Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What are we, anyway

Very interesting discussion at Naked Capitalism:


And, within that discussion, a great quotation from the book How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives by David Sloan Wilson:

Instead of minimalistic assumptions such as the utility maximization of rational choice theory or the blank slate of behaviorism and social constructivism, we need to discover a complex psychological architecture that evolved by genetic evolution and that causes small groups to self-organize into coordinated units. Alexis de Tocqueville got it right in 1835 when he wrote, “The village or township is the only association that is so perfectly natural that…it seems to constitute itself,” but modern science has yet to even remotely take his conjecture seriously. Conscious intentional thought is just the tip of an iceberg. The rest of the iceberg operates beneath conscious awareness and must be discovered scientifically, like vision, despite the fact that it takes place within us every moment of the day. Even more strangely, it takes place without us, in our social intercourse in addition to our neuronal interactions. The idea that we play a role in group-level mental processes without any conscious awareness will take some getting used to, especially against the background of individualism, which has dominated the intellectual landscape for the last half century.
As if these layers of ignorance aren’t enough, there is another layer that involves culture rather than genes. Our genetic architecture enables us to create, transmit, and select behavior in roughly the same way that the immune system creates, transmits, and selects antibodies. Part of this process is conscious and intentional. To some extent, we are aware of our problems and actively seek solutions, as I just showed in the previous chapter. To a larger extent, however, the creation, retention, and selection of behaviors take place beneath conscious awareness. We learn the ways of our culture at a very young age, in the same spongelike fashion in which we learn language. As adults we adopt new behaviors and mannerisms unconsciously at least as much as consciously. Many of our current behaviors exist not because someone decided they were useful but because they outsurvived competing behaviors. Human life consists of many inadvertent social experiments. Even when we try to steer the course of events, our efforts interact with those of others in unpredictable ways that might as well have been random. A few social experiments hang together, while the others crumble into the dust.
Also mentioned in the discussion are the great debates (on video!) between Chomsky and Foucault.  I believe the poster is correct when he says that the Structuralist critique is invaluable, but Foucault is too pessimistic.  Chomsky, another structuralist, has a more nuanced and optimistic view that does not destroy all hope of finding our way out of the wilderness.

It can be seen Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Not entirely related, but just so I don't forget, here is a 5 part critique of Kuhn published in NYTimes.  Apparently it was written by the Photography editor, and spends a lot of time on entertaining personal sillyness, but nevertheless looks worth reading.


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