Monday, September 28, 2015

You've Got to Be Sloppily Taught

It's not enough to reject biological reductionism: you must also offer a better alternative to it.  Mary Midgley is properly critical of "blank slate" (or, as she calls them, "blank paper") conceptions of human nature.  I began to wonder, though, how many people actually, consistently believe that human beings are blank slates.  I've noticed that many who are accused of that belief don't actually hold it; often they are professionals in biology and related fields, like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Hilary Rose, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.  It's a typical reaction to criticism of a belief to accuse the critic of holding an absolutely opposed stance: if you criticize a given case of biological reductionism, you will be accused of believing that biology is totally irrelevant, just as someone who criticizes a given US policy will be accused of hating America and wanting to see it destroyed, or a woman who criticizes a man's behavior will be accused of hating men and wanting them all castrated.

Case in point: I just read Paul Shankman's The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (Wisconsin, 2009), an account of Derek Freeman's trashing of Margaret Mead at the end of the twentieth century.  Among much else, Freeman accused Mead and her teacher Franz Boas of believing that human beings were blank slates and that biology played no role in numan nature or culture.  Numerous evolutionary psychology types, including Steven Pinker, David Buss, and Matt Ridley, were happy to parrot Freeman's claim without bothering to determine how accurate it was.  Shankman shows that this accusation was utterly false.  Ironically, Freeman himself rejected sociobiology (though not, it seems, evolutionary psychology) and adhered to an approach he called interactionist; but he could have been accused of rejecting biology for blank-slate cultural determinism if anyone had cared to misrepresent him by dishonest selective quotation.

Shankman quotes Ridley as noting that "For fifty years Mead's Samoans stood as definite proof of the perfectibility of man" and that Boas, Ruth Benedict and Mead had argued that "human nature must be infinitely malleable by culture because (they thought, wrongly) the alternative is fatalism, which is unacceptable" (Shankman, 207-8).  These are also common accusations, but there's no reason why a real blank slate position should imply "the perfectibility of man," and Mead seems not to have believed in such perfectibility: arguing that some cultures are better than others suggests improvement at most.  And ironically, nowadays it's biological determinists and Artificial Intelligence propagandists who talk as though they believe and hope that "man" is perfectible and "infinitely malleable" by genetic manipulation and by turning us into cyborgs.

Midgley does discuss a couple of positions that might plausibly be called "blank slate," such as Skinnerian behaviorism and Sartrean existentialism.  Certainly both approaches seem to encourage people to make extreme and not very well thought-through statements about human nature.  It's not clear to me that Skinner, as wrong as he was, actually thought human beings are blank slates.  Often people will make such extreme statements but if they're challenged, they'll backtrack quickly and qualify them.  I haven't read enough Sartre to be sure about him, but even leaving aside the many changes in his philosophy and politics during his career, I suspect that his reduction of human nature to pure will was a rhetorical move he wouldn't have cared to defend very far.

I've found this to be true of laypeople, who are perfectly capable of saying that human beings are effectively blank slates. and then almost immediately make equally wild, concrete, and unfounded generations about our real human nature.  They may not root that real nature in biology -- often they think it consists of "spirit," "soul," or some other non-material essence -- but they are sure it's real.  So, for example, I've become very tired of the "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" meme, such as this one:
Someday I must make a meme in which a baby reminds us that it knows nothing of language, clothing, taking out the trash, or bowel control.  But when people say things like this -- there's a DJ on the community radio station who regularly plays "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" and similar, less well-known songs -- I want to ask them where they think hatred, intolerance, racism, etc. come from if they must be "taught" to us.  Who invented them, and first taught them?  Someone bad, I betcha.  Maybe it was "religion," conceived as an independently existing autonomous malevolent being rather than a human invention. Someone who sees other people as Them, no doubt -- but that certainly includes many people who believe that Someone Bad taught innocent little babies to be intolerant.  A photo circulated recently on Facebook of a very young bobcat and a very young deer cuddled together, with the caption "Why can't we humans do this?"  Well, first, of course, we humans can, and we do.  We are not always at each other's throats, and a meme like this does nothing to explain why we sometimes engage in violent conflict.  But second, do the people who made, shared, and like this image believe seriously that bobcats and other predators kill for their food because some bad person "carefully taught them"?  This isn't a blank-slate position, it's thoughtlessness.

