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Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
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Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.


Naturalistic Theory of Culture 16 February 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Teaching.
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I’m constantly working on explaining the naturalistic theory of culture to my students. I have posted on this several times in the past and am still working it out. I want my students to understand both that culture is plastic and context dependent, and that culture is also always embodied and emergent from interaction. My main beef with postmodern views of culture isn’t that they emphasize its contingency, but rather that they often elide the ways that it is connected to the material, biological, obdurate world  that produced it. Often (and I admit that I’m being glib and gestural here), postmodern cultural theory becomes a “nothing is real” stance, mistaking the fact that human culture is contextual and emergent for proof that it is disconnected from the world. Also, the constructivist view (which I am 90% in agreement with) often ends in a cultural determinism which is, for me, as problematic and irksome as a biological determinism. In short, culture is not an independent, self-referential, pure construction; it is rather a grounded, embodied emergent property of the interaction of brains in environments.

I begin my “Nature and World Cultures” course with a three-week crash course in human evolution where I attempt to demonstrate the emergence of the cultured-brain as an effect of evolution, and where I try to give the students the base for seeing at a base, empirical level the ways that minds (what brains do) and the “environment” (i.e., nature) are so connected as to blur into the same thing. My stance here is based on John Dewey’s extended argument in Nature and Experience, but has built from there from my readings in evolutionary theory, cognitive science, and from my own empirical research about gay men and meaning.

Here is my most recent attempt to explain to students my conception of a naturalistic explanation of culture. I’m using the word “umbworld” (a back formation from an Old English word) to emphasize that the human environment is both physical/ecological and social (as is actually true of all social species).

At the end of class today, we had arrived at the central thesis of the first section of the course, which is our working theory of culture: its origins, how it works, why it exists, how it changes over time. It is naturalistic (which is a word from philosophy) because it insists that the separation between “nature” and “culture” is a false one. Here are some key ideas that arise from the information we’ve discussed the past two class days.

1) Nature and culture are not separate, but are the same thing, or to say it differently, inextricably, constitutively linked.

a) the contents of our mind (culture), the very way we think and what we think about, come from our brain’s interaction with the umbworld (nature).

b) the contents of our mind (our culture) recursively acts upon the umbworld constantly transforming it (i.e., nature), which in turn, transforms the contents of our mind (culture) which in turn transforms the umbworld (nature), and so on.

2) Without the obdurate, physical environment (including other humans), our minds wouldn’t exist. Mind (culture) arises (emerges) our of constant, never-ending interaction with the umbworld (which includes nature). And the umbworld itself is emergent, and arises out of the constant interaction with human minds (cultures).

3) The naturalistic theory of culture, then, insists that asking the question “nature or nurture” or “biology or culture” is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking how our evolutionary biological form produced the cultural brain; how culture is an emergent property of brains in a society; that culture only exists in a body (culture is embodied) and could not exist without a body; that the beliefs, practices, and objects of any individual or group emerge over time in specific umbworlds; that the brain evolved to give a degree of agency over both the umbworld and its own consciousness to solve problems; and finally because culture is inextricably linked to the environment and because the environment is constantly changing, so is culture a necessarily emergent property of the brain, not a thing in itself.

Morality and the Brain 4 August 2008

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Ethics.
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Some new research into our innate moral capacity (the ability to think morally is innate, not the rules; although there are some foundational presumptions human brains tend to make, relating to reciprocal altruism, but that’s not what I’m posting about here). In western philosophy, there are basically two kinds of moral arguments, deontological and utilitarian. This is an oversimplification that people who are studying the cognition of morality make to be able to categorize what they are observing. In most simple terms, deontological arguments function on principles or categorical imperatives, and in day-to-day life are made emotionally, without conscious rational thinking. Utilitarian arguments focus on maximizing good outcomes, and in day-to-day life people are able to give their rational arguments for their position, that is, they do invoke their conscious problem-solving brain. Cognitive scientists have thought for about 10 years now that humans use both systems to make their moral judgments, but had until now thought that the two systems worked in tandem or in competition with each other. Some new experiments seem to indicate that the two work independently of each other and do not overlap in brain processes. Very cool. Here’s the article from Scientific American, “Thinking about Morality”.

