Gene Expression

Eric Michael Johnson has put up a three part series on deconstructing the intellectual tradition of Social Darwinism. This is blogging as scholarship at its best. When it comes to intellectual history it is often rather easy to quote a particular passage or emphasize one aspect of a movement, and then leverage that in the furtherance of your argument. From what I can gather Eric seems to present “Social Darwinism” as a sloppy and incoherent set of ideas, more often attaining coherency in the reformulations of its antagonists than in consistency of vision set forth by its presumed luminaries. In other words, the cleanest intellectual history of Social Darwinism can be found by reading the movement’s antagonists.

To me the moral of the story of Social Darwinism is that conclusions will co-opt and concoct foundational justifications. Evolutionary biology has offered lessons for both libertarians and communitarians, and I think that tells us more about libertarians and communitarians than it does about evolutionary biology. We live in a world which is riddled with Whiggish presuppositions, but in many ways it seems that we still need to firm up our arguments with antique metaphysics. In some cases that foundation comes from religion; e.g., Christian socialism or Christian libertarianism are examples where political philosophies point to the same religious truths as their root. But for more secular individuals science can serve the same function. In 1900 the truths of evolutionary biology aligned rather curiously with the reigning orthodoxy of white racial supremacy and interracial competition. Today in the 21st century evolutionary genetics tells us that H. sapiens is a relatively homogeneous species, and in our biology there is an exception to the emphasis on the value of diversity. Often I feel that the history of ideas is actually a mask, fitted upon the true secret history of implicit assumptions which are dominant in the Zeitgeist of a particular period.

Comments

  1. #1 John Emerson
    January 11, 2010

    As I mentioned in a different thread, in our scientific age people construct semi-scientific justifications for their beliefs and practices, just as 19th century Americans (and many others) constructed semi-Biblical justifications.

    If you look at low-grade practices like pedagogy, criminology, counseling psychology, and international relations, you tend to find that the gap between the science and the practice was astonishingly wide. The two education classes I took were in never-never land — neither useful practical methods nor worthwhile social science research. It was useful only for credentialization purposes.

  2. #2 John Emerson
    January 11, 2010

    Scott Eric Kaufman of “Acephalous” blog is finishing a PhD on Social Darwinism in American culture ca. 1900. I believe that his conclusion that there were no real Social Darwinists, but only Spencerians and Huxleyites, but it may be that it was more radical than that.

  3. #3 Clark
    January 11, 2010

    So do you think this applies to a lot of recent Evolutionary Psychology?

  4. #4 razib
    January 12, 2010

    clark, yes.

  5. #5 toto
    January 12, 2010

    Often I feel that the history of ideas is actually a mask, fitted upon the true secret history of implicit assumptions which are dominant in the Zeitgeist of a particular period.

    Yes, but there are also cases where the opposite really is true, especially at a very large scale: the growth in knowledge does drive change in the cultural zeitgeist.

    Consider the materialistic viewpoint: the idea that everything that goes on in the universe results solely from the blind interactions of brute matter, as opposed to goal-directed forces (Aristotle’s “soul”) and careful design.

    This viewpoint is not new at all. It was already around at the time of the ancient Greeks, with Empedocles and the Atomists. But at the time, the actual data made this position intenable. Looking at any living creature, you see apparently non-physical processes (the various transformations that go on in the body cannot be explained by the simple mechanisms that we observe in inanimate matter, at least at a macroscopic scale), and function/teleology (things that are there because they are needed for the rest of the body to function).

    That’s why Aristotle and Galen, and the majority of the Ancients, were essentially vitalists – not because they were dumb or unscientific, but because the state of knowledge at the time supported it. There were materialists at the time, who tried to reduce biological processes to simple, physical processes (as they could observe them in macroscopic inanimate bodies). Their fanciful theories were easily refuted by actual observation and experiment – Galen savages their position in a particularly biting manner (read this, esp. point 12 onwards – snark is not a modern phenomenon either!). And as it happens, he does have the data for him. The vitalist “zeitgeist” was actually supported by real knowledge.

    What happened since then is, first, the chemical revolution (from Priestley and Lavoisier to Liebig and Bernard), which showed how complex transformations could actually occur even in inanimate matter, and so metabolism could actually be reduced to simple, physical processes. That left the problem of design. This problem, of course, was solved by Darwin, whose contribution can be summarised as “reducing final causes to material causes”.

