Friday, February 22, 2008

The new determinism spreads like a virus

A piece pn the front page of today's Indian Express: "Are you Cong or BJP? One answer lies in your genes."
If you are organised, self-disciplined, and more likely to follow rules, you are more likely to be conservative. If you are an extrovert, if you are open to experiences, if you focus on change as an opportunity rather than a problem, you are more likely to be liberal. If you are afraid of death, you are probably a conservative.
Sweet Lord have mercy! This is what passes for intelligent scientific reporting? The article is about a New Scientist paper that seems to find, surprise surprise, a link between one's political affiliations and one's genetic makeup.
A provocative article in the latest issue of New Scientist cites several studies that indicate political positions are “substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason.”
The authors of the article must be the first ones to think that politics is about reason ... :) I am sure they are not jumping to the broad conclusions that this report is. However, that's how the new determinism works. Everything has to be reduced to genes (or psychology) or something that is scientifically measurable. "Sciences" is the new Deus ex machina and the victim in all this is, ironically, reason and liberty. For if every darn thing is about genes, then where is free will? How does one talk about morality at all? Why do we have a criminal justice system? Why bother with right and wrong? [Hey, my genes told me to write this ... ]

And, what an incredibly stupid headline. Which one is liberal, and which conservative? The Congress? The BJP? Do those political terms hold the same range of meanings in the very different landscape of India as they do in the West?


In a piece a week or so back, influential MIT linguist Steven Pinker argues that science is now revealing the real roots of morality. There's a pretty decent rejoinder by a philosopher from St. John's Univ. in Queens. This stuff isn't new. Have you read any philosophy recently?

The more I think about it, the more I feel that those preparing for the priesthood should have some solid and deep exposure to philosophy. More philosophy, not less. [I can see my former confreres rolling their eyes :)].


pritcher said...

At the same time, frustratingly, we're supposed to believe that our realities are determined exclusively by our choices and the environment/hegemony in which we find ourselves. There is no objective reality, especially when it comes to issues of identity (e.g., gender, which--last time I checked--does have something to do with our genes). What garbage.

Sean said...

Except of course the evolutionary psychology, and those who disagree with it, form at the crux of the scientific divide between nature and nurture. It's not, as the above poster says, that we are to hold genes as deterministic and at the same time believe "there is no objective reality", but rather that these two trains of thoughts are competing with each other.

For their to be a "new determinism" there would have to be a scientific consensus that doesn't currently exist. Despite Pinker, and other evolutionary psychologists claims, there ISN'T. Pinker, and his other hoary old buddy Richard Dawkins, claim alot more loyalty and fame than they actually have earned. It helps also that they've managed to portray themselves as martyrs for larger socio-political causes. (Despite, for instances, Dawkins status as a celebrity atheist, most of his philosophical positions are retreaded nonsense from the 18th century, repackaged into a pop-scientific form).

On the opposing side, of course, are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, whom are notorious mostly for their political views (Marxist) as well as their steadfast opposition to genetic determinism, and their almost iron-clad support of the idea that almost everything is determined by one's choices. In between is everyone else.

So its wrong to suggest that there is some sort of new scientific orthodoxy that has larger potents for society. The war, within science, and rightly I believe, rages on.