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Six— Reflections on Biology and Culture
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Reflections on Biology and Culture

John Dupré

I shall concentrate here on Melvin Konner's essay (chap. 5) for a reason perhaps embarrassingly characteristic of professional philosophers: I disagree with a great deal of it. However, Arnold Davidson, Harriet Ritvo, and Evelyn Fox Keller all help to illustrate central points underlying my dissent from some of Konner's claims, so I shall briefly try to bring out some of these general points before turning to my main task of dissent.

Let me begin with some very general remarks that apply to both Ritvo's and Davidson's contributions. As a general theoretical proposition, it would now be quite widely agreed that how we understand both ourselves and nature must depend considerably on our general theoretical beliefs. Despite major differences in subject matter and approach, I take both Ritvo and Davidson to be offering, among other things, more specific illustrations of this general truth.

But it is not just the understanding of, or, in the case of Davidson's subject matter, the affective response to, phenomena that is liable to such influences but even what we take to be the phenomena themselves. Many of Davidson's monsters, I take it, were quite widely supposed to actually exist, and their existence offered a variety of explanatory etiologies. The unpleasant demise of Davidson's masturbators is not merely asserted but described in amazing detail. In Ritvo's sources, the importance of bovine virtue is not merely assumed, detailed "factual" reports of the alarming consequences of its absence are offered. The "telegonic" effects of previous sexual partners on female animals are illustrated with numerous anecdotal instances.

These observations provide a useful background for my main focus: How far do such historical observations mandate skepticism about our


current theories and even alleged facts? In particular, how much skepticism is properly suggested about our current theories about animals and the consequences of these for our theories of ourselves as animals? The answer, I shall suggest later, is a good deal.

Ritvo's essay not only suggests the appropriateness of such skepticism but also indicates a particular ground. The tendency to see views of ourselves reflected in nature, the "projections" she so clearly documents, has also been suggested for more contemporary theories—as, indeed, we can see in Keller's essay, to which I shall return shortly.

There are obvious difficulties in relating historical lessons to critiques of contemporary beliefs. The opinions that Ritvo and Davidson recount strike us as ludicrous and either comical or grotesque. We have our own theories that we take to be if not amply demonstrated, as least sufficiently so to reveal the complete untenability of these historical views. Consequently, the conclusion that these views are projections of prejudices about ourselves onto animals has no serious contender. When we come to consider contemporary beliefs, however, particularly those that carry our highest epistemological honorific, "scientific," we have no such alternative and accepted standpoint from which to launch such a critique.

But as Keller has persuasively illustrated, this does not mean that clear grounds for such a critique cannot, nevertheless, be provided. I think there is considerable force to the objections Keller raises to contemporary evolutionary theory. Since I cannot possibly recapitulate the intricacies of her argument here, I shall make just one further observation in support of her conclusion. Contemporary theorists of the evolution of social behavior often assert that the central problem in their field is, or if they believe it to have been solved, was, the possibility of altruism. (Needless to say, altruism is a concept like competition that allows considerable equivocal play between technical and colloquial usages.) There are, of course, compelling reasons internal to evolutionary theory for perceiving altruism as a major problem. Nevertheless, if one is at all inclined to skepticism about the absolute objectivity of scientific theory, this must surely add plausibility to the contention that evolutionary theory recapitulates a traditional image of Hobbesian man.

There remain major questions that, I think, Keller's account raises but does not answer. In particular, I have in mind questions about specifically, I see two rather different, though perhaps not incompatible, sources of this individualism. Keller's main suggestion, in line with a point emphasized earlier in these remarks, is that we project views of human society onto the animal world; views, that is, of Hobbesian man or now, perhaps, Homo economicus var. Chicagoensis. However, the individualism she describes is also an example of what I take to be a more general method-


ological prejudice in science. I have in mind reductionism, or the general belief that the behavior of complex entities must be understood whooly in terms of the properties of their constituent parts.[1] Perhaps this methodological assumption should itself be understood as a more far-reaching projection of social philosophy onto the entirely of nature. If not, the relation between these positions is something that will require further exploration for a fuller understanding of these issues.

Keller, to return to my main thread, provides strong evidence that the dangers of projection of social ideology onto the natural world have relevance to our evaluation of contemporary as well as historical ideas. Konner, by Contrast, has a very different kind of project embodying a more complacent view of science: he encourages us to understand ourselves better by applying to ourselves the lessons that we have learned from our study of other animals. Since I take it we may all agree that we are, among other things, animals, this suggestion surely has something to commend it. However, the work of Ritvo and Keller should make clear a major danger inherent in such a project. To whatever extent our understanding of animals does involve a projection onto them of antecedent views about ourselves, the attempt to understand ourselves by applying our knowledge of naimals will complete a small and unilluminating circle. (I think there is a close analogy here with Terry Winograd's cautions about the use of machines as a route to understanding ourselves.) In fact, I believe that it is just this methodological problem, rather than the often very confused debate about the existence of "human nature," that is central to the accusation that human sociobiology, the most conspicuous contemporary attempt to illuminate human nature by appeal to more general biological theory, functions, in large part, as a rhetorical device for the defense of conservative ideology.[2]

As I have already confessed, I disagree with a good deal of Konner's argument. Even if this reflects no more than my own ideological biases, that itself would provide some evidence that even the evaluation or up-to-date scientific ideas is susceptible to such bias. Konner presents his views with subtlety and sophistication, and I certainly cannot hope, in the space of these comments, to give a comparable defense of an opposing position. What I shall do, however, is briefly indicate three major points at which I disagree strongly with the views he expresses.

