John Horgan equates incompatibilism with racism

John Horgan’s latest post on Cross-Check, his Scientific American website, is called “Defending Stephen Jay Gould’s crusade against biological determinism.”  There he defends Gould against recent charges (documented in a PLoS Biology paper) that Gould was sloppy in his reanalysis of the cranial measurement of human ethnic groups made by Samuel Morton in the nineteenth century.  (I’ve posted about this before, but the PLoS paper has been widely publicized.)

Horgan isn’t really interested in vindicating Gould’s analysis, for he doesn’t reanalyze the data himself.  Rather, he wants to defend Gould’s stance as an ardent opponent of biological determinism and racism, and to accuse at least one PLoS author of bias against Gould.  Well, I share Horgan’s dismay at rampant biological determinism: I have been a pretty strong critic of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, for example.  But I do think that Gould went to extremes, in some cases almost denying that natural selection played any role in shaping adaptations in the fossil record.  As for the accusations of bias that Horgan levels at one of the PLoS authors, Ralph Holloway, I have no opinion.  Holloway did use some strong words about Gould (“fact-fudging charlatan” are a few of them) that I wouldn’t have used myself.

What bothers me about Horgan’s piece is that he lumps “incompatibilism” (defined as the notion that free will, i.e., our free ability to make decisions, is incompatible with physical determinism) together with other fields of scientific research as “pseudoscientific ideology”:

Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology. Biological determinism is thriving today: I see it in the assertion of researchers such as the anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University that the roots of human warfare reach back all the way to our common ancestry with chimpanzees. In the claim of scientists such as Rose McDermott of Brown University that certain people are especially susceptible to violent aggression because they carry a “warrior gene.” In the enthusiasm of some science journalists for the warrior gene and other flimsy linkages of genes to human traits. In the insistence of the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris that free will is an illusion because our “choices” are actually all predetermined by neural processes taking place below the level of our awareness. In the contention of James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa reflect blacks’ innate inferiority. In the excoriation of many modern researchers of courageous anti-determinists such as Gould and Margaret Mead.

Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. This position is wrong, both empirically and morally. If you doubt me on this point, read Mismeasure, which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.

It is a perfectly valid scientific hypothesis (granted, one that might not be immediately testable) that what we see as our “free” choices really are determined beforehand by our environments and our genes.  In fact, more and more data are showing that what we think are “free” choices really aren’t.  As for Wrangham’s hypothesis about the biological basis of human aggression, I see it as plausible, or at least not immediately worth dismissing on the grounds of ideology.  If our altruistic and cooperative traits are partly built on the genes of our ancestors, as perhaps Horgan agrees (I do, too), why not the aggressive and pernicious traits as well?  Or does Horgan deny that any modern human behaviors, including sexual behaviors, stem from natural selection on our ancestors?  I don’t know about the “warrior gene” (I’m dubious about these single-gene effects on behavior that have been so widely touted and then refuted), and Watson’s claims were clearly out of line and unsupported, perhaps even motivated by racism.

But regardless, to dismiss any claims about the genetic basis of modern human behavior as “biological determinism, therefore pseudoscientific ideology” is simply silly: it’s the same kind of knee-jerk rejection of all research on the evolution of human behavior that Gould sometimes engaged in.  Horgan wants to dismiss these studies simply because he doesn’t like what he sees as their implications:  “the way things are is the way they must be” and that “we have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do.”  Well, tough.  Biological determinism, of both the anti-free-will and genes-determining-human-behavior variety, may be more pervasive than many people think, and is certainly more pervasive than Horgan thinks.

Oh, and I resent Horgan’s equating free-will incompatibilism with racism, which is, as they say, a base canard.  The man wants scientific results to conform to his notion of the way the world should be, and that’s always been a terrible mindset for understanding nature.  That’s how religion works, not science. Maybe Horgan should take the Templeton money after all.

