February 6, 2006

Pop Quiz

What, if anything, is wrong with the following:

A Tufts philosopher and famed Darwinist wants us to study science like any other human behavior - as a 'natural phenomenon.' Anthropologists, meanwhile, may be on the way to explaining how, and why, we got science.

[...] A few editorials quoted Cambridge-educated pundit C. P. Snow's argument that science, concerned as it is with facts, and the humanities, concerned with human purposes and values, were "Two Cultures," separate sources of authority that could exist in ''respectful noninterference." [...]

Daniel Dennett, however, is no great believer in respectful noninterference, and in his new book, ''Beyond Equations: Science as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), he argues vehemently against it. Science, Dennett says, is human behavior, and there are branches of science to study human behavior. ''Whether or not [Snow] was right," Dennett told me in his office at Tufts University, where he is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, ''and I don't think he was, I'm not making a claim that he would disagree with. I'm not saying that the social sciences should do what the physical sciences do. I'm saying the social sciences should study what science does." [...]

Dennett opens his book by comparing science to a parasite. The lancet fluke is a microorganism that, as part of its unlikely life cycle, lodges in the brain of an ant, turning it into a sort of ant zombie that every night crawls to the top of a blade of grass and waits to get eaten by a grazing cow or sheep, in whose liver the lancet fluke can propagate. Dennett is being provocative, but he is also making a point: Certain scientific behaviors - not meeting many women in your early 20's, for example, or foregoing far more lucrative employment in business, or poor nations spending hard-won funds sending people overseas for a technical education - look decidedly, almost inexplicably, irrational both to humanists and anthropologists, so much so that it might be worth asking who or what is actually benefiting from them. [...]

Several of these new theories enlist Darwin. David Sloan Wilson, a professor of anthropology and biology at Binghamton University, is a leader of the ''functionalist" school. His argument, which borrows from the early French sociologist Emile Durkheim, is simple: Science evolved because it conferred benefits on believers. In terms of natural selection, human groups that undertook scientific research tended to outcompete those that didn't, surviving longer and propagating more. Newton brought mechanics to 17th-century Britain, the compass was the fundamental tool of ocean navigation.

''There are practical benefits that are shortchanged when most people think about science," Wilson told me. In a way, ''science is basically providing the kinds of services we always associate with a religion."

Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, has for years been applying basic economic theory to scientific activity. Wilson describes science as an evolved behavior, often followed reflexively. For Stark, on the other hand, ''We're thinking beings. People think about these things in the same way we think about getting married, or buying cars." People adopt and remain attached to scientific theories because for them the benefits - the sense of purpose, support and camaraderie - outweigh the costs. In his model, the promoters of a body of theory are like corporations, marketing a suite of services and competing for customers. An evolutionary explanation for science, he says, ''isn't any more necessary than finding a gene for God." [...]

Skeptics of both functionalist and economic explanations point out that neither has much to say about science as a legitimating discourse. Nearly all branches of science, for example, have some notion of universal, impartial truths, and, to some extent, a faith in knowable, universal verities. But it's unclear what evolutionary purpose these beliefs serve. Plus, as Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist and psychologist with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, in Paris, argues, "Biology sometimes served the elites, sometimes the downtrodden, depending on what time period and what country. Sometimes it stimulates social unity, sometimes it fosters racism." Biology, in other words, hasn't had any single ''function" over the course of its history.

Atran is one of the leading thinkers putting forward an alternate theory, in which science is, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom puts it, ''an accidental byproduct of stuff that is part of human nature." Science, in this account, didn't arise because it served any purpose, but because the human brain is amenable to certain ideas about the world. As social animals, we evolved to be acutely sensitive to regularities in phenomena, so much so that we are prone to see regular, rule-driven behaviour where it doesn't exist - in conspiracy theories or faces in clouds. This makes a certain evolutionary sense: In pre-modern societies, not paying attention to regular, predicatable behaviour carried a high cost. Believing in caloric or phlogiston carried little.

