A comment to the guest blog by Scott Atran cast doubt on whether he, “a Euro-American white male,” is even capable of transcending his ethnocentrism. I immediately stepped in and cut this discussion short, because I know too well how destructive such arguments can be.
But it doesn’t mean that I believe that science is a completely impartial and dispassionate endeavor, coolly conducted by high intellectual priests to whom only truth is sacred. Far from it. Scientists are human (and not Vulcans), some are men, other women. Some are progressives (most of my colleagues, actually), some conservative (a few in the academia). Finally, some are Americans, others British or French, and yet others Russians, Chinese, and Arabs. As a Russian, I can see very clearly some of the cherished prejudices dear to my Western European, and especially Anglo-Saxon, colleagues.
To me, the trick is not to deny that we enter science equipped with all kind of biases, but to try to transcend them as best as we can. But there is no question that we all have different biases. In fact, there is a lot of interesting research examining how gender and political affiliation affect the opinions scientists hold.
A particularly interesting recent study is the one by William Yaworsky, Mark Horowitz, and Kenneth Kickham, Gender and Politics among Anthropologists in the Units of Selection Debate, published a month ago in Biological Theory. It’s interesting because it addresses the question of group versus kin selection, which is of course one of the most dividing issues in evolutionary science.
Yaworsky and colleagues obtained 175 surveys from evolutionary anthropologists who served faculty in graduate programs in various universities (which means that they are training their own graduate students). Their analysis of the questionnaires showed that there were very striking differences between different groups of anthropologists. Liberals were much more likely to disagree with the statement that tribal conflict was a principal evolutionary force that shaped human behavior. Conservatives, on the other hand, thought that tribalism was a fundamental human trait. They also tended to agree with the notion that homicide was frequent in early human societies.
The differences between male and female evolutionary anthropologists were even stronger than between different parties. Women were very resistant to the ideas that tribal conflict was an important selective force and that homicide was common in prehistory.
So what does it all mean? One interpretation is that we are hopelessly in thrall to our genes (e.g., the Y-chromosome) and ideology. Objective science is a sham. This is the view, if stated somewhat crudely, held by extreme post-modernists.
My view is different. Remember that group selection is a highly contentious area. In fact, as I argued in a previous blog, we are going through a paradigm shift. So there is a lot of controversy. Although women are more likely to reject the idea that warfare and violence were common in prehistory, you find lots of men on both sides of this issue. Just witness the epochal clash between Steven Pinker and his followers versus Douglas Fry with colleagues (War, Peace, and Human Nature). In an area of science that is unsettled and rapidly developing gender and political biases are visible particularly clearly.
But take another controversial issue on which the scientific consensus has gelled – global warming. If you ask any ecologist in a reputable American university, both men and women will tell you that yes, global temperature has been increasing over the last 100 years, and that burning fossil fuels and deforestation has been a major contributor to this global change. The story is quite complex, but the fact of global warming has achieved such a high level of scientific proof that it satisfies 99 percent of ecologists, whether they are males or females.
And I expect that the questions of the importance of between-group competition and the frequency of lethal violence in prehistory will eventually achieve the same level of consensus. It may take many decades, but my hunch is that it will happen more quickly than that.
In fact, it’s already happening. The data of Yaworsky and colleagues show that 80 percent of respondents disagree with Pinker’s assertion that group selection is a useless concept. A similar proportion thinks that group selection is an important process, and 55 percent consider group selection as a more important process than kin selection. In contrast, among the professors who trained this cohort of respondents, the previous generation, only 8 percent were strongly in favor or “leaned” towards group selection. We are winning!