A Social Science Curriculum For The 21st Century
A social science curriculum for the 21st century is one that is biologically informed and up to date and that is no longer constrained by ideologies like the blank slate, the noble savage, the ghost in the machine, post-modernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, creationism and other ideas on both the left and the right. It is a curriculum that is based on a truly scientific understanding of human nature. The social sciences today lag behind the natural sciences as a result of being held hostage to ideologies which are opposed to a more empirical and biological view of human nature and resulting human society, culture and history. Over the coming decades the social sciences, and to a lesser extent the humanities, will come increasingly into consilience with the natural sciences. This means that social and cultural behavior will be increasingly explained in a way that is more harmonious with the natural sciences, especially biology. This approach will lead to greater understanding of humans and the human predicament. Its rate of diffusion will depend upon more communication between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities. It will also depend on more integration of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities in our school curriculum from elementary school to college. In this paper I will trace the rise and fall of ideology as a driving force behind the social sciences and show that it is being replaced by a more empirically sound view of human nature. I will also demonstrate how there is considerable common ground between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities, and how the fears of postmodernists, deconstructionists, cultural relativists and others on both the left and right are largely unfounded. Lastly I will lay out a plan for more integration of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities in our school curriculum from elementary to college level.
“Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
“Culture is not causeless and disembodied. It is generated in rich and intricate ways by information processing mechanisms situated in human minds. These mechanisms are, in turn, the elaborately sculpted product of the evolutionary process. Therefore, to understand the relationship between biology and culture one must first understand the architecture of our evolved psychology.”
Leda Cosmides, John Tooby & Jerome Barkow, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture
“History and culture, then, can be grounded in psychology, which can be grounded in computation, neuroscience, genetics, and evolution.”
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
“The swiftness of cultural evolution in historical times may by itself seem to imply that humanity has slipped its genetic instructions, or somehow suppressed them. But that is an illusion. The ancient genes and epigenetic rules of behavior they ordain remain comfortably in place.”
Edward O. Wilson, Concilience
The purpose of all sexually reproducing
organisms is to survive and reproduce and this purpose – eating and mating --
ultimately drives their growth patterns and behavior. Economic and reproduction-oriented activities (food and family)
underlie human societies. With humans,
eating and mating, and the complex of social relationships supporting them
underpins much of our human cultural development. Human culture can be viewed
as a tool for adaptation, as the apex of human technological creation. Culture is not just a material technology of
tools and objects, it is also a memetic technology of concepts and ideas that
affect behavior. A brief look at human
history reveals that there are certain cultural concepts and ideas that prove
resilient. Ideas can evolve to become
better adapted to spreading themselves to human minds. But not all aspects of culture have direct
adaptive functions. Many types of human
cultural creations such as music, art, literature and religion are by-products
of brain abilities that were designed for other directly adaptive purposes. The variability of culture can be explained
in terms of a universal human nature interacting with unique historical and
environmental forces. These forces act upon populations of humans and help to
create the epidemiological dynamics of culture within those populations.
Karl Marx correctly pinpointed our economic way of life as one of the primary causal agents of culture. Sigmund Freud pointed to the effects of our procreation impulses on our personal psychology. William James was correct when he said that humans have even more innate instincts than other animals and that this is what explains the complexity of our behavior. William James also realized that religion was a product of our psychology.
What kind of social science curriculum do we want in our elementary, secondary and post secondary schools in the 21st century? The answer is easy: one that is integrated and connected conceptually, and one that is empirical and not ideological. In short, a social science curriculum for the 21st century will be one that is evolutionarily and biologically correct.
I spent the decade of the 1980s studying and practicing cross-cultural psychology, which looks for the ways in which our unique cultures shape our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, with the focus placed on differences between human societies. Cross-cultural psychology tends to view the mind as a blank slate upon which culture writes the rules for thoughts, emotions and behaviors. I spent the decade of the 1990’s studying evolutionary psychology, which looks at the ways that all humans are fundamentally the same regardless of what are most often superficial cultural differences. Evolutionary psychology views the brain as an organ which is a product of evolution; it views the mind as the product of the brain’s neurological architecture and resultant neurochemical processing patterns which drive cognition and emotion which in turn drive behavior.
Capitalism, Communism, Marxism, Leninism, Nazism, Racism, Macarthyism, Christian Fundamentalism, Moslem Fundamentalism, Zionism, Humanism, Behaviorism, Postmodernism, Deconstructionism, Cultural Relativism and Creationism are some of the –isms of my life over the past 50 years. And each one of them has ways of interpreting human behavior, culture and history.
The lives of humans, for better or worse, are driven by ideologies and have been so for all of recorded human history and most likely for some of our prehistory as well. Certain beliefs have been resilient -- beliefs in the intrinsic efficacy of clan heads, chiefs, priests, kings, pharaohs, emperors, presidents and prime ministers; beliefs in the supernatural and attendant religious mythologies; beliefs in the roles of particular family members; beliefs in a certain type of education with a certain curriculum. We can perhaps even say that the human penchant for ideologies is largely biologically-based in that ideologies are a creation of a biological brain that evolved from the material and social needs of a hunter-gatherer past. Ideologies can serve adaptive functions and they can also make individuals and societies dysfunctional.
Most ideologies, like various religious and political ideologies we are familiar with, are by their very nature conservative and resistant to change -- they have built-in memes that instruct the believer to disregard contradictory ideas, somewhat like a defense mechanism. Many religious doctrines either explicitly or implicitly direct people to disregard the beliefs of other religions and often characterize members of such other religions as infidels and heathens. Another ideology, the anti-ideology, the empirical scientific method, promotes continual revision and adjustment as part of its nature. The scientific method is based upon the gathering, counting and ordering of phenomena that are measurable through the senses or through prosthetic extensions of the senses. Observable and measurable input from the senses – empiricism – is what sets science apart from other “soft” epistemologies.
Ideologies certainly play an important role in our lives. They are blueprints for thoughts, emotions and behaviors. They serve as heuristics and cognitive frameworks. Perhaps one of the great initial ideologies we humans created for ourselves was the idea that we are superior to the rest of nature and have a right to dominate nature and to cut and control it as we please. We put ourselves above nature in various ways by creating mythologies and pantheons of human-like gods and goddesses. The Book of Genesis of the Old Testament Judeo-Christian Bible has a patriarchal God telling humans that he created everything for their exclusive use, thus forming a foundation for the materialistic and environmentally exploitative nature of western culture. And the ancient idea (shared by many Jews and Christians alike) that the descendants of the Israelites are special people in the eyes of this God may be one of the roots of our problems in the Middle East today.
Ideologies color our perceptions and our cognitions. During the 20th century cultural anthropologists were so busy seeing the variability and uniqueness of the so-called “exotic” cultures they were studying that they failed to see the ways in which humans are fundamentally the same. This was because they subscribed to a social science ideology that held that cultures are independent superorganisms that shape all meaningful human thoughts, emotions and behavior. They failed to see the universal human nature that lies below the surface of seemingly unique cultures. A look at the same ethnographic record today shows that there are actually more similarities than differences between cultures. There are more human cultural universals than there are unique differences. These cultural anthropologists also failed to realize that the very fact they could understand other cultures proves that we have an evolved universal neural substrate and psychological architecture that allows humans to understand each other’s minds.
As a social scientist I was raised on cultural determinist views and accepted them until I began to see the overwhelming contrary evidence that was accumulating by the late 80’s from evolutionary biology, human physiology and genetics, cognitive science, neuroscience and hybrid disciplines such as psychoneuroimmunology
Recent ideologies affecting the social and behavioral sciences are postmodernism, deconstuctionism and cultural relativism, that tend toward thinking that there is no one true objective empirical reality and that realities are unique to individuals and their groups, and that histories are subjective narratives and not so much a recording of objective, empirically experienced facts.
