Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"The Selfish Gene Pool," Jerry Fodor, TLS

Brilliant and humorous demolishment of what I (no surprise) have always considered to be a hubristic psuedo-science of vaulting explanatory ambition redolent of sociology-of-academia "imperalism": Sociobiology (I mean...Evolutionary bad).

[Footnote: Yes, as you've seen, I rail against other "imperialistic" moves in academe, such as the various species of purported dominance of the Word over the Thing by financially strapped and culturally embattled lit-crit departments; I'm equal opportunity on this subject.]

Sociobiology/EP/whatever new bottle you want for this old wine is too-easy reductionism, which, Gould-tutored as I am, I really do find distasteful, simple-minded, and often quite socially, not just epistemologically, pernicious. And also quite often simply wrong-headed, if not plain old wrong.

Echoes of Gould and Lewontin abound in this essay, of course, but there's plenty of excellent, original, non-supernatural critique of the rampant "just-so" storytelling so many apparently find so tantalizing...perhaps because of its simplicity? Complexity is just very annoying, especially if you don't like doubt or unsureness.

Think of personal relationships -- quite dazzlingly complex. And thus hard and needing constant nurturing and effort. With no guarantees of success or happiness of any duration -- even if you get all the endogenous variables just right, exogenous variables have a sneaky (and inevitable) way of intruding. I'm thinking sickness, death, war -- you know, the Bad Stuff.

Unless, of course, you eschew active creation of an authentic reltionship in favor of slotting into a pre-existing social role for Husband/Father or Wife/Mother (or whatever) and drift along with the sociocultural tide. Or don't even choose to drift at all; you've just been drifting along the path of least social, familial, or cultural resistance all your life, anyway, which is far easier and requires no effort, so why change now? It wouldn't even occur to you. Well, drifting may require no effort and give the illusion of herd-security, but it gains no freedom, bestows no authenticity, and can provide only a dull hum to drown out reality, like a pre-cable TV on static. Quite easy to fall asleep to, isn't it?

Anyway, to return from that extended metaphor/example to this article: I'll reproduce one key bit here:

Over the years, people keep proposing theories that go: “what everybody really wants is just . . .” (fill in the blank). Versions fashionable in their times have included: money, power, sex, death, freedom, happiness, Mother, The Good, pleasure, success, status, salvation, immortality, self-realization, reinforcement, penises (in the case of women), larger penises (in the case of men), and so on. The track record of such theories has not been good; in retrospect they often look foolish or vulgar or both. Maybe it will turn out differently for “what everybody really wants is to maximize his relative contribution to the gene pool”. But I don’t know any reason to think that it will, and I sure wouldn’t advise you to bet the farm.

Right on the money. Things are far more complex, multicausal, recursive, "fractally" ramifying in unintended, unpredictable ways when you're dealing with human minds, with all their subjectivity; intentionality; partially conscious, partially unconscious desires and drives; rational choices...and all of those last few terms are, of course, merely part of the heuristic shorthand we have no choice but to use, but which falsely implies separate chunks that don't interact synchronically and diachronically. Which, of course, they do.

To write thus is not to claim that the human mind is somehow Romantically beyond or above science, or to imply a supernatural explanation. The mind is just beyond simplistic scientism, is all.

Is not the desire for total understanding -- let alone the stubborn insistence that (all obligatory, ubiquitous, and largely decorative qualifiers aside) current understanding is actually total or about-to-be-so -- not at some level related to other totalizing urges in other arenas of human action? I suspect so. Do I know for sure? Nope. It might just be a need for something "FOR SURE" to hold on to in the "hurly-burly of modern life" -- to quote Beyond the Fringe. And potentially a trillion other things besides. And also.

People and history are so damn uncontrollable, and that is rightly scary. Look at the track record; it ain't pretty. Look at our species' prospects; it don't look too good, even in the short run (especially?). But reaching for a threadbare intellectual security blanket now that we've outgrown the God-doll is, well, kind of a failure of courage, in my view. It's at least a dodge of the reality of the human condition, and a bit embarrassing at that. We, the supposedly enlightened, who scoff at those who seek solace in faith, ought to have outgrown the need for God-given reassurance, not simply substituted one Certainty for another. Hence my purposeful use of childhood metaphors herein.

To expand on Fodor's point: As an ex-/amateur historian of science, I can't but laugh at the reports I read in the popular press that Big Question X (the mind, a unified TOE, "what it's all about") is just about to be answered...stay tuned! I'm fully aware that scientists looking for funds are far from naive or stupid, and they feed reporters what they want. Plenty of ex-science reporters in my old history and sociology of science department could personally attest to that. And, yes, reporters often know exactly what they're doing.

That aside, it seems that some believe their own hype. Yes, I'm thinking about Pinker, Wilson, Dawkins, and others of that ilk in evolutionary biology and psychology right now.

In any event, I think many of us who claim to be irreligious are still wobbling under the effects of a religious hangover. Dawkins has called himself a converted Paleyist -- he's just nuts about adaptations, which are not the entire story of evolution. Perhaps not even the main part of the story, macroevolutionarily speaking.

Anyway, we simply can't have all the answers right away, even if academic careers depend on positive answers. (Who was the last person to get tenure for ten years spent proving a negative outcome, even though those are surely valuable, too?) Sometimes you have to wait a few decades. Or centuries. Or perhaps they won't come at all. You might die and never be in the know. In fact, that's a good bet.

Why does mortality keep rearing its ugly face here? Because I think it's behind so much of what we do, say, think, and feel -- that fear ("curse"?) of our self-knowledge, which includes knowledge of our end. I wonder just how much of culture is driven by trying to hand-wave death away. We post-religious Westerners don't appease the gods in obvious ways anymore. It's gone underground, dressed itself up in scientistic duds, and come back up from the depths of our psyche ready to shake a test tube at the sky in vain hope.

In any event, it's a deep irony (to me) that a mind that has achieved self-knowledge most likely not as a simple adaptation (more mind = more differential reproductive success) but rather as a complex and contingent "piggyback"-selected feature of our particular and unrepeatable evolutionary history continues to insist on throwing up simplistic, totalizing explanations of itself as a kind of talisman to ward off Thanatos.

Keep on searching, by all means, but, please, let's have some modesty in the face of the numbing complexity that the universe, the mind, or any other Big Question entails. That's what makes them Big Questions.

Yes, this argument/meditation can be easily applied to simplistic notions in politics as well.

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