Friday, February 27, 2009

A Paradox in the Politics of Science

Has anyone else noticed this irony: that a lot of the people who reject well-grounded science (evolutionary theory, climate change, etc.) hold exactly the same stereotypical ideas about gender that pop up repeatedly in evolutionary psychology? Obviously many of the denialists have religious reasons for rejecting sound science, while evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists are overwhelmingly secularists. Yet they share the idea that men are the pursuers, women the pursued; that men are naturally dominant; that homosexuality is somehow aberrant.

Strange bedfellows, huh? Logically, we can be pretty sure no one working in the field of ev psych or sociobiology believes in creationism. These are disciplines that have spawned some of our most outspoken atheists. Many of these scientists them see their work as progressive, in fact. Many believe their research exposes the roots of human nature, allowing us to mold a kinder, more ethical society. In The Caveman Mystique, Martha McCaughey portrays this impulse as a quasi-religious reformist zeal that arose as practitioners of ev psych and sociobiology moved into the void left by the post-Darwin decline of religion.

To be fair, ev psych and sociobiology often look more regressive than they are because the media skews their findings to match existing gender stereotypes. However, the actual science is still too often rife with speculation and gendered assumptions (as figleaf shows today in a smart post on how these assumptions skew findings). And so it meshes all too easily with the stories that religious fundamentalists tell about our gendered "nature."

On the flip side, I'd be interested to know if there's a subset of creationists who also embrace ev psych. Seems to me that the "ev" part of it would be anathema to them. But otherwise the "psych" half would work pretty well for them, if they could only find a way to compress it into the past 6000 years.


John Pine said...

I think religious people are more offended by the notion of blind chance in evolution: that mutations are random.

For me, randomness is central to order: chance is God's main law. A gas would not diffuse properly if all the molecules headed in the same direction: proper randomness is essential. The laws of the universe are the tidy result of reliable randomness.

Darwin applauded Charles Kingsley for saying 'God made the universe make itself'.

Simon Conway Morris is Professor of Evolutionary Palaeontology at Cambridge and also a Christian - to him I think the biblical six days of creation stretched out quite a long way.

As for gender: it seems to be politically incorrect (defined by a visiting Australian to be 'anything a man - he meant an Englishman - says or does') to make any distinction between the two genders at all - except for the few physical differences which are absolutely undeniable. That all seems very odd to me, when the notion of masculine and feminine is the very mother of opposites.

I do know - and somewhere I have the reference which shows it - that children who grow up away from their fathers tend to be more 'unisex' in their behaviour(and remember that H G Wells's Eloi were pathetic examples of degenerates lacking dimorphism). Gender distinctions flow more from fathers than mothers.

I celebrate gender differences, like the French, and it's a weird world that has to tiptoe around any general statement just because there are a few exceptions. And yes, maybe gender differences are to some extent engineered, but so are battery terminals. I like electricity.

Sungold said...

John, I know plenty of religious people have what I'd call progressive views on gender roles (even if you might call them boring). I also know plenty who reconcile religion and science. I've even spoken with world-class astrophysicists who are deeply and quite conventionally religious.

My post didn't address those folks. It dealt with a very specific subset of scientists (those who study how evolution may have shaped human behavior, which is quite different from evolutionary paleontology), and also a subset of religious people (those who deny broadly-accepted tenets of science).

John Pine said...

Yes I wasn't keeping strictly to the subject of your post. I've reread it, and read Figleaf's post and your comment there. Evolutionary psychology (and I'm not clear about the difference between EP and ep) certainly finds it difficult to keep to scientific procedures and she does an excellent job of showing why.

I agree that the creationists and evolutionary psychologists make strange bedfellows.

Like a river finding its way between rocks, I look for a way forward that might be acceptable to both or all groups (more than a liking for gender stereotypes). No doubt you'll charge me again to get into my own blog (but you are so stimulating, Sungold).

Given the ability to replicate, changing environments, the fact of mutation, and the likely triumph of the better adapted, it seems obvious that evolution will take place, and why shouldn't that affect behaviour too?

But the picture is incomplete. There have been many observations (books full of them: Oliver Lodge, without whom radio would have no tuning; FWH Myers, so admired by William James and precursor to Freud; GNM Tyrrell etc) which require more than physical evolution to explain them. Books by these authors all challenge, using scientific methods, basic assumptions about the nature of human beings.

Physicists have long been used to studying non-physical quantities: energy, radiation, gravity etc. Light, and the way it travels through a vacuum, has been quite an embarrassment to epiphenomenalists.

The study of men and women needs to catch up. Genetics and Darwinism are at the nursery stage: consciousness is the main embarrassment here.

John Pine said...

Erratum: for 'non-physical quantities' read 'non-material quantities'.