Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Human behaviour and fallicious thinking

I want to write about some human research, but first I want to put up a huge disclaimer. Normally, I find humans boring, because compared to other animals, we're a bunch of inbred backwoods blue bloods who all look the same, and while a few humans are pretty to look at, ducks don't have the police grab you when you stalk them.

There are a few bits of our biology that's neat, though. Did you know you can probably run distances that would kill a chetah? Did you know the invention of fire caused significant changes in our mandible structure? And did you know that humans can smell when a female mammal is ovulating, but don't even consciously know that they're smelling it? And you thought you knew your own body!

But whenever you talk about humans, and human behaviour (as I'd like to), you need to walk a fine trail. Back in the mid 70s, E.O. Wilson wrote a book titled `Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,` which erupted into a fire storm. The book attempted to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind various social behaviours, like aggression, altruism, nurturing, and preference to kin. And it did a fine job - history has shown E.O. Wilson to be almost entirely right about most of the ideas in there. Where E.O. Wilson got into trouble was in a single chapter, where he took all the methods he applied on other animals, and used them on humans to show our behaviour could be explained evolutionarily.

People were outraged. There were actually protests at scientific conferences. It was astounding, the visceral reaction that the book prompted in people. Politicians also dived in, denouncing poor old Edward (who is quite a gentleman) as all manner of vile thing.

Part of the problem comes from an issue called `biological determinism,` or the pervasive belief that how an organism (such as us humans) behaves is explained entirely by that critter's DNA. A behavioural ecologist (which was my first training) would reply that an organism's genes, and cultural environment, explains much, though not all, of it's behaviour. A critter's biology would most strongly explaining stereotyped behaviour, especially - things we all tend to do, like smiling, yawning, sleeping, sharing food with kin, etc.

A second part of the problem is that critics tend to assume that because we say a behaviour is evolutionarily advantageous, it is morally acceptable. A common example would be if we're evolved to give our offspring everything we can to help them succeed, then nepotism is okay. Taken to the logical absurd, if we discovered that murders lived longer, and were more fit, that would morally justify murder.

This is total anaq.

What people are doing is committing the is-ought fallacy, and the "Naturalistic fallacy." There's a neat wikipedia page on it under that name. There's a implicit step in their reasoning that says that how things currently are is in fact morally desirable, or that the natural state of things, if biologically advantageous, is desirable.

Morality is for the philosophers to quibble over, not behaviourists. What biology seeks to do is explain why things are the way they are, not whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. The fact that viruses reproduce by hijacking our cells to manufacture more of themselves isn't a moral ponderance, but a declarative statement. Science doesn't root for either the wolf or the moose - we don't take sides like that. If we found out that humans are evolutionarily predisposed to commit murder, that isn't saying it's morally acceptable to murder, just that the existence of murder among all humans has an explanation. That's like saying because the robber has an explanation why they robbed the bank, we would excuse it morally. It's just bad reasoning.

That's my disclaimer. If you don't like any of the human stuff I write, you don't have to. I don't like gravity some mornings. But keep in mind because something is described as being "X," doesn't mean we have to like it, or agree with it.

Here's some topics I want to cover:
Picking mates and MHC.
How seasons affect our standards.
Humans as cursorial mammals.

2 comments:

21stCenturyCavePainter said...

Great Stuff.

"But whenever you talk about humans, and human behaviour [sic] (as I'd like to), you need to walk a fine trail."

Humans need to stop pretending that somehow the rules that apply to other animals somehow fail to apply to us as well.

I think I may just check out Wilson's book.

Chrissy said...

A book I picked up, "Dominance & Delusion" presents as complete an explanation of human behavior as I have ever read in one volume. It's written by M.A. Curtis and really easy to read and understand.