Sunday, October 19, 2008

Liberal ignorance about ev psych raises its political head

Well, I haven’t had to shoot down any right-wing eugenicists or sexists in a while. No, now it’s a mainstream liberal wanting to refight Richard Lewontin’s political ax-grinding against E.O. Wilson 30-plus years ago. Hilzoy, co-host of Washington Monthly these days, bemoans, and Atlantic Monthly putting Wilson’s “The Biological Basis of Morality” online. (Thanks, Atlantic — it’s bookmarked!) And, it’s right here for you.

First, comes the snideness, hinting that Wilson is little more than an Alan Sokol with his spoof on PC lit crit. I never did tackle that in my back-and-forth with her, but to me, that was sign No. 1 we were going to get a political discussion of Wilson, not a scientific one, or even a philosophical one.

Next, comes the politically driven non-skeptical liberal approach of putting John Rawls and his ideas of “justice as fairness” and “distributive justice” on a pedestal, clueless that Walter Kaufmann blew Rawls out of the water 40 years ago, before Wilson ever tackled him scientifically. (Hilzoy rejects the idea, but she’s not read Walter Kaufmann’s “Without Guilt and Justice,” which does just that.)

Third is the omission of the fact that Wilson was the target of a politically-inspired, not scientifically-motivated, vendetta after publishing “Sociobiology” in 1976.

So, here’s selected passages from the long earful I gave her:
First, I don't KNOW if this is the case with Hilz in person, and I've distinguished that sociobiology, while in some sense a godfather to ev psych, is not exactly the same....


I get the feeling that for many here, Wilson is all about "what's wrong with 'reductionistic science.' "

First, read Dan Dennett and distinguish between reductionism and greedy reductionism.

Second, given that Wilson started writing about this 30 years or so ago, Hilz, I assumed you had an ax to grind. I looked at what I saw was the most logical ax.

Third, many non-skeptical liberals put Rawls on a pedestal. That's why I pointed out Rawls has been shot down from within the world of philosophy. Based on this post, I'm also inferring you're one of those non-skeptical liberals.

Kaufmann does an excellent job of showing that distributive justice, a horse ridden hard by Rawls, actually isn't just.

He then goes beyond that, in "Without Guilt and Justice," and notes that justice is NOT some Platonic ideal but very much a socially based convention. And, on that grounds, Rawls IS a transcendentalist, so you got that part of your critique wrong. (And, I've read Rawls as well as Kaufmann, and Kaufmann's right. From a somewhat different angle, Dennett also pokes holes in Rawls.)

Third, you opened the snideness door yourself, with the Sokol crack, Hilz, and I'm just firing back.

More seriously,though, try reading more of Rawls, more skeptically, as well as some critiques of him.

(So), Rawls was wrong, justice is not fairness. He was a transcendentalist for offering that claim without empirical evidence. (One need not be religious to be a transcendentalist.)

From this, it is arguable that there is no such thing as a just society. Some societies may be more just, others less just. But, to claim justice as perfection is another transcendentalist claim from where I sit.

Next, just because I reject Rawls as a political philosopher on ethics doesn’t mean I have to accept Nozick, and I don’t.

But, on Wilson at this point…

If there are no transcendent principles which we can label “justice” then we had better find some empirical underpinnings lest we enter a Hobbsian world.

From here, sociobiology says, evolutionary biology is the logical place to start looking for empirical underpinnings, along with empirical causes, etc.

That said, Wilson has himself pulled back from stronger statements of later Ev Psychers and even some ev psycher. He is definitely NOT a “œnature = destiny”� person.

Next, let’s look at the “other side of the street.”

It’s not as if Gould and Lewontin were free from bias in their critiques of Wilson. (And a s left-liberal Green voter, don’t try to claim I’m politically biased from the right.

Next, if you’ll Wiki, the word ‘sociobiology’ was around 30 years before Wilson’s book of that name.

And, as Wiki also notes on the article of that name, Wilson himself has been a noted liberal, and visible one, on many issues.

OK, more on what Wilson actually says.

First, “contrivance of the mind” does not necessarily mean “conscious contrivance.”� In the case of ev psych, or its sociobiology godparent, it explicitly does NOT mean that.

Second, as for the “naturalistic mind,”� what’s wrong with that? Although I disagree with Steve Pinker on a lot, to the degree the human mind is not only from the brain, but has been influenced by the evolution of the brain, he’s right — deal with it. Live with it.

Finally, an aside … I didn’t start reopening one side of a 30 Years War, Hilz, which is what your post seems like from here; if my inferences on any of your reasons for this post are wrong, maybe you should articulate them. Maybe you should have done so in the first place.

As for the “dumping water” incident, it was stupid, childish and reinforcing of the “liberal academia” �stereotypes of many conservatives, many of whom themselves didn’t like Wilson’s ideas.

And, that war was politicized from the start. John Maynard Smith, a dean of evolutionary biology at the time Wilson’s book came out, expected them:
“It was also absolutely obvious to me--I cannot believe Wilson didn't know--that this was going to provoke great hostility from American Marxists, and Marxists everywhere.”

But, it apparently has no problem finding resources and agents to investigation ACORN.

Of course, it’s not all the FBI’s fault. It’s been asking for more money to investigate financial crime since 2004, but our MBA president just hasn’t been forthcoming. According to former law enforcement officials, that would be anti-business and “overdeterrence.”

In fact, Hilz said she considered her post the equivalent of the water dumping, so I know that I can’t go anywhere with her on scientific grounds, and given the starry eyes for Rawls, not far on philosophical grounds.

As I also told her, I don’t care if Rawls is the most influential political philosopher (in the U.S., or the western democracies) of the last 50 years. Karl Marx was the most influential single political philospher for the world as a whole for most the 20th century, so appeals to the crowd don’t fly.

Beyond that, I think Hilzoy has another assumption that lies behind her post.

And, that is?

That only conservatives can politicize science.

And that just ain't so.

No comments: