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Not in Our Genes

Cover of Not in our Genes.

Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature is a 1984 book authored by evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin, neurobiologist Steven Rose and psychologist Leon J. Kamin in which they criticize many controversial areas of science, particularly sociobiology, biological determinism and the reductionism of the gene-centric view of evolution.

Outline

Chapter 1 outlines what the authors saw as the cultural context of biological science at the time of writing (including the rise of the so-called "New Right"), and identifies biological determinism as the primary target of their critique. Chapters 2 to 4 comprise a history of the role of science in relation to politics, history and culture. The authors emphasize the strong connection between science and prevailing culture. Chapter 5 deals with the history of IQ studies, highlighting the infamous scientific fraud committed by Cyril Burt and criticizing Twin and Adoption studies into IQ heritability. Chapter 6 focuses on the use of science to legitimate sexist and patriarchal views of the world. Chapters 7 and 8 cover many criticisms of drug-based psychiatry, with Chapter 8 focusing on the heritability of schizophrenia. Chapter 9 focuses on human sociobiology (now known as evolutionary psychology) and critiques the views of biologists such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (particularly the book Sociobiology: A New Synthesis Chapter 10 establishes the fundamental principles of a truly synthetic approach to human behavior and evolution, emphasizing a "dialectical" integration of social studies, psychology, neurology and biology.

The preface indicates that much of the manuscript was completed by Steven Rose in consultation with Kamin and Lewontin during a stay at Harvard, and that the dialectical biology advocated by the authors was partly inspired by the "Dialectics of Biology" conference held in Bressanone, Italy, in April of 1980.[1]

Rose developed the themes of this book in a commentary in Nature suggesting that "Dramatic advances in neuroscience are changing and enriching our understanding of brain and behaviour. But reductionist interpretations of these advances can cause great harm"[2]

Leon Kamin has been described as "the scientist who exposed the fraudulent data on which Cyril Burt's claims of inherited intelligence were based",[3][4] and three years prior to the publication of Not In Our Genes, Richard Lewontin emphasized the need for an in-depth re-telling of the Cyril Burt story during a review of Stephen Jay Gould's earlier anti-determinist work, The Mismeasure of Man.[5][6] Not In Our Genes may be seen as a partial continuation of this line of thinking.

Main points

Recurring themes and arguments within the book include the following:

  • The authors emphasize that scientists are never free from biases or political and cultural influences.
  • Reductionism and biological determinism are intellectually linked to a range of current debates in science, including sociobiology, the gene selectionist view of evolution, drug-centred psychiatry, and a general belief in the heritability of behavioral traits.
  • Many of these trends in science are regarded as convenient rallying points for a conservative political agenda.
  • The distinction between the political aspect of scientists and the factual aspect of science is strongly emphasized, and the authors assert that while ideology may inspire determinist science, it should be judged upon the facts.
  • The conflation of "population norms" with "human nature" is criticized.
  • Twin studies are extensively critiqued, and argued to have almost universally flawed methodologies.
  • Adoption studies are also critiqued, and the unusual nature of adoptive parents as a study group is emphasized.
  • A reductionist strand of thought is identified and critiqued in psychology, particularly with reference to the use of drugs.
  • The theoretical basis of sociobiology (now evolutionary psychology) is heavily critiqued and charged with reification, a reliance on "Just-So" stories, gene-selectionism, and undue adaptationism.
  • A "dialectical" approach to "human nature" is encouraged, in which a wide range of fields are taken into account and integrated appropriately. They regard the "nature vs nurture" label given to the debate as misleading.

Criticism

Steven Pinker, though liberal himself, accused Lewontin et al of creating a straw man of the discipline of sociobiology and being biased by left-wing politics in his 2002 book The Blank Slate.[7] The authors themselves emphasize that the factuality of the science involved should be judged on its merits rather than solely on the politics of its adherents.[8]

A review by Richard Dawkins in New Scientist was particularly scathing, accusing the authors of having a "bizarre conspiracy theory of science", accusing them of lies and idiocy, and concluding that it is a "silly, pretentious, obscurantist and mendacious book".


See also

Publication

References

  1. Lewontin, R.C., Rose, S. & Kamin, L. (1984) "Biology, Ideology and Human Nature: Not In Our Genes"
  2. Steven Rose "The rise of neurogenetic determinism" Nature 373, 380 - 382 (2 February 1995)
  3. From page 9 of "The Brighter Side of Human Nature", 1990, by Alfie Kohn.
  4. See Leon Kamin's piece in The Intelligence Controversy, 1981
  5. The review can be found within the compilation "It Ain't Necessarily So", by R.C. Lewontin, 2000. It was originally published in The New York Review of Books, October 22, 1981
  6. Gould, S.J. (1981) "The Mismeasure of Man"; revised edition 1990
  7. Pinker, S. (2002) "The Blank Slate"
  8. Lewontin, R.C., Rose, S. & Kamin, L. (1984) "Biology, Ideology and Human Nature: Not In Our Genes"

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