Sunday, May 4, 2008

We Must, We Must, We Must Work On Our Bust!

I’ve read the first fifty pages of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape (MIT Press, 2000), and already some interesting themes have begun to emerge. The book attracted a lot of attention on publication, partly because of the authors’ media blitz (appearances on CNN, NPR, NBC, etc.), and because of their recommendation that rape could be curtailed if boys had to take classes on rape prevention before they got their driver’s license, and if girls would stop wearing tight sweaters. Why am I not surprised that with wisdom like that, the first printing of 10,000 sold out in a month?

A Natural History of Rape begins with Thornhill and Palmer hiding behind the skirts of evolutionary psychologist Margo Wilson, who assures the reader solemnly:

Rape is horrific for women. The mere thought of rape arouses anxiety, revulsion, and anger, so it is not surprising that women are very ambivalent about subjecting rape to scientific scrutiny….

The authors of A Natural History of Rape are familiar with various expressions of such ambivalence, and they understand why women are so anxious. As scientists, they value knowledge and assume that trying to understand why rape occurs is far more beneficial for women in the long term even if the scientific inquiry inspires anxiety and revulsion. …

They passionately embrace the scientific method … [ix-x]

…but, I feel certain, only with the scientific method’s full and informed consent. On the next page, Thornhill and Palmer (henceforth T&P) chime in with the Boy Scout Oath, clean, thrifty, brave, reverent, and hairy-palmed:

As scientists who would like to see rape eradicated from human life, we hold that the ability to accomplish such a change is directly correlated with how much is known about the causes of human behavior. In contrast, mistaken notions about what causes rape are almost guaranteed to hinder its prevention.

Unfortunately, there is, as the zoologist Patricia Gowaty (1997, 1) puts it, a “troublesome antipathy of modern society, including many feminists, to science and scientific discourse.” [xi]

It’s not clear why the authors must dwell on the supposed “troublesome antipathy … to science and scientific discourse” in “modern society.” After all, there is a troublesome antipathy to feminism, and to women in general, in modern society. While American science no longer enjoys the almost unquestioned access to money that it did during the Cold War, it is still extremely prestigious and very well funded, compared to education or other social services that directly benefit the bulk of the US population. Even pseudoscientists try to dress themselves up in the trappings of science – the white coats, the mathematical formulas, the test tubes and other instruments. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, not antipathy, and one might say the same of Western science’s historical appropriation of the forms of magic and religion to bolster its own claims to authority.

But anyway. After the breastbeating over the lack of respect science gets nowadays, A Natural History of Rape proceeds to a basic explanation of evolutionary psychology. T&P stress that there’s no simple dichotomy between genes and environment, nature and culture.

The interaction of genes and environment in development is too intimate to be separated into “genes” and “environment.” Not only is it meaningless to suggest that any trait of an individual is environmentally or genetically “determined”; it is not even valid to talk of a trait as “primarily” genetic or environmental. However, since “biological” actually means “of or pertaining to life,” it is quite valid to claim that any phenotypic trait of an organism is biologically, or evolutionarily, determined…. Genes per se are not evaluated by selection. Instead, it is the interaction of genes and environment that selection evaluates. … Both the environmental and the genetic causes reflect evolutionary history, and equally so [21].

So far so good. As I read this, though, I realized that it was familiar. I had first learned about the inseparability of genes and environment by reading people like Ruth Hubbard and Richard Lewontin – distinguished biologists who are sharply critical of evolutionary psychology and its near relative sociobiology. While they differ in their interpretation of the evidence, they can hardly be accused of “antipathy … to science and scientific discourse.” This doesn’t stop Thornhill and Palmer from referring to every scientist who takes a different tack from theirs as “non-evolutionary” or even “anti-evolutionary,” though this leads to problems, as here:

Claims that cultural inheritance is independent of biological inheritance, whether made by non-evolutionary social scientists or by evolutionary biologists (Dawkins 1976 [The Selfish Gene!]… ), are erroneous. Culture is not the “superorganic” force that some social scientists have claimed it to be. Nor, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995) has pointed out, does culture consist of ideas (called memes) that parasitize minds independent of psychological (biological) adaptation, as certain biologists have claimed [27].

If even arch-evolutionist Richard Dawkins is guilty of ignoring the universal power of biology, then perhaps T&P should cut some slack to those supposedly “non-evolutionary social scientists.” Critics of evolutionary psychology have also criticized meme theory, and that second sentence is clumsy, to say the least. It seems to say that Daniel Dennett is among the critics of meme theory, but as far as I can tell he’s one of its advocates. And if “certain biologists” regard culture as somehow independent of biology, then again, we’re dealing not with a division between pro- or anti-science, but with disagreements within science.

T&P point out the difference between evolutionary adaptations and “by-products.” The red color of blood, for example, is not thought to be the result of natural selection; it’s due to the “chemistry of hemoglobin in blood, and human color vision.” They insist that “When one is considering any feature of living things, whether evolution applies is never a question. The only legitimate question is how to apply evolutionary principles. This is the case for all human behaviors – even for such by-products as cosmetic surgery, the content of movies, legal systems, and fashion trends” (11). Hmmmm. This seems reasonable enough, though their choice of examples is telling. It’s no less true that feminism, abortion, contraception, the social sciences, “the Left,” and anti-science “ideology” are by-products of evolution. Though our boys T&P, like so many scientists, like to imagine that they are free of “ideology,” their pure untrammeled science displays a certain pro-male bias: what men do is just natural, thanks perhaps to our “human evolutionary history of stronger sexual selection acting on males than on females” (11), while what women do is ideological – but then ideology too, on T&P’s assumptions, is ultimately biological.

