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The Allure of Determinism 12 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Science, Social Sciences.

Inspired by John Dewey’s declaration that Darwinism changed everything [see epigraph to the right], I’ve spent the past three years reading everything I can get my hands on about human evolution, with a healthy dose of cognitive science mixed in. My undergraduate education was firmly post-modern/post-structural, seeing all meaning as ephemeral and utterly situational: human life could only be explained by the wispy, evanescent strands of thought they attached to it. Graduate school introduced me to a more social scientist mode of saying roughly the same thing: human life, or rather, the meaning of human life is socially constructed. In both educational experiences, the dominant view of human nature was that it did not exist, because anything you could say about it would be, of course, socially constructed or pure culture.

My mind already primed from Dewey’s form of philosophical naturalism, I delved into the natural history of humankind, opening my eyes to some basic, yet key insights. Humans share not only a history but an evolutionary past. Human bodies are not the mere objects of our capricious and malleable cultures, but are indeed the source of our cultural capacity. I had to learn stochastic thinking in a new way to see how generalizations could still be made despite the rather overwhelming diversity of humans.

But now I grow weary of the evolutionary scholarship, more particularly the evolutionary psychology. Just as the cultural determinism of my education had grown thin in its effort to eschew our bodies, so has my impatience grown with the “just so” explanations coming from some of the more prominent researchers in biological anthropology, human evolution, population genetics, and most egregiously evolutionary psych.

I find that I’m reacting against determinism on both sides of this theoretical fence. Determinism seems, to be honest, lazy. It seeks easy explanations for human behavior. And in fact it produces sometimes rather aesthetically pleasing results, often sublime in their simplicity even when dead wrong. When you take something like homosexuality (which I’ve discussed at length here) and you have to tease out the interplay of evolution, hormones, genitals, fetal development, cognition, sensing and problem-solving brains, child rearing, cultural mores, social pressures, pop culture, institutions, the results are messy and contingent. You must rely on probability to determine the interplay of multiple possible causalities and you have to hold in your mind the relationship between individual cases and overarching trends, commonalities, and generalizations.

This is nothing I haven’t written here before, nothing new. I can’t help but wonder when the biological and the social/cultural will finally merge and start working together to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human.



1. C - 17 November 2007

Thanks for this post, Todd. I was recently in a frustrating conversation with a friend of mine about determinism, and your perspectives are rational and make a lot of sense to me. I wish I would have had it to reference the other night!

2. Todd - 17 November 2007

I find that overall the people who study human genetics and evolution are, largely, better at seeing the interplay of culture and biology, because evolution insists that traits develop in interaction with their environment, which of course consist to a great part of the social environment in social animals like humans. But lately I’ve been reading some really irritating overly simplistic explanations from evolutionary psychology. In fact, I even find some of their research to be fundamentally flawed. And so there are still corners of biological determinism out there …

That said, I still can’t abide by “hard constructionism” in the social sciences (and don’t get my started on the near uselessness of poststructural cultural theory), which is determinism from the other side and as irrational and unempirical.

In a broad sense, I do think that our perceptions and identities and psychologies and cultures and experiences *are* determined, but I think they are determined in complex *transaction* of bodies in environments both social and physical.

3. C - 18 November 2007

“In a broad sense, I do think that our perceptions and identities and psychologies and cultures and experiences *are* determined, but I think they are determined in complex *transaction* of bodies in environments both social and physical.”

Exactly. And I think the researcher studying human physiology, perception, identity, psychology, and culture benefits by breaking those transactions down as far as they can be broken. But I think there’s a certain point where trying to understand those transactions flies apart and becomes useless for the individual trying to understand the self.

4. Todd - 18 November 2007

Ultimately, understanding all those relationships/transactions does nothing to change the *qualia* of how you experience your Self or your world. It just tells you where it came from and how you experience them. Understanding can also give you firm ground from which to adjust: either yourself to your environment, or your environment to fit your needs, or a combination of both. But in the end, you’re right, it can be so much navel gazing at the end of the day when you simply have to *live* with who and where you are.

I think it’s ethically valuable because it makes an individual’s qualia contextual but anchored in real interaction, and then opens us up for compassionate understanding of others’ differing experience, and importantly leads us to a foundation on which to make normative claims based on outcomes or consequences (utterly lacking in the postmodern view of free-floating discourses).

5. C - 18 November 2007

Well put.

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