People often assume I’m a “genetic determinist” because of my close attention to the interface of our species’ biology and behavior. I’m also focused on evolutionary science, a discipline where noise, error, and diversity generated by a constellation of variables is assumed (and to some extent, essential). From my interest in the latter it can be easily inferred that I don’t think there is anything necessarily deterministic about how mind and society manifest themselves over the course of development. Rather, an understanding of human nature can make us aware of the constraints and biases which might exist in terms of how we behave and why our societies develop as they do (the many channels of canalization). Evolution is in part stochastic, it isn’t necessarily a deterministic process where knowledge of initial values of the parameters can tell us the exact path of development. But, the stochasticity itself can be quantified and accounted for so that we may comprehend the range of possibilities across which the course of development may vary. One person’s noise is another person’s music.
In a classical population genetic model if you have finite population demes which in the initial generation exhibit a balanced polymorphism of two alleles, A & B, and allow random genetic drift to operate as the sole evolutionary force you can expect that half the demes will fix for A and half for B. You can not predict the trajectory of any one deme, but you can make a general characterization of the evolutionary dynamics operant across the cluster of demes. Additionally, if you have two groups of demes where one set tilts toward allele A and the second toward allele B, you can expect that the former will yield more demes fixed for A than B, and the inverse for the latter. I said expect, because as you can expect that a series of coin flips should converge upon a 50/50 ratio of heads & tails, there will also be an expected deviation from this expectation given a particular of number of trials (as the number of trials increases the deviation verges upon zero). Nevertheless, despite the lack of determinism, there is no implication here that the full sample space of possibilities are equally probable.
This is to be expected as biological sampling processes are natural, and nature is characterized by patterns and rules which bias the outcome of phenomena. The range of states often exhibits a distribution of different frequencies of said states. To move the discussion in a more concrete direction, consider for example a landscape characterized by topographic diversity, with mountains, rivers, floodplains and hills. Where should you build a town? Where could you build a town? Obviously the answer to that question depends on your considerations. Do you want a fortified citadel? A hill would make a good choice then. Do you want access by water? If the river is navigable that location is an obvious choice, but if you build upon the floodplain then you also introduce the possibility of flood damage. Perhaps there is a religious reason you would want to build on the side of the mountain. Certainly gravity would pose problems (dependent upon the grade), but, assuming the right engineering and materials investment it is a possibility. These considerations, the weighing of costs and opportunities in the framework of our values and expectations, come to us naturally when talking about geological constraints. But why shouldn’t the same apply to biology? The adaptive landscape is attractive precisely for this reason, it visually represents the nature of the topography across which dynamic processes flow. A bundle of heritable traits, cognitive biases, historical & personal contingent conditions, all these are parameters which are collected within the richly textured multi-dimensional space of possibilities for our species. Any given locus upon the landscape is characterized by various tradeoffs, stabilities and slopes.
In other words, the range and distribution of our social and psychological variation is not arbitrary. There may only be a finite set of stable social and psychological peaks, morphs if you will. These peaks are characterized by different stabilities, and alternative suites of costs and benefits. We are likely to evaluate the alternatives based upon the values we bring to the table a priori. Nature does not dictate the choices we make, but it definitely may have a hand in pairing down our list of options, or at the least forcing upon us various costs for each option. Though cognitive psychologists have adduced that there is within our species a basal and common moral sense, the playing out of that moral sense within our current societal context is modulated by a host of other parameters. Concrete is raw material, what use you make of it is your own business. In the specific case of morality theists often ask me how I can “justify” any set of ethics without God as a common grounding, but they do not comprehend that for me “God” is no answer at all. As an atheist I believe that the resonance of “God” in the mind of my fellow citizens is an emergent property of natural forces. Though it has much more emotional resonance than the mountain up the valley, God has, in my mind, has about as much to do with our morality and ethics. It is fundamentally a dodge, a non-answer which claims to be the answer wrapped within an inscrutable ball of supernatural mystery. In the end we are still faced the questions brought up by our natures and the products produced by ratiocination operating upon the raw material which we are dealt. Similarly, those who wish to engineer societies and play as gods must take into account the validity of the analogy with engineering: engineers operate within the constraints of physics to design their machines. They will take a set of specifications and implement machinery which can fulfill those specifications, but they do not do so by magical wizardry or purely through trial and error. Asserting, demanding and wishing is not enough. To solve a problem one must account for as many parameters as possible, to arrive at the science of the probable.