The Edge Question 2

In the last post I looked at some answers to this year’ Edge Question: what scientific idea is ready for retirement. (here) I agreed with those. This post is about some responses to the Edge Question that I disagree with.


There are two answers that deal with ‘culture’ – this is it, just culture; they use the single word ‘culture‘ to answer the question of what scientific idea should be retired. Betzig is against the idea that culture is something superzoological (that) shapes the course of human events. Boyer is against the use of culture to explain material phenomena— representations and behaviors—in terms of a non-material entity. So the culture they complain about is ether non-biological or even non-material. Personally, I do not believe that it is possible to understand human behaviour without the concept of culture (or something very similar with a different name). Both of these responders are anthropologists and so they may be coming from an environment where there is an over-use of culture as an explanation. If so, I would say that we need not throw out the baby with the bath water. First I will give their ideas a good airing, before countering some of their arguments.


Laura Betzig (Anthropologist; Historian)


Betzig put an historical case for viewing human civilizations as mechanism of ruler’s reproductive success. “What if the 100,000-odd year-old evidence of human social life—from the arrowheads in South Africa, to the Venus figurines at Dordogne—is the effect of nothing, more or less, but our efforts to become parents?  What if the 10,000-odd year-old record of civilization—from the tax accounts at temples in the Near East, to the inscription on a bronze statue in New York Harbor—is the product of nothing, more or less, but our struggle for genetic representation in future generations?”


The history is interesting and has a lot of credibility. Next is a jump to a different use of the word culture. “CULTURE is a 7-letter word for GOD. Good people—some of the best, and intelligent people—some of the smartest, have found meaning in religion: they have faith that something supernatural guides what we do. Other good, intelligent people have found meaning in culture: they believe that something superzoological shapes the course of human events. Their voices are often beautiful; and it’s wonderful to be part of a chorus. But in the end, I don’t get it. For me, the laws that apply to animals apply to us. And in that view of life, there is grandeur enough.”


Pascal Boyer (Anthropologist and Psychologist, Washington University in St. Louis; Author, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought)


Boyer takes aim at exactly what culture is. “Culture is like trees. Yes, there are trees around. But that does not mean that we can have a science of trees. … the notion is of no use to scientists… Don’t get me wrong—we can and should engage in a scientific study of ‘cultural stuff’. Against the weird obscurantism of many traditional sociologists, historians or anthropologists, human behavior and communication can and should be studied in terms of their natural causes. But this does not imply that there will or should be a science of culture in general….When we say that some notion or behavior is “cultural”, we are just saying that it bears some similarity to notions and behaviors of other people. That is a statistical fact. It does not tell us much about the processes that caused that behavior or notion.”


But all this is not news. So why is Boyer trying to rid science of culture. “Is the idea of culture really a Bad Thing? Yes, a belief in culture as a domain of phenomena has hindered the development of a proper science of human behavior in groups—what ought to be the domain of social sciences.”


It seems that these are not pleas to retire culture from science. They are something else, some other complaint about how culture is studied or used or something. Boyer’s comment that ‘culture’ is only a statistical similarity is true but so is ‘species’. Species cannot be understood as something divorced from the rest of science and is only a statistical similarity between real individual animals. But species is a concept within science and a very useful one. Similarly, culture is a statistical similarity between real individual animals. Culture likewise is a useful concept within science. How exactly would we go about examining behavior without using the concept of culture. Betzig seems to be saying that using the concept of culture will mean denying we are animals. But biology is also studying culture in some other animals as well as humans. Culture is not a good answer to the question: what scientific idea is ready for retirement? The word culture is being used as a scientific concept where it is useful, or it is being used as something else in which case it is not scientific. Culture as a scientific idea is not bypassing biology but part of it. Put as a dull, semantic thing – there can be more than one way to view culture and there is at least one way of viewing culture that we actually need in science.


Another response that I didn’t agree with was Lombrozo’s, she wanted to retire “the mind is just the brain”. This again seems to be a semantic problem but in this case an important rather than a dull one.


Tania Lombrozo (Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of California)


Lombrozo starts with a clear denial of dualism. “In fact, it appears the mind is just the brain. Or perhaps, to quote Marvin Minsky, “the mind is what the brain does.” But then comes a switch. “In our enthusiasm to find a scientifically-acceptable alternative to dualism, some of us have gone too far the other way, adopting a stark reductionism. Understanding the mind is not just a matter of understanding the brain.” To illustrate ‘stark reductionism’ she gives us a discussion of cake baking which I have read over and over and cannot understand what it is saying about reductionism. If mind is what the brain does, then we can try and understand mind and understand how brain does it. This is how reduction works. And when we try and understand brain we will, of course, also try and understand how cellular physiology does cells and so on down to quarks. There are hierarchies in any science and there are ways of understanding/studying/theorizing that are best suited to each level and each level tries to fit on the understanding of the one beneath it. What is the problem with this? Why is this not reductionism. Or (as it obviously is reductionism) why is reductionism not acceptable?


The third answer that struck me as wrong was Waytz response, “humans are by nature social animals”. Again it is a semantic problem. He seems to think social-animal means nice-social-animal.


Adam Waytz (Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University)


Waytz states how social we are and then puts limits on it. “Certainly sociality is a dominant force that shapes thought, behavior, physiology, and neural activity. However, enthusiasm over the social brain, social hormones, and social cognition must be tempered with evidence that being social is far from easy, automatic, or infinite.” He finds that in experiments people have to view the situation with a social context to react socially. This does not seem surprising. “Humans may be ready and willing to view the world through a social lens, but they do not do so automatically.” True, they do it in what they see as a social context.


Our social nature is not infinite. “Despite possessing capacities far beyond other animals to consider others’ minds, to empathize with others’ needs, and to transform empathy into care and generosity, we fail to employ these abilities readily, easily, or equally. We engage in acts of loyalty, moral concern, and cooperation primarily toward our inner circles, but do so at the expense of people outside of those circles. Our altruism is not unbounded; it is parochial.” True, but is there any social animal that extends its empathy easily outside its actual social groups, not wolves, chimps, elephants or bees. I cannot think of any. And finally he says, “At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important.” If we are not social animals then why would we live in societies?


This is the end of the semantic nit-picking. The next post will be back to positive reactions.



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