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"We're not animals"

Told to take this discussion somewhere else, I'm dumping my expanded thoughts here.

"We're not animals." There's the biologist response, of "oh, yes we are." There's the logician response, of "if we're not animals, then what was the point of bringing up homosexual behavior in the wild? And then animal rape should be irrelevant to us." And there's the philosopher response of muttering about the naturalistic fallacy. Whether rape or gayness are natural, or happen in other species, is irrelevant to their wrongness or rightness for us. Rape's wrong because it hurts people. Gay behavior is okay because it doesn't. Evolutionary background is irrelevant. We can use condemnation and prison to discourage behavior we don't like regardless of the reasons behind it. Murder's natural, under some circumstances; infanticide is natural. But we don't make excuses for those.

"Naturalness" would be relevant only if a behavior was *so* natural that it wasn't controllable, that the threat of punishment wouldn't deter men from raping. But being imprisoned would still prevent the rapist from committing further rapes (at least, outside of prison); "I can't help myself" isn't exactly a good argument for being allowed out on the street. And if men were that much of an uncontrollable ravaging horde then female separatism -- or isolation of males -- would make a lot of sense. Fortunately, morality, empathy, and fear are (imperfectly) effective in restraining aggression.

Evolution isn't an excuse for bad behavior; bad excuses aren't a reason for denying facts of natural history.

Thoughts? Can this be said better? Am I wrong?


( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 7th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
Rape is natural ... and wrong. It is important to understand the way in which rape is natural, the better to deter and prevent its occurrence, however. If we fool ourselves into believing that rape is some behavior so horrificially evil that only a very tiny minority of men would even feel an impulse toward it, we only increase the likelihood of rapes happening, because we will fail to put in place barriers to the crime.

Morality, by the way, is also natural. Read De Waal's Good Nature on the evolution of moral conduct in animals, especially the great apes.
Nov. 7th, 2007 08:04 pm (UTC)
Haven't read that book, though I attended a talk he gave on fairness in primates, like the poor monkey refusing to work for unequal pay and going on strike. I've seen Marc Hauser say we've evolved to have a moral grammar. Like language: an intrinsic sense there is a morality, but what the morality is can be cultural.
Nov. 7th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
Sounds about right to me. You can even throw in infidelity there. It's perfectly natural (otherwise there'd be no inclination towards it), but it doesn't mean it isn't societally frowned upon. And that's okay. People choose what they choose.
Nov. 7th, 2007 08:05 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I thought of throwing philandering and cuckoldry, but feared that'd poison things given the shadow of evolutionary psychology, which gets accused of justifying those as well as rape.
Nov. 7th, 2007 08:05 pm (UTC)
This might not be totally relevant, but I'm reminded of the current hype over "naturalness" as if being natural is the greatest quality something can have. This looks even more ridiculous when one realizes that things like uranium are also natural, and definitely not something you'd want in your home.
Nov. 7th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Or smallpox, or shit, or male pattern baldness, or having your bones go fragile after menopause (or after a fetus beats you out in the biochemical fight for your calcium.)

To a transhumanist, 'natural' is almost a curseword. More nuancedly, it's neutral. Natural food? Sure, because I don't trust our understanding (or commercial manipulation of food.) Natural medicine? Dear god no.

Damn, I used my Zefiris icon already. Aw hell, immortal robot gods are always good.
Nov. 7th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC)
My feeling precisely. OTOH, getting back to the original issue, I'm also deeply suspicious of most evo psych, because from everything I've read it largely seems to be a series of biological "just-so stories" designed to prove some moral point the alleged scientist wishes to prove.

Biological determinism has been popular in the US for the past 25-30 or so years (largely since the conservative/Republican revival in the late 1970s) and has been repeatedly used as a tool by sexists, racists, and similar vile idiots.

I find it both interesting and exceedingly illustrative that evo psych is pretty much never used to support anything other than ideas favored by social conservatives (primarily racial inequality & misogyny). So, I can definitely see how the comments you made did not go over well, since evo psych has been deliberately and consciously used as a tool of oppression, not just by non-scientists using the data, but by some of the people doing the (often ludicrously biased) studies. From everything I've read, there is no such thing as politically neutral social science or biology if the subject matter is human behavior and so the first step in looking at any study (or in some cases, when looking at entire disciplines, like evo psych) is what the agenda is.
Nov. 7th, 2007 09:40 pm (UTC)
I'm tempted to say evo psych gets used by social conservatives because social liberals are smart enough not to drag natural history into human politics.

