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Tuesday, November 19, 2002

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find related articles. powered by google. The Nation Sociobiology and You

"The idea that we are a mix of nature and nurture would seem to be common sense by now. But as Pinker demonstrates, the nature deniers continue to argue that beyond the basic support systems--breathing, excreting--our personalities are the product of our social existence, arriving courtesy of our parents, teachers, peer groups, media, dominant ideologies and cultural norms: the product, in other words, of our history, both personal and public. This is what Pinker calls the hypothesis of the "blank slate." It is a strange sort of human exceptionalism. Unlike all the other organisms on earth, which clearly arrive with a sophisticated set of instincts designed to exploit the parameters of their environment, human minds are merely abstract learning machines, born with no innate proclivities other than to soak up information along the way. The blank slate has turned out to be a way of drawing a line in the sand against the last 150 years of Darwinian encroachments. Sure, we share a basic body plan with all the vertebrates and a respiratory system with our fellow mammals, and perhaps even 98 percent of DNA with our chimpanzee cousins. But the human mind is another matter."

redux [10.04.02]
find related articles. powered by google. Reason Online Biology vs. the Blank Slate

"Evolutionary psychology is addressing age-old questions about human nature. Are people inherently good? Are they social animals? Are they rational, utility-maximizing individuals? If both nature and nurture shape our characters and determine our destinies, what is the precise contribution of each? Do we have free will? These questions lie at the heart of centuries-long political, philosophical, and religious conflicts. And the answers inform how we think social, political, and economic life should be organized.

Evolutionary psychology discomfits many intellectuals and scientists and Pinker has been savagely attacked by both the left and the right. Marxists such as Harvard's Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould assert that evolutionary psychology is little more than fatuous cocktail party speculation, while conservative commentators in The Weekly Standard and First Things charge Pinker with trying to undermine the religious basis of morality."

find related articles. powered by google. The Edge A BIOLOGICAL UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE: A TALK WITH STEVEN PINKER

"The third fear is a fear of determinism: that we will no longer be able to hold people responsible for their behavior because they can they can always blame it on their brain or their genes or their evolutionary history--the evolutionary-urge or killer-gene defense. The fear is misplaced for two reasons. One is that the silliest excuses for bad behavior have in fact invoked the environment, rather than biology, anyway--such as the abuse excuse that got the Menendez brothers off the hook in their first trial, the "black rage" defense that was used to try to exonerate the Long Island Railroad gunman, the "pornography made me to it" defense that some rapists have tried. If there's a threat to responsibility it doesn't come from biological determinism but from any determinism, including childhood upbringing, mass media, social conditioning, and so on.

redux [08.30.00]
find related articles. powered by google. Salon Flameproof racism

"Are blacks programmed by their genes to be promiscuous? Can we read any morality off our genes at all? Is religion pernicious nonsense? The field of evolutionary psychology attempts to illuminate such inquiries into human nature with the insights of modern Darwinism. It raises questions that have a prickly, intense and scary quality. To get inside them is like putting on a hair shirt with explosives strapped to it. Even in sober academic journals, the discussion can rapidly become a screaming match. On the Internet, home of the flame, any attempt at a reasonable discussion seems completely futile."

"Given the volatility of online debate, the existence, then, of the Evolutionary Psychology mailing list seems like a miracle. All these unspeakable things and more are debated there, yet it is actually possible to learn new things -- and the arguments, however ruthless, are always polite."

find related articles. powered by google. The Edge Getting Human Nature Right

"The 'implication' that seems to worry people most of all is so-called 'genetic determinism'. It's the notion that, if human nature was shaped by evolution, then it's fixed and so we're simply stuck with it -- there's nothing we can do about it. We can never change the world to be the way we want, we can never institute fairer societies; policy-making and politics are pointless.

Now, that's a complete misunderstanding. It doesn't distinguish between human nature -- our evolved psychology -- and the behavior that results from it. Certainly, human nature is fixed. It's universal and unchanging -- common to every baby that's born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior -- which is generated by that nature -- is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules -- the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that's sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to 'genetic determinism' is simple. If you want to change behavior, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it."


"In the late 1970s I attended meetings at which sociobiologists E. O. Wilson and David Barash, critic Stephen J. Gould, and others were on a panel. Standing blocked by the crowd in the hall outside the doorway to the packed hall I was unable hear the speakers. I spied a little door near the stage, and figured that if I could get to that door, I could get next to the stage and the front row. I sneaked through the hotel kitchen and found the door. Just as I opened it I was passed by a number of African American students who ran up on stage and poured water on Wilson's head. Wilson responded by saying to the audience that he felt like he had been speared by an aborigine. The crowd applauded the martyred Wilson (on crutches at the time--from a skiing accident) and some in the front row muttered epithets at the disrupters and at me, who appeared to have held the door for the demonstrators. The water pitcher story has been repeated scores of times in journalistic accounts, but none of these mention Wilson's racially tinged response. Two decades later the debate concerning the genetic determination of human behavior has been reanimated in the general intellectual and middle-brow media with a somewhat more restrained tone. The study of evolutionary accounts of human behavior is now called "evolutionary psychology" to avoid some of the justifiably bad connotations that were associated with sociobiology. During the last few years the linguist Steve Pinker, (1997) philosopher Daniel Dennett, (1995) New Republic editor and science popularizer Robert Wright,(1994) and science writer Matt Ridley (1994, 1997) have produced feisty, polemical expositions of evolutionary psychology for a broad audience. Stephen J. Gould has returned to the breach to criticize evolutionary psychology, but several writers considered to be on the left have defended sociobiological approaches and criticized postmodern rejection of biologism.

The core theories of evolutionary psychology are the same as those of sociobiology. Several of the commonly made distinctions between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology turn out not to distinguish the two. So what has changed and what is new?"

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Bioinformatics will be at the core of biology in the 21st century. In fields ranging from structural biology to genomics to biomedical imaging, ready access to data and analytical tools are fundamentally changing the way investigators in the life sciences conduct research and approach problems. Complex, computationally intensive biological problems are now being addressed and promise to significantly advance our understanding of biology and medicine. No biological discipline will be unaffected by these technological breakthroughs.


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