Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Oy Vey!: Nature Vs. Nurture Again

Scientific Debate

Scientific debate is always a good thing; conformity in thought is not. One of the strengths of science is that it can correct itself in the face of new evidence. Often there is resistance, even among intelligent and rational scientists, who are human in all respects. One of the current debates is on whether humans can naturally be violent, which worries social scientists who think aggression emanates from social or environmental conditions. Lorna Salzman disagrees: “This position requires them to ignore and ultimately reject any claims that aggression or other undesirable human traits are innate, hence the left’s rejection of Darwin and of natural selection in particular. The Christians of course reject evolution in favor of creationism. But in their rejection of science they end up in the same place. In the case of anthropology, the post-modernists feel compelled to challenge findings such as those of Chagnon’s because of their belief that the “noble savages” were mistreated or exploited. In effect they rejected the use of the scientific method per se, as well as impartial research and dissent, thus cementing the divide (created by them of course) between the social and the biological sciences.”

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by Lorna Salzman


Konrad Lorenz would be horrified—no, actually, amused—to see what his work in what used to be called ethology has sparked. Fortunately we have some credible authorities around in this field—called sociobiology or evolutionary psychology depending upon whether you put it under the “hard” sciences or under the social sciences. 

Some people blame it all on Darwin. Edward Wilson, a quite apolitical researcher who loved ants, took his knocks plus some ripe tomatoes from the left at Harvard back in the 1970s when he wrote his book entitled Sociobiology. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon then diverted some of the attacks onto himself with his book on the Yanomami, The Fierce People, which—gasp!—revealed that this Venezuelan tribe manifested —gasp, gasp!—aggression and violence just like other people.

The reverberations from Chagnon's work continue today, amplified by a now-discredited book, Darkness at El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney, whose accusations were incorporated into a film by Brazilian film maker Jose Padilha, Secrets of the Tribe. This was first screened at the Sundance film festival and last year made its way into the American Museum of Natural History's Margaret Mead film festival. Padilha’s reliance on Tierney was soft-pedalled.

Tierney’s accusations of malfeasance against Chagnon and his geneticist collaborator, the late James Neel (lies likely spurred by Roman Catholic priests in South America, possibly because they feared being blamed for a lethal measles epidemic in Venezuela that preceded Chagnon) were picked up uncritically by The New Yorker and then spread around the social sciences world with the help of equally uncritical if not biased anthropologists such as Terence Turner. Many had a field day trashing Chagnon as a manipulative, right wing imperialist while ignoring the substance of his work. No one in the anthropological or journalism world bothered to verify any of the charges, but now anthropologist Alice Dreger's new, comprehensive and extensively documented article has now presented the facts, in a remarkable piece of research: “Darkness’ Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale,”available at Springerlink.com

The article as well as this issue need wider exposure, not only because of the readiness of some scientists to spread unfounded rumors about their competitors or political adversaries, but because it indicates how, despite their insistence that the social sciences are as rigorous and disciplined as the biological sciences, some social scientists will reject the protocols that are necessary and embedded in the other sciences, most notably the need for reliable, testable evidence. Social sciences want equal respect and standing with the biological sciences but they still refuse to abide by the rigors of the scientific method of inquiry.

Years later the scurrilous lies and misrepresentations of Tierney were finally acknowledged by the American Anthropological Association and the National Science Foundation, among other reputable institutions. The larger story, however, is what should interest us today, because it has relevance to the deterioration of research standards and the expansion of ideology in our universities, embodied in what is called post-modernism. It is the ancient debate over Nature vs. Nurture, or its religious equivalent, Original Sin vs. the Noble Savage. Those on the left see humans as being noble savages corrupted by society. Christians see humans as perennially burdened with Adam’s sin and redeemable only through Christ. For the left which has invaded the universities’ social science departments, capitalism, injustice, and oppression are what produce anti-social behavior such as violence, with the solution being socialism of one kind or another.

This position requires them to ignore and ultimately reject any claims that aggression or other undesirable human traits are innate, hence the left’s rejection of Darwin and of natural selection in particular. The Christians of course reject evolution in favor of creationism. But in their rejection of science they end up in the same place. In the case of anthropology, the post-modernists feel compelled to challenge findings such as those of Chagnon’s because of their belief that the “noble savages” were mistreated or exploited. In effect they rejected the use of the scientific method per se, as well as impartial research and dissent, thus cementing the divide (created by them of course) between the social and the biological sciences. To get credibility from the public they have embellished their argument with the suggestion that it is racist to attribute some aspects of human behavior to our genetic heritage. (Some have gone even further by denying the existence of any concept of race, but that's another story for another day).

These social scientists are not disbelievers in evolution however. What they do believe, as much of the left believes, is that there is some kind of fixed marker between humans and the rest of nature, i.e., between us and our anthropoid ancestors. At some point (not specified), humans in the course of evolution became “fully” human and therefore no longer subject to the trials and tribulations of natural selection, exempt from the laws of nature entirely because of our newly acquired “humanness.” This kind of exceptionalism is easily adopted by others for their own purposes, and is now embedded in our discussion of environmental issues. It has led to a belief that everything that is NOT human can be exploited and commodified, leading to a purely instrumental view of nonhuman life on earth. This is today the prevailing philosophy everywhere, under both capitalism and socialism. But it is the left that bears most of the responsibility.

In fact an understanding of sociobiology ( euphemistically called “evolutionary psychology” by the social scientists) is fundamental in our discussion of social reforms and ethics. We need to understand the less adaptive aspects of human behavior and understand that they will never be abolished but only channeled and contained by human-constructed systems. Luckily for us, evolution does NOT dictate fixed responses and behavior but has provided us with the intellectual capacity to make choices and find creative solutions. Pretending that evolution has only bequeathed us good manners, peace and love is a sure recipe for avoiding social change.

Note: Chagnon has just published a new book, Noble Savages, which is a fascinating accounting of his time among the Yanomami, updated with the full accurate details on the slanderous machinations of cultural anthropologists on the left who have been aiming to destroy Chagnon for decades. It is a fascinating, even humorous, book in its own right, and a chance for the author to fire back at his adversaries with the full truth. I highly recommend it for your Best Reading list. Those who want to pursue the Chagnon/ElDorado issue further should check out Doug Hume’s website, anthroniche.com, which has a special section devoted to Chagnon; under that section there are many many comments and a subsection entitled Recent Additions, that are current submissions to the web site (my article about this is included). A writer for Disssent’s online articles, George Moberg, is in this section; he perpetuates the distortions and slanders of the marxists (besides being a piece of journalistic ignorance in general), by interviewing Marshall Sahlins, Chagnon’s leading detractor.

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The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.


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Copyright ©2013. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at www.lornasalzman.com.