Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Muddying the waters

Nick Miller interviewed a pink-haired Jesse Prinz in a Manhattan cafe about a new book which the City University of New York philosopher has written challenging the supposed orthodoxy of genetic determinism. But the current consensus on the old nature versus nurture question is not genetic determinism: it is a view which recognizes the complex interactions between human genes and the environment. Prinz is also arguing against the idea that our brains are, as it were, primed for language. And he tries to undermine the credibility of the studies of identical twins which underlie current mainstream views.

There is something going on here. Such overweening intellectual ambition and contrarianism can't be driven solely by a dispassionate reassessment of the evidence. Fortunately, Professor Prinz is very upfront about the ideological motivations of his ideas. Like his CUNY colleague, Massimo Pigliucci, his intellectual work is inextricably bound up with his passionate commitment to progressive causes. The trouble is, mixing ideology and science is at best a distraction, a muddying of the waters, and at worst positively dangerous.

For his article, Miller also interviewed Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico who effectively undermined the line which Prinz was taking by confirming what anyone with even a passing interest in these matters already knows: that studies of identical twins over the past two decades have demonstrated conclusively that virtually every aspect of personality is heritable (to a significant extent).

Steven Pinker, who has written on what he calls our language instinct as well as on broader issues of evolutionary psychology, is the most prominent public spokesman for the mainstream position which Prinz is setting out to attack. The following passage is from Pinker's book, The Blank Slate:

Identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike in just about any trait one can measure - verbal, mathematical and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes towards controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion and modern music. They resemble each other in gambling, divorce, committing crimes, getting into accidents and watching television. They even boast dozens of shared idiosyncrasies such as giggling incessantly, giving interminable answers to simple questions, dipping buttered toast in coffee and writing indistinguishable syndicated advice columns.

If we want to improve our lives, the first step surely is to understand as best we can the situation we are in and this involves a recognition of the truly surprising power and influence of our genes.