Speech at the First World Curriculum Studies Conference, East China Normal University, Shanghai, Peopleís Republic of China
It is a great honor for me to be here in Shanghai in the Peopleís Republic of China.† And it is a great pleasure for me to be here at the East China Normal University at this conference where we are looking at the issues and philosophies behind the curriculum we teach our children.
My paper is about the revolution that is sweeping through the social and behavioral sciences and its implications for the social science curriculum at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels.
The question is Ė what kind of social science curriculum do we want in the 21st century? And the answer is Ė one that is biologically informed and up to date and that is no longer constrained by ideologies such as the blank slate, cultural relativism, deconstructionism, postmodernism and creationism.
It is a curriculum based on a truly scientific understanding of universal human nature Ė the human nature that was designed by the process of evolution by natural selection over a period of millions of years.
The social sciences today are behind the natural sciences as a result of being held hostage by ideologies that are opposed to a more empirical and biological view of human nature and the resulting human society, culture and history.
But as you will see from my paper, the social sciences are removing the chains of ideology and racing ahead toward a new synthesis.
And this new synthesis is embodied in the field of evolutionary psychology that combines the findings of anthropology, evolutionary biology, behavioral genetics, cognitive science and neuroscience to give us a new understanding of human behavior and culture.
Over the coming decades the social sciences will come increasingly into concilience with the natural sciences; and social and cultural behavior will be increasingly explained in a way that is in conceptual and theoretical harmony with biology.
My paper also provides a critique of postmodernism as it affects science in general and specifically the social sciences.† I have found postmodernism to be somewhat self-contradictory.† On the one hand postmodernism says that there is no such thing as objective reality, knowledge and truth, that all is subjective discourse and narrative.† But then on the other hand postmodernism says that its way of seeing things is correct, that it has knowledge and truth.
Postmodernism is a useful analytical tradition that can give us many useful insights and perspectives; it can sensitize us to other peopleís experiences, but it is not an adequate explanatory construct for explaining social, cultural and historical cause and effect, which is what the social sciences are all about.† Postmodernism adds a certain texture to the framework of information gathered by the empirical method but it does not affect the structure of that framework.
In my paper I show what happens when postmodernism has tried to venture into the sciences.† What resulted was incoherent pseudoscience.† Postmodernism makes good literary criticism, but it makes bad science.
Postmodernism, deconstructionism and cultural relativism all rest upon a basically cultural-determinist assumption.† That is, a belief that the mind is created by society and culture.† This is called the blank slate theory that was developed by the English philosopher John Locke. It says that at birth the human mind is clear and that society and culture write upon it all the rules for thoughts, emotions and behaviors.† This is the basis of social constructivism as developed by the Russian educational theorist Lev Vygotsky.
But thatís not how it works.† Modern brain science shows us clearly that it is the neurochemical processes of the brain that create the mind.† And both brain and mind are results of evolution with built-in rules related to human survival and reproduction.
Evolutionary psychology teaches us that the human species is a product of evolution, that the human genome is the universal set of genes that we all share, that these genes build the body and brain, that the brain has a structure that creates a universal human mind and resultant psychology, and that this universal human psychological architecture creates the universal human nature that we all share.† And lastly, this universal human nature creates the broad human cultural patterns that we find in every culture.
So in this view, there are more cultural similarities between humans than there are cultural differences.† Cultural differences arise as this universal human nature interacts with different social and physical environments over the course of history.† The fact that I know very little about contemporary Chinese culture and language but I can come here to Shanghai and get by is proof of a universal psychological architecture.
I spent the decade of the 1980ís 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 the 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 and even our basic perceptions.† I spent the decade of the 1990ís studying evolutionary psychology, which looks for ways that all humans are fundamentally the same regardless of what are most often superficial cultural differences.
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 1980ís from evolutionary biology, human physiology and genetics, cognitive science, neuroscience and hybrid disciplines such as psychoneuroimmunology.
During the 20th century cultural anthropologists were so busy seeing the variability and uniqueness of the so-called ďexoticĒ 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 behaviors.† 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 that they could understand other cultures proves that we have an evolved universal neural foundation and psychological architecture that allows humans to understand each otherís minds.
