December 2002


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Michael H Goldhaber <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 30 Nov 2002 23:43:31 -0800
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I think everyone is missing a key point. Language is not a behavior. Behaviors
can be thought of as existing in themselves, not dependent on meaning. To
engage in language is to engage in meaning that can only be understood through
having an internal mental life. To call this behavior is simply to miss a
vital distinction, and to make a huge step backwards. Behavioral
psychology,.making a similar distinction, has been largely discredited.
Whatever kind of langauge one may be studying, be it a long-standing language
or a recently invented creole or pidgin, is not possible without engaging in
dialogue with speakers of the language, to find out what sentences mean
(unless one find sa Rosetta stone relating it to a known language).
Ethologixts working with non-human animals of course are in no position (at
least so far) to do this, so what they say about those animals' behaviors is
in no way equivalent. Whether or not other animals do indeed have an inner
life remains opaque to us, and will unless and until  we learn  to speak with
them, which would in itself answer the question in the affirmative. But then
we would no longer be limited to studying and commenting on their behaviors.

In particular, Ivan, even if one could construct a space of behaviors (and I
don't understand the details of how you propose to do that) would not be the
same as constructing a semantic space which would be necessary for
understsanding language. I do not believe that any kind of complete semantic
space can be constructed a priori if such a space would encompass all possible
meanings, since new meanings could always be constructed that would reach
beyond the boundaries of any prior such space. If you are right about the
possibililty of a behavioral space, that would prove the distinction between
behvavior and language, by construction.

To put the problem a different way, humans very clearly have consciousness, a
consciousness that is heavily dependent on the complex symbolization of
language, that, in other words arises from culture. Josť's attempt to
understand culture as a result of local material conditions amounts to an
absurd kind of materialism, in my opinion. Extremely different cultures often
have been found in very similar environments, for example in pre-columbian
Mexico.  To attempt to understand culture on the basis of physical and
biological science is , to begin with, to ignore what culture is and what
anthropolgoists, among others know. To do that in the name of respecting the
"facts" is taking an attitude that elevates science over everything else. That
attitude is not only arrogant and imperialistic towards other disicplines,
but, sadly, ignorant.


Ivan Handler wrote:

> 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]


Michael H. Goldhaber
PH  1-510 339-1192
FAX 1-510-338-0895
MOBILE 1-510-610-0629
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What have I learned in all these years, by way of wisdom? Most
importantly, I would say the notion that we humans came into a world
without meaning, but we invented meaning; it is to us to give things,
including ourselves what meaning we choose to give, and though our power
to do that is not unlimited, it is the most difficult and most important
power we possess, a task we can never successfully assign to others, and
can hardly avoid, a task that is always open before us, and one in which
there are no predetermined right answers, and quite possibly not even
any absolutely wrong answers, much as I would like there to be. The
world is not a book we can read, but our very existence as humans makes
it a book we can--and inevitably do--write.