Youtube for Intellectuals…There is hope for the internets 7 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory.
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Big Think is a youtube-like venture that just went live this morning. Big Think posts interviews with leading intellectuals, thinkers, movers, and shakers in American and global culture and then viewers can post video responses, a sort of delay-time video debate, or at the very least, a place for ideas to circulate. I’m thinking this sounds ripe with possibility.

Although I admire the optimism of the founders and brains behind Big Think, I still have some skepticism about how the internet can function to heighten debate and dialogue. Of course, it can’t be much worse than mainstream media, which caters to the lowest-common-denominator as it is. The Internet seems to be a wide-ranging cesspool of everything from scat porn to nazi propaganda to raving bloggers (present company excluded, of course).

On the other hand, because the Internet’s profit structure and raison-d’être are so different from MSM, maybe there is a way that it could function like Jefferson envisioned small-scale local democracies should, within the right parameters. Given the global reach of the Internet, it’s no small irony that I’m saying it could be like small scale democracy: But when a site like Big Think comes along with a particular vision and they set boundaries to create a different kind of online exchange, the potential for democratic and/or true intellectual exchange increases. We’ve  all seen gradual shifts in online interactions already, for example on social networking sites (compare Facebook with the original Friendster, for example, in terms of advertising, layout, openness, privacy options, etc.); or the change in dating sites or chat networks since the late 1990s.

What gives me hope is that people seem to have eschewed the early idea of cyber social spaces as free-for-alls and have begun doing online what they already do in face-to-face interaction: they create actual community dynamics, with boundaries and rules that allow the group to function smoothly and to meet particular ends. (To be fair, ancient bulletin board and newsnet forums used to do this in the early 1990s before the WWW.)

Big Think looks like a promising step toward making an internet space for a more public and engaged kind of dialogue (and more human, in a sense, since it’s video); but with time delay that allows for cooler thinking (hopefully); and perhaps moving the intellectual dialogues that already occur online out of the private or small echo chambers into a larger and more diverse field of views.

Okay, now I’m being overly optimistic.

Here’s Big Think.
And here’s the NYT article about it (sycophantic and slightly patrician in tone, per usual).

[edited for some truly appalling grammar and spelling]

Does pop culture unify or fragment us culturally? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
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On another forum, I’ve been having a brief discussion with some cyber-acquaintances about whether or not pop culture is a barrier between generations. I was arguing that most pop culture references are time specific and therefore generation markers, not unifiers. Of course it’s complex and my friends pointed out that technology has made older pop cultural forms available again today and another friend pointed out that pop culture unifies us as we move from region to region, all of which I agree with. But I think the way pop culture works is more nuanced than that.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this. I’m really interested in the affect that consumer culture writ large has on democracy, which requires a minimum of social cohesion to function well; I think that we’ve replaced true freedom with the mirage of consumer freedom. This discussion is a small corner of my thinking on that wider issue.

1) “pop” in front of “culture” is only a denigration when uttered with a sneer by an urban hipster or a old-skool blue-haired opera goer. In social sciences it denotes a particular mode of producing and consuming culture (a subset of mass culture) as distinguished from pre-industrial cultural production and from local culture, and does not denote a de facto denigration. No one in my field at least doesn’t begin with the assumption that pop culture *is* culture; it is however significantly different in the way it’s produced and the way it’s consumed, necessitating a categorical distinction.

2) as in all things in a huge post-fordist society, pop culture and the technology that distributes it creates multiple contradictory effects, one of which has been the *availability* of pop cultural forms from history, so that younger people have direct access to the pop culture of yore. (all of which is relatively new, historically speaking). That means that you might meet young people with exposure the pop culture you consumed in your youth.

3) However, the mere availability of older forms does not make someone fluent in a cultural milieu, in fact, different segments consume pop cultural differently, ascribing it different meanings. That is one of the characteristics of mass produced culture: In order to sell it to as many consumers as possible (production of pop culture is big business), it has to be accessible by multiple cultural standpoints and open enough semiotically to have whatever meanings ascribed to it a given community wants to (there are, obviously, limits to the plasticity of the meanings that *can* be ascribed, but they are extremely wide in pop/mass culture). This is one of the reasons I study pop culture: It is an incredibly fluid and versatile mode of meaning formation that forms the raw materials out of which Americans seem to form their identities and group affiliations.