Iím an empiricist when it comes to history, I look for what happened and I try not to make moral judgments; I just look for explanations of cause and effect that can be empirically documented.† I donít interpret history through an ideological lens, I try to look for the recurring patterns of cause and effect and I try to look for empirical data to explain them.† Of course this empirical history can be seen through various eyes, for example the eyes of the rulers and the eyes of the ruled, the eyes of the imperialists and the eyes of the imperialized, but the facts of what happened remain the same.† The observed causes and effects is what empirical history is all about.† Explaining how and why something happened rather than whether or not it was good or bad that is happened because, as we know, goodness or badness will depend on the individual and their particular point of view.† The social sciences are about explaining and looking for empirical evidence of cause and effect.† The humanities are more about interpreting and applying subjective analysis to phenomenon and this is a valuable contribution.† This relates to the issue of the double identity of history as both a social science and a humanity.
I learned a few things along the way while writing this paper.† I came to understand how and why ideologies or belief systems work as they do.† I came to know that religions and sociopolitical ideologies work as effectively as they do because of the structure and dynamics of the information processing systems in the brain.† Ideologies activate important inferential and salience creating machinery in the brain that push the emotional buttons that steer our thoughts and behaviors.
Iíve spent nearly twenty years now working to teach scientific empirical thinking to people steeped in the Christianity brought to them by British and American missionaries as part of imperialism Ė the psychological colonialism of religious missionaries.† But I could have experienced the same frustrations in my own country that I left two decades ago where a large percentage of the people still believe in the Genesis creation myth, in other words, they still believe in mythological explanations for natural phenomenon that have been satisfactorily explained by science in non-mythological terms.
But the important thing for my purposes as a science educator is that religion requires less mental effort than science and so I have to deal with that as I work to teach my students to think scientifically.† Itís easier to believe in mythological fairy tale creation myths than it is to believe in the big bang, evolution by natural selection and the world of cell and molecular biology, and that is one of the roots of my frustration as an educator.
I believe that a rise in scientific thinking and the decline in magical and supernatural thinking is a necessary component of success in todayís world.† Scientific thinking certainly threatens some peopleís belief in mythological stories of creation as are found in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. However, science per se does not threaten religiosity in the moral sense or the sense of a relationship with the Creator, only the belief in impossible magical events.† Science teaches students that there is a scientific explanation for every phenomenon in the universe.† As I always tell my students, science should make a person more religious in a fundamental non-denominational sense in that science reveals to us the true workings of the thing we call God or the Force.† If one wants to know how the Force or God works, then study the sciences like astronomy, cosmology, physics, chemistry and biology.† The natural world around us is all we can really know about the Supreme Being and science is a system for explaining the natural world.
In teaching psychology Iíve heard some of my students stating their belief that mental illness is caused by ghosts and spirits, while I must teach them that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain caused by genes and a personality interacting with the social and physical environments.
In conclusion, I would like to see the science kept in the social sciences, but I would also like to see more dialogue between the sciences and the humanities and I would like to see this represented in the curriculum that we teach our students.
In light of overwhelming empirical data regarding the connection between biology and culture it only makes sense to accept the clear evidence and adjust our view of human nature.† 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.
We should be emphasizing the scientific view of cosmology and the origins of the universe, our solar system and the earth.† We should be teaching about the evolution and connectedness of all life on earth.† We should be teaching about 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 behavior.† And we should let them understand the development of human culture and all of its multifaceted functions and by-products.† In short, we should help our students to understand the physical world around and what it means to be human in that world.
Science is an amoral process.† Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.† Science describes cause and effect and does not prescribe moral solutions to our social problems.† Science is not concerned with whether something is morally or ethically correct, that is the role of philosophy and religion.† We must teach our children morals and ethics, and morals and ethics must inform our social policies and curriculum, but that is not the role of science.
In my paper I have tried to provide a brief survey of a social sciences that is evolutionarily and biologically honest and correct.† I know that I did not do justice to some issues for the sake of being brief and I apologize for that, but I hope I have given you some food for thought.
Thank you very much.