August 8, 2012

Anything But Human - Genes And Brains Don't Behave, Humans Do

Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?) by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 16, 2012.  Polt's rejoinder to comments he has received on the article below.

Anything But Human by Richard Polt, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages, August 5, 2012

Thank you, Professor Polt, for some clarity in the ever-intoxicating Nature-Nuture paradigm that is becoming increasingly dominated by sociobiology and neuroscience, especially in the minds of the American public.  I am beginning to think that philosophers are better at understanding and accepting the findings of paleoanthropologists than are biologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists.  Perhaps it is what they choose to look at and emphasize when they seek understandings of Humankind’s physical and behavioral repertoire.  Looking at genes and brains links these to behavior.  Looking at ideas, beliefs, and values links these to behavior.  Humans behave.  Genes contain codes for building anatomical structures and processes, including neurons and brain circuits.  These, in turn, produce behavior.  What the genes and neurons do is not the behavior.  What humans do is the behavior.

The "nature" of Humankind is a story of our early ancestors' and modern humans’ ability to beat the poor survival odds our relatively feeble hominid anatomy gave and still gives us.  How? We beat the odds by exploiting language-based culture and sociality to a degree that allowed minimal dependence on our inherited primate anatomy and instincts.  Ultimately, this and the subsequent cultural and technological innovations that followed allowed us to move into, survive, and increase in numbers in environments far more arduous than the Pleistocene woodlands of East and Southern Africa. Grasslands, deserts, oceanic islands, tundra, snow and ice, all became habitable.  Why, because we carried behaviors out of the African woodlands, into the grasslands, then on throughout the rest of the world as soft- or hard-wire encoded scripts in our genes?  Because of neuronal and brain configurations and behaviors our genes orchestrated?  These arguments have not been proven to a degree that merits abandoning the cultural evolutionary model.

The emergence of a sophisticated linguistic-cultural adaptation among the hominids, one far more successful at diverse environmental adaptation and exploitation than the quasi-cultural adaptations of all other animals that have evolved with us, and all that it has led to since that emergence, is the crux of the story of Humankind during our brief time on Earth.  Reducing this unique achievement relative to all the achievements of all other forms of life that ever appeared on Earth to a secondary role below the vestigial animal instincts encoded in our genes and neurons, and how they drive or override our beliefs, values, and ideals, dehumanizes us and removes our responsibility for continuing to use culture to beat the evolutionary odds stacked against us.  Sociobiology and neuroscience have much to offer but their findings do not reduce emergent language-based culture and human agency to an epiphenomenon or mere behavioral expression of a more profound and truthful story residing in our DNA and neurons.

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