First, Konner asserts at the outset that "an organism is in essence a gene's way of making another gene." This is, of course, an extreme instance of the reductionism I mentioned above in discussing Keller's contribution.[3] I also think it is profoundly misleading, even false. The issue here are complex and somewhat technical, and I can do the least justice to this part of my dissent. I take the fundamental error to be the assumption that a gene, or even, for that matter, an organism (as keller has argued),


can be adequately characterized in isolation. Or more accurately, the gene that is characterized in temrms of molecular biology cannot also be adequately described in terms of its phenotypic effects. Put simply, this is because the development of an organism involves enormously complex interactions between genes and with the environment, such that the question, what is the developmental upshot of a particular piece of DNA (such as an aquiline nose, or criminal tendencies)? is thoroughly ill-conceived.[4]

Konner is, of course, aware of these difficulties and remarks parenthetically that it is a confusion to suppose that the cohesiveness of the genome—that is, the enormously complex set of interactions between different genes and the environment in the development of an organism—has any but a quantitative bearing on the validity of this reductionistic premise. I believe he is mistaken. One way of seeing way this is so is to observe that given the incommensurability of the chemical and functional descriptions of genes, it is unclear that there is any interpretation of the term gene which could serve for an elaboration of Konner's Butlerian statement of the essence of an organism. As a matter of fact, this reductionistic slogan is generally offered as a consequence of speculations about the evolutionary process. But I think it is clear that if it cannot even be given ontogenetic sense, it has no chance at all of having a correct phylogenetic interpretation.[5] And finally, even if it were correct from both a developmental and en evolutionary perspective, there is a great deal more to an organism, especially a human one, than its ontogeny and phylogeny. I shall take up this remark again briefly at my conclusion.

My second main point ultimately concerns the role of language in science stressed by Keller and brings us back once more to the circle of projections with which I began this part of my commentary. Konner offers as support for the importance of biological considerations in understanding human behavior the claim that cultural anthropology has already discovered numerous cross-cultural universals. I suggest, on the contrary, that these divide exhaustively between the highly dubious and the irrelevant. In the latter category, I include examples such as coordinated bipedal walking and the reflexes of neonates. Certainly, I do not want to deny that human behavior is built on a substrate of (moderately) universal biological capacities. What are cleary more interesting are the universalistic claims about complex behaviors, and such claims I take to be uniformly dubious.

Let me illustrate the central problem with just one of Konner's examples. While admitting that the form is variable, he suggests that one significant universal—and hence presumably one that is to be taken to be grounded in biology—is the existence of marriage. But the variability of form, surely, is just the point. The question that needs to be asked is,


What is meant here by the word marriage ? Certainly for us, in modern Western society, the term is weighed down with social, economic, and affective connotations. Without a clear statement of which of these are, and which are not, included in the alleged anthropological universal, such a claim can do nothing but mislead. Any sense of the world marrriage thin enough to make the claim even approximately true will have, I suspect, very little to do with what we mean by the term.[6] (One is here not so far from—or at least on a slippery slope toward—the crude sociobiology that claims to observe "rape" in mallards or scorpionflies and concludes that rape must be "natural" for us.)[7] I would argue that all the interesting claims of this kind depend on just such oversimplistic uses of terms for complex social phenomena.

Third, and finally, I must take issue with the claims Konner makes about the genetic control of human behavior. At times, I must admit to being a little uncertain what these claims are. That there are "complex interactions of genotype, metabolism, and environment in the development of neural, behavioral, and mental phenomena" would be difficult to dispute. Yet I take it that the descriptions he offers of increasing scientific knowledge of genetically mediated mental disorders must be intended to show more than this. That these findings "remove any doubt regarding the ability of genes to alter complex behavior" suggests, if it does not strictly imply, that Konner has in mind the possibility of genetic control of complex behavior.[8]

At any rate, my objective here is not exegesis of Konner's essay. What does seem worth emphasizing is the utterly unsurprising character of the phenomena Konner draws to our attention and the absolute lack of any interesting conclusions about the determination of human behavior which follow from them. Like Konner, I think that "phenylketoneuria provides a valuable model." This, it will be recalled, is a genetic disorder that, in the absence of a specially controlled diet, results in massive toxicity to the brain and consequent psychological dysfunction. Apart from the banal fact that people with damaged or seriously abnormal brains are likely to behave strangely, it is very difficult to see what could follow from this. In particular, I cannot see that it tells us anything whatsoever about the relation between the genetically mediated development of the brain and mature human behavioral dispositions. To claim the contrary seems rather like concluding from the severe behavioral consequences of hitting someone over the head with a hammer that behavior must be determined to some important extent by an internal mechanism involving the action of miniature hammers. At the very least, not a shared of support is offered for hypotheses such as that there are genetic causes for, say, a predisposition to marriage.

Let me conclude on a more constructive note. I mentioned above that


there was more to an organism, especially a human one, than phylogeny and ontogeny. In the human case, I cannot state better, or phobably as well, what this is than Bernard Williams has done for us. The nature of a species, including our own, centrally includes its ethology; and the most striking and fundamental feature of human ethology is its existence without culture.

Without espousing some of the more excessive statements of cultural relativism, I think that the above fact requires that we take culture much more seriously than sociobiologists and their followers and apologists are generally prepared to do. A possible way of stating the consequences of so doing is the following.

We are incliding to suppose that because Homo sapiens is undoubtedly a perfectly respectable biological speices, its universal properties must provide the fundametnal insight into the nature and behavior of its members. But such taxonomic paralysis is just a form of essentialism, a traditional philosophical view almost uniformly rejected by contemporary theorists of biology.[9] If we reject essentialism, it is open to us to conclude, from the centrality of culture to human ethology and the great variability of culture, that for most purposes, Homo sapiens is much too broad and coarse a category for understanding human begings. We might more usefully think of humans not primarily as constituting one biological species but rather as composing many, no doubt overlapping, cultural species.[10]

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