4) Since I spend my entire working life with 20 year olds, my anecdotal experience is that while they have often heard of things (usually through retro-campy-nostalgia shows like “I love the 70s” on VH1), they don’t have an actual cultural grasp, just a passing knowledge of pop culture past.

5) That one can find people who bond on common pop culture consumption is evidence of the way mass culture works, not that it works across generations. Namely, starting in the post-WWII era, consumer capitalism developed by an ever increasing segmentation of the cultural market, first by marketing cultural products specifically to “youth”, then to “children” then to “women” then by race and ethnicity by the mid-1960s. (Marketing for different classes began in the auto industry in the late 1920s, and got more complex and integrated in the 1950s-60s). If your experience is typical of an American, you work and associate with people who are of a similar or overlapping market segment that you grew up in, thus when you meet new people, you are able to “bond” over a shared cultural experience of the pop culture you consume(d) in your lifetime. The further outside your particular segment that you cross, the more evident it becomes that you do not share pop cultural commonalities.

Also, consumers tend to be unpredictable (another fun thing about pop culture studies) so unintended consumers will latch onto and consume products intended for entirely different segments and make them their own (think: urban white teenagers consuming black R&B in the early 1950s). The meaning of pop culture ultimately cannot be controlled by its producers, neither the corporations that fund the production nor the artists that create it.

6) That said, there are some huge pop culture phenoms that span across market segments, such as “Star Wars” that can be society-wide cultural unifiers. But most often they are usually, again, generationally inflected and the way you use a piece of pop culture serves to identify your class, race, gender, ethnicity and age.

Rant against Naive Relativism 27 December 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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1) All ideas (including religions) are not equal, either in their truth content or in their consequences in the real world. For example, to believe that one must “respect” Mormons, because it’s their religion is naive relativism at its worst, and assumes that mormonism’s truth claims are equal in value — merely because someone believes them — to the evidence that disproves them. Hogwash.

1a) Social scientific relativism is a useful and ethical requirement in doing research, but it is far narrower than commonly understood: In order to fully understand someone else’s culture, one must, to the extent possible, lay aside and/or suspend one’s own values and world view. Notice that this says nothing of the value of either your own culture or the culture you are trying to understand. Naive relativism is the misapprehension that social scientific relativism means that all cultures are of equal value. [As a side note, I would argue that social scientists doing descriptive work must stop short of the evaluation stage of analysis; however, I do think there’s a place for evaluation in scholarly work, if it is done correclty and in the right contexts.]

1b) In the real world, we must — I repeat for emphasis, must — judge among competing values and world views. In fact, our world would grind to a halt if we actually lived as if all world views and values were equal. Why? First, our brains aren’t set up to function without values to guide our actions. But more importantly, because competing values and cultures and world views do not impact the world in equal ways. We choose among values and world views on an individual level as we assemble the collection of values that work for us; but socially, we must do this collectively to ensure that society moves forward in a way that maximizes our ability to choose our personal values and world views [insert long discussion about democracy here].

2) Making a truth claim or a value proposition is ethically neutral and a normal part of being a human being. It is not unethical or problematic to do so. However, I would argue that there are better and worse ways to make truth claims (i.e., scientific method) and value propositions (i.e., solid argumentation with reasons and evidence). Further and related, to evaluate a value proposition or a truth claim is ethically necessary: Not to do so is to be complicit in the consequences of such, good or bad.

3) The best way to make evaluations of others’ value propositions and truth claims is to require they be made with adequate reasons to support them and adequate evidence to support the reasons (basic argumentation/logic). Then, if the argumentation is solid up front, the consequences, real or probable (not just possible), of adopting the value proposition and/or believe the truth claim must be evaluated.

3a) If both the argumentation and the consequences are acceptable, rock on. Adopt it or leave it be as your heart desires or as is necessary in your situation or society.

3b) If the argumentation is faulty but the consequences are acceptable, beat the shit out of the argument, but leave the believers their freedom to believe their idiocy (insert again long discussion of democracy and the harm principle). But do not renege your ethical responsibility to the truth to undermine wrong ideas, even if the consequences are acceptable.

