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Life on the Web

Author: joe

Friday, 15 June, 2007 - 21:20

While I have the usual reservations about scientific positivism - not so much that it is a kind of imperialism, but rather that it is ultimately a totalising method, leaving little room for the qualitative experiences of people - I nevertheless have no sympathy for those nay-sayers, flatearthers, religious charlatans and general luddites who insist that anything that comes under the nomenclature of 'genetics' is FrankenBad.

Are we determined by nature? Are we determined by nurture? Why would the latter be so preferable to the former? Surely it is the 'determinism' itself that instils the fear. Or, if a creationist, why are you so reassured by the idea that you are determined by a God? How stultifying. And besides, why think of nature versus nurture, as though they are opposing ends of a spectrum? Why not think of nature and nurture as parallel determining, but open-ended, forces?

If the determinism of the physical laws of the universe is able to result in such a diverse and mind-boggling phenomenon as the universe itself with its dark matter, strange quarks, planetary nebulae, disc galaxies and comfortingly reliable gravity, why should we resent being also determined? Given that such determinism nevertheless is so convoluted as to produce the sense of agency that we so dearly cling to and to which we attribute our illusion of individuality, should we not be grateful for the laws that result in it? Wasn't Keats basically full of shit when he moaned about unweaving the rainbow? (I think that's a fair summary of Dawkins' book).

I say all this by way of pre-emptive defence. If you don't like an idea, the easiest way to attack it is to attack its author - and once you have dispensed with that author, all his subsequent ideas become anathema. E. O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology has incurred the wrath of the aforementioned nay-sayers, since his ideas can be caricatured as the basest form of genetic determinism - a gene for homosexuality, a gene for liking people called Alicia, a gene for grazing your knee when you're 12. Evolutionary psychology is an easy target for those who wish to further their own agenda - such as continental philosophers, proponents of the 'blank slate' (not in themselves objectionable, just intellectually weak as demonstrated by Pinker), cognitive scientists, sociologists with no knowledge of biology, and the like.

But I repeat - if there were, say, no gene for altruism after all, would we suddenly cease to bother being altruistic? And if there were found such a gene, would it mean our altruism were worthless? There is category error in abundance here.

So, having attempted to head off, at the pass, the common criticism of Wilson, I stand in awe at the project that is the Encyclopedia of Life. An electronic page on every species known to man. A collaborative project between a number of biological research institutions to make available to everyone our accumulated knowledge of earthly diversity:

When completed, will serve as a global biodiversity tool, providing scientists, policymakers, students, and citizens information they need to discover and protect the planet and encourage learning and conservation.

An excellent intervention of knowledge into the public domain, and an awesome implementation of the power of our network, the determinedly FrankenBad Internet.

Categories: science, biology, genetics, determinism, encyclopedia-of-life, sociobiology, agency, network, public-domain,
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