Midgley talks about the human "heart" and the "soul," which doesn't really get her very far.  Both of these are metaphors, and extremely vague ones at that.  If "heart" means something like core or center, fine, but in fact neither our blood-pumping hearts nor our chest cavities more generally are organs of moral reflection and judgment.  As for the "soul," it's even vaguer.  People talk about it in various ways, sometimes equating it with "spirit" and sometimes distinguishing the two; since neither term refers to any entity in the real world, it doesn't matter where you draw the line, but it doesn't settle anything either.

At one point Midgley declares: "For Christianity, the true self is indeed the soul, but the body is a necessary and suitable expression for it; the resurrection of the body will ensure that whole people, not just ghosts, inhabit Heaven" (10).  As usual, when Midgley talks about religion she gets it wrong.  Christianity has never quite sorted out the nature of the "true self."  The Bible is no help, and later theologians have had to fall back on Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy.  The apostle Paul, whose discussion of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is often referred to, distinguished between the body and flesh, declaring ex cathedra that in the resurrection of the body, the flesh will be replaced with a body of spirit.  The gospels present Jesus' resurrection as a body of flesh, so most people who quote Paul equate the body and the flesh.  If the new body will be "spirit," what is the difference between that and the soul?  "Ghost" comes from the old German for "spirit," so that's no help to Midgley either.

She even falls back on "common sense," which she defines as "not some special naïve set of beliefs, but any sort of practical assumption compatible with the business of everyday living" (38).  The trouble with this is that any number of irrational and harmful assumptions are "practical" and "compatible with the business of everyday living."
The notion of human nature is wide and indispensable to political thought.  Thinkers of all colours have always used it, and it is still presupposed by those who officially deny it.  (For instance, those who deny that man is naturally aggressive on the ground that he is naturally friendly are not dispensing with the notion of human nature.)  The real disputes are about what human nature is like [39].
The trouble is that "human nature," like "common sense," is always used from the wrong end: rather than point to evidence of "what human nature is like", people tend to rationalize their prejudices and wishes as "common sense" and "human nature."  In an important sense, they're right.  A popular slogan from the 60s and 70s claimed that the only unnatural sexual act is one you can't perform -- that is, because it's physically impossible.  Anything that human beings do is "natural" -- if it weren't, we couldn't do it.  This applies to traits and behavior we don't like as well as to those we do.  If "thinkers of all colors have always used" the concept of human nature, that suggests to me that it doesn't have much content: it's what I call a totem-word, invoked to shut off debate and to obscure the issues rather than introduce any real information into the discussion.

There's a curious divide in the way people use words like "nature" and "natural."  People "oscillate," to use Midgley's word, between descriptive and prescriptive means of important abstractions.  "Normal," for instance, can describe what most people do -- or it can prescribe what people should do, though the thought process  (such as it is) is circular: we should do this because it's what most people do, but if most people don't do it, they should.  Other such words are "culture" (used descriptively for the constellation of practices and norms and so on typical of a group of people, and prescriptively for good practices and norms which demonstrate that you're a "cultured" person.), "art," and "nature."  ("Nature" especially exhibits this oscillation in Christian use, where "nature" is both the voice of God and the voice of sin.  In Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death [Routledge, 1992], Evelyn Fox Keller shows how and why this oscillation came about.)  Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good, as the most dogmatic champion of human nature will concede; but he or she will flipflop to the normative sense of "nature" when it's expedient.

