SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR….Mrs. Tilton

SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR….Mrs. Tilton at The Sixth International has a post up today about sociobiology evolutionary psychology that does a good job of explaining what’s right and what’s wrong about it:

Here’s what triggered the show today: a chatty piece by Zoe Williams attacking sociobiology. Williams (or her sub-editor) has provocatively summarised the piece by writing, ‘the “science” of sociobiology exists only to explain why men are within their rights to pursue young hotties.’ Mr Cuthbertson growls that Ms Williams denies sociobiology for reasons of ‘political correctness’.

There’s something to his charge. But what Ms Williams is denying is not sociobiology but a cheap caricature thereof (and one that, if accurate, would be eminently worthy of denying). Her article’s subtitle gives the game away. No sociobiologist would claim that men are ‘within their rights’ to pursue young hotties.

By general consensus, “sociobiology” was renamed “evolutionary pyschology” about a decade ago. This change was made for good and sound reasons, its practitioners insist in public, but if you get a couple of beers into them they admit that the real reason is that “sociobiologists,” as Mrs. Tilton points out, were frequently denounced as Nazis and doused with pitchers of water back in the 70s when the field was a newborn babe. Best to retreat and regroup.

I have never entirely understood either the antipathy with which evolutionary psychology is greeted by many liberal academics or the delight that it seems to engender in social conservatives. (This last especially since the entire field is based on applying the lessons of evolution, a science that many of these same social conservatives deny in the first place.) Even a passing familiarity with the subject should persuade both sides of two things:

  • It is not biological determinism. It simply states that biology plays a role in human behavior.

  • It makes no statements at all about what proper human behavior should be.

It seems obvious that explaining why something is so does not imply approval of the thing in question. In fact, it’s so obvious that it even has a name and a long and glorious history. But still it haunts us.

Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain why we do the things we do, and it succeeds better at some things than at others. But it certainly doesn’t suggest that innate behavior is either moral or desirable. In fact, since the entire goal of civilization for the past 10,000 years has been mostly to rein in and modify innate human behavior, this should be obvious too, and the lessons of EP can help us in this ancient and worthy effort. If research suggests a reason why little boys do one thing and little girls do another, for example, the lesson should not be that we are forced to accept this behavior even if we don’t like it, but that we should try even harder to modify it because it’s probably going to be a real bear getting the job done.

As indeed it is, a lesson we all learn daily. If only all those other guys could just listen to sweet reason…..

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