Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Just Our DNA Talking; or, Why Do They Hate Our Science?

Human nature has been Mary Midgley's primary philosophical topic since her first book, Beast and Man, was published in 1978.  She always does a good job of criticizing scientific pretension and confusion, but as I know very well, criticism is much easier than constructing a better alternative.  As I reread Heart and Mind, her second book, I began having reservations about a lot that she said about human nature.

It's fun to take apart the absurdities peddled by biological imperialists, of course.  Midgley gives us these gems from Edward O. Wilson, who "with endearing abandon ... shows his flag:"
The time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized (Sociobiology p. 562).  Having cannibalized psychology, the new neurobiology will yield an enduring set of first principles for sociology (p. 573).  We must shift from automatic control based on our biological properties to precise steering based on biological knowledge (On Human Nature p. 6).  Neurobiology cannot be learnt at the feet of a guru ... Ethical philosophy must not be left in the hands of the merely wise (p. 7) [Heart and Mind, 19].
Ethical philosophy must not be left in the hands of the merely stupid either.  Oh well, that's just his DNA talking.  I recall how many defenders of sociobiology's newer avatar, evolutionary psychology, lament that social scientists, leftists, and feminists simply dismissed Wilson's scientific truth out of hand, attacking him personally because they Hate Science.  If Wilson wanted his ideas to be taken seriously, he should have come up with something other than these simple-minded Village Atheist cliches.

It appears that Wilson shared Richard Dawkins's fantasy that human beings, especially scientists, are somehow able to "transcend" our genes.  As the molecular biologist Gunther S. Stent wrote of Dawkins at about the same time Midgley published Heart and Mind,
The notion of transcendence of our evolutionary genetic heritage has, in fact, been a characteristic, essentially apologist, stance taken by many ethologists that have made claims for the moral relevance of animal studies. Such ethologists usually first show why evolution has endowed us with a selfish, aggressive, and on the whole, rather nasty set of genes. They then reject the seemingly justified accusation that they are providing a naturalistic justification for an immoral society. To make this rejection, they claim that, on the contrary, they are paving the way for the City of God by pinpointing those beastly aspects of our human genetic heritage that we must struggle to “transcend.”  But the idea of any organism, including man, transcending its genes is a biological absurdity. Within the context of biology as a branch of natural science, and upon proper consideration of any conceivably scientifically valid relation between the genome and phenome, transcendence of genes is no more possible than natural selection of the unfit.*
But Midgley also quotes Wilson walking back from the precipice of genetic transcendence (page 22):
If the brain is a machine of 10 billion nerve cells and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, boundaries limit the human prospect -- we are biological and our souls cannot fly free (On Human Nature, p. 1).  [Italics Midgley's.]
The other thing to notice is that Wilson demands that biologists be allowed to steer society when they have not (not then and not since) come up with any findings that would justify their doing so. This is like someone with no flight training experience -- or indeed, someone who has already crashed several planes -- demanding to pilot an airliner.  As Richard Lewontin wrote in his introduction to Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense,** "Despite its recurring failure, the ideology of genetic reductionism persists."

If the mind could be explained -- the "somehow" acknowledges that it hasn't been, yet, and (more important) that Wilson has no idea how it might be done in the first place -- as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions then, maybe, neurobiologists might have something to contribute to ethical discourse.  (Probably not, though, since it would then follow that neurobiology is the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, and control by neurobiologists would be merely automatic control based on our biological properties.) That will have to be seen if they ever actually produce their explanation.  But Wilson merely postulates that it can be done, and as Bertrand Russell said, postulating has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

Midgley generously allows that Wilson coudn't possibly believe that, "as his language constantly suggests, genes or DNA were conscious agents, sitting in some inner Kremlin and masterminding events."  (I'm not nearly as generous.)  She concludes that he must mean that "the essential or real self is the biological self, that what biology tells us about ourselves matters supremely, and is the only sort of psychology that does matter" (23-4).  But she stresses that "Wilson has no idea at all of the scale on which conceptual analysis is needed, or the enormous part it plays in life" (20), and concludes that "Not to mince words, Wilson's impression that no special methods of thought are used or needed in this area is a monstrous piece of ignorance, as bad as the ignorance of science which he rightly deplores in humanists" (21).

I completely agree that human beings are "biological" and our brains are "biological," but we are biological in a way that current biology has not yet begun to grasp fully.  It would be different if Wilson had a fully-worked out biology for human beings that could explain everything that the social sciences and humanities try to work with now; but he doesn't, and no one does, so he's laying claim to a territory he doesn't even know how to map, and trying to deny other explorers access to it.  This is a scientific dog-in-the-manger attitude, which needn't be respected.

It would be as churlish to declare dogmatically that biologists never will be able to explain human society purely in terms of brain function, as it would be to say that Christ will never return on clouds of glory, seated at the right hand of power.  But it's not churlish, and in fact it's obligatory, to stress that contrary to their hints and suggestions and sometimes explicit claims, they haven't yet explained it.

To be continued.

* From his introduction to Gunther Stent (editor), Morality as a Biological Phenomenon (Berkeley: University of California Press, rev. ed. 1980), p. 12.
** Edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Gregory Gruber (Harvard, 2013).