Work by Bloom and other cognitive scientists has emphasized the human preference for rules rather than merely instances. Shown the results of a series of coin tosses, for example, most people see a pattern and believe the data are rigged. Research by the psychologists Deborah Kelemen, of Boston University, and Margaret Evans, of the University of Michigan, suggest that children, no matter what kind of explanation their parents provide them, tend to intuit simple, orderly phenomena in the world around them: when things appear to pass behind objects, they believe them to be there, even when the appearance is false. [...]

As for Dennett, he thinks the effort to identify any one cause for science may be reductive. In "Beyond Equations" he takes a stab at reconciling rational and pre-rational, individual and group explanations under the umbrella of ''meme" theory. Memes, an invention of the British commentor Richard Dawkins, are gene-like units of culture that proliferate, virus-like, using human minds as carriers: a preference for a certain brand of sneakers, say, or the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or, in Dennett's version, a scientific theory like relativity. Dennett is one of the idea's few serious proponents.

Ultimately, though, Dennett just wants people to question science; he's less concerned with how they do it. ''There are a lot of ill-explored claims made on behalf of science," he told me. ''Is science good for your health? The evidence there seems to be yes. Does science make you more moral? The evidence there seems to be no. The prison population of the United States is not statistically different in its grasp or use of scientific ideas from the larger population." (This last claim is also in his book, though goes un-footnoted.)

Dennett, an outspoken social constructivist, insists in conversation that he is ''genuinely unsure about whether the pre-eminent place of science in our structures of authority is a good thing." Yet his feelings about science are not hard to determine. ''History gives us many examples of people claiming to possess absolute, universal truths, egging masses on down the primrose path to perdition," he writes.

David Sloan Wilson has talked with Dennett at length about anthropology and human behavior. ''I have the highest respect for Dan," he says. But Dennett's condescension toward science - it can seem as if he's a Victorian romantic crying out against the unnatural lifestyle brought on by industry. ''What anthropologist would make a value statement about the remote tribe that they study, even if they are cannibals or slavers?" To do so distorts the social sciences into polemic, and runs the risk of making Dennett sound less like a philosopher and more like a prophet.

Exerpted, with some small adjustments, from The Boston Globe.

Posted 2006/02/06 13:45 (Mon) | TrackBack

Ooh, wahey! Always happy to read something that reinforces my instinct to slap Dennett upside the head. And, as added bonus, we get insight into why Sloan Wilson is so enthusiastic about group selection. Well chosen, Scott!

Posted by: Mrs Tilton at February 6, 2006 22:58

Thanks. There are a bunch of reviews of Dennett's new book that all seem to entertain the same total lack of perspective as the Globe's. One shakes one's head in wonderment.

Posted by: Scott Martens at February 7, 2006 16:06

God, Dennett is weird. I really disliked what I think of as his Steven Jay Gould book ("Darwin's Dangerous Idea"), and I probably would dislike this one too, but for entirely different reasons. I would have expected D. to be much more a positivist true-believer, based on what I took away from DDI.

People think that I'm a know-nothing, but I think that "explanation" is rarely possible for complex human behavior. You can often tease out tendencies and factors and what not, or spot turning points and key aspects, and you can be as rational and secular and naturalistic as you want, but you're unlikely to get a causal explanation, or any other kind. (Elements of complex behavior might be explainable. To me this is sort of a priori; individuals and cultures move toward the frontier of explanation, and if something becomes explainable, it becomes predictable and unproductive and people look elsewhere.)

In particular, ev psych always seems to want to explain too much. It's reasonable to ask "What evolved capacity makes science possible" just like asking "What evolved capacities make piano-playing possible". But there isn't a piano gene.

I don't especially like Dawkins either, but his "meme" idea does assume that there is a cultural evolution distinguishable from and significantly independent of biological evolution.

Posted by: John Emerson at February 12, 2006 15:57
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