52 Comments

  1. prasad
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    “In the insistence of the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris that free will is an illusion because our “choices” are actually all predetermined by neural processes taking place below the level of our awareness. ”

    What’s really weird here is that it’s hard to see what work evil “biological determinism” is doing here. Either mind-body dualism is false, or it isn’t. Assuming the former, either that’s a problem for free will, or it isn’t. But what on earth do these matters have to do with nature-nurture or gene-environment? You’re just as determined whether it’s genes or chemicals in the womb or social pressures or star signs or Christof cuing the sun that’s doing the determining. For that matter, I’m pretty sure it’s possible to be a determinist while believing in dualism – isn’t God supposed to know and have power over everything?

    • Posted June 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      Of course. That’s arguably Calvinism and (to my understanding) some versions of Islam.

  2. Frank
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Horgan clearly has an ax to grind. He lumps rather distinct phenomena under the rubric of biological determinism. The neurophysiological impossibility of pure free will is quite a different thing from Watson’s views on the attributes of Africans. It seems as though he would like human behavior and personalities to arise from a blank slate, which is just plain silly (as nicely argued by Pinker in his book of the same name). A sincere abhorrence of racism on his part seems to have expanded into wishful thinking.

  3. Al West
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    A minor point: Margaret Mead was not a ‘courageous anti-determinist’, and the article by Horgan in her defense is not convincing. Mead’s work was not just occasionally wrong, but was sloppy almost as a rule. In ‘Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies’, Mead presented an image of Mundugumor society as involving the ‘rope’, a system of alternating descent (mother to son, father to daughter) with regard to group membership, inheritance (even of things like weapons; men would apparently pass them down to their daughters, and them to their sons), and so on. This would have been unique among human societies, in fact. Research in the eighties, long after the book’s publication (and Mead’s death), based both on fieldwork and Mead’s original fieldnotes in the Library of Congress, showed that the Mundugumor had patrilineal descent groups, no alternating descent, and no ‘ropes’.

    The thing is, this wouldn’t be a huge problem if she hadn’t decided to elaborate on all of the complications of the system as she imagined them. She produced vivid accounts of problems of inheritance in this supposedly alternating society. It wasn’t just a slip up: she lied. So even if her Samoan research was wonderful and true, an issue on which I am agnostic, she was still a terrible researcher, at least with regard to some things.

    Mead was also not an implacable friend of the native or a superhuman anti-racist. Her husband Reo Fortune wrote the following words while conducting research on the Omaha, words that Mead apparently agreed with: “Fortunately for my work on the secret societies I had some informants literally under the rack of extreme privation and want, and so I was able to penetrate into secrets that are not usually admitted.” She herself believed that there was no point in learning the Omaha language in order to conduct research among the Omaha people, a ridiculous and offensive assertion to make, especially for an anthropologist. It is probably a mistake of this kind that caused her Mundugumor misunderstanding.

    She was also extraordinarily sexually libertine. Good for her, of course, but it’s easy to see how this would affect her research on sex. While married to Fortune in New Guinea, she met Gregory Bateson and ditched Fortune without bothering even to say goodbye. Somewhat unethical behaviour, I would say.

    Beliefs about metaphysics have no necessary connection to ethics. And anyone who thinks otherwise is a Nazi.

  4. Badger3k
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    “Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be.”

    No – unless you assume you know every influence on your behavior and choices. Change the input and you can change the choice or behavior. Everything in my life might “make” me choose one thing, but if I encounter new data before that choice, then my (determined) choice can change. It sounds like he’s going with some kind of predetermined Calvinist-style system.

    “We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do.”

    So what?

    “This position is wrong, both empirically and morally.”

    Empirically – are you sure you understand that word? I’d like to see evidence, since everything that is coming out of the latest research seems to indicate the opposite. At least that’s what I have seen.

    “If you doubt me on this point, read Mismeasure, which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.”

    Again, so what? Anything can become an instrument of malignant ideologies. What does that have to do with the truth?

  5. Posted June 25, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I resent Horgan’s equating free-will incompatibilism with racism, which is, as they say, a base canard.

    I don’t see how this is relevant. The comparison Horgan is making is to say that incompatibilism and racism are both “dangerous pseudoscientific ideologies.” It doesn’t matter if this bothers you – it only matters if it’s true.

    How is this different from when Nick Matzke accused Dawkins of playing the Nazi card? Dawkins made a valid comparison. The only question here is, did Horgan?