3c) If the argumentation is solid, but the consequences are unacceptable, organize socially to stop a value system from being put into place that would have undesireable consequences, even if the argument behind that value proposition are solid. (I have a hard time thinking of a good truth claim that would have unacceptable negative consequences, although many Hollywood political scenarios seem to present true information to the public would somehow harm them.)

4) All truth claims and value propositions should be approached as provisional, as ends-in-view rather than ends-in-themselves, so that at any juncture, with any new information, they may be revised as necessary.

Therefore 5) Although you may have an ethical responsibility to treat believers in false ideas or bad values nicely, you are under no ethical obligation to treat their faulty, untrue, baseless beliefs and values nicely, nor to excuse or ignore the consequences of their beliefs in the real world.

Evolution, Religion, Biology and Social Science 6 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Biology, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Social Sciences.
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I’ve written several times here about whether or not I think religion is evolutionarily adaptive. A friend of mine referred me to a recent critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion written by David S. Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson is famous for his theorizing of the evolution and adaptiveness of human religion, and he is a compelling evolutionary thinker. I find myself having many of the same problems with Wilson’s writing about social phenomena that I do with many other scientists: In a nutshell, why do individuals trained in biology think that they are qualified to talk authoritatively about society and culture? It is especially ironic, considering how biologists get all cranky when physicists, chemists, engineers, or medical doctors (or for that matter, social scientists) purport to know about biology.

Christopher O’Brien, an archaeologist/anthropologist and one of my favorite science bloggers. He recently posted a great discussion of why biology is so complex, and why it’s irritating in the extreme when engineers and medical doctors speak as if they have authority in biology (emphasis mine):

[Richard Dawkins wrote] If you throw a dead bird into the air it will describe a graceful parabola, exactly as the physics books say it should; then come to rest on the ground and stay there. It behaves as a solid body of a particular mass and wind resistance ought to behave. But if you throw a live bird into the air it will not describe a parabola and come to rest on the ground. It will fly away and may not touch land this side of the county boundary.

We can explain the dead bird completely in relation to physics. But the live bird we must explain not only in terms of physics and chemistry, but also anatomy, physiology, zoology, ecology, ethology, paleontology, geology, and a host of additional disciplines. The explanation for living things (what they do and why, how they live and why, where they come from and why) is more complicated than any nonliving system. (I would further argue that adding the cultural complexities of human societies on top of their nature as biological organisms, the complications increase – so anthropology is actually a more complicated science than biology – but don’t tell the bio-bloggers that!). The engineer and medical doctor for the most part cannot intellectually grasp the intricacies of biological systems.

I would never say that Wilson or Dawkins should not explore social or cultural issues or phenomena, merely that they should do so humbly and with care. And please with at least a nod of acknowledgment to the 1000s of men and women for the past 150 years who actually have expertise in studying human culture. So after reading Wilson’s review of Dawkins, and being admittedly intrigued by his discussion of evolutionary theory, I came away with that exact same feeling about Wilson that I often do with biologists and evolutionary psychologists who are studying social phenomena.

First, I agree completely with Wilson’s critique of Dawkins refusal of group-level selection. Papa D is an amazing thinker and at that gene-level thinking, brilliant. But like Wilson says, he misapprehends group-level selection completely. [I liked the article’s explanation of the history of the idea of group selection in evolutionary biology.] But the problem in talking about humans is that group-level selection is the consensus norm among anthropologists. And there’s an entire body of research into human evolution that basically demonstrates clearly that many if not most of the selective pressures on human evolution come from the social environment, that is, the adaptation of the individual to the social group. Anthropologists have been working on this for decades, and the state of the field is a brilliant synthesis of the ways that human complex sociality co-evolved with cognition, bipedality, enephalization, and language. When I read a couple of biologists having this arcane argument, while there’s an entire discpline that’s been working on this stuff for years and years, it makes them seem oblivious.

