Search results for "genetics "

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, www.eol.org 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.
[EurekaAlert]

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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Capital and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 18 March, 2007 - 22:31

Is Adam Curtis secretly a Marxist of the purest form, who believes like Marx that the political economy determines the cultural values that circulate in society? His portrayal of the relationship between democracy and the free-market (what Marx might call the 'base') and their effect on society (what Marx might call the 'superstructure') is pure determinism. At times he seems to imply that the influence of a few back-room economists on the policy of Clinton inevitably lead to cultural changes which the rest of us cannot escape. Is he in danger of reproducing the classic Marxist mistake of assuming that people are stupid?

Is Curtis a neo-conservative marketeer who criticises the target-driven culture of the last 10 years because it has not worked, or a neo-socialist who believes in regulatory intervention? We will never know because he equates the intervention of target-setting with the no-holds-barred free market. Just because a target is set without law or regulation does not mean it is not a political intervention.

Is Curtis an anti-science luddite, who only partially read arguments for the selfish gene in order to criticise those models for being deterministic? Certainly, he appears to imply that Maynard-Smith and Dawkins merely think that organisms are machines for genes. Had he read Dawkins' book The Extended Phenotype, (published 5 years before the date of the clip of Dawkins used in the film) he would have been familiar with that biologist's well-argued retraction of the robot metaphor. Indeed he would have understood that the 'machines for genes' discourse leads to a new understanding of collaboration (between single-celled organisms, into eukaryotic cells, into larger, multi-celled organisms, and between organisms into a symbiosis or ecology) which is not only characterised by the reach of the gene.

However, the attentive viewer who is led down some of these cul-de-sacs will be relieved to learn that, on the contrary, Curtis may not believe any of these things.

The frustrating thing about this film was the ellipsis: while watching I find myself railing against the partiality and elliptical nature of the argument, only to discover the twist later in which balance is at least partly restored. At the end, Curtis dramatically announces that, actually, economists and geneticists alike might have revisited some of the deterministic theories they produced, and now think that the world may be more complex. Maybe Curtis will do the same?

Without trying to pre-empt the outcome of Curtis' argument in next week's third and final part, I nevertheless have an eery feeling that we will hear about emergent complexity, possibly related to evolutionary-stable-states, which will redeem aspects of game theory, and thereby rescue mankind from its current narrative status - the disequilibrium of being a determined gene machine; maybe we'll hear about, far from the market as a mechanism of a kind of social natural selection, actually there is an unequal competition between corporations with power and markets of consumers with none; we may even learn that democracy and the free market are not the same thing. Shock, horror. I can only hope that he will complicate his argument further by conceding that our social relationships and ideas of freedom are not merely inevitably determined by economic policy, and that superstructural mechanisms, made out of things like his own film, contribute to the 'emergent complexity' of cultural life.

It's rather disingenuous of Curtis to narrativise the debate in this way: it creates a story, yes, but it does a disservice to his argument, and the protagonists in it. For all that I sympathise with the points of view he seems to put forward - that free markets aren't the solution to the world's problems, that pharmaceutcals medicalise the world in order to profit, that people are not machines - there are better ways to make the case than to set up straw-men for later demolition.

Categories: adam-curtis, freedom, genetics, game-theory, political-economy, marxism, market, humanity,
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