|Steven Pinker is into evolutionary psychology.|
This subject looks as though it has the potential
to be a choppy ride!
Evo-psych is a discipline which mixes biology, natural history, behavioral science, and social science along with a sprinkling of topical political
None of this is to say evolution psychology is right; its just a plea to give a little leeway and understanding to those who grapple with an uncooperative epistemology as they try to hammer out a world view. However, I lose all sympathy with such people if epistemic humility is replaced by dogmatism and an abrasive intimidation of unbelievers; that's something I'm all too used to from Christian fundamentalists.
The process that Moran describes in his first paragraph above is, from a standard evolutionary perspective, quite right; this is precisely what would be required for the propagation of those behavioral alleles that are supposed to offer social advantages in the breeding game. And if the alleles don't provide definite advantages it is likely that DNA, by way of a kind of "linguistic" drift, gets a "local accent".
But I don't go along with Moran when he demands that in the absence of evidence, the default assumption should, repeat should, be that the behavior is cultural. OK, one can adopt the working hypothesis that it might be cultural, but in that case one is thrown into the domain of social anthropology, a discipline whose epistemic standards are not going to be commensurable with that of the physical sciences. Social anthropology will seem just as much lacking in the rigor that a physical scientist expects. My own heuristic here would be to refrain from a dogmatic position either way and proceed slowly, carefully and tentatively; the extent to which identified human behavior patterns are influenced by genetic factors is a wild card.
|Evo-pysch is by and large engaged in creating retrospective|
sense making narratives rather than a predictive. science.
As I have already said in connection with Moran's concept of science, some objects are just too complex and have too great an epistemic distance to be amenable to the standards of evidence expected in the physical sciences; in particular the expected predict and test methods of "spring extending and test tube precipitating science" aren't necessarily going to be realised. And it's not as if there is a sudden cut-off between the rigors of physical science and the more nebulous objects of the social sciences; for objects of scientific study range from the very epistemically accessible like springs, through planetary motions and what was in yesterday's lunch to, the epistemic barriers found in the study of strings and mysteries like the identity of Jack the Ripper.
As the objects we study get increasingly complex and epistemically inaccessible "predict and test" becomes less effective as a heuristic. History, of course, is a prime example. Statements about the past can often be tested against new found data, but therein lies the rub; the data has to be found and if it doesn't turn up the crucial test of an historical theory is left hanging. But when historical test data isn't extant there is a fall back heuristic; we can then proceed abductively; that is, we seek a "best fit explanation" given the data we do have. However, what constituents a "best fit explanation" may be subject to some ambiguity: This is a bit like a "joining the dots" game; if there are not enough dots more than one explanatory "sense making" structure fitting the data may be devised. As the quote from Pinker suggests evo-psych has a strong retrospective (as opposed to predictive) sense making role; evo-psych, under the best of circumstances, is not going to be an exact science.
Even when an object's epistemic distance means that its data is sparse there's nothing to stop us proposing a conjectural dot-joining theory, but in doing so being appropriately tentative about our conjecture. Here, however, human nature faces a challenge. There may be many objects for which the available evidence doesn't quiet unambiguously determine the explanatory narrative being proposed. Under this kind of epistemic environment what is being proposed is therefore worldview sensitive. It is then that evangelicals of all flavours tend not to adopt the appropriate level of epistemic humility toward their theories, but instead take on the stance of enthusiastic advocates, champions and partisans for their heroic cause. Evangelicals, whether atheist or otherwise, polarise opinion as they sharply demarcate their field of knowledge and stake out their noetic claims. Try not to meet them in a dark alley if you are less committed than they are!
Ironically it doesn't help to have people like Steven Pinker around. Pinker is a mouthy, suave and, worst of all, an incredibly intellectual guy with a grasp of a wide range of subjects. But I wonder if he's spent hours in the lab separating out precipitates or carefully measuring spring extensions or has spent hours cleaning and measuring fossils? Don't these clever people make you spit! I have a sneaky feeling that interpersonal feelings, as well as world view, might have a bearing on the debates surrounding retrospective sense making science!
|Grasping the nettle of human nature theory.|
The denial that there is even such a thing as "human nature" is certainly wrong. Human minds are highly proactive surfaces that select and categorize the data which falls on to them according to interest, motive and a set of predetermined neural constants that probably vary from person to person. Pinker is no doubt right to criticize "Blank Slate" theory. However, needless to say, separating out the nature and nurture factors has proved difficult, difficult enough to keep the genes vs culture debate fueled. And that's before we even get onto the question of the natural history of those behavioral patterns and genes.