2) On a purely evolutionary level, Wilson is right that to evaluate religion as a trait means to see it as adaptive, maladaptive, or as a spandrel (the result of genetic drift or the accidental byproduct of other adaptations). Where he and I part ways, however, is twofold. First, his approach to human culture belies an overly simplistic view of how cultures work (not surprisingly) and an ignorance of the social sciences. Second, I disagree with his conclusions about the adaptiveness of religion. This, however, is a normal part of these kinds of dialogs, and it’s less a critique than simply my read of the evidence. Wilson believes that religions are, group-selectively, adaptive. I think the social scientific data don’t support that conclusion.

Social scientifically, religion must be seen in interaction with all other aspects of culture, for religion is, simply, a subset of culture. It moves through time in much the same way as other kinds of culture *except* for its “otherworldly” aspects. Wilson’s argument makes short shrift of the otherworldly, saying that evolutionarily the only thing that matters is what it causes people to *do*. Unfortunately, this undercuts his entire argument by willfully ignoring the complexities of where human culture comes from, which includes not merely observable behavior, but the experience of qualia and the cognitive-rational processes that undergird the behavior, and how all of these things interact to change over time.

Indeed, when religion is taken in its whole form, including its experiential as well as cognitive aspects, you get much more complicated views of how it works, and you are prevented from drawing too-easy conclusions about its adapativeness, because you have to see it interacting with all other aspects of the culture and you must account for the side of religion that is an experience of the individual.

In sociological terms, where Wilson ends up is with religious functionalism: what role does religion play in the social group. This made me laugh out loud when I read it, because this is literally an idea that’s about 130 years old in sociology, and Wilson presents as if he’s discovered something new. Social functionalism, however, at least in the way Wilson frames it, is about what’s “good for the group.” In other words, Wilson’s framework relies on the non-human biological group-selection frame. For humans, however, and I would argue for most other social organisms, at the raw level of adaptability it has to do not with the good of the group (or at least not baldly so), but rather with the adaptation of the social group to itself and of individuals to the group. Anthropologists have book length explanations of how human social complexity arose for species survivability, and how that pushed the co-evolution of our brains to handle complex social interaction.

[To be fair, Wilson’s functional conclusions, that religions are practical and that new ones form when old ones don’t work, are spot on. They just date back to Durkheim, and probably even Comte before him. This is hardly a revelation. And so it is only a “transformation of the obvious,” as Wilson calls the shift from seeing religion as non-functional to functional, to someone who is ignorant of the hundreds of years of social science about this topic.]

Why I disagree that religion is adaptive:

First, religion acts in conjunction with many other aspects of a culture to produce the positive group effects Wilson describes. In other words, the kinds of cohesiveness he sees (with the Jains, for example) is common in all kinds of cultures, religious or not. Second, his use of ESM as a source for understanding how religion effects the relative happiness and integration of individuals is fascinating and I can’t wait to look it up; but as Wilson points out, ESM is limited in that it cannot explain the differences between religious and non-religious to a degree that would satisfactorily demonstrate emotional adaptiveness of religion. It is, at best, suggestive; and incidentally, it’s also contradicted by numerous social-psychological studies into the relative happiness of atheists.

But more importantly, I simply find the evidence of the cognitive psychologists when combined with the work of paleoanthropologists to be far more convincing. By ignoring the “otherworldly” experience of religion, Wilson’s hypothesis ignores the main question: of all the cultural solutions to group cohesiveness (and there are many), why is religion among the most powerful and widespread (basically universal among humans)? The cognitive science work seeks to answer that question (I’ve covered this ground in other posts, so I’ll be brief here):

Human brains co-evolved with complex social interaction, in a beautiful dance between gestation length, energy expenditure on brains, encephalization, energy expenditure on child care, and social hierarchy. The older mental process of working in the physical environment (our innate physics, if you will) has combined with our more recently evolved mental process for dealing with complex social interaction (our innate sociality) to create an overlapping cognitive space where our understanding of cause and effect (physics) interacts with our need to impute intention in interacting with other humans (sociality). In studies done of atheists, even they fall easily and unthinkingly into a mode of thinking of imputing intention where none exists. Cognitive psychologists call this “hypertrophic social thinking.” Our hypertrophic sociality, which enables interaction in complex groups, also makes us extend our theory of mind outward from the body, so that we both experience our own mind as being separate from our bodies and we then infer that others’ minds are also separate from their bodies. Again in studies done of atheists, even they, when they aren’t thinking carefully, impute intention and existence to dead things (even inanimate objects!).

