September 23, 2009

Nature and nurture: the rematch

Jean-Jacques Rousseau tended to blame human ills on social corruption.

One of these days, I want to go on a long blogging jag about the dangerous territory where biology and society overlap. I call it dangerous territory because many earlier efforts to go there have led to bad results in various forms of social Darwinism. On the other hand, a great deal of harm has been done by those who deny that we have any kind of biological human nature and view people as blanks slates.

In fact, I'd say that both the right and left are prone errors on this question. Conservatives tend to see hierarchy and systemic inequality (the old Great Chain of Being) built into nature itself, thus making it impossible to do anything about it. Some on the left in the past have denied that there is such a thing as human nature and viewed all negative human traits to be due to bad social conditions--and the results of acting on this belief have been pretty bad.

It seems to me that there is a growing body of evidence that we do carry around some evolutionary baggage which probably made sense for a lot of human history but can cause problems now. Some of that baggage might include a tendency towards binary in-group/out-group views; kin favoritism; striving for status, particularly among males; the capacity for aggression; and so on.

That doesn't mean we're fated to any given kind of social arrangement. It just means we have to work with the materials at hand. Human nature isn't some kind of Silly Putty that can be molded into any conceivable shape, but it is remarkably adaptable.

WALL STREET ON THE MOON. The Dow is up while millions of Americans are down. Here's Robert Reich on the subject.

WHICH IS WHY it's a good thing the US House voted again to extend unemployment benefits for 13 weeks.

THE COST OF DOING NOTHING about health care is too high, as this op-ed argues.

TORTURE ON THE BRAIN. Brain research reinforces the widely held conclusion that torture does not lead to reliable information, aside from the whole moral repugnance factor.

URGENT WEIRD SHARK UPDATE here. (Teaser: it looks like this kind is into kinky sex.)



Hollowdweller said...

The longer I raise livestock the more I hew to the heredity thing.

PBS "This American Life" recently did a show on these kids that were switched at birth and the families actually knew each other. Sort of further reinforced my feelings.

El Cabrero said...

Roger that. Especially the roosters.