David Brooks, the center-right columnist at the New York Times today published a column about the limitations on neuron research. He’s not against neural research, just the hubris that tends to collect around it. Like research on DNA, research on neurons is great stuff—but no matter how enthusiastic the scientists may be, it does not explain the products of culture, sociality, or humanity. And this conclusion is not the result of a political bias, but is a critique widely shared in anthropology, sociology, and beyond. The article is here.
I will be in Thailand this summer for five weeks teaching a course for the University of Nevada, Reno, as a Visiting Professor. As part of the employment procedure, I had to sign a loyalty oath indicating “I will support, protect and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States, and the Constitution and Government of the State of Nevada, against all enemies, whether domestic or foreign…” Unlike the other papers I signed for the employment, thisone needed to be notarized. This created the amusing situation that I swore allegiance to Nevada in front of a German notary.
The good news for me: I get to teach in a creative study-abroad program in Chiangmai, Thailand. I also got to think about the symbolic importance such oaths in structuring society: Not a bad thing for a social scientist to do now and then.
And the really good news is for Nevada. I signed a similar oath to California when I started working for the State of California in the 1990s, and California is still safe from enemies foreign and domestic! Nevada will be too. Nevada, I got your back!
I want take up Tony’s question about this Dennett quote:
There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination (Dennett 1995)
One way to answer this is through recourse to the literature on Science and Technology Studies (STS). We could weave our way through a dense web of philosophical and empirical work on scientific practice that demonstrates time and again that value-free inquiry is an illusion. Yet another way to answer is by making a formal argument using Weber as a guide.
But, because so many readers of this blog are big, big fans of Stephen Jay Gould, I will use Gould and Vrba’s 1982 article introducing the term exaptation to demonstrate that philosophical baggage can be used as a lever to discover better questions.
Gould and Vrba, in contrast to Jason Richwine and Steve Hsu, are fully aware that the categories through which you effect an analysis matter. And in what may be the finest use of Foucault within the pages of Palaeontology, Gould and Vrba start their article with the following passage:
We wish to propose a term for the missing term in the taxonomy of evolutionary thought. Terms in themselves are trivial, but taxonomies revised for a different ordering of thought are not without interest. Taxonomies are not neutral or arbitrary hat-racks for for a set of unvarying concepts; they reflect (or even create) different theories about the structure of the world.
The opening sets the tone for what follows. Gould and Vrba proceed to note the analytic term adaptation carries two differing connotations, which are subsumed under the prevailing classification scheme. They imply, by way of the opening paragraph, that the classification system they criticize has its roots in Victorian mores and morals.
Adaptation, they argue, has two meanings: historic origin and current utility. Gould and Vrba further note adaptation refers to both a process and a state. After introducing the philosophical baggage they will unpack and leverage, they proceed to tease apart the twin uses of adaptation using the tools of rhetoric in a way that Richard McKeon might have appreciated. That is, by using rhetoric to open a new view on an old paradigm.
What was gained is the concept exaptation. A trait or feature may have been adapted for one purpose but is found useful for another, often quite different, purpose. It is a concept which might be described as future utility.
Following the formation of the concept, Gould and Vrba use a few examples from the fossil record as illustrations of the concept. The best known example are feathers. Feathers evolved for warmth but were exaptated for flight. Another example they use is the case of extra or junk DNA. Many organisms carry around duplicate, spare, or otherwise unaccounted DNA, whose presence cannot be explained by recourse to adaptation. Like a brocoleur at his pile of spare parts, these organisms use their DNA junk piles to make new traits as needed.
But the main point I want to make here is simply that Gould and Vrba demonstrate that natural sciences and philosophy, like the Dennett quote indicates, are intertwined, and each can make good use of the other. Just compare Gould and Vrba’s rich conceptual development to Richwine’s unexamined and altogether ridiculous deployment of the category “hispanic,” or Hsu’s utterly lazy and unscientific conflation of IQ, SAT score and the g-factor.
In a similar vein, I wrote about Tools and Toolchains earlier this spring.
I just came across this article about elite education, and the habits of the Ivy Leaguers. I really like the opening paragraphs which asks why the author, who is an Ivy League grad has so much trouble talking to the plumber who will fix his pipes.
This has a lot to do with what Pierre Bourdieu and the “habitus” of social class. As the author, William Deresiewicz points out, this is tightly connected to how “intelligent” you are.
The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers
By William Deresiewicz
There are two blogs I have read recently which make the good point that reading “classics” is important . At the New York Times, Philosopher Gary Gutting makes the point that a college education is not so much about “the content,” (or presumably the major) but about the habits of reading and inquiry developed. Or as he writes: “We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates.”
The fact of the matter is that we cannot remember what we learned on a test a year or less after the final is given. So what do we take away? Gutting’s answer is that it is habits of thinking, reading and approaches to knowledge that we “teach” at the university, not “the content.” He seems to recommend that the “evaluation of teaching” or whatever it is we our teaching is assessed on at the college level, we should look at readership rates for popularly written magazines like The Economist, Scientific American, New York Times Book Review, and The Atlantic, presumably 5, 10, 20 years after our students graduate. As he points out, the capacity to enjoy reading such journals is an indicator that students (and their employers) “reap the benefits of their education.” Perhaps readers from other countries can point to similar magazines that the educated public enjoys (Der Spiegel in Germany comes to mind).
Along these same lines, Razib Khan at the Gene Expressions blog is urging his science readers to return to the classics now and then to do a little “cognitive tail chasing.” He throws out Plato, Confucius, and Nietzsche by name, and points out that the reason to read them is not to find answers to contemporary issues, but to revisit the type of reasoning and argument underpinning modern thought.
Or in Razib’s own words, “smart opinions from people whose world views are fundamentally alien toward our own allow us to consider what dogmas and orthodoxies we hold as self-evident truths.”
In my view, natural scientists tend to hold to dogmas and orthodoxies a little too tightly. Sometimes they seem to be more concerned with what is “cutting edge,” and as a result tend to see themselves as what Nietzsche called “new humans” untethered to the past when their analytical categories were first defined. Sometimes tail chasing is just tail-chasing. But other times it can challenge us to sharpen our own views—or even change them.