Thursday, February 09, 2012

Roger Scruton - Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values

From Prospect Magazine (UK), Roger Scruton reviews two recent (and one not-so-recent) books: Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (2008, Allen Lane, £22), Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman (2011, Canongate, £20), and You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (2011, Notting Hill Editions, £10) - that last one is not yet published in the U.S.

Here is one good quote from the article:
In her lively monograph Susan Greenfield emphasises that our brains are plastic and can be influenced in ways that pose a risk to our moral development. 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 and addictive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends. The short-term pursuit of gratification can drive out the long-term sense of responsible agency.
Indeed. And yet we are beyond the point of turning back. So, to me, the reality is that we need to find ways to make this technology serve our best interests and our best selves, rather than allowing it to make us slaves to our machines.

Nature, nurture and liberal values

25th January 2012  —  Issue 191 Free entry

Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge. But people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses.

The window to the soul or just a collection of cells? Transition 5 (detail)
by Susan Aldworth

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (Allen Lane, £22)
Incognito by David Eagleman (Canongate, £20)
You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (Notting Hill Editions, £10)

Human beings are diverse and live in diverse ways. Should we accept that we are diverse by nature, having followed separate evolutionary paths? Or should we suppose that we share our biological inheritance, but develop differently according to environment and culture? Over recent years scientific research has reshaped this familiar “nature-nurture” debate, which remains central to our understanding of human nature and morality.

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 and often mutually inaccessible forms. Each society passes on the culture that defines it, much as it passes on its language. 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. Such was implied by what John Tooby and Leda Cosmides called the “standard social science model,” made fundamental to anthropology by Franz Boas and to sociology by Émile Durkheim.

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, festivals, warfare, religious beliefs, moral scruples, aesthetic interests. Culture is also a part of human nature: it is our way of being. We do not live in herds or packs; our hierarchies are not based merely on strength or sexual dominance. We relate to one another through language, morality and law; we sing, dance and worship together, and spend as much time in festivals and storytelling as in seeking our food. Our hierarchies involve offices, responsibilities, gift-giving and ceremonial recognition. Our meals are shared, and food for us is not merely nourishment but an occasion for hospitality, affection and dressing up. All these things are comprehended in the idea of culture—and culture, so understood, is observed in all and only human communities. Why is this?

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 (like other evolutionary adaptations) “hard-wired in the brain.” But if this is so, cultural characteristics may not be as plastic as the social scientists suggest. There are features of the human condition, such as gender roles, that people have believed to be cultural and therefore changeable. But if culture is an aspect of nature, “cultural” does not mean “changeable.” Maybe these controversial features of human culture are part of the genetic endowment of human kind.

This new way of thinking gained support from the evolutionary theory of morality. Defenders of nurture suppose morality to be an acquired characteristic, passed on by customs, laws and punishments in which a society asserts its rights over its members. However, with the development of genetics, a new perspective opens. “Altruism” begins to look like a genetic “strategy,” which confers a reproductive advantage on the genes that produce it. In the competition for scarce resources, the genetically altruistic are able to call others to their aid, through networks of co-operation that are withheld from the genetically selfish, who are thereby eliminated from the game.

If this is so, it is argued, then morality is not an acquired but an inherited characteristic. Any competitor species that failed to develop innate moral feelings would by now have died out. And what is true of morality might be true of many other human characteristics that have previously been attributed to nurture: language, art, music, religion, warfare, the local variants of which are far less significant than their common structure.

I don’t say that view of morality is right, though it has been defended by a wide variety of thinkers, from the biologist John Maynard Smith (its original proponent) via the political scientist Robert Axelrod to such popularisers as Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins. But even if morality is a partly acquired characteristic that varies from place to place and time to time, it might still rest on innate foundations, which govern its principal contours.

Noam Chomsky’s speculative linguistics has proved enormously important in this debate, since language is at the root of culture in all its manifestations: it is a paradigm case of a social activity that entirely changes the relationships, capacities, knowledge and the world of those who engage in it. Yet there could be no explanation of language that regarded it merely as a socially transmitted trait, with no deeper roots in biology. The rapid acquisition of language by children, at the same rate in every part of the globe, and on the same paucity of information from the surroundings, suggests that there is an innate universal grammar, to which each child attaches the fragmentary words and phrases that strike his ear, to generate new and intelligible utterances of his own. What Steven Pinker has called the “language instinct” is implanted by evolution, which endows each child with mental competences that are common to our species.

If we follow the evolutionary biologists, therefore, 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 through all the characteristics that people have wished, for whatever reason, to rescue from destiny and refashion as choice. But to speculate freely about such matters is dangerous. The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that “don’t enter” is now written across its door. The distinguished biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was run out of the academy in 2007 for having publicly suggested (admittedly in less than scientific language) that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than westerners, while the economist Larry Summers suffered a similar fate for claiming that the brains of women at the top end are less suited than those of men to the study of the hard sciences. 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, to disturb which is to threaten the whole community that has been built on it. On the other hand, as Galileo in comparable circumstances didn’t quite say, it ain’t necessarily so.
Read the whole article.
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