Contingency and ideology

Following Bob O’Hara’s recommendation, I read Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond, by Ullica Segerstrale. As Bob noted in his comment, this is a story of a bunch of scientists who managed to have a highly ideological debate about evolutionary theory despite all being on the left side of the political spectrum (sort of like that famous scene from The Life of Brian with the Judean People’s Front).

Nature vs. nurture, right vs. left

Anyway, I wanted to use this to continue the discussion of science and political ideology.

As Segerstale describes in detail for the debates on sociobiology and related genetics issues, it was the conservatives (like the IQ testers and the Bell Curve guys) who generally favored ideas of genetic determinism: for individuals, you are your (inherited) genes, and for the species as a whole, we are what we are programmed to be. The liberals (Margaret Mead, etc.) would allow individuals, societies, and humanity in general to be changed more by environment. Segerstale also points out that the resulting scientific debates were a mess because what is true scientifically is not necessarily what you want to be true for political reasons.

But now step back a minute. Is it always true that the conservatives favor determinism (“nature”) and the liberals favor “nurture”? Is it always the IQ guys vs. Margaret Mead? As Segerstale notes, you can’t get much more left-wing than Noam Chomsky, and he certainly favors innate explanations for human behavior. (But, interestingly, Steven Pinker is a Chomskyian linguist whose deterministic scientific views seem to have pulled him rightward politically–“being mugged by reality,” perhaps?)

Chomsky is no anomaly. In the field of evolutionary theory, J. B. S. “I’d lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins” Haldane was a communist, which he didn’t think conflicted with a belief in kin selection!


Nowadays, an emphasis on genetic determinism of human behavior is somewhat associated with a conservative political stance. This correlation makes sense, in that it might be difficult to change the world in a “liberal” direction if human nature is always keeping things as they are. (Here I’m ignoring the Biblical fundamentalist branch of conservatism that disputes evolution entirely.)

But in historical writing, the correlation goes the other way, or at least that is how it appears to me. Left-wing historians, following Marx, tend to see systematic patterns in history and favor impersonal demographic forces, whereas conservative historians favor explanations based on contingency. These issues are discussed in depth in the admirably even-handed In Defense of History, by Richard Evans. (Once again, there are exceptions, such as the left-wing contingencist A. J. P. Taylor, but the general pattern seems to hold.)

Once again, this alignment of political ideology with historical models makes some sense: the view based on contingency (“Cleopatra’s nose”) aligns with the “great man” approach to history, which is conservative in the sense of being a traditional way to view history and also in that it favors the stories of the powerful. Big systems are more about the masses of people and fit in better with a leftist attitude.

But it’s funny all the same, that scholars in these different fields can be so sure that their scientific approach happens to align with their ideology. Stephen J. Gould’s “Cleopatra’s nose” view of biology is liberal, whereas the corresponding view held by a historian (for example, Daniel Boorstin) is conservative.

8 thoughts on “Contingency and ideology

  1. Nobody believes in "genetic determinism", this is a straw man attack. In general, it is extremely difficult to tell apart the environment and genetics. The practical empiricism is based on taking identical twins that were separated after birth, and that's the kind of data that "genetic determinists" study to estimate the variance due to the environment, and then compare it to the variance due to general population. In all, lots of interesting statistical problems, matching, propensity scoring, and so on.

    We really need to find some balance in this issue, study it properly, not trivialize it into dichotomous extremes.

  2. Yes, I agree that "genetic determinism" is overstating it. I was just stating it in an extreme form to emphasize the political implications–in biology, so-called genetic determinism is considered a conservative view, justifying the world-as-it-is, whereas in history, historical determinism is considered a radical view, justifying Leninist-type actions in the service of "progress."

    I don't think these political connections need to be there–as Segerstrale notes, the serious sociobiologists are very interested in gene-environment interactions. Some of this gets lost when it reaches the popular imagination, however.

  3. Although I agree that there is some correlation, one finds people in every possible quadrant. Yes, Pioneer Fund is the right-wing more-nature, contemporary urban intelligentsia tends to be left-wing more-nurture. But one also finds the Darwinian left. Religion tends to be right-wing but it opposes Darwinism and stresses the "nurture" in the sense that one's deeds are what matters to destiny.

