Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Scientific Caution, Political Hopes


There are, it must be said, legitimate scientific reasons to be cautious about embracing sociobiology too readily.  For one thing, we should avoid the temptation to concoct “just so” stories about each and every human trait as if it had significant survival value.

Genes (somewhat like traditions) get passed along in bundles, called alleles, that may mix the useful and the useless.  Some genetic traits of no great value may be lucky enough to be “along for the ride” on an allele containing other, far more useful traits.  If people pay a lot of attention to hair, does that mean shiny hair was always an important sexual signal, indicating good health, as some sociobiologists have hypothesized?  Or is it simply an inconsequential trait that happens to correlate with more useful but less glamorous ones, such as skin that’s less likely to develop infections?  Some traits might even be counter-productive but lucky enough to be along for the ride with highly useful ones — or simply too embedded in the system of our biology to weed out in a handful of generations (does anyone think that the vestigial ticking timebomb called an appendix is maximally efficient?).

It’s an imperfect world, full of imperfect creatures and inefficient behavior patterns.  But start looking at the world as the result of ongoing weeding-out processes, with the best available option in an array of imperfect ones tending to win out, and it all begins to make a lot more sense.

E-mail isn’t perfect, but it was a more effective solution than fax machines, so e-mail spreads and faxes wane.  Taboos against women in the workplace sidelined half the workforce, so those taboos — which made somewhat more sense when there was far more work to be done in the home (making clothes from scratch, etc.) — erode.  Communist central planning can’t get the job done, so it crumbles.  Proto-humans were smarter hunters or quicker reproducers than the other apes, so, for all their faults, they proliferated and left descendants who rule the world — and who sometimes show a terrible ingratitude toward the processes that got them here, even denying that those processes exist.  Forgetting the past isn’t a very wise or conservative thing to do.

Here’s a suggestion for a (grand-fusionist) truce: the left admits that Darwinian thinking vindicates much of what the right is saying about human nature, tradition, and market processes.  In return, the right shows that it knows when to embrace Progress and gives Darwin some long-overdue respect.

Tomorrow, though: some comic relief in the form of birthday boy Leslie Nielsen and the archetype of the monkey butler.


Mitch Golden said...

Couple of objections to your truce from someone on the left:

a) You said elsewhere that you thought that church should be separated from state before both were abolished. Seems like you’re not too enamored with the role of tradition in these cases. Why do you ignore those sociobiologists who say that religion is in our genes?

b) Most of the people of my acquaintance whom you would tag “leftist” (including myself) don’t disagree with the notion that the market often or even nearly always, finds good solutions. Keynes himself would have agreed, for example. What the Rightneeds to do is to stop claiming that the market is *always* produces optimal, or even good, outcomes. It is the absolutism of Objectivism/Libertarianism that makes me distrust it. My view (shared by most of the “leftists” I know) is that market failures exist, and may reasonably be corrected by government action. Just as inheritance of acquired characteristics might actually produce even better species than straight evolution (if it were possible, which it isn’t).

Now (a) and (b) are just matters of opinion and policy. Darwin’s evolution is a matter of science. If you and and I can be in charge of our respective political tendencies, let me as you this – Why don’t you get the Right to clean itself of its anti-intellectual tendencies, and then we can talk. Let’s start by explaining to Ben Stein that the Nazis didn’t need science or Darwin to commit the holocaust. (Stein’s movie on the subject, Expelled, was favorably reviewed in:

*) National Review





*) Human Events


*) American Thinker: http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2008/04/post_83.html

*) Fox News (Bill O’Reilly)


*) Concerned Women for America


among many other Right outlets.)

Todd Seavey said...

(a) Knowing something is in our genes doesn’t necessarily make it good.

(b) I don’t where all these market fundamentalists the left claims to be cautiously wary of are hiding, given that our economy is half-socialist and getting more so all the time. The idea the left — or policy in this socialistic era — is guided by mere resistance to the most-hardcore pro-market positions is laughable and offensive.

(Neither a nor b) The “Month of Evolution” is a start. How many different ways can I call intelligent design supporters idiots?