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Thinking about Naturalism and Social Theory 20 December 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Sexuality.

[I’ve been trying to think through, again, how I think evolutionary theory and cognitive science could inform a more powerful and accurate social theory. This is from a conversation I’ve been having on the ASA’s Evolutionary Sociology listserve.]

I’m borrowing the word “naturalistic” and “naturalism” from the philosophy of science. It’s a particular orientation that, in a nutshell, insists that humanistic knowledge must align with and be supported by the current state of scientific research. I’m somewhat of a John Dewey specialist, one of the originators of that line of thinking, that human beings *are* animals, subject to evolution, and that science can know things about us that philosophy (humanities) cannot.  Dewey’s social theory (most fully developed after 1924; see esp. Nature and Experience) most important relies on the assumptions of what today we would call cognitive science, with the assumption that human cognition *evolved*.

In my own work (I’m a cultural sociologist, for lack of a better word), I apply these assumptions in my analyses and am currently working on an article-length piece that will propose a naturalistic social theory of culture, relying heavily on evolutionary psych/cognitive science.

My own orientation to these issues is that social sciences (esp. cultural anthro, poly sci, history, and most forms of sociology) ignore the findings of other sciences, especially cognitive science and paleoanthropology. I find that the retreat to “constructivism” is often facile and without careful thinking or understanding about how phenotypes come to be (for example) or the interaction of human cognitive processes and meaning formation (for another example).  BUT, having read a lot of sociobiology, I think that there is still big problems with a lot of sociobiology, which likewise tends not to account for the power of human cognition to transform human environments (both social and physical). In other words, observing the behavior of a marmot isn’t the same as observing human behavior, because human brain evolution actually enables us to create meaning systems (and concomitant practices) that are maladaptive and/or out of touch with reality. More simply put, human cognition (and by extention, culture) allows human beings to act in ways that do not match their “nature” and which are in fact biologically maladapted.  Further, sociology and anthropology and history have done a lot of work over the past 200 years trying to figure out how meanings (symbols, practices) move through time and work to shape interaction and social structure. I firmly believe that much of their findings are still valid, but need to be revised by accounting for what we know from the biological sciences. And sociobiologists need to take that 200 years of work seriously as well, and see that much of the understandings of social science are actually quite necessary in explaining human social-biology.

I do not believe with constructivists that perception is completely socially constructed; nor do I believe with the cruder forms of sociobiology that it is purely biological (genetic, brain morphology, etc.).  I think some of the most interesting thinking along these line is being done by geneticists who are trying to work out the complicated dance between the gene and the environment in producing a phenotype.

Likewise, I think that a naturalistic sociology would work to describe (and maybe explain?) the complicated dance between the genetic, hormonal, embodied human, and it’s social environment and meaning systems (i.e., cultures), including who the social environment can shape phenotypic expression; and how the genotype actually limits the power that a social environment can have and also limits what kinds of social and cultural arrangements would be adaptive (or at worst, evolutionarily neutral).

Full disclosure: Much of my feelings along these lines (and perhaps my own personal narrative which led me to explore this area) come from the fact that I’m gay. The social constructivist explanation of homosexuality makes absolutely no sense to me, when it’s carried beyond the obvious, that different societies in different times and places make sense of sexual desires differently. But to argue that the desire itself is social in origin borders on the absurd. I think that homosexuality is a good illustration of how the biological limits

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