Oy vey! Nature vs. Nurture Again

by Lorna Salzman

Konrad Lorenz would be horrified - no, actually, amused - to see what his work in what used to be called ethology has sparked. Fortunately we have some credible authorities around in this field - called sociobiology or evolutionary psychology depending upon whether you put it under the "hard" sciences or under the social sciences.

Some people blame it all on Darwin. Edward Wilson, a quite apolitical researcher who loved ants, took his knocks plus some ripe tomatoes from the left at Harvard back in the 1970s when he wrote his book entitled Sociobiology. Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon then diverted some of the attacks onto himself with his book on the Yanomami, "The Fierce People" which - gasp! -revealed that this Venezuelan tribe manifested - gasp, gasp! - aggression and violence just like other people.

The reverberations from Chagnon's work continue today, amplified by a now-discredited book, "Darkness at El Dorado", by Patrick Tierney, whose accusations  were  incorporated into a film by Brazilian film maker Jose Padilha, "Secrets of the Tribe". This was first screened at the Sundance film festival and last year made its way into the American Museum of Natural History's Margaret Mead film festival. Padilha's reliance on Tierney was soft-pedalled.

Tierney's accusations of malfeasance against Chagnon and his geneticist collaborator, the late James Neel  (lies likely spurred by Roman Catholic priests in South America, possibly because they feared being blamed for a lethal measles epidemic in Venezuela that preceded Chagnon)  were picked up uncritically by The New Yorker and then spread around the social sciences world with the help of equally uncritical if not biased anthropologists such as Terence Turner. Many had a field day trashing Chagnon as a manipulative, right wing imperialist while ignoring the substance of his work. No one in the anthropological or journalism world bothered to verify any of the charges, but now anthropologist Alice Dreger's new, comprehensive and extensively documented article has now presented the facts, in a remarkable piece of research: "Darkness' Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale", available at Springerlink.com

The article as well as this issue need wider exposure, not only because of the readiness of some scientists to spread unfounded rumors about their competitors or political adversaries, but because it indicates how, despite their insistence that the social sciences are as rigorous and disciplined as the biological sciences, some social scientists will reject the protocols that are necessary and embedded in the other sciences, most notably the need for reliable, testable evidence. Social sciences want equal respect and standing with the biological sciences but they still refuse to abide by the rigors of the scientific method of inquiry.

 Years later the scurrilous lies and misrepresentations of Tierney were finally acknowledged by the American Anthropological Association and the National Science Foundation, among other reputable institutions. The larger story, however, is what should interest us today, because it has relevance to the deterioration of research standards and the expansion of ideology in our universities, embodied in what is called post-modernism. It is the ancient debate over Nature vs. Nurture, or its religious equivalent, Original Sin vs. the Noble Savage. Those on the left see humans as being noble savages corrupted by society. Christians see humans as perennially burdened with  Adam's sin and redeemable only through Christ. For the left which has invaded the universities' social science departments, capitalism, injustice, and oppression are what produce anti-social behavior such as violence, with the solution being socialism of one kind or another.

This position requires them to ignore and ultimately reject any claims that aggression or other undesirable human traits are innate, hence the left's rejection of Darwin and of natural selection in particular. The Christians of course reject evolution in favor of creationism. But in their rejection of science they end up in the same place. In the case of anthropology, the post-modernists feel compelled to challenge findings such as those of Chagnon's because of their belief that the "noble savages" were mistreated or exploited. In effect they rejected the use of the scientific method per se, as well as impartial research and dissent, thus cementing the divide (created by them of course) between the social and the biological sciences. To get credibility from the public they have embellished their argument with the suggestion that it is racist to attribute some aspects of human behavior to our genetic heritage. (Some have gone even further by denying the existence of any concept of race, but that's another story for another day).

These social scientists are not disbelievers in evolution however. What they do believe, as much of the left believes, is that there is some kind of fixed marker between humans and the rest of nature, i.e. between us and our anthropoid ancestors. At some point (not specified), humans in the course of evolution became "fully" human and therefore no longer subject to the trials and tribulations of natural selection, exempt from the laws of nature entirely because of our newly acquired "humanness". This kind of exceptionalism is easily adopted by others for their own purposes,  and is now embedded in our discussion of environmental issues. It has led to a belief that everything that is NOT human  can be exploited and commodified, leading to a purely instrumental view of nonhuman life on earth. This is today the prevailing philosophy everywhere, under both capitalism and socialism. But it is the left that bears most of the responsibility.

In fact an understanding of sociobiology ( euphemistically called "evolutionary psychology" by the social scientists) is fundamental in our discussion of social reforms and ethics. We need to understand the less adaptive aspects of human behavior and understand that they will never be abolished but only channeled and contained by human-constructed systems. Luckily for us, evolution does NOT dictate fixed responses and behavior but has provided us with the intellectual capacity to make choices and find creative solutions. Pretending that evolution has only bequeathed us good manners, peace and love is a sure recipe for avoiding social change.

© 2017 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.