Postmodernism and cultural relativism are alive and well in the Pacific. At a recent Pacific educational symposium, where I was giving a workshop for teachers, I was emphasizing the importance of teaching our children scientific explanations of cause and effect in the natural world as a remedy to supernatural and pre-scientific thinking. Several Chamorro women from the Micronesian island of Saipan became hostile and attacked science as “western” and “just one view of reality.” Everything is relative, subjective meaning of the narrative is all-important, and there is no objective reality. I had mentioned to them the anxiety-causing effects of beliefs in ghosts and said that of course there are really no such things as ghosts, of disembodied entities floating about in another dimension, and that what we call the spirits of our ancestors are simply the memories we keep of them, and that people who believe they have seen ghosts simply have an overactive imagination. They insisted upon their beliefs in disembodied spirits and ghosts of ancestors saying that it was part of their culture and if they believe in ghosts then ghosts are real. This is an example of a phenomenon that can be found worldwide in many different cultures: the belief in a “ghost in the machine” that is some kind of essence of the being that somehow animates and directs it. One of these Chamorro women cited another example of this kind of cultural relativism by saying that “you believers in western science tell children the scientific reason for why it rains (i.e. evaporation & condensation) while we tell our Chamorro children that it rains because of the actions of spirits and gods.” My question to everyone here today is: what do you think it is better to teach our children: scientific cause and effect with regard to the natural world or archaic mythologies that were developed in past ages.
Postmodernism, deconstructionism and cultural relativism have given us many rich and useful insights but they are not explanatory systems in and of themselves; they are only microanalyses that very often extract phenomenon too much from context and disconnect it from other empirical causal elements. They are, in essence, only perspectives, and nothing more. A casual glance at some of the work spawned by postmodernism reveals a lot of pretentious, overly jargonized, incoherent nonsense. A splendid book entitled Intellectual Impostures (entitled Fashionable Nonsense for the U.S. edition) by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont is an expose’ on the intellectual bankruptcy of the postmodernist proclivity for producing the most confused pseudo-scientific expositions ever written. Sokal, a physicist, is famous (or infamous) for his 1996 hoax in which he submitted a paper to the postmodernist journal Social Text which subsequently published it as a legitimate postmodern critique of science. The paper, entitled “Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity” was from start to finish utter nonsense that was written as a parody in the postmodern style. Sokal was originally inspired to do this by a book entitled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt. In a review of Higher Superstition Richard Dawkins cites several of the book’s examples of the excesses to which postmodernism can go. First a typical incoherent, jargon-centric and virtually meaningless passage from Jacques Derrida:
“If one examines capitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject neotextual materialism or conclude that society has objective value. If dialectic desituationism holds, we have to choose between Habermasian discourse and the subtextual paradigm of context. It could be said that the subject is contextualized into a textual nationalism that includes truth as a reality. In a sense, the premise of the subtextual paradigm of context states that reality comes from the collective unconscious.” ( Derrida cited in Dawkins, 1998, pp. 141-143)
Another one by the French psychoanalyst Felix Guttari is, in the words of Sokal and Bricmont, “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered”:
“We can see clearly that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticized previously.” (Ibid)
But none is greater in absurdity than the ideas of feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray who argues that Einstein’s theory of relativity based on E=mc2 is a subjective equation. According to Irigaray this is because it “privileges” the speed of light over other speeds. In addition, Irigaray also believes some areas of physics are “sexed.” She feels that fluids and their flows have been unfairly neglected in favor of a “masculine physics” which privileges rigid, solid things like the erect male sex organ. Her American expositor Katherine Hayes sums up Irigaray’s ideas in magnificent form:
“The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.” (Ibid)
For an amusing parody of the postmodern perspective on empirical science visit the website www.butterfliesandwheels.com/dictionary.php for a Fashionable Dictionary: Your guide to the language of pseudoscience and fashionable nonsense. And it is indeed time to stop this nonsense!
Biologically Informed And Up To Date
The 1990’s were deemed the decade of the brain by the U.S. Congress and the brain sciences indeed flourished. A research foundation that had been built up over a forty-year period bore much fruit during the 90’s and the human brain and the human mind were considerably mapped out. The connection between the brain-mind and culture also become increasingly apparent. There is still much to learn and there are new discoveries every week it seems, but we now have a concrete understanding of the geography and topography of the brain and how the brain creates the mind and how the mind creates behavior. Another field that has blossomed over the past few decades is the science of genetics that has revealed to us the code that creates the proteins that create cells, tissues, organs and organisms. A third field of science that has tied the two above sciences is the science of evolutionary biology that forms the conceptual foundation for all life sciences. Evolutionary biology explains how and why organisms and species emerge and how and why they developed the information-processing and behavioral programs that they possess. The conceptually organizing field of evolutionary psychology gives us a scientific understanding of human nature and resultant human behavior, social organization and culture. Evolutionary psychology is a hybrid of psychology, evolutionary biology, physical and cultural anthropology and cognitive neuroscience.
The brain comes pre-wired and predisposed toward a wide range of important human thoughts, emotions and behaviors related to human survival and reproduction including fear and defense, sex and mating, kinship altruism, social cooperation and social competition. The human brain is modular with many different types of information processing circuits that rely on specific types of input stimulus from the external physical and social environment. But the human brain also has an enormous capacity for plasticity – learning by interaction with the physical and social environment. The brain has a huge memory capacity and memories are stored in distributed networks of protein molecules on the surfaces of neurons. There are 100 billion neurons (brain cells) in the human brain that comprise the circuitry that runs the organism. And lastly, the human mind is combinatorial in nature, that is, there are endless possibilities to create new ideas and concepts by combining existing ideas and concepts. Human language is also combinatorial in nature allowing us to create an infinite number of meaningful utterances by combining the elements of a language.
What is Evolutionary Psychology
In their landmark book entitled The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, pioneer evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Jerome Barkow put forth a theoretical foundation for an integrated causal model of human behavior and edited a volume of original empirical works that show the evolutionary and biological foundations of the human mind, culture and resultant behavior. With the publishing of that book the field took off and produced and continues to produce numerous empirical works that look at evolutionary biology, behavior, culture and history. Albert Einstein pointed out that a theory allows us to observe and make sense of phenomenon that before were indiscernible and this is exactly what evolutionary biology did for psychology and what evolutionary psychology is doing to the social and behavioral sciences today. We can now see patterns where before we could not due to the lack of a unifying theory. But the evolutionary psychology of the late 1980’s and the1990’s was built upon a foundation laid in the 1960’s and 1970’s by evolutionary biologists such as George Williams, William Hamilton, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, Edward Wilson and others who first founded the field and called it sociobiology. But because sociobiology was attacked by the ideologues in academia during those times it had to go underground only to be resurrected under the name of evolutionary psychology. Today evolutionary psychology rests on a massive foundation of empirical evidence that is rapidly transforming the social and behavioral sciences.
