International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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THURSDAY, JULY 9  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M260
Individual papers
Human Nature, Moral Norms and Sociobiology

Looking for moral norms in all the wrong places? On the nature and significance of nonhuman animal "entangled normativity"

Andrew Fenton (California State University, Fresno, United States)

There are at least three distinct approaches to critically discussing nonhuman animal morality among those sympathetic to its existence. The first examines selective pressures on capacities that are implicated in what is recognizably moral (e.g., Cartwright 2010). A second approach typically highlights various pro-social capacities exhibited by various nonhuman animals as well as what may also be virtuous (or vicious) behavior (e.g., Bekoff and Pierce 2009). The third approach provides analyses of what is taken to be constitutive of human moral agency and shows where these elements are present among nonhuman animals (e.g., Flack and de Waal 2000). Among the challenges facing those participating in this discussion is the development of an empirically tractable program that does not confuse the relevant behavior with something else (e.g., something more political or better described as ‘social etiquette’). I suggest that morality as we currently understand it should only be sought among domesticated or habituated nonhuman animals. This is largely because of two factors (i) the significance of principled action historically emphasized in human morality and (ii) the likelihood, even within the relatively recent past of Homo sapiens, that morality as we currently understand it was too entangled with what we would now regard as law, politics and social etiquette to permit strict separation. (i) allows room for an emergent morality in, say, Homo-Pan, Homo-Canis, or Homo-Tursiops cultures but not in free living communities of the relevant nonhuman genera. (ii) not only permits a non-anachronistic gaze at the normative structures and practices of ancient or early classical human cultures, it permits re-seeing what has already been labeled as, say, politics (see, e.g., de Waal 1998), as something so entangled with moral elements or what we might regard as social etiquette to undermine attempts to separate them. This possibility opens up a new, and perhaps more empirically tractable, project of studying nonhuman animal ‘entangled normativity.’

Sociobiology and the staying power of inflammatory rhetoric: How scientific objections became a "delayed scientific critique"

Samuel Ketcham (Indiana University, United States)

In 1975, Edward Wilson provoked an ongoing controversy over adaptationism and the study of human beings in an evolutionary context with his book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The initial response to the book by critics in the Sociobiology Study Group, which included Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, listed methodological problems that Sociobiology had in common with eugenics and racially motivated IQ tests. While they did not call E.O. Wilson a Nazi, they expressed deep concern that a failure to maintain high standards of scientific evidence made Sociobiology vulnerable to the same sort of biases that suborned scientific integrity during WWII. This criticism initiated an extreme polarization of the debate, and made it difficult to discuss evolutionary claims about human beings without also discussing their political or moral motivations and ramifications. In an interview with the sociologist Ullica Segestrale in 1981, Ernst Mayr complained that the initial political criticism made it falsely appear as though there were no real scientific grounds for objection. In her canonical account, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (2000), Segestrale presents Lewontin’s 1979 paper, “Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program”, as a delayed scientific critique, validated by both Mayr and E.O. Wilson’s concession that, unlike the initial political response, this paper amounted to good scientific criticism. Yet a comparison of these documents shows that they contain very similar scientific arguments! The only senses in which scientific criticism was “delayed” was that it was presented in this later paper in expanded detail and without discussion of the social threat posed by poor standards of evidence. Segestrale’s appeal to Mayr as an arbitrating scientific authority is therefore misleading, and fosters a sense that the initial objections to Sociobiology were not only political, but that they were merely political. In the paper that follows I re-examine this historical episode and show how methodological and political concerns are not so easily disentangled, and how provocative rhetoric from all sides has complicated both the episode and its subsequent analysis.

Evolution, human nature, and the location problem

Joshua Filler (Ripon College, United States)

Recent literature on the possibility and desirability of identifying a biologically founded "human nature" have largely agreed that this "nature" will have been (1) formed by evolutionary processes and almost certainly will be (2) normatively uninteresting. More specifically, this recent literature (or so I will argue) has settled upon the position that whatever traits constitute human nature, these traits will be dispositional in character and should not be identified with a fixed expression of a phenotype as such expressions are not expressions of a human nature due to the influence of environmental factors during development. In this paper (and following Louise Antony's work on the political implications of a biologically founded human nature), I argue that a dispositional account of a biological human nature is the most plausible account of the traits that make up that nature. Yet a lingering problem remains: where, precisely, are we to "locate" human nature within a dispositional account of the traits that make up that nature? On a standard account of dispositions, the relevant options are the categorical base of the disposition, the disposition itself, and the relevant outcome of that disposition being triggered. In the literature on human nature, these correspond (roughly) to the genotype, a norm of expression, and the resultant phenotype. In this paper, I will explore the biological and metaphysical issues with locating human nature at any one of these locations. In particular, I will argue that the proper "location" for the dispositions constitutive of human nature is a matter of convention - where one will (and should) locate human nature will depend crucially on one's interest. That is, what constitutes human nature will depend, for example, on whether we approach the question from genetics or human behavioral ecology. As such, there is no one "fixed" human nature in biology.