Humans Are Animals, BUT Humans Are Humans 2 January 2008Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Ethics, Evolution, Science, Social Sciences.
Tags: naturalistic social theory, paleoanthropology, philosophical naturalism, primatology
I’ve been reading critiques of evolutionary psychology lately, which mainly focus on the paucity and quality of the evidence that they use to draw large, sweeping conclusions about human behavior and psychology. As a side note, I also get irritated with evo-psych because they make claims not supported by the vast libraries of social science research. I dont’ know what the big-wigs in evo-psych think social scientists do, but they do their research as if there hadn’t been 150 years of social scientific research. That said, my biggest complaint is actually that evo-psychologists, try as they might not to, always seem to heavily imply moral normatives from their research, sometimes strongly (see, Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate, which offers a powerful and necessary counter to some of the worst social and cultural and literary theory of the past 25 years, but then descends into utter nonsense (see for example the chapter on gender, astounding in its ignorance of social scientific research and shocking in its normative position)).
As you know, I espouse a naturalistic social theory, one that insists the distinction between “culture” (nurture) and “biology” (nature) is a false dichotomy that actually prevents us from understanding human behavior and society and even psychology. I get irritated that humans think they *aren’t* animals. I’ve talked about Sapolsky’s baboon studies before, and would highly recommend them to see just how much we have in common with our primate relatives. Or even that PBS show “Murder in the Troop” to see just how much like animals we are. The more I learn about primates (coming at this backwards) the more I can’t help but see we are merely apes with a more complex social arrangement and with the ability to abstractly solve problems (i.e., higher cognitive function).
That said, one of my pet peeves is when people make some serious thinking problems with primatology in regards to conclusions they draw about humans. The error usually goes something like this:
Step 1. Look at primates to learn about Humans. (fine so far)
Step 2. Because primates do something, that must explain human behavior. (WTF?)
3. Draw normative conclusions about Humans from primate behavior. (STFU!)
This is, more or less, the naturalistic fallacy (apologies to any philosophers reading this who may have more specific definitions).
My response: Humans are animals, but they are a different species. We can learn much about human behavior and human evolution from observing our close ancestors, but humans have a different evolutionary history than other primates (all species have their own evolutionary histories) and so their adaptations (e.g., behaviors) must be considered ultimately intraspecies. So I would argue this:
1. Observe primate behavior for clues about humans’ evolutionary past.
2. Compare and (importantly) contrast primate behavior to human behavior.
2a. Determine whether similarities are homologous (both species has the trait because we evolved from the same ancestor) or analogous (both species have a trait because natural selection selected for it in different circumstances)
2b. Where there are behavioral differences (and there are huge behavioral differences between humans and their nearest relatives, the chimps and bonobos), determine what environmental factors would have selected for the behavioral changes and why.
2c. With all primates, the social environment is a huge selective pressure; with humans, most paleoanthropologists agree that it was the single largest selective pressure leading to encephalization (brain size) and higher-level cognition. So with humans, the social environment at every stage along the evolutionary path must be understood.
3. Understanding that normatives arise out of our evolved ability to create complex societies and our ability to think abstractly about those social organizations, normatives can only be made incontext and relative to the social situation. In other words, normatives are a cultural project, and cultural projects are automatically biological projects (because cultural decisions affect survivability); but it doesn’t follow logically that something chimpanzees do is good evidence for something human beings should do. Primatology helps us (through contrast) to understand the evolutionary path of human behavior; it does not logically give us normatives for how humans ought to behave.
Indeed, what I’m saying is, this is why we need humanists: philosophers, artists, historians. These are people who are dealing with human cultural problems in context. Although they are doing it more systematically and with much more knowledge, humanists are doing what all humans do naturally (i.e., biologically): They are giving meaning to their experience.
This may seem like a contradiction to my naturalistic stance I usually take, to argue for the necessity and place of the humanities; but what I’m offering here a corrective. I see an odd kind of determinism from evolution, especially in primatology and in evolutionary psychology, that doesn’t seem to follow logically from the data. Ethology and especially human ethology can be comparatively understood or described, but it is a huge logical mistake to then leap to normatives from those descriptions (especially if the descriptions themselves are faulty). And I have already argued elsewhere strenuously that humanists must take into account what we know biologically (especially understanding that our cognition and language are biological adaptations and that our brains are highly plastic but only within genetic and neurological limits), so it seemed important to weigh in on the other side of the matter as well.