According to The Adapted Mind:
“Evolutionary psychology is simply psychology that is informed by the additional knowledge that evolutionary biology has to offer, in expectation that understanding the process that designed the human mind will advance the discovery of its architecture. It unites modern evolutionary biology with the cognitive revolution in a way that has the potential to draw together all of the disparate branches of psychology into a single organized system of knowledge.”(Tooby, Cosmides, Barkow, 1992, p. 1)
The authors begin by pointing to the fact that other scientific disciplines such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, geology, and biology have developed “a robust combination of logical coherence, causal description, explanatory power, and testability, and have become examples of how reliable and deeply satisfying human knowledge can become.” (Ibid p. 19)
While the rest of the sciences have been communicating conceptually with each other and weaving themselves together through discoveries that reveal their mutual relevance to each other, a doctrine of intellectual isolationism has characterized the social sciences. The social sciences have tried to ignore the evolutionary and biological causality of human behavior in favor of cultural causality made possible by a content-free human brain. The problem is, a content-free brain is an impossible brain.
For example, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz advocates abandoning any attempts at empirically explaining the causes of social phenomenon in favor of treating social phenomenon as “texts” to be interpreted like one interprets literature. According to Geertz we should “turn from trying to explain social phenomenon by weaving them into grand textures of cause and effect to trying to explain them by placing them in local frames of awareness.” ( Geetz 1973, p.6 cited in Pinker, 2002 p. )
As an example of the incoherent extremes to which a social scientist who is not rooted in biological reality can go, here is Geertz saying that “our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system, cultural products…” (Geertz, 1973, p. 55 cited in Pinker, 2002 p. 25) So according to Geertz, even our nervous system is a product of culture!
Another anthropologist, Edmund Leach, blatantly rejects that scientific explanation should be the focus of anthropology. According to Leach “social anthropology is not, and should not aim to be ‘science’ in the natural science sense. If anything it is a form of art. Social anthropologists should not see themselves as seekers of objective truth.” (Leach, 1982, p. 52 cited in Pinker, 2002, p.).
According to the authors of The Adapted Mind
“This disconnection from the rest of science has left a hole in the fabric of our organized knowledge of the world where the human sciences should be. After more than a century, the social sciences are still adrift, with an enormous mass of half-digested observations, a not inconsiderable body of empirical generalizations, and a contradictory stew of ungrounded, middle-level theories expressed in a babel of incommensurate technical lexicons. This is accompanied by a growing malaise, so that the largest single trend is toward rejecting the scientific enterprise as it applies to humans.” (Tooby, Cosmides, Barkow, 1992, p. 22)
“We suggest that this lack of progress, this “failure to thrive,” has been caused by the failure of the social sciences to explore or accept their logical connections to the rest of the body of science – that is, to causally locate their objects of study inside the larger network of scientific knowledge.” (Ibid, p. 23)
The reigning view of the social sciences during the 20th century is embodied in what is referred to as the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) which holds that culture is a disembodied entity unto itself, a sort of super-organism that is absorbed by the blank slate minds of humans to shape their every thought, emotion and behavior. The SSSM denies the existence of an evolved human brain with an evolved architecture that predisposes humans toward certain types of thoughts, emotions and behaviors. The Standard Social Science Model also holds that biological evolution has been superceded by cultural evolution.
The alternative view, one that is called the Integrated Causal Model (ICM) holds that the human psychological architecture consists of numerous evolved mechanisms designed for solving evolutionary long-enduring problems such as finding food and mates, recognizing emotional expressions and surviving in complex social groups. In this view the human brain contains many content-specific information-processing circuits designed to address these adaptive problems. And these circuits, when combined, also produce many of the content-general abilities of the human brain. This bundle of many brain circuits represents the universal human brain architecture and the resultant universal human nature. The combinatorial power of these circuits combined leads to flexibility and the ability to create variable culture in response to the physical and social environments.
Once again, according to Tooby, Cosmides and Barkow:
“The Standard Social Science Model requires an impossible psychology. Results out of cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, developmental psychology, linguistics, and philosophy converge on the same conclusion: A psychological architecture that consisted of nothing but equipotential, general-purpose, content-independent, or content-free mechanisms could not successfully perform the tasks the human mind is known to perform or solve the adaptive problems humans evolved to solve – from seeing, to learning a language, to recognizing an emotional expression to selecting a mate, to the many disparate activities aggregated under the term ‘learning culture.” (Ibid p. 34)
The result of the Standard Social Science Model has been to divorce the social sciences from the natural sciences in a way that makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for them to communicate with each other about much any substance. In his book entitled Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist and one of the founders of sociobiology, calls for the unification of the natural and social sciences. The term concilience used by Wilson refers to this unification whereby we recognize the biological and evolutionary connections between the human organism and the culture that it creates. Concilience is what is currently underway and will continue throughout the 21st century. It will be a unification of the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities under an umbrella of mutually consistent concepts and explanations of causality. Social and cultural phenomenon will be able to be explained in evolutionary, biological, genetic and memetic terms. In the chapter of Concilience entitled “From Genes to Culture” Wilson puts it succinctly:
“Culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked…Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, which are the neural pathways and regularities in cognitive development by which the mind assembles itself. The mind grows from birth to death by absorbing parts of the existing culture available to it, with selections guided through epigenetic rules inherited by the individual brain.” (Wilson, 1998, p. 127)
No Longer Constrained By Ideologies
The 20th century witnessed the blossoming of the social and behavioral sciences after their founding by such illustrious 19th century figures as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, William James and others. During the early to mid 20th century under the guidance of figures like Franz Boas, Sigmund Freud, John Watson, B.F Skinner, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, the social and behavioral sciences developed into distinct branches, developing their own theories and fruitful bodies of research that were unfortunately sometimes incomplete and disconnected because of the lack of a unifying theory. One idea that did unify the social and behavioral sciences during this time was the idea of the blank slate, the idea that almost all of human thought, emotion and behavior are given to humans by the internalization of culture. In this view, human thought, emotion and behavior patterns were not directed by genetic and physiological dispositions but by the external super-organism known as culture. According to Emile Durkheim, one of sociology’s founding fathers and early architect of the Standard Social Science Model:
“ But one would be strangely mistaken about our thought if, from the foregoing, he drew the conclusion that sociology, according to us, must, or even can, make an abstraction of man and his faculties. It is clear, on the contrary, that the general characteristics of human nature participate in the work of elaboration from which social life results. But they are not the cause of it, nor do they give it its special form; they only make it possible. Collective representations, emotions, and tendencies are caused not by certain states of consciousness of individuals but by the conditions in which the social group, in its totality, is placed. Such actions can, of course materialize only if the individual natures are not resistant to them; but these individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms. Their contribution consists exclusively in very general attitudes, in vague and consequently plastic predispositions which, by themselves, if other agents did not intervene, could not take on the definite and complex forms which characterize social phenomenon.” (Durkheim, 1895/1962 cited in Tooby, Cosmides & Barkow, 1992, pp. 24-25)
The blank slate is an idea attributed to John Locke, a British philosopher looking to refute theories of innate ideas (i.e. humans are born with ideas already) Locke, an empiricist himself, developed a theory of mind and a theory of knowledge which said that everything in our minds comes from experience
Locke’s idea was an excellent one that reminded us of the impact of our physical and social environments on our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. It reminded us about the malleability and flexibility of human behavior and explained the abundance of difference cultures. This empiricist idea made a great contribution to the social and behavioral sciences that would develop in the 19th and 20th centuries. It formed the theoretical foundation of the enlightenment, the philosophies behind the American and French revolutions, and the ideas of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and other founders of modern social science. The idea of the malleability of human behavior also goes back in the history of Chinese ideas about education, from Confucius to Mao Tse Tung.
Confucius actually had it right and accepted the ideas of both of a human nature and malleability when he said:
“Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them apart.” (Confucius, The Analects)
Mao Tse Tung’s elegant statement of human malleability captures the spirit of the worldview of Marx and other social scientists.
