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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  November 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE November 2002

Subject:

Re: Genetic basis of language

From:

Ivan Handler <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Sat, 30 Nov 2002 14:27:20 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (125 lines)

Jose,
I don't think anyone is arguing that genetics have no impact on
behavior.  The question is the kind of impact.  The problem with the
genetic determinist program is that it assumes that specific behaviors
must be controlled by specific gene loci.  It does not ask the broader
question on what kinds of relations can exist betwee genes and behaviors
first.

I think there are many different ways of looking at this.  Dunbar's
book, Grooming Gossip and the Evolution of Language presents a very
interesting argument (which I assume bears some relationship to
Bickerton's though I have not yet read his book).  Dunbar points out
that brain size relative to body size is largest in primates.
 Furthermore as the size of the average social group gets larger so does
the relative size (relative to the rest of the brain volume) of the
neocortex.  In fact the relative neocortex size gets roughly
exponentially larger.  Even though Dunbar apparently accepts much of the
genetic argument, his observations seem to point in another direction.

Using  more just-so logic, it is easy to argue that the size of a social
grouping can have selective advantages especially if the group has a
strong social structure.  As the group gets bigger, the number of social
interactions becomes exponentially more complicated.  This could lead
one to deduce that large neocortexes are being selected to support large
social groupings.  The fact that language came into being as larger
groups came into existance may be more of an accident (at least at
first) than something directly selected for.  Furthermore since primates
do have cultures, the cultures changed as the brains allowed them to.
 It is not clear that any kind of genetic change specifically for
language would be needed in this scenario.  Cultural transmission is far
faster and more adaptive than genetic change.

Going further I can imagine a behavior space of all of the possible
behaviors that a particuar animal species can exhibit.  If you take the
animal's physical hierarchy in terms of body parts and biochemical
processes, we can imagine a "generalized box metric" providing a
distance measure between different behaviors (the metric would assign
measures to each "leaf" component of the hierarchy, 2 behaviors distance
would be the sum of the absolute values of the differences between each
component).  I imagine that the total behavior of any species would be a
small subspace of the total behavior space and the total behavior of any
individual would be a vastly smaller subspace still.  One way of
interpreting Dunbar's facts is that what is being selected for is the
size of the behavior space, not any specific behavior.  The larger the
behavior space, the larger the different ways that indivuals have to
improvise solutions to problems that present themselves both in terms of
basic survival and sociality.  Language is just another subset of this
behavior space that necessarily expands as the space does.  It is not
necessary to theorize the existance of specific language genes to have a
materialist view of language.  This view also incorporates the fact that
genes are important in the biology of animals that have language, but it
does not impute any genetic bias toward any specific behavior.

I am not attempting to claim this model is the best model of the
relation between genes and human behavior.  I only use it to illustrate
that the unquestioned assumptions behind genetic determinism are what we
need to focus on.  Once you accept the idea that their must be specific
couplings between language and behavior you have already begged the
question.

I am also skeptical of the idea of "progressive science."  To my mind
what we as progressive scientists do is to expose how much of what is
presented as conventional science is in fact biased along class,
national, gender or corporatist lines.  Science depends upon the
integrity of individual researchers to free themselves of these biases
and any others as best they can.  Then the ideas that arise from all of
the different scientific enterprises can compete on their merits without
any hidden agendas.  "Progressive science" sounds too much like Lysenko,
an attempt to determine a priori what is good science based on
ideological affiliations or the number of "marxist" talismans presented
in a text.  I am in favor of progressive scientists who are attempting
to create a science that is free of these biases and is less elitist and
more inclined to build bridges to the non-scientific community, rather
than creating an edifice of so-called progressive science.

-- Ivan

Josť F. Morales wrote:

>> "Josť F. Morales" wrote:
>
>
> 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.
>

--
Ivan Handler
Networking for Democracy
[log in to unmask]

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