There's also that nature tend to not be liberal. Red in tooth and claw, infanticide, sexual maneuvering, status hierarchies... or else communist-like collectives, casually sacrificing individual members for the good of the whole^W germ line. Apart from symbiotic mutualism, stuff like trade and democracy doesn't exactly leap out of the biology books.

All that said, Peter Singer wrote A Darwinian Left, saying the Left should embrace an evolutionary view of human nature, not hide behind ideas of cultural malleability. Ideas of universal human rights should be grounded in recognition of an evolved human nature. Evo psych can tell us why people don't like being killed, or getting unfair pay, and why women don't like getting raped.

And I think the man behind it all, E. O. Wilson, is a leftist.

As for the alleged abused of evo psych... I've been exposed to the field mostly through Wilson, Dawkins, Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, and Robert Wright. Seems okay, though Wright had some problems.
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:16 pm (UTC)
You can find such information, it's just not in articles written by sociobiologists and their ilk. Here's one good example.

There's as much politics as there is science involved in discussing these issues. I've read Wilson's work, and my two reactions were that he knows vastly more about ants than about mammals and that it was clear that the ideas he came up with depressed the hell out of him. Thankfully (at least when applied to social vertebrates) kin selection is utter nonsense.

I think one of the key points that gets ignored is how great a part cultural transmission of data plays, not just in humans, but in vast numbers of mammals and birds. For example, if a female baboon isn't taught by a mother or aunt how to raise young (or at minimum doesn't have a chance to observe them caring for an infant baboon), it is an utterly incompetent mother and its young are very likely to die. This knowledge has been transmitted among primates (and possibly many other social animals) for many 10s of millions of years.

Of course, I have an MA in cultural anthro, and so am somewhat biased.
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 7th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 7th, 2007 10:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 7th, 2007 11:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 12th, 2007 07:01 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 12th, 2007 07:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 12th, 2007 08:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 7th, 2007 10:25 pm (UTC)
As a side note, I'm not certain if I've shown you this link about genetic determinism before. I've researched that the problems with sociobiology/evo psych in a fairly obsessive fashion, and everything in that article that I've checked is spot on, which among other things means that pretty much all data based on twin studies is complete junk based on both tiny sample sizes and highly contaminated data.

However, I think the most important part of the article is the discussion of anthropology vs genetic determinism, which has been an on-going struggle in (primarily US) social science since the beginning of the 20th century. This is (at least) as much a political struggle as a scientific one, and I simply do not believe in anything remotely resembling objective science regarding the study of human (or in most cases primate) behavior.
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 7th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 7th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 12th, 2007 05:54 am (UTC)
You are confusing "evolutionary psychology" with "biological determinism." Biology isn't even completely destiny for the higher animals, let alone for humans.
Nov. 12th, 2007 06:41 am (UTC)
Evolutionary psychology is essentially based upon the idea of biological determinism. Almost all of it involves researchers trying to construct biological explanations for modern first world (or even more often, slightly archaic) morals and social patterns. I happen to think biological determinism is utter nonsense, which explains my feelings about the entire discipline of evo psych.
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 12th, 2007 06:59 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 12th, 2007 07:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 12th, 2007 08:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 12th, 2007 08:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan179 - Nov. 12th, 2007 07:12 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 12th, 2007 07:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jordan179 - Nov. 12th, 2007 07:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Nov. 12th, 2007 08:09 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - heron61 - Nov. 12th, 2007 08:28 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 12th, 2007 08:23 am (UTC)
BTW, this seems a good summary of what evo psych means to me.
Nov. 12th, 2007 08:37 am (UTC)
*nods* that fits my own definition of the general field and I completely and totally disagree. As I mentioned in a previous response, I believe that learned and culturally transmitted behavior, including chains of transmitted learning (such as nurturing behavior) that stretch back literally millions of years is a far greater determinant of human behavior than any instincts or other inborn determinants of behavior.

What I do find interesting is that this "culture" has also clearly faced significant selection pressure (individuals whose learning was incomplete or incorrect were less likely to survive and reproduce, thus producing an evolution of the various cultural traits. I've read several fascinating papers on this very topic, but that was well before I was on-line. I shall attempt to find them.
Nov. 8th, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
I think the very word "natural" is to be avoided in these sorts of discussions. Nature is complex and certainly not without errors and erratics. All sorts of more or less rare diseases and mutations are "natural" meaning they show up in nature, but that doesn't mean they are "normal".

So saying that something is to be accepted as natural because it occurs somewhere in nature in more or less specific circumstances is missing the point, I think. And what we consider to be natural, normal or just aberrant behaviour often depends on what and how much has been studied.
( 32 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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