“A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.” (Mao Tse Tung, cited in Glover, 1999, p. 254)
However, one flaw in the thinking of many great Western philosophers like Locke or Marx and their contemporaries is that they often tended to use their theories to explain too much; they sometimes forced the facts into their theories and neglected the facts that didn’t fit or contradicted their theories. In short, they sometimes tended to be too all-encompassing when it was not warranted. They also sometimes failed to see some of the connections that existed between phenomena, connections which evolutionary theory now provides.
The theory of the blank slate especially blossomed in the ideas of 20th century anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. In their hands it led to the belief that all human thought, emotion and behavior is determined by culture, and that the effects of biology and genetics on the human mind and resultant culture are minimal to nonexistent. Biology was seen as endowing humans with the five senses, the hunger, sex and fear drives and a general capacity to learn – especially to learn culture. This view of the Standard Social Science Model holds that biological evolution has been superceded by cultural evolution. Culture came to be seen as an entity unto itself, a sort of super-organism that directed human psychology.
“Instincts do not create customs; customs create instincts, for the putative instincts of human being are always learned and never native.”
(Ellsworth Faris, 1927, cited in Degler, 1991, p. 84)
“We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.” (Margaret Mead, 1935/1963, p. 289)
“Much of what is commonly called ‘human nature’ is merely culture thrown against a screen of nerves, glands, sense organs, muscles, etc.”
(Leslie White, 1949, cited in Degler, 1991, p. 209)
The idea of the blank slate made a lot of sense because it seemed to be true. Experiences do indeed shape our psychology but only because there are innate information processing circuits which allow us to make sense of certain aspects of the environment in certain ways, thus predisposing us to certain courses of action. The idea of the blank slate also came to be politically correct because it formed a theoretical foundation for some good social policies, especially in the areas of education and relations between racial and ethnic groups. If everyone was born equal with a blank slate for a mind, then the differences they do develop are a result of their experiences: there are no innate differences between people of different sexes and races, and with equal access to quality educational experiences anyone can flourish intellectually. The blank slate appeals to many because it provides a rationale for social engineering and political correctness.
The next idea that has had a good following in the West up until the present is the idea of the Noble Savage. First popularized by the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and influenced primarily by the discovery of the so-called “New World,” it promotes the idea that humans in their natural state live a selfless, peaceful utopian existence; that anxiety, greed and violence are products of civilization. An earlier British philosopher named Thomas Hobbes believed just the opposite however; he held that humans in the state of nature lived lives that were “nasty, brutish and short,” and that the strong domineering social and political structures of civilization are necessary to bring order to chaos. But the romantic idea of the noble savage took root and is alive and well to this day as Pinker aptly points out:
“No one can fail to recognize the influence of the doctrine of the Noble Savage in contemporary consciousness. We see it in the current respect for all things natural (natural foods, natural medicines, natural childbirth) and the distrust of the man-made, the unfashionability of authoritarian styles of childrearing and education, and the understanding of social problems as repairable defects in our institutions rather than as tragedies to the human condition.” (Pinker, 2002, p. 8)
We know today that the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were neither an idyllic paradise nor a brutal chaos. Our ancestors lived in small bands of around 50 people, relied on cooperation and creative thinking to survive and reproduce, had a varied diet, were subject to fatal injuries and diseases and did not suffer from obesity. To some, by modern terms, our hunter-gatherer past might seem idyllic but life expectancies were much shorter and people suffered the anxiety of getting enough food, finding and keeping a mate and trying to cooperate and compete with members of their own group and other groups as well. It was to solve these basic economic and social problems of survival and reproduction that our ancestors developed the contents of their culture – ideas, beliefs and rules for thoughts, emotions and behaviors. One can easily see how seemingly tried-and-true ideas might become rigid ideologies that prescribe behaviors for successful survival and reproduction – don’t question what seemed to work in the past.
During the decade of the 1990’s biological psychology came into its own and began to bring about a conceptual integration of the social and behavioral sciences by grounding them in evolutionary and biological reality. The modern synthesis of psychology and biology came into full form. Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among the many modern synthesizers of biology and psychology, has worked to build bridges between biology and culture. In his book The Blank Slate, Pinker outlines four bridges that have been built between biology and culture; these are:
Bridge #1 -- Cognitive Science
Cognitive science is the study of the information processing patterns of our brain-mind. Mental computation can be explained in terms of information, computation and feedback that take place within the tissue of the brain. Our thoughts, ideas, beliefs and memories exist as networks of connections between neurons, 100 billion of them, with each neuron being able to communicate with thousands of others across one hundred trillion synapses. Just think of the connectivity and the combinatorial nature of this processing. These patterns of activity within the brain can then be manipulated to become thinking and planning. The states of wanting and trying are feedback loops that receive information about the discrepancy between a goal and the current state of the world around us. The mind is connected to the physical and social worlds by the sense organs that change physical energy into the data structures of the brain that transmit signals to the motor programs by which the brain controls the muscles.
The brain is a modular information-processing organ that creates our psychological architecture. The mind is a result of the information processing activity of the brain. The mind is not a blank slate because blank slates don’t do anything, and our brain is certainly pre-equipped to do lots of things. The brain contains many evolved innate information processing circuits or instincts, if you will. William James was correct when he said one hundred years ago that humans have more and not less instincts than other animals. The mind’s programs are combinatorial and can generate a wide range of behavior. The universal human brain and psychological architecture underlies the relatively superficial variations in behavior across cultures. A look at the human genome shows us the blueprint, and a look at Gray’s Anatomy shows us the finished product – a universal human design with universal human abilities. All living things process the information that they require from their environment for survival and reproductive purposes. Humans have been said to live in a “cognitive niche” because they are able to process so many different kinds of information and depend so much upon it.
Bridge #2 – Neuroscience
The second bridge between biology and culture is neuroscience, which is the study of how our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are implemented in the neural circuitry of the brain. The mind is a result of the electrochemical activity of the brain. Every aspect of our mental lives is a result of the physiological events taking place in the tissues of our brains. Neuroscientists today have an extensive knowledge of the workings of the human brain from molecules to tissue to brain circuits and systems. Thoughts and emotions give off physical signals and through various brain-imaging techniques scientists can monitor and map out the parts of the brain that are in use during different mental activities and states. Scientists can literally “read” a person’s mind. Neuroscience allows us to see the physical events behind the neural architecture of the brain, which underlies our psychology and cultural universals.
Bridge #3 – Behavioral Genetics
Another bridge between biology and culture is behavioral genetics that is the study of how genes affect our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. The recent cracking of the human genome was a milestone toward our understanding of the relationship between genotype and phenotype, that is, between the genetic code in our DNA and the resultant organism – a human. We have already discovered genes for many types of human abilities and disabilities and the catalogue will continue to grow as will our understanding of the massive complexity of how genes interact with each other within the organism and how this genetic interaction affects the organism’s internal development and interaction with the physical environment. Behavioral genetics allows us to see the genetic code behind the physiological and neurological structure of the human organism.
Bridge # 4 – Evolutionary Psychology
The final bridge between biology and culture is evolutionary psychology that seeks to put it all together into an integrated causal model to explain human behavior and culture.
