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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: May ::
Re: Ideology
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0520.  Friday, 2 May 1997.

[1]     From:   Lysbeth Benkert-Rasmussen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 01 May 97 14:42:00 CDT
        Subj:   RE:  Ideology and biology

[2]     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Thursday, 1 May 1997 18:14:15 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Ideology

[3]     From:   Paul Hawkins <
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        Date:   Thursday, 1 May 1997 19:28:26 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re:  Ideology


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Lysbeth Benkert-Rasmussen <
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Date:           Thursday, 01 May 97 14:42:00 CDT
Subject:        RE:  Ideology and biology

To:  Robert Appelbaum <
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You said that "I've tried reading some evolutionary biologists but what
they're saying is really too hilarious.  In historiography Whiggism is
as dead as Lord Macaulay, but in evolutionary biology Whiggism thrives-
what has turned out to win has always won for the purpose that it was
supposed to win, given the "facts" (hardwiring, etc.)"

Well, no . . .  Some Stephen Gould should help-he is remarkably
readable.  Evolution is a matter of random mutation that fortuitously
enables an organism either to better adapt to its environment, or else
"gets in its way" (perhaps even to the extent that the organism fails to
reproduce and so dies out).   You also have mutations that have no
discernible effect at all (like the fact that our air and our food can
both enter into our mouth).  I don't think that any evolutionary
biologist would argue that it's at all a matter of determinism.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Thursday, 1 May 1997 18:14:15 -0500
Subject:        Re: Ideology

Robert Appelbaum's remarks are useful, and his strictures on the use of
"selfish" to describe genes seem to me true, but strictly beside the
point.  Darwinism properly understood makes no claims at all about the
moral character of what organisms do (Darwin himself was profoundly
disturbed by this it seems, but had to concede it as a necessary
consequence of his theory), let alone about their genes.  Organisms are
"selfish" in the limited sense that natural selection operates on them
to promote traits that enhance their own survival and reproduction. The
overwhelming majority of organisms make no -moral- choices about these
matters whatever.

An older kind of evolutionary biology was indeed often tainted by
progressivism ("dinosaurs became extinct because mammals were just
better designed"). But more careful and/or recent theorists (e.g.
Stephen Gould) have fought to correct this in the name precisely of what
Darwin actually theorized, a theorizing of which Marx in fact approved
as an impressive example of the kind of materialist systemic argument he
himself was working towards at another level.

Organisms are not, however, contra Applebaum, merely chunks of
unthinking matter. Anyone who has spent time around them knows that
animals do engage in intellectual activity at various levels. The
question of when and how the kinds of cogitation that we might call
"moral" arose is a very important one. I know a dog who routinely steals
his owner's treasured objects when the latter is on the phone. Why does
he do this? Clearly there is calculation involved. Of what sort is it?
Under what circumstances do what evolutionary pressures lead to the
development of attributes like the need for affection?
self-consciousness? language? the perception of rhythm?  deception?
love? Unless one supposes that these things were merely -given-to humans
by a visitant power, or that they were entirely accidental, there must
be good reasons why they evolved. Once they evolved, no doubt they could
be used for other things, and create their own kinds of complexity.

Do we merely assume -a priori- that this complex history has left no
trace whatever in the patterns of our thinking, expressing, and
feeling?  Has it left us with no structured capacities that affect how
we, say, form ideas like "self", or perceive the differences between a
noun and a verb, or choose to believe that someone is lying to us?

Chomsky's claim, for instance, that the apparatus for language is an
integral part of our genetic endowment has been largely vindicated, and
linguists have noted interesting ways in which, as a Darwinian array, it
constrains how we think and speak.

Surely these are things that a philosophical materialism needs to take
into account if it is to be true to its principles? We might say that
Darwinism is Marxism writ at the level of the organism (Marx apparently
thought so).  We were not simply -given- the capacity to love or
distrust, to perceive a rhythm or a shape as ordered, to take another
person's interest as our own.  These capacities developed in specific
ways, in response to specific pressures. Are we now simply to assert by
fiat that we have gotten clear of all that? We make our history, but we
do not make it up just as we choose.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul Hawkins <
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Date:           Thursday, 1 May 1997 19:28:26 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Re:  Ideology

I think Robert Appelbaum is missing much of the point of evolutionary
psychology and cognitive science and what they have to teach us, which
Thomas Bishop's and David Evett's posts begin to discuss.

The issue is not whether or not genes are "selfish," or whether or not
people using such terms are speaking, like Miss Prism, metaphorically
(they are), but whether or not traits identifiable as selfish or
altruistic in individual humans, or any psychological trait, or the
structures of mind, consciousness, and subjectivity are genetically
determined.

In *Reflections on Language* Chomsky says the following:

"It is a curious fact about the intellectual history of the past few
centuries that physical and mental development have been approached in
quite different ways.  No one would take seriously the proposal that the
human organism learns through experience to have arms rather than wings,
or that the basic structure of particular organs results from accidental
experience.  Rather, it is taken for granted that the physical structure
of the organism is genetically determined, though of course variation
along such dimensions as size, rate of development, and so forth will
depend in part on external factors. . . .

The development of personality, behavior patterns, and cognitive
structures in higher organisms has often been approached in a very
different way.  It is generally assumed that in these domanins, social
environment is the dominant factor.  The structures of mind that develop
over time are taken to be arbitrary and accidental; there is no "human
nature" apart from what develops as a specific historical product. . . .

But human cognitive systems, when seriously investigated, prove to be no
less marvelous and intricate than the physical structures that develop
in the life of the organism.  Why, then, should we not study the
acquisition of a cognitive structure such as language more or less as we
study some complex bodily organ?" (quoted in Steven Pinker's *The
Language Instinct* page 22)

Like David Evett, I hope that this discussion will continue.

Robert Appelbaum may, without knowing it, have smelled a lot of fish in
his academic life.  This may be why he mistakes the current smell.

Paul Hawkins
 

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