December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays And Prosperous New Year!

Like many of my American friends who have lived and worked among the various gracious peoples of Africa, especially in the rural areas of that great continent, I have been the grateful recipient of more fresh gift chickens than I can count.  All of them cage-free, free-roaming, bug-eating, and delicious, of course.  This one is a Holiday Gift for all of my friends and family in Africa, America and 'round the world.  He's a fresh Ugandan bird wrapped in banana leaves with a plastic bag 'round his rear to keep your place clean until you are ready for him....  Happy Holidays and Prosperous New Year!

December 12, 2011

Neuroeconomics? - Neuroscience No Panacea For Understanding Humankind

How Reliable Are The Social Sciences? by Gary Gutting, The New York Times, The Opinionator, May 17, 2012
The Value of Social Science by Elizabeth Clark-Polner and Margaret Clark, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, May 18, 2012
Overcoming "Physics Envy" by Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo, The New York Times, Sunday Review, The Opinion Pages, March 30, 2012

The Neuroeconomics Revolution by Robert J. Shiller, Project Syndicate - A World of Ideas, November 21, 2011

From Konrad Lorenz's ethology of the 1950s to the sociobiology of the 1970s to the "new" neurosciences beginning in the 1990s there seems to be no end to the desire to link societal functions and their underlying cultural beliefs and values to the anatomy and physiology of the human brain and/or the biochemistry of our DNA.  Here's an incomplete but representative list of assertions made over the past two decades giving clear evidence that behavioral science explanations of human behavior and societal functioning are being passed over in favor of a reductionist, deterministic neuroscience and genetics that explain by describing neuronal or chromosomal locations and activities:

The Y chromosome causes violence to be higher in males than females.
Homosexuality has a genetic basis.
There's a gene that predisposes us to a belief in God.
Brain activity shows we make decisions before we are conscious of them.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, when the new behavioral sciences, beginning with Freud in psychology, Durkheim in sociology and Boas in anthropology and others in these disciplines, had taken human social and cultural behavior from 19th century armchair speculation and placed it in the labs, couches, and ethnographic present of science and thereby encumbered the study of Humankind with the scientific method of objective, testable, and replicable observation and experiment, expectations within the academy and society at large went sky high.

Surely, academics thought, we will one day have a physics and chemistry of human behavior, an anthropology in the strictest sense of the term.  Meanwhile, humanists in the arts and literature, including humanistically-inclined thinkers in the behavioral sciences, continued on in a tradition begun during The Renaissance and extended during The Enlightenment by practitioners of what later became known as the academic disciplines of history, modern philosophy, art, literature and music.  Their conviction was and remains that human psychic, cultural, and social life can be adequately described, portrayed, and explained holistically without deterministically reducing it to physics and chemistry.

Scientifically-inclined behavioral scientists on the other hand, suffering from what a friend of mine calls "physics envy" or perhaps finding the pursuit of another grand theory such as Darwin's irresistible, embarked on a search for experimental and observational data that would reveal the "laws" of human behavior.  Scientific theories of mind, society and culture began to abound.  Some were grand theories purporting to explain all, others proffered more modest models and descriptions of specific aspects of how we think, how we organize and behave as groups, and how we learn, use and change the various beliefs and values that make up cultures.