By Roger Scruton, NYT, Feb 24 2012
For much of the 20th century, social scientists held that human life is a single biological phenomenon, which flows through the channels made by culture, so as to acquire separate forms. Each society passes on the culture that defines it. And the most important aspects of culture – religion, rites of passage and law – both unify the people who adhere to them and divide those people from everyone else.
More recently, evolutionary psychologists have begun to question that approach. Although you can explain the culture of a tribe as an inherited possession, they suggested, this does not explain how culture came to be in the first place.
What is it that endows culture with its stability and function? In response to that question, the opinion began to grow that culture does not provide the ultimate explanation of any significant human trait, not even the trait of cultural diversity. It is not simply that there are extraordinary constants among cultures: gender roles, incest taboos, warfare.
The answer given by evolutionary psychologists is that culture is an adaptation, which exists because it conferred a reproductive advantage on our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to this view, many of the diverse customs that the standard social science model attributes to nurture are local variations of attributes acquired 70 or more millennia ago, during the Pleistocene Age, and now ‘hard-wired in the brain’.
If we follow the evolutionary biologists, we may find ourselves pushed towards accepting that traits often attributed to culture may be part of our genetic inheritance, and therefore not as changeable as many might have hoped: gender differences, intelligence, belligerence and so on. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous.
The biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was run out of the academy in 2007 for having publicly suggested that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than Westerners. In America, it is widely assumed that socially significant differences between ethnic groups and sexes are the result of social factors, and in particular of ‘discrimination’ directed against the groups that seem to do less well. This assumption is not the conclusion of a reasoned social science but the foundation of an optimistic worldview, which, if disturbed, could threaten the whole community that has been built around it.
We find ourselves, therefore, in the middle of another tense debate, in which it is not religion, but liberal values, which seem to be challenged by the theory of evolution. It is against this background that the philosopher Jesse Prinz has entered the fray with his book Beyond Human Nature, which argues that there is ‘little reason to think that biology has a major impact in accounting for human differences’. He patiently examines the arguments given for attributing this or that trait to genetic inheritance, and tries to show either that the research is methodologically flawed, or that the conclusion is not supported by it.
Professor Prinz believes that our cognitive powers are awakened only when they have experience on which to get to work. Infants learn to divide the world into kinds by extrapolating from what they feel, hear and see. There are no innate classifications, and no roles or relationships that are not in some sense, and to some measure, socially constructed.
This is argued boldly and with much support from the literature of experimental psychology. But I could not help feeling that it falls short of its target. In The Blank Slate (2002), experimental psychologist Steven Pinker assembled the evidence for the conclusion that our fundamental capacities are implanted by evolution and malleable only in those matters in which malleability would confer a reproductive advantage. His argument was meticulous and serious, and the weight of scientific evidence impossible to deny.
But there is another reason for being dissatisfied with Prof Prinz’s approach. He does not have much sympathy for any culture other than the one in which he is immersed – the liberal egalitarian culture of the American academy, which holds that sexual roles are socially constructed and that all ‘disadvantage’ is down to environmental factors that can be overcome. The whole tendency of his argument is to suggest that we can and should live in the way that he lives, not endowing our differences with the status of natural barriers, but opening ourselves to a kind of ‘soft diversity’, in which human possibilities flourish in a condition of mutual acceptance.
It may be that this is the direction in which we are moving. But for all he says to the contrary, it could be that there are obstacles to progress that are fixed in our nature and not to be changed by social adjustment.
We are familiar with the feminist charge that women perform worse in maths tests because of unconscious discrimination and other factors that allegedly sap their confidence. But does anyone believe that men are 10 times as likely to end up in prison as women because of unconscious discrimination? Of course not. We recognise that men are by nature more inclined to settle disputes by violence. And no educated person is likely to dispute the fact that this difference between men and women is genetic.
The real question is: How far does this kind of genetic influence extend?
Those speculations bring us to another and far more serious obstacle to the humane understanding of our condition than the one that troubles Prof Prinz. Advances in neuroscience are beginning to suggest that, while the brain is malleable, it comes with its own inherent restraints. Hence, processes in the brain can affect our decision-making without our being able to counter them.
When in 1966 Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 32 more, shooting from the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin, Texas, he had already indicated that he felt something was not quite right in his head. After he was shot by a police marksman, an autopsy revealed a small tumour pressing on the amygdala, which neuroscience regards as the seat of the gut reactions through which we protect our space. So was Whitman to blame for what he did?
Taking off from the Whitman case, neuroscientist David Eagleman argues in his book Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain that we should revise our sense of legal and moral responsibility so as to recognise that most of what we do and feel arises from processes over which we have no control. The brain moves incognito beneath our conscious deliberations, like a great ocean liner on the deck of which we walk up and down, imagining that we move it with our feet.
Dr Eagleman has simply misdescribed the problem. The picture that he gives, of the fragile ‘I’ riding the elephant of grey matter while pretending to be in charge of it, misrepresents the nature of self-reference. The word ‘I’ does not refer to some conscious ‘part’ of the person, the rest of which is a passive and hidden ‘it’.
The ‘I’ is one term of the I-You relation, which is a relation of accountability in which the whole person is involved. To use the first-person pronoun is to present myself for judgment. It is to take responsibility for a host of changes in the world, and in particular for those for which you can reasonably call me to account by asking: ‘Why?’ This question is the foundation of cooperative enterprise. And philosophers have done much to show that the dialogue through which we broker our responsibilities is well-founded and not necessarily vulnerable to disruption by our newfound knowledge of the brain.
The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us. From Kant and Hegel to Wittgenstein and Husserl, there have been attempts to give a philosophy of the human condition that stands apart from biological science without opposing it. But those attempts are either not noticed or given short shrift in Prof Prinz’s argument – one which, by attempting to fight the biological sciences on their own ground, is condemned to lose.
We are human beings, certainly. But we are also persons. Human beings form a biological kind, and it is for science to describe that kind. But the concept of the person is shaped in another way, not by our attempt to explain things, but by our attempt to interact and relate. The ‘Why?’ of personal understanding is not the ‘Why?’ of scientific inference. And it is answered by conceptualising the world under the aspect of freedom and choice.
Prof Prinz’s defence of nurture against nature may look like a defence of human freedom. But nurture can as easily destroy freedom as enhance it. We can bring up children on passive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends.
But if we bring up our children correctly, not spoiling them or rewiring their brains through roomfuls of digital gadgetry, their sense of responsibility will emerge. They will enter fully into the world of I and You, becoming free agents and moral beings.
Allow children to interact with real people, therefore, and the grammar of first-person accountability will emerge of its own accord. Once it is there, the I-to-you relation adds a reproductive advantage, just as mathematical competence does. But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of ‘I’ as it tells us about the validity of mathematics. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: How can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?
The writer is a philosopher and a research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Virginia.
This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in Prospect magazine.
NEW YORK TIMES