Sunday, May 11, 2014

Neo-Liberal Genetics and The Trashing of Margaret Mead

“The practice of science, like all human activity, depends upon categories, understandings, and conventions of practice that are, inevitably, culturally and historically specific. …[T]he point is not that ‘good science’ operates outside of culture and without reference to cultural categories, while ‘bad science’ does not. On the contrary, it is precisely because ‘good science’ recognizes its inevitable situatedness within culture that it must always place its most fundamental categories, understandings, and conventions at risk through the examination of contrary evidence. At least ideally, the scientific method requires that a hypothesis be tested against empirical data that have the potential for disproving it – that is, against aspects of the world that are relevant, resistant, and not already internally implicated in its own presuppositions. It is precisely evolutionary psychology’s failure to do this that makes it ‘bad science’.” - Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics, pp. 120-121

“By misrepresenting Mead’s views and by presenting himself as the guardian of evolution and interactionism, Freeman asked his readers to dismiss Mead’s work as mistaken, misguided, anachronistic, and unscientific and accept his position as accurate, responsible, thoroughly scientific and a harbinger of the future. A number of intelligent people found this seemingly clear-cut choice attractive. After all, who could oppose evolution, science, and responsible scholarship? The real choice, however, was not between Mead, on the one hand, and Freeman, on the other. It was between wondering whether Freeman read what Mead had written about culture, biology, and evolution and, for whatever reason, omitted entire passages and works that did not support his argument, or whether he did not carefully read Mead and therefore was not fully aware of what she wrote.” - Paul Shankman, The Trashing of Margaret Mead, p. 224
I wish I’d read Susan McKinnon’s 2005 Neo-Liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology

and Paul Shankman’s 2009 The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

when they were first published. It would have saved me some of the disappointment and exasperation I’ve experienced in the online science-atheism advocacy community.

Shankman’s book deals with the public controversy sparked a few decades ago when Derek Freeman published books claiming that Margaret Mead, who he claimed was the founding figure of an anti-evolutionary paradigm in anthropology, had actually been a naïve victim of a hoaxing during her fieldwork in Samoa. As the quotation above suggests, Freeman also sought, with a good deal of success among the public, to use his criticisms of Mead to begin the destruction of what he labeled an unscientific perspective and to promote one closer to Evolutionary Psychology. McKinnon’s pamphlet* is a more general scientific critique of Evolutionary Psychology from the perspective of cultural anthropology and related scientific fields.

Both books, which complement one another and other worthwhile works (Sahlins’ The Western Illusion of Human Nature, Fine’s Delusions of Gender, Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man,…), address both the science and the rhetoric of EP and related paradigms. Both describe in detail the scientific failings of EP – the unexamined presuppositions, the use of highly selective and often shoddy and even ridiculous** evidence, the flawed methods, the leaps of logic in analysis, and maybe most important the failure to engage with the full spectrum of evidence including that which potentially contradicts its claims and suggests different conclusions.

They also – McKinnon explicitly and Shankman more indirectly – discuss the rhetoric employed by EP advocates both within their books and in the public promotion of their approach. As both books describe, EP advocates make full use of rhetorical tactics to present themselves as the apolitical defenders of disinterested Science while their detractors are politicized and painted as unscientific wishful thinkers who can’t accept the irrefutable evidence. (This rhetoric is also highly gendered: opponents and their approaches are feminized while EP is portrayed as rational, intellectually courageous, masculine.)

I want to bring these works to more people’s attention because I believe there are many who are interested in considering the evidence and curious about what it shows – who aren’t so easily swayed by EP’s rhetorical bluster. Realistically, though, I’m not as optimistic that many of those already taken with EP will be interested in engaging with it seriously and respectfully and in the spirit of scientific inquiry. In fact, rhetoric consistently substitutes for substantive engagement in the responses to EP’s critics. A couple of years after the publication of McKinnon’s book, Henry Harpending wrote a review which Alex Golub at Savage Minds called “libelous.” Most striking are the rhetorical characterizations of McKinnon’s work quoted by Golub, which are so formulaic that you have to question whether Harpending even read the book he was reviewing. According to Golub, for example, he calls the 152-page well-organized pamphlet a “rambling screed,” and asserts that McKinnon “does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaluating science: Instead she dislikes the ‘rhetorical structures and strategies of the texts.’” As the quotation at the beginning of the post shows, though, it’s precisely on the basis of scientific criteria that McKinnon criticizes EP – the entire pamphlet is a presentation of the scientific failings of EP in the face of contrary evidence and compared to other explanations.

There just doesn’t seem to be any way to break through the rhetorical wall of condescending arrogance and draw EP advocates into a real engagement on these grounds, which in itself suggests that there’s something other than a dedication to science driving this movement. Which is especially depressing since it appears another round is about to begin with the publication of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance.

* McKinnon’s pamphlet is published by Prickly Paradigm Press. The works in this series are all relevant to contemporary debates and issues, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been made into Kindle or e-books and sold online for a few dollars.

**To reiterate, because this is easily the worst: In looking for evidence concerning the possible inborn nature of human gendered toy preferences (presumed to be universal), the researchers presented vervet monkeys with a series of gendered objects, including cooking pans. They gave cooking pans. To vervet monkeys.

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