Wilson all but rejects this evidence, claiming that it is merely the building blocks upon which adaptive religion is built. But the cognitive science has taken a giant step toward answering *why* religious culture as opposed to other cultures in creating the cohesive function that Wilson describes, and why religious culture is *universal* among humans.

In the end, Wilson’s functionalist answer for group-level adaptation falls apart for me on the grounds that while religion is sufficient to create the cohesive result he finds, it isn’t necessary. That is, other cultural formations have the same effect.

So we are left with the original question, is religion adaptive evolutionarily?

With all this evidence, I fall to the side of seeing religion as a spandrel, a byproduct of the evolution of our social minds. The effects of religious culture overlapped with culture more generally, producing group cohesion, necessary in a species so radically dependent on each other for survival. It was only adaptive in the way that culture generally is adaptive; but as a specific kind of culture, one tied to otherworldly experience, it is evolutionary neutral. I have to agree with Dawkins on this one point: Religion is on the verge of becoming maladaptive, by which I mean that religion by its nature, according to Wilson’s own research, is about drawing group boundaries and defining social relationships, so in a world of increasing pluralism, a level and degree of pluralism our species has never known before, those kinds of rigid group boundaries will increasingly lead to violence and I fear group extinction — that is, maladaptation to the social environment.

So after reproducing (badly) the work of 135 year old sociology, Wilson ends up with the wrong answer to the evolutionary question.

Meaning of Gay—My Research 2 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gender, Queer Theory, Race & Ethnicity, Sexuality, Social Sciences.
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Several people have emailed asking me about my upcoming book, and C.L.’s comment in the History thread below prompted this brief explanation of some of the conclusions I have drawn from my research about 1960s gay male culture:

One of the overarching conflicts among gay men (and women) is definitely between assimilation (or integration) and separatism, and that is definitely a common dynamic among all minority groups. This is one of the tensions I explore in my book, but as an overarching or meta-conflict. I only talk about activist strategies in one chapter. I explore instead on arguments within the community about particular practices such as cruising for sex in the park, drag performances, dating, anal sex, etc.

Gays and lesbians have a different relationship to these integration-vs.-separation dynamics:

1) racial and ethnic minorities are, by definition, socially created groups of people who can and do over generations integrate into the dominant culture. The dynamics are about ‘cultural preservation’ of something that is purely historical. Cultures of race and nostalgia for race among the minorities themselves are as much at play as the racism of the majority. Likewise ethnocentrism. When we talk about race and ethnicity, we’re not actually talking about a biological or essential part of a person, but rather, our cultural understandings of ourselves and others, and the beliefs, practices, and objects we use to create our lives.

2) women aren’t really a minority at all, and as long as they are intimately connected to men and children, they are already part of their respective culture. So women’s issues become about the internal structuring of gender. Unlike race and ethnicity, there are actual physical differences between men and women; but when we are talking about gender in society, we’re almost never talking about those actual physical differences, but rather about what those differences mean socially.

3) homosexuals come from all genders and ethnicities (and religions, classes, etc.) and are always a tiny minority (around 4-6%). Unlike “blackness” (a cultural idea), “homosexual” denotes same-sex desire (although not necessarily behavior). It is the thing itself. But like gender, the arguments about what that desire means socially are what we’re actually arguing about (although some anti-gay activists do strive for erasure of the desire itself, as in the ex-gay movement for example). Some societies create positive, productive roles for them; others create negative, scapegoat roles for them.

I see the primary dynamic of the past 200 years as LGBTs finding each other and congregating and forming mass cultures that allow communication with each other; however these interactions don’t erase all the other kinds of stratifications. Other kinds of meaning (racial, ethnic, religious, national, class, etc.) play a more central role in community and identity formation at the idnividual level, so any kind of queer community is necessarily fragile and tenuous at best.