  6. Posted June 25, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Horgan wrote.

    It was always clear to me that Gould was influenced by his ideology. I was never sure how much that influenced “mismeasure” and I am still not sure. But I do believe Gould and Horgan are correct in their disagreements with biological determinism.

    Explain something to me, Jerry. If we don’t have free will, is science even possible? If our behavior is biologically determined, and we have no free will, isn’t the outcome of our “scientific” investigations also biologically determined and therefore not guaranteed to be a reasonably accurate account of reality? Maybe evolution is completely false, but we happen to believe it is true because we are biologically determined to so believe?

    It sure seems to me that the denial of free will completely undermines all science and all knowledge.

    • Moewicus
      Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      It’s only a problem for science if you assume cognitive responses to the environment, like say a failed experiment, aren’t inputs that contribute to behavior. Probably not a warranted assumption.

    • phalacrocorax
      Posted June 25, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I wonder how can an ill-defined philosophical concept undermine anything. But, even if you are using “free will” as a synonym of non-deterministic, I still don’t think it makes knowledge impossible. You can write a fully deterministic program capable of giving correct logical answers to your input. You can also write a program that incorporates random variables (i.e., a program with free will) capable of providing approximately good answers. So, whether our decision-making process is deterministic or not should not affect our capability of arriving at the right conclusions. Unless, of course, our brains are faulty.

    • Posted June 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you can write a deterministic program that gives the right answers. You can also write a deterministic program that gives the wrong answers. How can we be sure that we are giving the right answers rather than the wrong answers, if we don’t actually have the ability to choose which answers we give?

      • Posted June 25, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        Seriously, you can’t figure this one out?

        First of all, you’re missing the head of the nail by focusing on “choice.” If I’m in the African jungle being chased by a herd of wildebeasts, I don’t want the choice to believe I’m somewhere else, not being chased by a herd of wildebeasts. I want my brain to force that interpretation on me (since it’s accurate), and also force on me a strong motivate to run away.

        The important question is whether or not what my brain forces on me is accurate. Living things are biological robots running a program. Our hardware takes in information about the environment, and then our software processes it and performs logical operations on it.

        The sensory processing works pretty well, although there are plenty of known errors that operate in systematic ways. The logical processing… well, it works. Although humans aren’t very logical overall. Still, I know that I can’t be in NY and Africa at the same time. I know that if I run away from a herd of wildebeasts, I’m more likely to live than if I stand still and let them run over me.

        None of this knowledge is a “choice.” I can’t choose to believe that I’m in NY and Africa at the same time, nor can I choose to believe that there’s a herd of wildebeasts in my apartment (although drugs or brain injury could make these delusions possible). It’s just my program operating the way it does. And it’s accurate.

        You should be able to figure out why. Natural selection favors the evolution of accurate programs. But it doesn’t build perfect ones, not by a long shot. That’s why humans are very bad at logic, but also good enough.

        • phalacrocorax
          Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

          What were all those wildebeests doing in the jungle? I’d think they are too large to chase you in there. 😉

          • Posted June 25, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

            Uh… African “plains”? “Desert”? “Where ever wildebeests live”? (^_^);

            ::wonders if commenters here understand Japanese emoticons::

      • phalacrocorax
        Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        You can also write a non-deterministic program that gives the wrong answers. As a matter of fact, a 100% random decision-making system will hardly ever give a rational answer. Some determinism is necessary in order to make sense.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted June 26, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        If the epistemological circumstances about our brains and the rest of the world are right, then we have knowledge, and the papers we publish in journals are ultimately science. That we arrived at those states by a deterministic (or indeterministic but wholly physical) process does nothing to undermine that epistemological status of our claims. I don’t know why you would think that you need to operate outside the causal order in order to have science. If you think it undermines the epistemological status of those beliefs and claims, then you need to give a better argument for why that is the case. I don’t see it in anything you wrote here.

  7. prasad
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    “If our behavior is biologically determined, and we have no free will, isn’t the outcome of our “scientific” investigations also biologically determined and therefore not guaranteed to be a reasonably accurate account of reality?”

    Is the “therefore” obvious? Deep Blue is computationally determined to play chess. It still plays it really well. Bees are biologically determined to do everything they do. They find honey…

    • Sven DiMIlo
      Posted June 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Make it, actually, but I nitpick.