Another important concept that gets used in such conflicting ways is "evolution."  People commonly use it as a moralizing term: an "evolved" person is mature, wise, learned, an "unevolved" person is not.  But any trait that human beings exhibit has survived the trial-by-ordeal of Darwinian natural selection.  Midgley herself falls into this error when she says that "In going up the evolutionary scale, we find a quite steady increase in the openness of programs" (154); but there is no evolutionary scale to go up and down.  She's referring to the pre-Darwinian, and actually anti-Darwinian Great Chain of Being, which ranks organisms from less "complex" to more "complex" -- the latter of course assumed to be better.  And every organism, human beings not excluded, embodies old and new, "primitive" and "advanced," traits.

So it seems to me that "human nature" is a vacuous, circular term that is not of any help in the discussion of moral issues or any other.  You can debate whether a given trait is innate or not, but particularly in human behavior, it's hard to settle the question.  As Midgley also says,
Right from birth, people are individuals; each person is different in kind. I think this is in part what makes the concentration on IQ seem so unsuitable and offensive.  What happens in heredity certainly is not that we are born with a definite quantity of a standard stuff called intelligence, or even cleverness, entitling us to a particular place in the social hierarchy, a pre-programmed degree in some monstrous cosmic examination.  Instead, we each have our own peculiarly formed set of capacities and incapacities, our own personal repertoire [40-41].
If it were true that "each person is different in kind", then each individual would have his or her own nature (which is what "kind" means in this context) and it would be meaningless to talk about human nature as a trait of the species.

Still, Midgley is on to something here: most reductionist talk about human nature overlooks the variety among individuals, assuming that all men are alike, and all women are alike, all blacks, Hispanics, and so on, even though if "science" can be said to have shown everything, it is that we are all different from each other in important ways, and that the variation within groups often exceeds the average variation between them.  It may well be "human nature" to ignore such differences -- but if it is, so much the worse for human nature.

So, for a hot-button contemporary example, there's been a fuss over the women who passed Army Ranger camp recentlyCan women meet the exacting standards of this elite terrorist group? the media asked.  Well, not all women can, any more than all men can; but it's not obvious a priori that no women can.  It would be surprising if none could, given a fair chance to do so.  The same goes for any discussion of race, sex, etc., as it affects ability to do science, math, music, or any other human endeavor.  Every few years somebody, usually a sports journalist, tries to argue a scientific case that people of African descent are innately better at sports than white people, which explains why there are so many blacks in elite sports nowadays.  This project is touted as a bold defiance of Political Correctness, of course.  Whatever the validity of the science involved, there always seems to lurk the assumption that if you're good at sports, you're not good at anything else, and shouldn't be allowed to do anything else.  Analogously, there's no doubt that human females "evolved" to bear young, but that doesn't imply that all women must bear children or that they can't also do art, science, sports, or anything else.  The same illogic would dictate that, since males evolved to supply spermatazoa, we are good for nothing else.  But whatever ideas about "human nature" can be used to bolster the status quo qualify as "common sense."

The problem then is not "human nature" -- which doesn't settle anything -- but how we think about it.  And while I'm mostly on Midgley's side, she seems to miss most of what's important about how we think about it.  If I want to study mathematics or nuclear physics or basketball or poetry or the violin, it doesn't matter whether males or whites or any other group does better on average at those tasks.  Regardless of who I am, the odds are overwhelmingly against my excelling compared to the very best individuals in the field.  There's no way to know in advance how well I'll do, and there's no reason why I must be the best anyway.  One of the reasons why the concept of "meritocracy" is so malign is that it tends to devalue everyone who isn't in the top rank of achievement.  It seems to me that "human nature" only functions negatively, to tell certain people they can't do what they'd like to do, that they must do what they don't particularly want to do, or to excuse bad behavior by the privileged on the grounds that it's just human nature.  I can't think of any positive uses the concept could have.  I'm not denying, mind you, that there is such a thing as human nature; only that we don't seem to be able to say anything useful about it.