L’affaire Chagnon (Part 1)
I’ve been reading Napoleon Chagnon’s new book of late, and trying to puzzle out whether the academic conflicts described therein fit into a larger pattern. For as long as I can remember, there has been an internal conflict within anthropology between those who more strongly emphasize the role of genetics and nature and those who prefer to emphasize the role of environment and culture. Both sides are dismissed by the other as unduly determinist (or worse) presumably in an effort to gain ascendancy for their preferred approach. At the same time, there has been a long-running and heated battle between the psychometricians who believe intelligence is relatively heritable, unitary, and measurable, and their opponents who prefer to think of intelligence as learned, multidimensional, and immeasurable. Then there is also the ongoing debate between those who believe evolutionary psychology is a promising young branch of the biological sciences and those who talk it down as a pseudoscientific gloss on pernicious and outmoded ideas about gender.
After talking to John Horgan about some of these topics last week, I’m coming around to the view that whenever there is an ongoing debate about human nature we are probably going to see a kind of left/right self-assortment, with the people on the right tending towards the view that human nature is somehow fundamental, measurable, and worthy of study, while those on the left are going to focus not on our genetic tendencies but on our memetic constructs, elevating culture over nature. At some point, the people on the right will accuse their opponents of being hippies and blank-slaters, while those on the left will characterize their opposition as furthering a pernicious status quo, or at least hindering the march of progress. Eventually, the situation may devolve into outright character assassination.
I used to think of the nature/nurture conflicts within anthropology and biology as completely separate skirmishes (What have the fiercest of peoples to do with standardized testing methods?) but now I’m beginning to think that perhaps there will always be a split between those believe science should be strongly inflected by progressive political aims and those who remain willing to accept unpalatable truths about human nature as obstacles to be overcome rather than inconvenient truths to be brushed aside.
And with that last bit, I’ve probably given my position away.