      • prasad
        Posted June 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

        If you say so…

  8. prasad
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Put differently, either you do good science or you don’t. How would your having the ability to “choose” to do science (or not) make your scientific results better or worse?

  9. Andy
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Horgan has this diavalog on bloggingheads right now where he accuses Sam Harris of being a “fraidy cat” for declining to debate free will with him. Harris has publicly debated countless people, in print and in front of large audiences—indeed, he’s sort of famous for debating people—and yet Horgan says he’s somehow afraid. It’s just kind of a dopey, weird thing to say.

  10. Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Horgan’s writing:
    – Just doesn’t show knowledge of much and even less understanding
    – Seems full of sentimental pop ideologies — of 20 yrs ago

    Why SA doesn’t replace him is apuzzle.

  11. Rob
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    “If we don’t have free will, is science even possible? If our behavior is biologically determined, and we have no free will, isn’t the outcome of our “scientific” investigations also biologically determined and therefore not guaranteed to be a reasonably accurate account of reality?”

    I’m curious how “free will” (free from what?) shoehorned into the mix somehow guarantees the reliability of science.

    It seems to me it would have the opposite effect. Dennett makes this point well.

  12. Larry
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/37006?in=52:58&out=62:10

    There should be a Coyne vs Horgan throwdown! I see Horgan on his back.

  13. PeteJohn
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Horgan: “Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology.”

    In other words, Gould fudged data to defend a noble position, so what he did was fine. I disagree, because that sounds exactly like lying for Jesus. I am also unsure of how exactly a tested hypothesis that suggests something to the effect of “our behavior is partially guided by our biological heritage and features” is deterministic. In fact I would argue the exact opposite. It is liberating to understand the behavioral limits of our species, in part so that we may account for them in trying to leave this world a better place for our children and their children. Put another way, I am not forced to kill or steal simply because those that came before me may have. It simply means that I have that capacity within me.

    Horgan “Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. THIS POSITION IS WRONG, BOTH EMPIRICALLY AND MORALLY.” (emphasis mine)

    Care to establish why? Otherwise, Horgan is essentially arguing that we have unlimited free will because we must. That argument holds a minimal amount of water, if any at all.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    What bothers me about Horgan’s piece is that he lumps “incompatibilism”—the notion that free will, construed as our free ability to make decisions, is incompatible with physical determinism—together with other form of scientific investigation as “pseudoscientific ideology”:

    It is very difficult to have an argument or even make an analysis when people mix philosophy and science together in this fashion. Whatever Horgan really say, I can’t find “incompatibilism” or “physical determinism”, from the perspective of physics there is no determinism in the philosophical sense.

    In classical mechanics you are supposed to be able to follow particle pathway precisely. This is called “determinism” as opposed to quantum mechanics mix of deterministic state evolution with stochastic decoherence (including observation).

    Turns out you can’t make it even classically, because there pathways diverge exponentially and/or phase spaces fold on themselves. These two mechanisms means you need infinite precision to follow some particles, which isn’t realizable for fundamental reasons. This is called “deterministic chaos” as opposed to quantum chaos, which follows from similar mechanisms but are observed quantum mechanically.

    So depending on whether you discuss the philosophic notion or the scientific notion it is pseudoscientific, the philosophical notion is rejected by experiment. In both cases however you would come to the same conclusion, the folk psychological idea of “free will” is compatible with physics.

    Besides being a good model to live by, I don’t think the idea that choices are involuntarily made would help “make” them, it is also a good model for legal purposes. That it doesn’t make biological sense is quite another thing. It would probably be less useful to claim that “free will” is always an illegitimate description, in the same way that it is less useful to claim that considering classical particles and bodies is always illegitimate.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      Correction:

      Classical pathways _can_ diverge exponentially, they don’t have to. (As opposed to quantum mechanics, where state evolution is linear. It is harder to make quantum chaos!) Similar for phase spaces, thay _can_ fold.

      The rest was correct as stated.

  15. Sven DiMIlo
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be.

    The rhetoric hasn’t changed since 1977. Frankly, I regard anybody who even uses the term ‘biological determinism’ anymore as a probable irrational ideologue. The entire biological education of many people has been reading Mismeasure, and they often seem to think it’s adequate, nay complete. And these are attitudes that are actually taught on college campuses. People are actively trained to think this way.