As stated in The Adapted Mind
“Culture is not causeless and disembodied. It is generated in rich and intricate ways by information-processing mechanisms situated in human minds. These mechanisms are, in turn, the elaborately sculpted product of the evolutionary process. Therefore, to understand the relationship between biology and culture one must first understand the architecture of our evolved psychology.” (Tooby, Cosmides, Barkow, 1994, page 3)
And, of great importance to the social sciences,
“With evolutionary psychology in place, cross-connecting biology to the social sciences, it is now possible to provide conceptually integrating analyses of specific questions: analyses that move step by step, integrating evolutionary biology with psychology, and psychology with social and cultural phenomena.” (Ibid)
Conceptual integration means that the various disciplines within the social and behavioral sciences should be mutually consistent between themselves, and also mutually consistent with the natural sciences. The natural sciences already possess conceptual integration, i.e. the laws of chemistry are consistent with the laws of physics. But this type of conceptual consistency does not exist within the social and behavioral sciences where we find psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, history and economics living largely in isolation from one another with no unifying theory and accompanying principles. That theory is Darwin’s theory of natural selection along with modern genetics and evolutionary biology.
The Adapted Mind explains how the Integrated Causal Model connects the social sciences to the rest of science by the following:
“a. the human mind consists of a set of evolved information-processing mechanisms instantiated in the human nervous system;
b. these mechanisms, and the developmental programs that produce them, are adaptations, produced by natural selection over evolutionary time in ancestral environments;
c. many of these mechanisms are functionally specialized to produce behavior that solves particular adaptive problems, such as mate selection, language acquisition, family relations, and cooperation;
d. to be functionally specialized many of these mechanisms must be richly structured in content-specific ways;
e. content-specific information-processing mechanisms generate some of the particular content of human culture, including certain behaviors, artifacts, and linguistically transmitted representations;
f. the cultural content generated by these and other mechanisms is then present to be adopted or modified by psychological mechanisms situated in other members of the population;
g. this sets up epidemiological and historical population-level processes; and
h. these processes are located in particular ecological, economic, demographic and intergroup social contexts or environments.” (Ibid p. 24)
The Social Sciences Today Lag Behind The Natural Sciences
The social sciences lag behind the natural sciences because they have failed to consider the evolution and physiological construction of the human organism. The social sciences have suffered from the lack of a unifying theory behind human behavior and the resultant lack of integrating causal explanations. There has been a proliferation of disconnected observations of human behavior with weak or non-existent theory to unify and explain. For example the “theory” of behaviorism that says all human behavior can be explained by stimulus, response and association; the “theory” of humanism which says that all human behavior can be explained in terms of self-esteem and self-image; the “theory” of psychoanalysis which says that all human behavior can be explained by understanding unconscious conflicts. Each of these three “theories” is based on accurate observations of factors affecting human behavior, but they are not full explanatory theories in and of themselves. They are in fact what are referred to as middle level theories that provide a middle level explanation of cause and effect. The only true “theory” in psychology today is the theory of evolutionary psychology, which says that all human behavior can be explained by understanding our biological evolution and the structure and function of our evolved physiology and resultant neurological and psychological architecture.
The Social Sciences Have Been Held Hostage To Ideologies Opposed To A More Empirical and Biological View Of Human Nature And Resulting Human Society, Culture And History
In his 1997 U.S. National Bestseller entitled How The Mind Works, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker points out that:
“The confusion of scientific psychology with moral and political goals, and the resulting pressure to believe in a structureless mind, have rippled perniciously through the academy and modern intellectual discourse. Many of us have been puzzled by the takeover of humanities departments by the doctrines of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and deconstructionism, according to which objectivity is impossible, meaning is self-contradictory, and reality is socially constructed.” (Pinker, 1997, p. 57)
Sociobiology, the use of biology to understand human social behavior, emerged in the 1970’s by prominent scientists such as George Williams, E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, William Hamilton, Richard Dawkins and others. Begun by Charles Darwin in the late 1800’s it took another century before scientists had the empirical data to create the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology, genetics and psychology. But this progress of the 1970’s was constrained by left-wing ideological attacks on these scientists that were putting forth a more biological view of the human mind, culture and resultant thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Wilson’s book Sociobiology caused quite a stir. Ideologically driven and theoretically incoherent essays and books were published to attack it. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote a book entitled The Use And Abuse of Biology in which he only revealed his true worry that culture would be dethroned as an independent super-organism directing all human thought, emotion and behavior and that this would undermine the prestige of the field of cultural anthropology.
The leftist paleontologist Steven Jay Gould and leftist geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote an essay entitled “Against Sociobiology” in which they basically accused Wilson of promoting eugenics, Social Darwinism and the hypothesis of racial differences in intelligence. Wilson was absurdly accused of defending racism, sexism, social inequality, slavery and genocide because of his scientifically sound view of the genetics and biology of human behavior. At Harvard where he taught, Wilson was harassed and jeered and protested by the politically correct students and faculty of the time. In one incident in 1978 when he was addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science a group of placard carrying and slogan chanting protestors interrupted his speech and came up onto the stage and poured a pitcher of water over his head.
Richard Trivers, another pivotal figure in the development of the sociobiology of the 1970’s, wrote landmark papers on the evolutionary basis of altruism, parent-offspring conflict, differential male and female rates of parental investment, sibling rivalry and human self-deception. He too was reviled as a tool of the right-wing establishment even though he was in fact rather left of center himself.
Another major target of the politically correct in the 1970’s was Richard Dawkins for his 1976 book entitled The Selfish Gene in which he laid out a scientifically correct view of genetic evolution in all living things. He was immediately accused of “genetic determinism” and “crude reductionism,” two inaccurate and essentially meaningless but widely used abusive terms applied to sociobiology. The “selfish gene” in the hands of unscientific ideologues quickly became one of the most misinterpreted scientific concepts. Dawkins was accused of saying that people are naturally selfish and want only to selfishly spread their genes. But what Dawkins put forth was a correct “gene-centered” theory of evolution. Animals, including humans, don’t consciously strive to spread their genes, but they consciously strive to experience the enjoyment of sex and offspring. Genes spread themselves by designing organisms for their own use. Genes make us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children and by living our social lives we are able to survive and reproduce and thus pass on the “selfish genes” whose nature is to replicate.
In 1976 the American Anthropological Association tried but failed to pass a motion condemning Wilson’s Sociobiology. The anthropologist Derek Freeman published a book in 1983 entitled Margaret Mead and Samoa, which largely debunked Margaret Mead’s theories about culture and behavior in Samoa and revealed that she was in fact an incompetent anthropologist. That same year the American Anthropological Association passed a motion that condemned Freeman’s expose’ on Mead. She was, after all, an icon of the cultural anthropology establishment, and Derek’s empirically grounded debunking could not be tolerated.
In the 1960’s the psychologist Paul Ekman discovered through his cross-cultural research that certain human facial expressions were universal among humans. These expressions relate to the emotions of surprise, fear, anger, joy, sadness and disgust. Ekman’s findings, which should have been hailed as a milestone in human studies, were condemned by Margaret Mead and other anthropologists, who feared that he threatened to replace the culturally unique with the culturally universal. Much of cultural anthropology’s efficacy rests on the prevalence of the culturally unique and exotic over the culturally universal. Today Ekman is a world-renowned specialist in the science of facial expressions as they relate to universal human emotions.
Evolutionary psychology has also been attacked from the right as well. Conservative Christian fundamentalists condemn it because it does away with the Genesis creation myth and the idea of an eternal human soul or the “ghost in the machine.”
It’s true that Darwin’s theory of evolutionary biology has been misused in the past, as was the case with Social Darwinism in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in Europe and America. Biology was indeed misused in the name of Euroamerican imperialism, racism and fascism. But as is the case with all knowledge, scientific knowledge it must be used responsibly. We cannot condemn science just because some people have misused it.