It seems to me that T&P rely very heavily on an ambiguity in the writing of their targets:

Is the socially learned behavior known as culture still biological and subject to the only general biological theory – evolution by selection? A common justification for rejecting evolutionary explanations of human behavior is that it is not, and that hence it requires an entirely different approach. This view was expressed recently by the feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling …: “I have found it useful to try to separate discussions of sociobiological approaches to the study of animal behavior from the application of such approaches to human behavior. I do this, not because I believe in a special, non-evolutionary creation for humans. Rather, I think that the evolution of culture has enormously complicated the task of understanding human behavior and development” [24].

Now, “feminist biologist” Fausto-Sterling’s disavowal of belief in a “special, non-evolutionary creation for humans” might be as disingenuous as T&P’s disavowal of ideology, but I don’t think it is. Even T&P acknowledge that not every feature of culture is the result of adaptation:

At one extreme are certain cultural behaviors, such as an individual’s adoption of a new hairstyle, that show no evidence of design by natural selection. Although a hairstyle is a by-product of numerous underlying psychological adaptations (perhaps concerning status, mate preferences, and/or visual acuity), a particular new hairstyle in itself cannot be considered an adaptation. At the other extreme are cultural behaviors that may have been copied for hundreds or even thousands of generations, thus implying the replication of both the genes involved and the environmental influence of the behavior of other individuals in each generation. In addition to language, such extremely traditional cultural behaviors include aspects of child care (feeding and caring), systems of kinship identification (kin terms, descent names, clan markings [!?]), techniques for manufacturing stone tools, hunting strategies, religious rituals, mating practices, and systems of punishment [27-28].

If a hostile critic were to yank sentences out of their context in this passage, they could be made to suggest that T&P believe culture is independent of biology. I think they are confused, however, on what is involved here. For example, I accept that the human capacity for language is a biological adaptation, but the fact that I speak English and not (say) Chinese is not the result of biological differences between me and a Chinese speaker, and it’s fair to say that it’s the result of forces that can reasonably be called “purely cultural”: when and where I was born, and the language I heard in early childhood. Those cultural forces can be said to rest on a biological substrate, and so aren’t “independent” of biology in that sense, but for purposes of analysis, scholars and scientists often (usually? always?) separate things that aren’t really separable: consider the range of medical specialties that focus on different systems of the human body as if they were independent of each other, though hopefully the specialists are aware on some level that they are all linked together. It’s possible that someday biologists will be able to explain the variety of human languages in biological terms, but if I want to understand Chinese, I don’t need to change my biology, I start studying Chinese.

I think Fausto-Sterling understands this distinction; it’s interesting that T&P apparently can’t. While their inability might be due to biology, I think it’s the result of ideology, the belief that the only meaningful explanations of differences among human beings must be biological – or to put it another way, they focus their inquiry on the biological “extreme” of the continuum they posit in that last quotation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing unless it causes them to forget the cultural extreme whose reality they concede – but it does cause them to do so, and to project their own ideological blindness onto their opponents.

There’s a reason for what scientists like Wilson, Gowaty, Thornhill and Palmer call an antipathy to science and scientific discourse in modern society: it’s the fact that scientists have so often claimed to know more than they do, and to make recommendations for social policy on the basis of that knowledge, only to have their “knowledge” crumble under further examination. Books like Not in Our Genes (Pantheon, 1984), by Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, or Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender (expanded edition, Harper, 1992), have exposed some of these bogus claims, much to the fury of biological reductionists. Steven Pinker, for example, has said that the very title of Not in Our Genes is proof that its authors believe that human beings are “blank slates.” Here Pinker’s just falling again into the either-or trap, assuming that a rejection of false claims about human biology is a rejection of all claims. Given the history of biological reductionism, I think it’s not unfair to urge that the burden of proof lies on its advocates. But given the ideology that science is self-correcting and that scientists’ claims should be subjected to criticism by their peers, it’s probably not surprising that biological reductionists should prefer to attack their critics’ supposed ideology, rather than answer the criticism. After all, their scientific forefathers did the same.

The embarrassing history of eugenics in the 20th century is a prime example of this pattern. Each succeeding generation of biologists tries to distance itself from its predecessors, often simply by changing the name of their research program while leaving the substance untouched. They deplore their predecessors’ ideological blind spots, while assuring the public that this time they are free of such biases, unlike their wishful-thinking critics who are afraid to face the findings of true science. They have no biases or ideology; if you don’t like what they have to say, it’s because of your anti-scientific ideology, blah blah blah – all very familiar from the last turn of the wheel. Since so many of the targets of these biologists are other biologists, it’s fair to presume that the disputes are not between ideology and fact, or between science and anti-science, but between differing interpretations of the evidence by scientists themselves. That Thornhill and Palmer deliberately chose to frame the debate as an ideological one doesn’t inspire confidence in their work.