In my research of the 1960s, where a gay male culture developed that was public and community-driven (a key combination), I found a proliferation of conflicts over the meanings of “gay”. That is, the 1960s represent a sort of apogee among gay men in their struggles to understand who they are in American society. By going public with those debates and by self-consciously seeking to form communities that were publicly visible and open, they changed the social relations wherein they could have the debates about what their gayness might mean. (It is important to note here that lesbians played a key role here and underwent a similar transition, but for lesbians, they had the added pressures and problems arising out of sexism, which made their particular battles, problems, and arguments substantially different from those of gay men, even though they were having these arguments side by side with gay men.)

The primary problem or issue is one of freedom for me, and this is really where my book ends up, is that despite the impossibility of queer community, the ongoing effort to create one and to identify with other queers across cultural boundaries is precisely what has enabled queers to define their own lives, rather than having meanings of queerness imposed from the outside (be they socially positive or negative). For that reason, I’m in favor of the continued existence and interaction of the debating factions within queer community, because it creates the social spaces necesssary for individuals to define their queerness for themselves. This is true even if they decide to withdraw and integrate; this is true even if the gay community itself doesn’t seem to give the definition you want. The freedom and ability to define one’s own queerness arises ultimately out of contexts of social interaction that open up the space for the question to be asked and answered in the first place.

And that, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of my research.

Please note that these ideas are copyrighted as a completed manuscript being readied for publication (2007 Lexington Books/Rowman Littlefield). If you want to cite or use any of these ideas, please contact me and I’ll tell you how to do so before the book comes out. Thanks. I try not to be paranoid, but given the cut-throat nature of academic publishing, I’ll admit, I’m a bit paranoid.

Naturalism and the Meaning of Life 11 May 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Religion.
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Many people who lose their religion or who through education have to radically change their world view find that they are afloat without mooring. The cognitive dissonance leads to a time of searching for something new. I read recently (can’t find the original, sorry) where a theologian said something to the effect that even if we know scientifically that there is no god, it doesn’t change the experiences that make us look for a god in the first place. We still experience awe, wonder, confusion, love in the face of our daily lives. What do those experiences mean?

One of the things that cognitive scientists always insist on is that we can scientifically understand the how and why of qualia (the phenomenological experience of sensing, thinking, feeling), but it doesn’t change the fact that they are qualia. In other words, we still have to figure out (because we have overly large brains) what the qualia *mean*. (I like Antonio D’Amasio on this point.)

I’m not an anti-reductionist, and I do not argue that the meaning discussions are or should be separate from the scientific ones. My social science is naturalistic (which is that social theory and research must account for the research and theory of other sciences (I would also argue the inverse, but since I’m not an ethologist, i have less of a stake in the inverse debate). But naturalism actually leaves us with that pesky problem of meaning:

The need for meaning is generated by our evolved brains and is an evolutionary adaptation that has made us the most successful (and dangerous) species on the planet. [Some argue that our need for cognitive meaning is an unintentional side effect (an evolutionary spandrel) of our cognitive, problem-solving, time-projecting brains).  So scientifically, we are beginning to understand why our brains need meaning and how our brains produce meaning; and social scientifically I can even explain why a particular individual or a group produces a particular meaning in a particular time and place. Combining social science with biology (biologists here need to take social science more seriously), I can even evaluate whether or not a particular meaning is adaptive, maladaptive, or a spandrel (i.e., neutral).

But I can’t use science to tell me what it *should* mean. On the other hand, I believe that scientific mindset can/must be used in our cultural conversations about what meanings we chose. In other words, we should be asking ourselves, what kind of world and society do we create when we believe X or Y? We have the ability as humans to evaluate our meanings and reject, modify or change them out. We need to do so more carefully. Since we know, for example, the general geological history of the planet and where it came from, our discussions of “god” must necessarily change. Etc.

Discussing the meaning of life is a defining characteristic of being human. Most of us settle on an answer early, usually adopted from our parents and society, and cling to it throughout our lives. The modern world, at least in industrialized societies, makes that incredibly difficult. Evolutionarily, it looks like our brains are designed to figure out what “works” in our environment and stick to it; changing world views is difficult, becuase having a world view that “works” in a given environment is adaptive.

The trick is finding the new meaning or adapting our old ones to our new knowledge of the world as it is, as that knowledge develops, in such a way that our lives still feel meaningful and fulfilling.

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.
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[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