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.