Monday, October 31, 2011

"Let them eat cake!" (wild applause) Why? Part II

We continue our musing on the nature of the 'science' in what is so proudly self-proclaimed as 'social science'?   The issues are subtle, and it is curious that we as a society--our professors, pundits, op-ed writers, pop-sci writers, and their ilk, and the advisors and advisees in social policy and politics--seem so sure there is such a thing.  And, indeed, we don't have to pound on the thoroughly desrving-it economists whose predictions after eons of funded research can't do much better than coin-flipping, to make our point.

We described in Part I of this mini-series the tradition of views of social theorists of various stripes as 'social Darwinists' and 'social Lamarckians', for those who felt that inequity was a built-in law of Nature that should be nurtured by social policy, or who felt that human achievement could lead to equity, and that that principle of Nature should be nurtured by social policy.

All these thinkers would have said that they were doing science--that is, were describing fundamental truths of the material world.  But how did they know what they thought they knew?  Did they 'prove' their assertions?

Social Darwinists assert that inequity is not only inevitable and unavoidable, but is the mechanism by which societies compete to succeed (in wealth or power or whatever), and is therefore good. This doesn't mean that social Darwinists are personally cruel people, but that they are sanguine about inequity as being good for society and unavoidable even if some people suffer.  But how can one prove that social inequity is inevitable and what kind of 'law' is it that would assert so?    What counts as 'inequity'?  How can one know?  The fact that inequity exists in successfully competing societies (and in downtrodden ones as well) does not imply inevitability, and 'good' is totally a judgment--and of course by definition not good for all.

Is it that if there are random effects on resources, even if each person has the same probability of getting resources, by chance some just won't, and that in the next year or generation they'll be drawing from a position of relative strength or weakness, which will probabilistically make the differences greater?  If so, what kind of 'law' is that--based on probability alone, not on anything to do with resources themselves?

Social Darwinism has caused, or has been used to justify, enormous horrors visited on large numbers of people.  But what about its supposed opposite, social Lamarckians (a term, but by no means an idea, that we may have invented)?  One might believe that learning and improved social environments, based on sharing and fairness, can lead to an equitable society without competitive winners and losers.   People have comparable potential (unless manifestly handicapped by disease) that just needs a chance to flourish.  Communist societies believed (or, at least, claimed to believe) in this idea--in society's evolution and even in agricultural evolution (called Lysenkoism, a topic too big to go into here).  But how could one ever prove that true social equality (let's not worry about how it's defined) is possible, much less inevitably achievable, even if a semblance of it exists here and there?

There is in either view precious little theory that is of the usual kind one finds in science.  Even defining 'equality' is probably a hopeless task.  Is being a basketball player equal to being an accountant or trucker? Even Darwin's own theory on which social Darwinism rests, basically argues that if some have an advantage in an environment they'll do better, which in a way verges on tautology and in any case is not inevitable--despite his and others' implications to the contrary.

Biology has subsequently developed respectable theory of life, based on biochemistry and genetics, but while that theory may account for different disease susceptibility or hair color, it is only stretched, and thinly so, to culture and social inequality by assumptive extrapolation of genetics.  The fact that someone may feed on the ideology of competition, in the sense of organismal evolution, does not in any way prove that the same applies to society.  Even if competition does clearly seem to exist.  Likewise, the fact that one can imagine societal equality does not in any way prove that there is a physical basis for such a view.  And sharing clearly also exists.  In some societies, sharing is relatively more important, or reported by the members of the society,  than in others.

Genes must affect individual proclivities (whatever that means), but obviously the cultural attributes of a group, which can change much more rapidly than its genetic makeup, are several levels of removal from individual genes.

So ideas about the evolution, or genetic-behavioral nature, of society and culture are far less supported by real evidence than the purveyors of such ideas typically acknowledge.  Still, if we're material beings, and not guided by truly spiritual 'forces', there must be some relationships, no?

Speaking of  the latter, of course materialist views of the world are very threatening to the idea that free will exists, and this is even more of a problem for people holding strongly religious views, one of many reasons some religious people strongly oppose Darwinian evolution.  Another question that raises is how a purely spiritual something-or-other (like soul or God's will) can make a difference in the material world without itself being material--and hence subject to scientific analysis.

But what is 'free' will, and is whether it exists even a legitimate or determinable empirical question?  One view is that we only think we're making choices, an illusion, when really it's all our neurons doing that so that, when we finally know enough about each neuron etc., we will be able to predict one's every move, emotion, or decision.

On the other  hand, there may be so many layers of material causation, each involving at least some probabilistic elements that, even in principle, we could not predict individual decisions from knowledge of neurons per se.

In the latter case, culture is yet many levels of interaction and causation further removed from individuals' neurons, and moreso from their genes.  If so, and this seems likely true, then culture can be an entirely material phenomenon that cannot be understood by genetic or neuroscience reductionism.  This is not something those convinced of a deterministic evolutionary world like to acknowledge, and not something that yields much confidence in how to develop a sound theory of culture and its evolution.

Biology hasn't solved this causal problem because we know the truth is mixed and even that it is difficult to tell what is 'genetic' in this context.  Being a social parasite like a criminal or 'welfare queen' might be consistent with many genetic determinants but how does one decide if that is a defective trait?  Indeed, being a legal social parasite, like an hedge-fund manager (pick your own particular favorite)  might reflect the same genotypes.  These issues are not clear-cut at all.

Nowadays we couch things in terms of 'science', we accept very poorly supported pop-sci and Just-so stories by psychologists, op-ed writers, and that ilk, but how different are these claims from those of scripture, shamans, or other smooth talkers and demogogues?

Where, if anywhere, is there any science in this?  If this is the material world, why can't science answer the questions?  If after billions of research dollars spent, society is every bit as screwed up in these kinds of ways as in  the past, why do we still even have departments of sociology, psychology, economics (or anthropology)?

These are serious questions in an age of widespread molecular deterministic beliefs, because these beliefs haven't led to a seriously useful theory of the 'laws' of culture and society, yet from a materialistic point of view something of that sort must exist, if only we knew how to find it.


Holly Dunsworth said...

Determinism at its best. Pregant women don't give birth as much on Halloween because it's scary:

Holly Dunsworth said...

According to an energetic model of the timing of birth, women on the cusp of birth who experience a spike in calories may be able to prolong labor. Dang it. I missed the chance to put this obvious explanation on my poster for this week's SVP meetings!!!

Ken Weiss said...

'Able' to prolong labor? As if it's fun, a moment not to be missed?

Holloween reminds them of how scary it will be to have an actual real baby to take care of, to make you feel guilty about every parenting act, and to have someone else to support for the next 30 years.

Jennifer said...

adolescence - that's the really scarey part!

Holly Dunsworth said...

*postpone* meant to say postpone, not prolong. :)

Holly Dunsworth said...

That's an entirely different explanation :)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Meant to add that this a fantastic post, Ken. Thank you.