The fall of the overly ideological social sciences that began in the 1970’s reached a critical mass during the 1990’s with a large and irrefutable body of empirical scientific knowledge. There is just too much contrary evidence against a view that ignores our evolution and our biology. The mapping of the human genome and the human brain and the mountains of empirical evidence from dozens of areas of research have revealed to us our genetic, evolutionary and biological heritage. They have revealed to us our true human nature. In 1991 the anthropologist D. E. Brown published a book entitled Human Universals in which he pointed to the fact that there are more similarities than differences between human cultures. Brown has put together an extensive list of traits that are shared by all human cultures. (see appendix A) This should come as no surprise since all humans share the same evolutionary history and current human genome.
There Is Considerable Common Ground Between The Natural Sciences And The Social Sciences And Humanities.
There is nothing to fear from biological or evolutionary explanations
for human culture. These explanations
demystify and explain but do not detract from the value of our cultural
creations. We can now explain human
culture in terms of universals that are adaptive such as our core social
behaviors related to subsistence and mating.
We can also explain many elements of human culture in terms of
universals that are by-products of our brain-mind abilities such as art, music,
literature and religion. The
variability of culture can be explained in terms of a universal human nature
interacting with unique historical and environmental forces acting upon
populations of humans and with the epidemiological dynamics of culture within
One example among scores of possible examples is the one used by Wilson in Concilience in which he traces the traditional Amazonian art to the culturally acceptable drug ayahuasca and its effect on the brain. Mystical religious experiences can now be explained in terms of brain chemistry and it appears that some of the world’s great religions were started by individuals who had what we would refer to today as real psychological or psychiatric “issues” to put it mildly. Hearing voices and seeing apparitions are signs of schizophrenia today and not signs of communicating with anthropomorphic gods and goddesses. The great charismatic founders of religious cults that became full-blown religions combined their intense personalities with their audio and visual hallucinations to enthrall their followers.
Brain chemistry is directly linked to cultural creation. For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key role in the brain’s reward pathway that prompts good feelings in response to certain behaviors such as relieving hunger, quenching thirst or having sex. Dopamine also facilitates pattern making by the brain, in other words, it helps us to see patterns in the world around us that can help us to pursue opportunities and avoid dangers. An excess of dopamine has also been implicated in schizophrenia and belief in the supernatural and paranormal. Schizophrenics see patterns where none exist, as do people who believe in the supernatural and paranormal. (New Scientist, 2002; Horvitz, 2003)
In a 1994 article in the British Journal of Psychiatry entitled “Creativity and Psychopathology: A Study of 291 World-Famous Men” the author Felix Post points to the connection between low to moderate psychopathology and artistic creativity. Post studied the psychological histories of 291 famous men in science, thought, politics and art. The categories were: scientists and inventors, statesmen and national leaders, painters and sculptors, composers and novelists and playwrights.
According to Post, all these men:
“…excelled not only by virtue of their abilities and originality, but also of their drive, perseverance, industry, and meticulousness. With a few exceptions, these men were emotionally warm, with a gift for friendship and sociability. Most had unusual personality characteristics and, in addition, minor ‘neurotic’ abnormalities were probably more common than in the general population. Severe personality deviations were unduly frequent only in the case of visual artists and writers.” (Post, 1994, p. 22)
Post goes on to say that:
“Scientists had the lowest prevalence of psychic abnormalities, but even in their case these were absent or trivial in only one-third. The amounts of psychopathology increase steadily from composers, politicians, artists, and thinkers through to writers.” (Ibid p. 24)
Ancient Shamans, who were the original ancestors of all priests, experienced altered states of consciousness from various means, including drugs and sensory deprivation, and used this as their inspiration as well as their device to enthrall and convince their clients of their authenticity and spiritual efficacy. This does not mean that psychopathology is a prerequisite of creativity and cultural creation, however it does demonstrate both direct and indirect links between brain processes and certain types of cultural creation. After all, the Oracles at Delphi breathed noxious fumes and had visions, while the witchcraft crazes of 16th and 17th century Europe were fueled not only by religious and social anxiety but also by the psychoactive effects of mold on rye bread. And in fact, much of male cultural creation (and a look at history reveals males creating a large amount of culture) is not a function of pathology, but is a function of sexual selection, whereby males strive to impress women to get women as their mates. Men have been trying to impress women in every way for ages: by proving their physical and manual prowess, by proving their intellectual and linguistic prowess, by proving their social and economic prowess, and also by proving their artistic, musical and literary prowess. Women are selecting men based upon certain criteria. (see below David Buss and The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating)
The newly developing science of memetics is also giving us understanding of the evolution of culture. Memes, like their biological counterpart genes, are the units of culture such as ideas that develop and spread because of their impacts on human minds, human lives and human societies. There are musical ideas, artistic ideas, religions ideas, literary ideas, philosophical ideas, ideas related to human survival and reproduction such as ideas regarding economic, social and political organization, ideas regarding mating and childrearing and many others that show a remarkable resilience down through the ages. As mentioned earlier, some ideas are directly adaptive and others have no apparent adaptive functions at all or very indirect adaptive functions at best.
A recent landmark book by Pascal Boyer entitled Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought provides a convincing case that religion, like many other cultural creations is a by-products of the mind’s inference systems which have been designed for other purposes but can be used for many other things by humans. Boyer’s explanation, one that would be supported by modern cognitive neuroscience, is that humans are stimulus junkies because the human brain has so many specialized stimulus (information) processing systems which have been designed for specific adaptive tasks but which can be used for other things by humans. Accordingly, music is a result of the human desire for pure and intensified auditory stimulation by a brain designed for adaptive auditory processing. Art is a result of the human desire for pure and intensified visual stimulus by a brain designed for adaptive visual processing. Music and art have no adaptive value; they are pure pleasure technologies. Another factor behind human cultural creation is our ability to think abstractly and in a sense decouple our cognition from the physical world around us. We can develop and manipulate concepts and ideas in our minds. Like music and the arts, certain religious ideas have been successful because they activate existing inference systems that are of vital importance to humans such as those that govern our most intense emotions, shape our interactions with other people, give us moral feelings, and organize social groups. (Boyer, 2001, p. 135)
Biologically and environmentally correct history is providing a unifying theory for that field. The Pulitzer Price winning book Guns, Germs, And Steel by Jared Diamond shows how the broad sweeps of human history have been strongly influenced by the physical environment in which populations found themselves. For example, according to Diamond, the civilizations of Eurasia, from China to Egypt and everything in between, were the earliest to make major social, political, economic and technological breakthroughs because of the geography of the Eurasian continent. Specifically, the availability of many types of domesticable plants and animals and their similarity across the same band of latitude led to food supplies that could support large populations. In addition, because of the east-west axis provided by the continent, ideas were able to travel in an efficient manner over the terrain by way of foot travel and horses. By contrast, there were few domesticable plants and animals in north and south America and the south-north axis cut across difference bands of latitude which did not allow the spread of plant and animal species adapted to a specific biome. North and South America did not get horses until European explorers and settlers brought them after 1492.
In the area of gender relations and human mating behavior, the book by David Buss entitled The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating is a multiculturally researched book that is a landmark standard in the field of evolutionary psychology. This book provides a solid empirical basis for understanding the complex mating behavior of humans and the underlying male and female psychologies involved. Among Buss’s many important findings are his globally universal profiles of what women and men look for in a mate. Universally, women look for economic capacity, social status, age (slightly older), ambition and industriousness, dependability and stability, intelligence, compatibility, size and strength, good health and love and commitment. These traits add up to a mate that will be able to successfully provide for her offspring. Universally, men look for youth, beauty as characterized by things such as skin tone and facial and body symmetry, chastity and fidelity. These traits add up to a mate with good genes to blend with his own and one that will be sexually faithful so he doesn’t end up expending his resources on another man’s child. (Buss, 1994, pp. 19-72)
Another book, The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture And Control Of Our Minds And Culture by James Burke and Robert Ornstein provides a grand historical synthesis and explanation of the dynamics of human cultural development, particularly with regard to the way that humans “cut and control” their environments -- the physical environment, social environment and the information environment. From the first axemakers who began making stone tools two million years ago with which to more efficiently “cut and control” their physical environments, up through the ages with the development of not only more hand tools and eventually machinery, but also tools to cut and control the information environment such as writing, printing and computers.
