Norton, 1997)  for a clear explanation of this)
but
>it does not follow that these genes need have been selected for because
of
>speech,

What I was trying to say is that those genes that underlie the 2
disparate communications systems Stuart mentioned have historically
been under selection.  They have been because communication is
pro-survival.  The random mutations happening in the human genome led
to the linkage of those two systems which ultimately was selected for
because it was pro-survival as well.  When hominid genetics randomly
hit upon the linkage of the systems, presumably, that led to vastly
improved communication.  Those hominids ultimately survived at a
greater rate than those that did not.

>  nor that cultural behaviors such as speech are to be regarded as
>gene expressions as are say red hair (which, if not dyed red has no
>cultural or learned component).

In my view, human culture is an emergent property of human biology.
As such, I would say that human culture is probably a very complex
"animal behavior".  Human culture is the end of a "causal chain" (not
the best phrase) that is fuzzy and non-linear from the fundamentals
of human biology.  As I said, genes have something to do with this.
What, is unclear.

>When culture enters, as it clearly does in the case of language, to
>use the term phenotype is highly misleading,

I really don't understand why you say this.  In my view, human
culture (as behavior, as language) arises from our nature as
biological entities.  How that arises is the open question. Its where
we have a stake as progressives.  I think that it has something to do
with mutability which we want a lot of. Can something that varies
very slowly, and hence is "fixed" or "constant" (genes, etc) give
rise to something that is variable, mutable, inconstant (culture).  I
would say the question is how variable is it
(behavior-culture-language)?  Pinker would say not very much (its
fixed).  I think progressives would like to say quite a bit (we
aren't stuck in the ism-based behaviors -we're free).

The same issue was raised by Clifford Geertz in "Local knowledge"
when he asked if humans have the same brain structure, how can so
many different cultures arise?  I guess all we are asking here is
...can we push the constant back from brain structure to genetic
structure?  If genetic structures are "constant", how can so many
different cultures (behaviors) arise?  In my view, that is the task
for progressives.  How do you get variability from "constancy"?  I
guess even this is a misrepresentation because genetic structures are
not constant, they just change much more slowly in populations than
cultures do.  I guess the question can even be phrased another
way...What the connection between biological evolution (slow) and
cultural evolution (fast)?

Perhaps part of the answer can be gotten from complex systems theory
(CST).  As far as I understand it, CST addresses this point.  Many
systems (physical ones most studied) have complex behavior that is
derived from a small set of fixed rules.  If the initial conditions
of the system are changed slightly, then the ultimate behavior of the
system changes drastically (butterfly effect).  Perhaps in terms of
humans, the fixed set of rules are the DNA sequence, and the system
can be viewed on various levels, from protein structure to organ
structure, to human behavior (culture).  Maybe the initial conditions
are various as well...all deriving from various climates and locales
(temperature, micronutrients from food sources etc.) that impact the
various levels of structure.  Clearly, human biology and culture vary
somewhat according to locale.  This is just a tentative guess of the
relation of human behavior and biology.

>and I think, as I said before, highly tendentious (and quite
>possibly dangerous) as well.

I agree with you insofar as if this biology-behavior connection is
misunderstood.

>I think it is up to you to show that you are not misusing a term to
>stake out a hugely  exaggerated  claim for science.

In my view, if you're gonna take on how biology affects behavior, you
gotta talk science.  Its not the only thing you gotta talk, but it is
one of the things that needs to be dealt with.

>  >
>  >
>
>--
>
>Michael


--
|||///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\|||O|||///\\\///\\\///\\\///\\\|||
Jose Morales Ph.D.

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