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!
‘We’ are indeed winning, Peter… the only real question now is who ‘we’ are?! Or perhaps who ‘we’ include… ;))
Due partly to this blog (thanks!) I have recently had an epiphany which allows me to connect at last with what you term the PoMo world (its essence, not its extremists) that I have been struggling to understand (literally) for years, perhaps even decades.
The route is through an amazing book called “The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It)” (EoC) — itself hugely and directly relevant to the Forum that you and David S-W and others are off to this week, imho. And EoC itself references early on an approach and mindset grounded in another, earlier PoMo effort called “Epistemology of The Closet.” This is sex/gender studies setting some of the ground rules for economy studies, in a sense.
My ability to make these links flies through my (personal) life like a javelin…and now I get it!
I understand that PoMo discussions are not allowed here and I respect that. I am simply telling how important the few peripheral mentions have turned out to be for me (even though I obviously haven’t read all this stuff in the past couple of days) … yet I know I am well on the way into my new life as a result. It’s both surprising and amazing…and at my age!
Apologies for the personal stuff… I don’t believe in it as a general rule, but this case seems quite extraordinary to me, so perhaps justifies one (not so modest) exception. I can’t imagine how it could happen again…
Thanks for listening…and thanks, too, for keeping this conversation going, here… it is v important…
I can’t wait to hear about the Forum and its outcomes…
Best to all,
Like everyone else.
Poll finds gaping chasm in views between U.S. public, scientists
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American scientists and the general public hold vastly different views on key scientific issues including the role of people in causing climate change, the safety of genetically modified food, and evolution, a poll released on Thursday showed.
One topic I’ve never seen analysis of, is the impact of the Ph.D. process on academia. As someone who got a Master’s, and decided against going for a Ph.D., I can say that personality appeared to have a lot to do with it. One has to have not only the basic smarts (although that is of course necessary), but also it helps a lot if you have a basic trust in the fairness of bureaucracies. One can put in years of work on a Ph.D., for little pay, and get nothing out of it if you are not able to navigate the politics involved (ditto for tenure).
On the other hand, it clearly seemed that people with low levels of comfort in confronting the labor market, which has its own kinds of unfairness, seems to make some people look more favorably on getting a Ph.D, simply because that’s a way to avoid having to navigate a market-based system they don’t feel comfortable with.
Thus, I think the distorted political bias of academia is at least in part due to the structural issues that tend to make one kind of person more likely than another to get a Ph.D., a prerequisite for most careers in research. For example, their attitudes towards competition might be different than those of equal intellect who go into the private sector before getting a Ph.D.
The best test of this, I suppose, would be to look at how/whether the left-right bias varies at all between different countries, that have different systems for entry into academia (assuming that there are any countries with materially different systems). But I went private sector, so I guess it won’t be me that pursues the question!
Science almost always progresses through debate, with pig-headed stubborn advocates on all sides of a question. It took a long time for ideas like circulation of the blood to get accepted, and for people to give up on aether and phlogiston. My money on some final resolution coming to these war-and-human-nature debates once the data are in and people can agree on a definition of “war.” Meanwhile, I find Pinker and Fry about equally unconvincing, though Fry’s edited volume does go a long way to collecting good data that people have to at least look at.
“The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters,”–GK
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
– E.F. Schumacher
White American guys have for generations now shunned ethno-centrism as it’s pretty indisputably beyond gauche at this point. But here they are being accused of it anyway by modern progressives who take a historically conservative notion – you are father’s son, and cannot transcend those bounds – and run with it. It’s all pretty sad.
It is becoming apparent to me that within the anthropological community there is virtually no awareness of the quite large body of experimental data on multilevel selection. It turns out that there is an entire discipline that traces its roots back to quantitative genetics, and at least to the 1960s as formal group selection theory. This has been, dare I say, actively ignored by the traditions that have grown out of the inclusive fitness literature, even though it has an enormous amount to say about group selection, including group selection in humans. I don’t normally push my blog real hard, but there are some entries there where I discuss multilevel selection experiments, and these might be interesting.
The blog: https://blog.uvm.edu/cgoodnig/
An interesting post to get you started:
One thing that comes out of the group selection literature is that group selection has a dark side. Yes, it promotes cooperation within groups, but it also promotes competition among groups. SO, did humans evolve by intra-tribal cooperation and nurturing, or by inter-tribal conflict. The theoretical MLS literature would argue that they are two sides of the same coin, so the answer is clearly yes.
I am glad to see MLS getting a fair hearing, and I enjoyed the post.