All of these books and scores of others are examples of how to go about integrating by connecting our evolutionary past to our present with our biology in mind. A quick search on the internet will reveal the large body of knowledge out there related to the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology with the social and behavioral sciences.
In the light of overwhelming empirical data regarding the connection between biology and culture it only makes sense to accept the clear evidence. And if that evidence is clear, we should be considering integrating it into our teaching of the social sciences at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels. At the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels in the social sciences we should be teaching the scientific view of cosmology and the origins of the universe and our solar system and earth. We should be teaching about the evolution and connectedness of all life on earth, and specifically the evolution of the human brain and behavior. We should help our students to understand the cause and effect relationships behind human thoughts, emotions and behaviors. And we should let them understand the development of human culture and all of its multifaceted functions. In short, we help our students to understand the physical world around them and also what it means to be human in that world.
Parts of the plan have already been laid out for us with regard to utilizing brain research to inform our educational theory and practices. There has already been a considerable integration of the brain sciences with education theory and practice and a proliferation of research and publications. From Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences to Jensen’s Teaching With The Brain In Mind, we have witnessed a literal explosion of books that integrate the brain sciences with educational practices. The brain sciences are being applied to every area and situation of human life. From mental health and our knowledge of a host of psychological and psychiatric disorders, especially schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, to gender relations and our knowledge of the innate differences and similarities between the brains and resultant thoughts, emotions and behaviors of males and females of our species. An excellent contemporary guide to exploring the human brain and resultant psychology is The Owner’s Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research by Pierce J. Howard.
Over The Coming Decades The Social Sciences, And To A Lesser Degree The Humanities, Will Come Increasingly Into Concilience With The Natural Sciences.
I believe that the ideological opposition to a biologically informed view of human mind, behavior, society, culture and history is on the decline in the face of overwhelming counter evidence. I also believe that we will be seeing more of the concilience between the natural and social sciences that E.O. Wilson talks about. This means that social and cultural behavior will be increasingly explained in a way that is more harmonious with the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology. This approach will lead to greater understanding of humans and the human predicament. The rate of diffusion of this concilience will depend upon more communication between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities in general, but especially in universities and colleges. It will also depend on more integration of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities in our school curriculum from the elementary to the postsecondary levels. The diffusion of biological interpretations to the social sciences will be easiest because of the existing scientific attitude that exists in these fields. The diffusion may be slower in the humanities, which might put up more resistance, but perhaps not.
The social sciences must embrace rather than abandon the empirical scientific method. The more that the social sciences can tell us about cause and effect with regard to human individuals and society, the more relevant and useful the social sciences will be. There is no nature-nurture debate -- it’s 100% genes and 100% environment. Genes and the vehicles they build (us) live within and act upon a physical environment in a relationship of co-evolution. There is no dichotomy between biology and culture. Humans are able to create culture by virtue of their evolutionarily shaped physiological, neurological and psychological endowment. Humans create culture for directly adaptive purposes, for indirectly adaptive purposes and for no adaptive purposes at all. Some of the greatest human cultural creations such as art, music and religion are by-products of the functions of real adaptations. Art, music and religion certainly have some psychological functions in that they provide pleasure, but they serve no adaptive functions. We could survive and reproduce without them, but they make survival and reproduction more enjoyable because they exaggerate audio and visual stimulus that is adaptable and therefore pleasurable. (Pinker, 1997, chap 8)
Much has been said to the effect that a scientific version of human nature, psychology and culture takes away the intrinsic meaning of life, but that could not be further from the truth. Life does not lose meaning through the demystification that evolutionary psychology brings. In fact, life gains even more richly textured and complex meaning when we know our evolutionary and biological heritage, when we know how we got to be the species that we are, when we learn to understand our true nature. Life does not lose meaning if there is no ghost in the machine -- no essential spirit or soul that lives on in an afterlife. In fact, life gains more intrinsic existential meaning in that our individual lives are what really matter and we should make the best of them. Because the beneficial effects of meditation and prayer have been proven to be a result of brain chemistry and it’s affect upon the immunological system and not an experience of the Supreme Being, does not detract from their value either.
As Anton Checkov said: -- Man will become better when you show him what he is like. And to the concerned politically correct ideologue, by the word “man” Checkov meant “humankind” including women. Evolutionary psychology and an evolutionarily and biologically informed social science hold out the promise for us to truly understand ourselves in every way, the good, the bad and the ugly. Humans have an evolutionary and biological predisposition toward violence, particularly coalitional violence, but they also have an evolutionary and biological predisposition to cooperate and mediate conflicts so as to avoid violence. But it would be incorrect to say that because violence is natural for humans that it is morally good. That would be the naturalistic fallacy, the fallacy that if it’s in nature, if it’s “natural,” that it’s “good.” While humans do have moral propensities, they also have less then moral ones as well. Biology is amoral in that it only seeks to explain cause and effect in living things.
“The dread of a permanently wicked human nature takes two forms. One is a practical fear: that social reform is a waste of time because human nature is unchangeable. The other is deeper concern, which grows out of the Romantic belief that what is natural is good.” (Pinker, 2002, p. 159)
Another fear is that a biological view of human nature does away with free will, but again, nothing could be further from the truth. An understanding of the brain and the organism’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors reveal that the very nature of the brain is to make choices – the brain is designed for choice. The brain is computational in nature with circuits dedicated to if-then statements based upon input from the senses. These are called inferences that are essentially choices of how to think and feel which in turn drive behavior. All human action is based upon choices made by these innate inferential abilities.
A more biological view of humans promotes equality – all humans come from the same genome that was finally hammered out during a genetic bottleneck that took place around 200,000 years ago in southern Africa. Humans, unless born impaired from genetic damage, all share the same underlying physiology and neurology, the same neurological and psychological architecture that predisposes them toward certain species-specific patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
With regard to the issue of gender equality, many feminists don’t want to accept the fact that there are some innate differences in abilities between men and women. They want men and women to be the same so that men and women can be equal in society. But besides the obvious physical and physiological differences between males and females of our species, there are also important, neurological, psychological, hormonal and immunological differences as well. Research also shows that there are differences in certain abilities between men and women. On average, females are superior to males in verbal performance (both verbal memory and verbal fluency). Women are also better in landmark memory. Men are superior to women in visual-spatial and targeting ability and in math skills. (Kimura, 2002; Howard 2000; Moir & Jessel 1991) There is an evolutionary and biological basis for these differences in abilities. But feminists miss an important point -- men and women don’t need to be biologically the same in order for there to be equality between the sexes and for that equality to be valued by a society. In addition, throughout our evolutionary history and continuing to the present the males and females of our species, because of their evolutionary heritage, are predisposed toward certain distinguishable patterns of gender behavior, i.e. masculine and feminine behavior. And if some women feel inclined act masculine and some men feel inclined to act feminine as a way of attaining happiness, then that is their right and their privilege. A biological view of human nature does not preclude people from having cultural beliefs that run against the grain, which we’ve been doing for ages, and which is an example of the great amount of free will we do possess. Biology is not entirely destiny.