  4. I am currently taking what would be termed a biological anthropology course on the origins of violence ,aggression etc. Prior to this course I had exposure (i.e. coursework) to evolutionary biology and genetics. It appears to me from reading several articles in biological anthropology (of which sociobiology is a subfield) that in the world of sociobiology it is relatively easy to attribute something ( a behavioral pattern, dominance relationships between men and women etc) to natural selection or "genetic predisposition" with relatively little or no rigorous basis. In experimental genetics results must be proven through obsevation in a lab and in population genetics, rigorous statistical theories underlie the behavior of alleles over long time periods. But I noticed that I sociobiology, a publishable and hence acceptable statement regarding the role of natural selection in behavior would be to say something like "because we notice that X happens in many geographically separated societies and cultures "genes" must be responsible, or selection must be at work here". This appears to be the underlying argument of many articles that I have encountered. But when it comes to describing which "genes" these could be or the mechanism through which they work, the sociobiologists appear to be relatively silent. Genes are very complicated mechanisms and work in complex biological pathways, many of which are unknown. Thus to attribute "genes" to explain, for example, why men dominate women in many societies is not only relatively subjective but also very irresponsible. Attributing everything to a vague notion of "genetics" is an easy way to exclude nuiance from your analysis and is, it seems for many, an easy and convenient way to explain things. Also, many people believe in "genetic determinism" in some sense and undoubtedly genes do determine many aspects of any organism. But it is the strain of so called neo-Darwinian theorists such as Richard Dawkins who take it to its extreme when trying to explain , for example, why socialism "can't possibly work according to biological laws." Once you enter society, natural selection no longer becomes "natural" in the sense that the survival of individuals is no longer a function of adaptation to the natural environment but rather is a function of adaptations to man-made institutions a kind of "artificial selection" if you will…

  5. ElGreco, the predisposition in academia is to oppose "sociobiology", just as it is a predisposition of many religions to oppose Darwinism. This is something one has to account for. Second, "sociobiology" is based on thought experiments, and it works in this theoretical context. Some findings have been shown in the empirical and experimental context, but I'm not too happy with the quality.

    You are right that Darwinism is restricted to relatively simple models of evolution. These models are indeed overly simple (especially for people), and there are models of evolution in development that are not so restricted. In all, evolution is the study of development, and Darwinism is just a particular theory. People will argue and disagree whether it's too restricted or powerful enough, but that's life. The main thing is that people are actually thinking and questioning this issue, that's the essence of science as contrasted with dogmatism.

    Now, Darwinism was rejected because it didn't explicitly account for relatedness. This was fixed in the 1930's by Wright. Then it was rejected because it didn't account for social interactions and altruistic behavior. This was fixed in 1950's and 1960's when Lewontin and Hamilton connected game theory with evolution. This powerful development induced Dawkins to write the book in the 1970's, and so it goes on.

  6. When you define something like "Darwinism" you should be very explicit. The Darwinian model of evolution is still a controversial subject not just among creationists but within the very field (population genetics) that evolution grew into. Kimura's neutral theory is at least as viable as the selection argument and it is often argued that the two are compatable. But Kimura is a different story from people such as Dawkins and evolutionary psychologists. Whereas the former (and Darwin himself) developed a theory based on years of empirical and observational work , Darwin on the fossil record, Kimura on molecular data , the latter use social constructs such as "altruism", "depression" , "innateness" and the like and attribute it willy-nilly to evolution. There is nothing wrong with this and people should be discussing these things, even though they are speculative. The problem comes when these types of arguments become accepted as so called "scientific fact" by the public at large when they are , as you mention, "thought experiments." This type of reasoning is relegated to the field of economics that uses mathematical models, so called "thought-experiments" to essentially prove an already existing worldview (or ideology if you like). There is nothing wrong with this , it should be debated and discussed, I don't argue with that. The problem that I have is the perversion of evolutionary biology to serve some ideological end and from reading a small sample of literature from fields that incorporate arguments of natural selection they bring the theory much further than it is justifiably able. Thus, if we allow standards of the application of natural selection to be lowered to such an extent that any tenuous connection could be drawn, then the theory itself can be used to justify almost any ideological doctrine. For example the statement such as "capitalism is obviously the rational economic system because those who seek monetary wealth are obviously competetive and under natural selection would thrive as they do under this economic system" or on the other side "Communism is obviously the most rational and natural economic system because it rewards workers with greater physical builds that perform heavy manual labor with higher salaries (which was true in the Soviet union)". If political scientists, economists, sociologists and psychologists are to apply natural selection in such a haphazard manner as appears to be the growing trend, one can generate infinite explanations as to how X or Y relates to "natural selection."

  7. Darwinism is defined through the notion of "survival of the fittest" as the primary conceptual device. Thanks for pointing Kimura's theory: that's one of the many examples of theories that employ different devices.

    The disagreement in the public is not about Darwinism vs creationism. It is really between creationism vs evolutionism. Creationists tend to frame evolution as Darwinism: a strawman is easier to attack. Similarly, evolutionists tend to frame creationism as the Biblical literalism strawman. The differences are thus amplified and misaligned with the real issues.

    As for capitalism vs socialism: half of my life I spent under socialism, and half under capitalism. There are advantages and disadvantages to either, and the unfortunate aspect of both is also that the ideal, if ever attained, is not sustainable. But that's a different story.

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