    So now the “zeitgeist” (at least within the intellectual elite) has shifted away from vitalism and towards materialism, precisely as a result of scientific advances, i.e. knowing more stuff.

  6. #6 XiXiDu
    January 12, 2010

    Before mixing evolutionary psychology with Social Darwinism I strongly suggest everyone to read the following shredding of the general critic that has lately been aimed at it:
    http://hplusmagazine.com/articles/bio/darwinian-psychologist-straw-mans-ass-kicked

    Most of the attacks are ignorance-based and biased.

    More:
    http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology

  7. #7 Onkel Bob
    January 12, 2010

    It’s interesting that you chose to use the term “deconstructing,” which if I recall correctly was minted by that fluffy French philosopher Jacques Derrida (may he rot in perdition). Fascinating that one would use a derided philosophy to argue against another derision.

  8. #8 EMJ
    January 12, 2010

    Thanks for the link and kind words Razib. I should have at least one more post on this that should appear in the next couple of days (sooner if I can find time to complete my presentation for ScienceOnline2010).

  9. #9 TGGP
    January 12, 2010

    “Deconstruction” comes from Heidegger:
    http://szabo.best.vwh.net/hermeneutics.html#dec

  10. #10 Clark
    January 12, 2010

    In defense of deconstruction, it really is highly misunderstood which is partially why it’s considered “fluff.” One can be a hard nosed materialist and think there’s a lot to Derrida’s view of deconstruction. (Which is really about the role of signs in cognition)

    But the term came to mean much more than Derrida’s use by the 1990′s. Although the use probably gets at one aspect of the discussion (to tear something apart and see its origins – roughly to unbuild or unpack). For a good overview of what the term means relative to technical philosophy this essay, “What is Desconstruction?”

    Of course the term has become so abused that many people just don’t use it anymore. It’s picked up too much baggage from the ignorant (those both supposed fans of Derrida and people who think he’s a fraud and quack)

  11. #11 blackberry
    January 13, 2010

    Nowadays in the world at a time when the collapse of the entire system, including capitalism, is now focused on the human rights and human investment is required to move patients. must act within the social phenomenon. Although the new world order, though it does not want it. In this way we advance our struggle we must.

  12. #12 blackberry
    January 13, 2010

    Nowadays in the world at a time when the collapse of the entire system, including capitalism, is now focused on the human rights and human investment is required to move patients. must act within the social phenomenon. Although the new world order, though it does not want it. In this way we advance our struggle we must.

  13. #13 Aristote
    January 13, 2010

    @ toto

    Science made the materialistic viewpoint a tenable position. The only one tenable position ? I would argue that both atheists and believers are wrong if and when they pretend science drives their intimate conviction.

  14. #14 miko
    January 13, 2010

    @XiXiDu: “I strongly suggest everyone to read the following shredding of the general critic that has lately been aimed at it”

    That link is a straw man shredding of another straw man (or men). None of what the article “shreds” are the serious critiques of evolutionary psychology. Not an endorsement of all of it, but David Buller has synthesized some of the serious critique in his writing, and some evo psych people have circled the wagons here: http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/buller.htm

    I find evo-psych to run the range from interesting but untestable to ridiculous to malevolent, but even fans have to admit–in more lucid moments when the stroking of their normative social mores in the language of biology isn’t making their VTA pulse with dopamine–that there is a lot of bullshitting going on.

  15. #15 abb3w
    January 14, 2010

    Razib Khan: To me the moral of the story of Social Darwinism is that conclusions will co-opt and concoct foundational justifications.

    An interesting observation, from within the conceptual framework I usually work from.

    Philosophically, Science works in contexts of Experience, Inspiration, Formulation, and Testing, working to develop an understanding of what “is”. Engineering adds the context of Design, using the understanding from the former contexts to develop what options “ought” to be chosen — which is a distinctly different thing. (Science as anthropological practice routinely crosses this dividing line in the process of experiment design — deciding how one ought to look so as to be most likely to find new evidence that makes the bookkeeping of the testing stage easiest.) Of all critical assumptions, the nature of the bridge chosen to cross this divide is probably the one most frequently left implicit.

    From this angle, Social Darwinism appears as poor-quality (social) engineering, where what “ought” to be done was decided beforehand.

    From the stories I’ve heard from working engineers of the more ordinary type, this sort of decision before the problem study isn’t uncommon in the business world. The caliber of fiasco resulting tends to be similar, although with a smaller scale.

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