In the foreword for Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book entitled The Selfish Gene, the pioneer sociobiologist Robert Trivers wrote:
“Darwinian theory gives us a glimpse of an underlying symmetry and logic in social relationships which, when fully comprehended by ourselves, should revitalize our political understanding and provide the intellectual support for a science and medicine of psychology. In the process it should also give us a deeper understanding of the many roots of our suffering.” (Trivers, 1976)
And once we understand the many roots of our suffering as springing from aspects of our evolved human nature we can perhaps deal with them on a more objective basis.
In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel he makes as strong case for the fact that the Eurasian civilizations became so advanced because of the geography of resources and communication and not because of some inherent racial superiority of Asians and Europeans. He also posits that cultures become more advanced when they are in contact with other cultures that they can borrow from and share with. If you are a Pacific islander, a member of a society on a remote island in a region that was isolated from important external cultural development, you might be better able to understand your own level of development vis a vis Asia and Europe. You might also be more open minded to the value of more formal regional and international contacts backed up by better social science education
And lastly, many critics, especially Christian Fundamentalists object to the fact that an empiricist scientific view of morality does away with the need for an anthropomorphic god that give us our moral rules and punishes us when we break these rules. But human moral behavior does not require supernatural underpinnings. I will conclude with a quote from E. O. Wilson’s Concilience chapter eleven “Religion and Ethics,” which provides and empirical view of the moral nature of humans:
“Ethics in the empiricist view, is conduct favored consistently enough throughout a society to be expressed as a code of principles. It is driven by hereditary predispositions in mental development – the ‘moral sentiments’ of the Enlightenment philosophers – causing broad convergence across culture, while reaching precise form in each culture according to historical circumstances. The codes, whether judged by outsiders as good or evil, play an important role in determining which cultures flourish, and which decline.” (Wilson, 1998, p. 240)
While evolution by natural selection is an amoral process, the requirements of human social life have given humans evolutionary adaptations that, taken together, predispose them toward moral behavior for the sake of survival and reproduction. It can be said with empirical confidence that humans are indeed moral animals.
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Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals
Source: The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
Abstraction in speech and thought
Action under self-control distinguished from those not under control
Affection expressed and felt
Belief in supernatural/religion
Beliefs about death
Beliefs about disease
Beliefs about disease
Beliefs about fortune and misfortune
Binary cognitive distinctions
Biological mother and social mother normally the same person
Black (color term)
Childhood fear of loud noises
Childhood fear of strangers
Choice making (choosing alternative)
Classification of age
Classification of behavioral propensities
Classification of body parts
Classification of colors
Classification of fauna
Classification of flora
Classification of inner states
Classification of kin
Classification of sex
Classification of space
Classification of tools
Classification of weather conditions
Conflict, consultation to deal with
Conflict, means of dealing with
Conflict, mediation of
Continua (ordering as cognitive pattern)
Contrasting marked and nonmarked sememes (meaningful elements of language)
Copulation normally conducted in privacy
Corporate (perpetual) statuses
Critical learning periods
Decision making, collective
Directions, giving of
Discrepancies between speech, thought, and action
Distinguishing right and wrong
Division of labor
Division of labor by age
Division of labor by sex
Economic inequalities, consciousness of
Entification (treating patterns and relations as things)
Environment, adjustments to
Envy, symbolic means of coping with
Face (word for)
Facial expression of anger
Facial expression of contempt
Facial expression of disgust
Facial expression of fear
Facial expression of happiness
Facial expression of sadness
Facial expression of surprise
Facial expressions, masking/modifying of
Fairness (equity) concept of
Family (or household)
Father and mother, separate kin terms for
Fears, ability to overcome
Fear of death
Females do more direct childcare
Future, attempts to predict
Good and bad distinguished
Groups that are not based on family
Hand (word for)
Healing the sick (or attempting to)
Husband older than wife on average
Incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed
Incest, prevention or avoidance
In-group distinguished from out-group(s)
Institutions (organized co-activities)
Interest in bioforms (living things or things that resemble them)
Intertwining (e.g. weaving)
Kin, close distinguished from distant
Kin terms translatable by basic relations of procreation
Language employed to manipulate others
Language employed to misinform or mislead
Language is translatable
Language not a simple reflection of reality
Language, prestige from proficient use of
Law (rights and obligations)
Law (rules of membership)
Likes and dislikes
Logical notion of “and”
Logical notion of “opposite”
Logical notion of “part/whole”
Logical notion of “same”
Magic to increase life
Magic to sustain life
Magic to win love
Male and female and adult and child seen as having different natures
Males dominate public/political realm
Males engage in more coalitional violence
Males more aggressive
Males more prone to lethal violence
Males more prone to theft
Males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime
Manipulation of social relations
Marking at phonemic, syntactic, and lexical levels
Meaning, most units of are not universal
Mood or consciousness altering techniques and/or substances
Moral sentiments, limited effective range of
Mother normally has consort during child rearing years
Music related in part to religious activity
Music seen as art
Normal distinguished from abnormal states
Music, vocal , includes speech forms
Nomenclature, (perhaps the same as classification)
Nonbodily decorative art
Oligarchy, de facto
Overestimating objectivity of thought
Person, concept of
Phonemes defined by sets of minimally contrasting features
Phonemes, merging of
Phonemes range from 10 to 70 in number
Phonemic change, inevitability of
Phonemic change, rules of
Planning for future
Play to perfect skills
Poetic line, uniform length of
Poetic lines characterized by repetition and variation
Poetic lines demarcated by pauses
Polysemy (one word has several related meanings)
Practice to improve skills
Precedence, concept of
Preference for own children and close kin, nepotism
Private inner life
Pronouns, minimum two numbers
Pronouns, minimum three persons
Proverbs, sayings in mutually contradictory forms
Psychological defense mechanisms
Reciprocal exchanges (of labor, goods, or services)
Reciprocity, negative (revenge, retaliation)
Recognition of individuals by face
Redress of wrongs
Resistance to abuse of power, to dominance
Right-handedness as population norm
Rites of passage
Role and personality seen in dynamic interrelationship (i.e. departures from role can be explained in terms of individual personality.
Sanctions for crimes against the collectivity
Sanctions include removal from the social unit
Self distinguished from other
Self as neither wholly passive or wholly authoritarian
Self as subject and object
Self-image, awareness of (concern for what others think)
Self-image, manipulation of
Self-image, wanted to be positive
Self is responsible
Semantic category of affecting things and people
Semantic category of dimension
Semantic category of giving
Semantic category of location
Semantic category of motion
Semantic category of speed
Semantic category of other physical properties
Semantic components, generation
Semantic components, sex
Sememes, commonly used ones are short, infrequently use ones are longer
Sex differences in spatial cognition and behavior
Sex (gender) terminology is fundamentally binary
Sexual regulation includes incest prevention
Sexuality as focus of interest
Sickness and death seen as related
Snakes, wariness around
Socialization expected from senior kin
Socialization includes toilet training
Special speech for special occasions
Statuses and roles
Statuses, ascribed and achieved
Statuses distinguished from individual
Statuses on other than sex, age, or kinship bases
Stinginess, disapproval of
Stop/nonstop constraints (in speech sounds)
Time, cyclicity of
Tools for cutting
Tools for making tools
Tools patterned culturally
Tools for pounding
Triangular awareness (assessing relationships among the self and two other people)
True and false distinguished
Tying material (i.e. something like string)
Units of time
Violence, some forms of proscribed
Vocalic/nonvocalic contrasts in phonemes
Weather control (attempts to)
White (color term)
Note: The above list should be considered a partial list. There are certainly many more. But it’s a start.