Why You Should Stop Waiting For John Horgan to Master the Distinction Between “Ought” and “Is”Published 29 May, 2012
In the October 1995 Issue of Scientific American, John Horgan published a piece on the previous summer’s annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES), which had taken place at the University of California Santa Barbara, where I was, at the time, pursing my PhD with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. (A photo of the pair with a Swiss Army knife graces the second page of the article. It’s actually a nice shot.)
Probably the most obviously incorrect aspect of the piece is the title, “The New Social Darwinists.” Social Darwinism is, of course, a political ideology, a set of ideas about values, or political oughts; HBES is, of course, a scientific society, and presenters at the conferences were making positive claims, about what is. Interestingly, in the body of the piece, Horgan explicitly acknowledges the is/ought barrier, writing of the attendees that “[m]ost shun the naturalistic fallacy, the conflation of what is with what should and must be.” His choice of title might, one could generously suppose, be intended as a play on words of some kind.
Still, a recent piece by Horgan suggests that he still hasn’t quite been able to keep “is” and “ought” distinct. In a blog post at Scientific American, Horgan criticized New York Times columnist David Brooks for looking to some of David Buss’s research in trying to explain the killing of 16 civilians by an American soldier. Horgan writes:
Evolutionary psychology, instead of giving Brooks fresh insights and leading him in unpredictable directions, seems merely to validate his dark, Hobbesian perspective on human affairs. Instead of blaming American war crimes on our killer genes or even “original sin” (yes, Brooks actually invoked that medieval superstition in his column), he should look more closely at political leaders, voters and pundits who have helped turn theU.S.into the world’s most warlike society. This is a cultural problem, not a genetic one.
The use of the word “blaming” carries what to me seems like strong normative connotations, as if the scientific explanation on offer somehow exculpates. In fact, Brooks was using Buss’s findings to try to explain not excuse the alleged massacre, writing that “the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so. People who murder often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint.” That is, Brooks was not, to my reading, blaming the alleged crimes on genes, but locating the explanation for them in the details of context. Now, the explanations on offer by Buss and Pinker, the latter of whom Brooks also cites, might be wrong. Indeed, Horgan seems to think that it was only recently that members of our species killed one another in large numbers. Whether or not there are adaptations designed for killing, it seems to me that people ought to be held accountable for murder either way.
A completely separate issue raised in the last sentence I quoted above is Horgan’s insistence on the archaic culture/genetic dichotomy, a confusion that, like his troubles with is and ought, he seems not to have been able to shake in the two decades he’s been trying to talk about evolutionary psychology. In the 1995 Sci Am piece, he mulls a hypothetical audience member listening to the late Dev Singh’s presentation on waist-to-hip ratio: “Surely one of Singh’s several hundred listeners—many of whom are female—will object that his research is offensive, silly or, at any rate, unscientific. Men’s tastes are obviously dictated by culture, someone will argue, rather than by ‘instinct’” (Aside: Singh’s “offensive, silly or unscientific” 1993 JPSP paper on waist to hip ratio has attracted 771 citations to date.)
Similar sorts of patterns are visible in Horgan’s thinking in his somewhat bizarre remarks about David Buss:
First of all, Buss is like a parody of an evolutionary biologist, who spins surveys of modern, mostly American college kids into cartoonishly simplistic proclamations about human evolution. As I noted in an October 1995 article in Scientific American, “The New Social Darwinist,” [sic] Buss’s speculations–which discount the role of nurture, culture and reason in shaping our behavior–are prime examples of what the biologist Stephen Jay Gould mocked as Darwinian “just-so stories.”
Holding aside the tiresome Gouldian trope at the end, his line about “mostly American” college kids is a bit ironic given Horgan’s remark in the 1995 piece (whose title he couldn’t quite render accurately) in which he specifically alludes to Buss’s worldwide research reach. Buss is, in any case, an odd target to choose, and label a “parody” of anything, given his stature and accomplishments, never mind his success in training students who have achieved, or are well on their way to achieving, prominence in the field.
Still, I do think there’s a larger issue here having to do with the is/ought barrier. It doesn’t seem to me that people perceive all “natural” explanations for social phenomena as excusing or justifying those phenomena. After all, non-evolutionary explanations are also intended to be “natural” ones. But it doesn’t seem that social psychological explanations for, say, racial stereotyping – perhaps due to the tendency to use categories to simplify their world, or what have you – elicit the same sense that to have explained the phenomenon justifies or excuses it
To take a more controversial sort of example, consider the explanation for rape that it is due to male desire for power (as opposed to sex). The idea that men want power over women is a natural explanation, and therefore could, in principle, be perceived as justification for rape. In practice, it doesn’t seem to me that it ever is. My experience is that only certain sorts of explanations are viewed as having moral weight and, of course, it seems like explanations that refer to biological functions are frequently so viewed. If that’s true, there’s probably a natural explanation for that, too. But that doesn’t make it OK.