    But regardless, to dismiss any claims about the genetic basis of modern human behavior as “biological determinism, therefore pseudoscientific ideology” is simply silly…wants to dismiss these studies simply because he doesn’t like what he sees as their implications

    Precisely. It’s just so weirdly overcompensative. In Pharyngula comment threads (where this kind of rhetoric is distressingly common) I have called it an argument from stupid consequences. People are so worried that their political opponents will use scientific data to commit the is-ought fallacy (“implies that the way things are is the way they must be”–bullshit!! It just tries to figure out how things are and how they got that way–that’s it!) that they commit their own ought-is fallacy (“wants scientific results to conform to his notion of the way the world should be”).

    Not only do these people want the ‘is’ of scientific results to conform to their personal ‘ought’, but they insist in the face of evidence to the contrary that such results do, indeed must, conform.

    It hurts my eyes sometimes rolling them so hard.

  16. Tim Harris
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    Horgan is confusing issues when he objects to the thesis that human aggression is connected with our genetic heritage. It surely is so connected, and there surely are similarities between violence between chimpanzee groups and violence between human groups. I don’t have much time for such locutions as ‘demonic males’, but to suggest that aggressive impulses are innate is not to assert that therefore we are constrained constantly to be battling one another. In any event, aggression, whether among chimpanzees or among humans, and especially among humans, is a very complex phenomenon that is dependent upon circumstance and cannot be seen as being determined in some lock-step way from an innate propensity. I recommend once again the University of Illinois archaeologist and anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley’s excellent and humane ‘War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage’, which is a wonderfully analytical (and at times horrifying)account of the place of war in human society.
    I confess that the whole ‘free will’ debate continues to leave me cold, and that Torbjorn Larsson’s remarks above strike me as very sensible (not that I’m in a position to understand the physics).

  17. jose
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Excuse me, what has Gould to do with free will and physics?

  18. Alex SL
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    The man wants scientific results to conform to his notion of the way the world should be, and that’s always been a terrible mindset for understanding nature.

    Indeed.

    It is also unclear that the conclusions he fears are the only ones we could make. An increased understanding of human behaviour as resulting from external factors could just as well increase our empathy and shift the focus from punishment to rehabilitation, from vengeance to the setting of incentives for crime avoidance.

  19. Joe Dickinson
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    If we accept, as I think we must, the proposition that some mental abilities that distinguish modern humans from other primates evolved by natural selection, then it follows that there were in the past genetic differences between individuals that affected those abilities. To deny any genetic variation in modern populations affecting “intelligence”, behavior, etc. caries two implications: 1) This is somehow a special moment in evolutionary time in which all the variation that formerly existed has vanished (and no relevant new mutations are arising). 2) We are at an evolutionary dead end with no prospect for future evolution of behavioral traits.

    Another point: In his academic writings (notably “Mismeasure”) Gould basically denied that there is any such thing as general intelligence, yet he seemed to acknowledge that he could recognize it when he saw it. For example, he was quoted a few years before his death as calling Dick Lewontin “the smartest person I ever knew”. Indeed, we all know that some people are smarter than others. Gould was, I think, compelled by political ideology to deny even this everyday common sense.

    • jose
      Posted June 25, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      “To deny any genetic variation in modern populations affecting “intelligence”, behavior”

      So are you going to respond like every evolutionary psychology responds to criticism? By falsely accusing others of believing that the brain is magical?

      – This population has more intelligence than this population and genes are entirely responsible for that.
      – No.
      – Ha! you just believe there is no variation!

  20. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    As a card-carrying Compatibilist, I feel obliged to totally disown Horgan’s treatment of this debate. His arguments have just been ridiculously terrible and now they have entered the realm of character assassination rather than cogent scientific debate. There are good arguments for Compatibilism and against Will Skepticism out there. I really wish he familiarized himself with them and stop making garbage arguments.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 26, 2011 at 2:34 am | Permalink

      Had to look up ‘Compatibilism!’ I do like the Shopping Hour quote on the Wikipedia page –
      “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills”. How can we doubt someone who had such great hair?!

