Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gould: A Positive Conclusion and Swift Debunking

Gould: A Positive Conclusion and a Swift Debunking

Throughout The Mismeasure of Man, Gould has examined several key contributors to a recurring theme of biological determinism. Gould was able to expose the fallacies, errors, and fraud that key figures in “science” utilized as the basis for their theories on race and intelligence as being something that could be inherited, reified, and ranked. Gould (p.351) suggests that the concept of unilinear progress is not only a determining factor of social rankings; it is also suggestive of an incorrect idea of the development of science. Gould uses the metaphor of science as a barrel of accumulating knowledge to explain how science develops. He indicates that some would view debunking as negative because it would only eject a few rotten apples (bad theories) from this barrel. Gould disagrees by explaining that the barrel is constantly at capacity, and the rotten apple must be discarded in order to create space for better apples. Gould Specifies (p.352):

Scientists do not debunk only to cleanse and purge. They refute older ideas in the light of a different view about the nature of things.

It is this perpetual development, debunking, reinvention, and at times revitalization within science that generates new ideas and theories, but in order for the debunking to have a long-term effect it must, as Gould points out (p.352), utilize more competent biology to remove erroneous ideas rooted in social prejudice. Due to the increase of knowledge about human biology, evolution, and genetics, biological determinism has suffered several defeats in theoretical fundamentals supporting it. Gould (p.352) argues that the significant lack of genetic variation among human populations is one of the primary biological principles for dispelling biological determinism; this variation is a contingent reality in evolutionary history.

Is the human species at a point where we can make arguments of “fact” regarding sciences such as biology, or are we just perpetuating the debunking machine by replacing more rotten apples with better ones? Debunking has been a common occurrence throughout history. Most likely there have been ideas that were discredited without the support of knowledge. What if Mendel’s ideas were tossed out? Would it be inevitable that eventually someone would have discovered inheritance?

On Biology and Human Nature

Humans are inevitably a part of nature. The complex system of organization that makes up the human organism operates on the same principles of life as do other forms. Do we maintain uniqueness if we share our biological systems? Gould (p.354) states that human novelty has had an immense impact upon the earth because of the new kind of evolution, or the adaptation humans have exploited: culture. The brain is where this special and peculiar ability resides. Has cultural evolution been the “smoking gun” of how the species has managed a strangle hold on the world? An Australopithecine might disagree, but a shotgun trumps an Oldowan chopper, right?

All the advancements and transformations have occurred at a higher frequency in the shortest amount of time in history (written or geologic). Gould (p.355) argues that cultural evolution can happen at such an accelerated rate because it operates by the inheritance of acquired traits. Biological evolution occurs at a much slower rate. Another important trait of cultural evolution is that it is reversible where biological evolution is not.

The classical arguments of biological determinism in what we have scrutinized fail as a result of them being founded within products of cultural evolution. In other words, biological determinism has not foundational basis because they are measuring socio-cultural bias and not biological traits. As a result in the advancements in science, the very biological basis of the human species extinguishes the arguments of biological determinism. Gould describes that the inheritance and modification of acquired behavior is more effective than biological evolution in relationship to the human organism. Do you agree with that assumption or has too little time of a grander scale gone by? It is easy to assume that cultural evolution is what allows us to be somehow unique and more advanced than the chimpanzee. Have we developed beyond our means?

Gould (p.357) believes that modern biology has created a model that straddles the claim that biology has nothing to educate us about human behavior and the theory that specific behavioral traits are a result of the selective adaptations that are embedded with our genes. Gould also provides 2 major areas for biological comprehension.The first is in fruitful analogies and the limited use thereof. Gould describes the use of analogies as a means of inferring genetic similarity as one of the most frequent errors of reasoning. Just as a correlation in factor analysis may expose common relationships, but it doesn’t identify and explain the cause.The second is biological potentiality versus biological determinism. Biological potentiality is the concept that underlying generating rules are what perpetuate human behavior and not the deterministic idea that the genetic basis of human nature exists among specific behaviors. Gould (p.359) points out that sociobiologists have made a primary error seeking the genetic basis of human behavior at the wrong level.

Two different arguments have led Gould to determine that broad behavioral ranges occur as a consequence of the evolution and structure of the human brain. The first argument relies on the vast range of human behavior from peaceful to aggressive. Human behavior is malleable based on the context of the situation. Gould (p.361) believes that is likely that natural selection acted to maximize the range of human behavior. The second argument is that the structural design of our brain has led to our increased capacities for human success.

Gould invokes the idea of neoteny to close his chapter. Is flexibility within the human species really the hallmark of human evolution? By retaining a more juvenile capacity to adapt and learn, has the human species found a niche in not evolving? Is the structure of our brain a product of a lengthy biological journey, or is it a rapidly advancing adaptation generated by culture within the biological range of variation? Can culture really act as an agent of change at a level that rivals biology?


Gould on Human Nature



  1. -Is flexibility within the human species really the hallmark of human evolution?

    Many aspects of our physiology, namely our big brains, bipedalism and gripping hands, could each represent the hallmark of human evolution. But, flexibility, or adaptability, in humans is composed of all these elements. Our 'flexibility' can be broken down into an efficient mode of transportation, extremities to make tools with and a big brain allowing for social complexity and teamwork, and most likely many more characters could claim justifiable inclusion here as well.

    -Can culture really act as an agent of change at a level that rivals biology?

    It is evident from everything that surrounds us that culture can rival biology as a chief element of change. Biology provides means with limits whereas culture by design attempts to provide a limitless number of means. Medication, clothing, shelter and group learning all play a vital role in our lives on a daily basis and without them our biology would fail us exponentially more often than it does.

  2. -Is the structure of our brain a product of a lengthy biological journey, or is it a rapidly advancing adaptation generated by culture within the biological range of variation? Can culture really act as an agent of change at a level that rivals biology?

    I think Gould makes an excellent case for this with our biological basis in neoteny. His simple sentence (pg. 363) "humans are learning animals" underscores all of the behavior that makes humans so adaptable to various environments. Cultural evolution gives us the ability to adapt quicker based on the accumulation of knowledge that is inherent in us being able to develop and maintain culture.

    The simple biological basis of a large brain for the accumulation of learned behaviors gives us the ability to adapt quicker than our biology possibly could. Therefore, I think in the unique case that is our species, culture is the vehicle for adaptability and change that our biology supports.


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