ehrenreich on biology

Brett Knowlton brettk at
Tue Nov 30 12:09:37 PST 1999

>Given Ehrenreich's massive erudition, this is really a disappointing

I had the opposite opinion.

>> a horror of
>> essentialism (extending to the idea of any innate human traits) and a
>Those traits being...

To name a couple:

1) colors. Cultures with only 2 identified colors always name black and white (never red and blue). If a third color is identified, it is always red. Then blue (I think), and so on.

2) language, which Ehrenreich mentions in passing. People possess, instictually, innately, the ability to speak and understand language. A mental grammar.

3) Happiness. I saw a PBS program on this. People are universally unhappy if their basic needs are not met (food, shelter, etc). This cuts across cultures. Assuming these basic needs are met, people tend to be happy when other criteria are met. I don't remember all of them (there were 4 or 5 things) but one of them was feeling in control of their lives.

>> antibiologism and simplified postmodernism has tended to obliterate the
>> possibility that human beings have anything in common,
>The working class has common interests as a result of the kind of class
>ridden society that humans have constructed, i.e. as a result of social
>construction, not due to the imprint of evolution. What we have
>Ehrenreich doing her is completion of her break from Marxism as if sitting
>on the DSA board was not enough.

Ehrenreich is talking about biological commonalities, not cultural ones. I doubt she would deny that social organization can impose common interests/roles/experiences.

>> contingent, he adds, "Some facts and theories are truly universal (and
>> true) -- and no variety of cultural traditions can change that...we can't
>> let a supposedly friendly left-wing source be exempt from criticism from
>> anti-intellectual positions."
>Well those universal facets may not be interesting to anthropologists in
>terms of what they are trying to explain.

Are you saying that universal human traits will NEVER be interesting or important in explaining ANY subject in anthropology (or another field)? It's possible, I suppose, buy why rule it out altogether before you even get started? Ehrenreich is not suggesting you HAVE to invoke human universals to explain something - she is arguing against eliminating human universals from consideration.

>> Finally, many secular creationists are a few decades out of date on the
>> kind of "human nature" that evolutionary biology threatens to impose on us.
>> Feminists and liberal academics were perhaps understandably alarmed by the
>> aggressive "man the hunter" image that prevailed in the sixties and
>> seventies; and a major reason for denying the relevance of evolution was a
>> horror of the nasty, brutish cavemen we had supposedly evolved from. But
>> today, evolutionary theory has moved to a more modest assessment of the
>> economic contribution of big-game hunting (as opposed to gathering and
>> scavenging) and a new emphasis on the cooperative -- even altruistic --
>> traits that underlie human sociality and intelligence. We don't have to
>> like what biology has to tell us about our ancestors, but the fact is that
>> they have become a lot more likable than they used to be.
>I would no more want to ground politics today in such biology than in the
>old biology.

Why not? Any political statement must appeal to human nature at some level. Why should we prefer socialism to capitalism? You have to make certain assumptions about people in order to prefer one to the other.

As for human nature itself, you have to reject evolution in order to reject human nature, which I'm not prepared to do. And if human nature exists, then science is the discipline to uncover it. This pursuit won't be perfect (we'll have to deal with nonsense such as the Bell Curve and so forth) and skepticism of any claim is in order, but it is the only way to get at the truth. As Katha says, the way to debunk sexist (or racist, or classist) science is with better science.

Furthermore, we don't have to simply resign ourselves to any tendencies we might have which we don't like. We can override our antisocial or destructive impulses in many cases, or better yet establish institutions to provide opposite incentives, or incentives which reward our "better" nature and discourage our potential for mischief.

This is how I view capitalist institutions - they reward individualistic, self-centered and antisocial behavior. I don't believe, as many libertarians seem to, that free markets are somehow in harmony with human nature, but it is obviously possible for people to behave this way. You see it every day. Socialism, on the other hand, puts people in an environment where cooperation is rewarded, which I believe will draw out everyone's capacity for solidarity and cooperation.

In any case, an honest evaluation of where we are today would admit that we don't know very much about human nature, much less how it interacts with culture and how important genetic factors are in relation to cultural or environmental pressures.


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