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted June 26, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        The contours of the debate are actually pretty complicated. The position of Coyne and Harris is sometimes called “Hard Determinism”, the denial that there is free will. I agree with Prof. Coyne that if someone defines free will as requiring action outside the causal order, then no such thing exists. What Compatibilist believe is that action outside the causal order is a really bad way to understand free will derived from Dualist conceptions of the mind. There are better ways to understand free will, or “agency” as I prefer to say.

        • Posted June 26, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          So how do compatibilists define free will?

          Does anything that chooses between two courses of action have it?

          • Bernard J. Ortcutt
            Posted June 26, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            There are various accounts, but they usually have something to do with “regulative control” since that is what freely willing is about. Incompatibilists make a big deal about doing something other than what I do. Compatibilists generally focus on the mechanism by which my mental states are hooked up with my action. I think that’s right. Who cares about what I didn’t do? I’m interested in how I did what I did. We are agents who deliberate, make plans, have intentions, etc…, and we exhibit different levels of agency depending on what the causal story is behind an action I take. Someone hitting my leg and causing a patellar reflex involves my CNS, but doesn’t engage my beliefs, desires or intentions. So, maybe it’s a low-level of agency. An action that does engage my intentional states would be a higher level of agency. We might also distinguish actions that we intend and identify from ones we do despite them.

          • Bernard J. Ortcutt
            Posted June 26, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

            Harris’ dismissal of Compatibilism is bizarre. He wrote, “The problem with compatibilism, as I see it, is that it tends to ignore that people’s moral intuitions are driven by a deeper, metaphysical notion of free will.” Why should we give a damn what the people’s intuitions are? If people have a deeper, metaphysica, notion of free will, then maybe they are just wrong. Some people have Dualist intuitions too, but we don’t defer to them on the concept of mind. Why should we defer to the same people on their misguided notions of free will? This is an easy step for Compatibilists to make, but for some reason Harris thinks it’s better to let the mysterions claim the field.

            • Dominic
              Posted June 26, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

              Interesting… Any suggested reading Bernard, or anyone else?

              • Bernard J. Ortcutt
                Posted June 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                It’s hard to say. A lot of books on Free Will are really about defending Incompatibilism or refuting it. The positive accounts of human agency are often in books on Philosophy of Action. Looking at the bibliography of the Compatibilism article in the Stanford Encyclopedia, Bratman, Dennett, Fischer, Frankfurt, Mele, and Michael Smith have all written good things.

              • Dominic
                Posted June 28, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

                That is a long article! Will have a go at it…

  21. Puma
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Is Evolutionary psycologist and Sociobiologist biological determinist?
    Believing certain trait as adaptation is believing the tarit have determined biologiacally?
    In fact, what is biological determinism?

    It is very sloppy word. If it means that some trait have biological or genetic basis, so almost evolutionary scientist including Jerry is determinist as well as EPist and SBist. If it means that many trait have literally determined by anyting, so almost evolutionary scientist, EPist and SBist is not determinist. and it is why Hogan accuse Jerry with sociobiological scientist, such as Wrangam. But Jerry himself use the term determinism sloppy.

  22. Diane G.
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  23. Dale Franzwa
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    In regard to comment 18, Alex SL, about shifting focus from “punishment to rehabilitation. . .” I think a lot of people misunderstand what the legal justice system tries to do when sentencing a convicted individual. First, get that person off the street to prevent further victimization. Second, send a message to like minded individuals that this is the fate that awaits you if you try to duplicate what the convicted person did. (Even without a court conviction, this is why we killed Osama bin Laden–eventually, we will catch and kill you if you do what he did.) Now, we can argue about whether “the punishment fits the crime”. Is it too strong or too weak? Does it send the right message? Does it make the victims feel compensated “he got what he deserved” in some sense of that word? But the issue of punishment is totally unrelated to the issue of rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is a good idea (we want people to give up a “life of crime” when they get out of prison). But that has nothing to do with why we punish those we convict. Punishment, whether we like it or not, is very much about sending messages. And the argument over “free will” has nothing to do with punishment.

  24. Dominic
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    I am a biological determinist. We are I think, animals that got complicated with the accretion of culture. I think the trouble is that too many researchers try to look for the animal within the human rather than the human within the animal. I agree that it is – probably – a mistake to assume from one gene a whole behaviour for genes clearly ‘compete’ with each other to influence the animal, but some will have more influence than others. The problem is that each animal is a unique combination so divining the influence of one gene over another seems blooming difficult other than in the most general way.

    Does anyone really think “It implies that the way things are is the way they must be” is accepted by most determinists? For example I am sure RD said he does not ‘like’ the way we are in that sense. I don’t know – I am increasingly of the opinion that we are totally screwed as a species BECAUSE we cannot get past our basic ‘animalness in human form’.

  25. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Biological determination is a fact – for a certain set of conditions. My blood group is determined. My ability to digest milk as an adult is determined.

    I expect that my innate temperament is determined by my genes (this is not yet proven scientifically) but my character has been formed (and is being formed) by my innate temperament interacting with my life experiences (including development and environment). My behaviour and beliefs are therefore both biologically determined and modulated by my life experiences.

    Ownership of a Y chromosome determines that you are male. Ownership of a Y chromosome is a predictor of a greater probability of violence. But most owners of a Y chromosome exhibit modulated behaviour and are not violent in most societies.

    It seems to me that many idealogues of various stripes rush to pronounce their views based on absolutes. Science, done properly, challenges these absolutes.

    • jose
      Posted June 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      So genes DETERMINE, while environment merely “modulates”. Quaint use of words to surreptitiously imply which one is more important.

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted June 26, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Foolish person. Sex determination is done differently in crocodiles, yes, and differently again in birds. So what? The article is about human ethnic groups and human behaviour generally.

        Some of our genes do determine our biochemical functions; sometimes we are able to modify our behaviour by learning or from other interactions with the environment. To say that we are fully genetically determined or fully free to behave or act anyway we choose is a false dichotomy.

    • jose
      Posted June 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      “Ownership of a Y chromosome determines that you are male.”

      In humans. In crocodiles that’s determined by temperature, not genes. But don’t let me spoil you that simple little deterministic world you have built for yourself.

  26. Joe Francis
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I thought “Free Will” was a movie about a whale?

  27. Bacopa
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Horgan is simply full of crap here. He’s taking similar terms from different fields of study and using them as if they mean the same thing to create a false sense of two opposing camps. Many comments here are also similarly confused.

    When Gould uses the term “biological determinism” he’s talking about a very different issue than what philosophers are talking about in the free will/determinism problem. Gould never talked much about the latter. He treated biological determinism in the sense of a pseudoscientific ideology. Gould and I are both using “ideology” as used in Marxist theory; an ideology is a widespread set of beliefs, often promulgated by social elites, which serves to justify an existing social order. When Gould wrote about biological determinism he was writing about how science has often been misused to justify social injustice. He in no way addressed the “free will” problem and wasn’t interested in doing so.

    There are other good works which address biological determinism as an ideology in narrow Marxist sense. Lewontin’s Biology as Ideology argues along similar lines to Gould, but it’s much briefer and to the point. It’s also funny. The whole thesis of Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel that biological determinism as ideology is simply false. Colonizers are in no way superior to the colonized. Colonizers were just lucky to have been in the right places on the planet.

    Horgaan has blundered badly here by mixing up what Gould meant by biological determinism with the whole free will/determinism debate from philosophy. The problem as discussed in philosophy is indeed very interesting, and in some cases quite well informed about relevant facts from brain science, but it is a completely different issue from anything Gould was talking about. Judging from the comments here I think most people on this thread are equally confused. Or maybe yall are just having fun talking about this other sense of determinism. Yes, it’s fun. I love doing it too. But it’s not what Gould, Lewontin, or Diamond meant by biological determinism.

  28. jay
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Why do people who can see how various animal behaviors are a direct product of natural selection have such a hard time when it comes to humans?


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  1. […] to erase the role of evolution in shaping human behaviour. Horgan wants to contain it. But as Coyne states in his response to Horgan: [T]o dismiss any claims about the genetic basis of modern human behavior […]

  2. […] the world should be," the evolutionary biologist and free-will denier Jerry Coyne scolds me, "and that’s always been a terrible […]

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