Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dark Side of Theory

A few days ago, I posted an entry on this blog ("The Orchid Hypothesis") about an article I had read in The Atlantic and found interesting. The Atlantic article was about a series of experiments and theoretical speculations that seemed to challenge some of our orthodox assumptions about the relationship between genetics and behavior, and offered in their stead an alternative understanding of human "vulnerability" as a kind of "plasticity and sensitivity"that may itself account for the success of our species. (The original article is here.) As many of us are prone to do, I suspect, I read the article through the filter of my own interests, and found my interest piqued by the possibility that some of the claims in the article might be compatible with (and even helpful for) some of my own research work. No harm there, right?


Let me just start off here by thanking my readers-- especially Scu, Brunson, and Anotherpanacea-- for reminding me that for every silver lining there is a dark cloud. I was so juiced about how I might potentially extract some of the broadest implications of the article's claims that I, quite regrettably, overlooked many of the details. Important details. Like, as Brunson pointed out, that the same claims could be used (and have been used) to support arguments in favor of the genetic superiority of males. AnPan seconded this suspicion by reminding me that the disciplinary frame of the article I was so enamoured with was still evolutionary psychology, which has a long and storied record of naturalizing (and, consequently justifying) gender inequities in the name of good "science." Perhaps more disturbingly, I also overlooked the details of the experiments themselves-- on both children and animals-- that were forwarding the research being heralded in the article. Scu posted a kind of exposé of that research over on his own blog (in a post titled "Vulnerability and Animal Experimentation") that, first, shocked and horrified me with its account of the scientists' utter cruelty and indifference to animal vulnerability and, second, embarrassed me for so quickly glossing over these experiments in the course of hurrying on to praise their results. After reading their comments, I felt a bit like the kid in A Christmas Story, who was so impressed with his shiny new Red Ryder BB gun (with a compass in the stock) that he ignored its very real danger of shooting his eye out.

If one learns anything at all from deconstruction, it first must be that every system, structure, theory, text or context of meaning has many hidden nooks and crannies that, quite often, harbor all varieties of contradictions, countermemories, aporias and other means for its own undoing. So, mea culpa. I did not read (or think) carefully enough in this instance, and I am deeply appreciative of my critical readers for reminding me so. But I am also inclined to say that this is a hazard of the occupation in which we are engaged, that is, the occupation of thinking through, perhaps even thinking beyond, the narratives handed over to us. An unavoidable hazard, even. I do not offer that as an apology so much as an observation, a reminder to myself and others that the work we do is sometimes perilous, sometimes strange, often unpredictable.

In a comment to his own post, Scu remarked on his "frustration" with the erasure of details (in both the Atlantic article and my post) about the horrors of animal experimentation. He writes:
Frustrated is a good word, I think. Frustrated and sympathetic in a way. As a fellow nerd I understand the desire to be caught up in the cool science and nifty implications. But if we are going to be ethical and political beings, if we are going to reconceive the basis of rights on the grounds of vulnerability and precariousness, we need to cultivate an awareness of what is being done in the name of understanding our humanity.
There is a part of me that suspects that, in this case, I am one of the people "caught up in the cool science and nifty implications" to which Scu is referring. And, I suppose, that's an at least partially accurate description, in this case. But I could not agree with him more in his subsequent warning. I have never shied away, on this blog and elsewhere, from stating categorically that the chief concerns of my research concern human suffering, human vulnerability and precariousness, and human rights. And yet, I hope-- and I have also stated this, categorically, here and elsewhere-- that the work I am doing is not being undertaken in a kind of blissful ignorance of the manner in which our form of life and the life of other Others is co-implicated. And I could not agree more with Scu when he reminds us that, just as the Master cannot speak of his own superiority over the Slave without recognizing the Slave's empowering-power, so too can we not speak of the difference between our (human) suffering and the suffering of non-human animals without recognizing our co-participation in a shared community of sentient life.

I still intend to post another entry on the Orchid Hypothesis, which I still find a "cool science with nifty implications," but I obviously have some more thinking to do about it first. But I wanted to post this entry as a provocation for all of us to think more on the darker sides of the theories that claim our attention.


Brunson said...

To be clear, the argument is not that males are genetically superior - women are by most biological standards. Instead, that funky little y-chromosome tends to put men on both extremes of the genetic bell curve (no connotation intended). Add this to the trope that the line between criminal and genius is blurred by insanity, and off we go.

LieutenantObvious said...

Interestingly, while the possibility of male genetic superiority (a stupid concept indeed, superior to what and in what context? What is this artificial and bogus "biological standards" nonsense?) is met with gasps of horror, for the commenter above, and by implication, the author of this blog, the idea of female superiority glibly rolls off the tongue, as natural and welcome as spring rain.

DOCTOR J said...

@Lieutenant: It may have its problems, but I think you're going to have a hard time proving that "biological standards" (by which I understand Brunson to mean the scientific standards accepted by biologists) is "artificial and bogus." I'm just as critical of some of the natural science's unexamined assumptions as the next person, but I wouldn't go so far as to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Also, I don't think Brunson was actually making any claims about "female superiority" (only noting that many biologists would) and I certainly have not made any claims to that effect, either. Seems to me that you may be looking too hard for a prejudice that simply isn't here and, unfortunately, mischaracterizing your interlocutors in the process.

anotherpanacea said...

I'll just repeat a question that often troubles me in this context:

Should the provenance of research results prevent us from considering the claim? I'm always confused by this in discussions of the Nazi human subject experimentation, as my intuitions seem to be different than most people's. If horrible tortures lead to useful insight: do we ignore the insight? I take part of the objection to be the requirement of testability/repeatability, but it seems that there's a difference between using the data in future experiments (the problem with the ongoing rhesus monkey studies) and using the results to drive hypothesis generation and suggest new (non-torturous) avenues for research. For instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment is still a useful prompt for reflection....

Similarly, it's possible that "The Orchid Hypothesis" and the "The Fragile Male" stuff may be true.... Humans *are* animals and these sorts of sexual differences are true in many other animal species. It seems like we shouldn't ignore the evidence if it's there. As Brunson points out the finding isn't that men are by nature better (frequently the opposite, in fact) just that they're more sensitive to environmental factors than women.

It worries me, though: there's a difference between the descriptive claim and the normative claim, but as Lieutenant Obvious illustrates, the two tend to get confused in the popular imagination and in the uptake by institutions and political actors.

Brunson said...

Although I appreciate the association between orchids and cultivation, the global presence of orchids in the wild complicates the metaphor. Also of interest for Dr. J's forthcoming paper: The Fertilisation of Orchids.

LieutenantObvious said...

Doctor J,

I was troubled by some of the language used by the person I responded to. Words like "superiority," supposedly buttressed by the authority of "biological standards" which I took not to mean as you interpreted as simply standards of scientific method but qualities.

My objection was that the particular qualities referred to are "artificial," as in the product of artifice and only have meaning to the human mind, and "bogus", because they are selectively chosen to arrive at precisely that outcome of superiority.

By "biological standards" a cheetah is far superior to a mole when it comes to hunting large mammals, but that is not an indication of the mole's inferiority. It doesn't even make sense to put them along a single superior/inferior axis because eating large mammals is completely alien to the mole, even more so the speed necessary in order to catch them. So any judgmental comparison of the respective animals' speed is meaningless. The fitness of the mole has nothing to do with its relative strengths versus the cheetah, but by the fact that it exists at all.

To me, the above is obvious. That is why I perceived the comment made by Brunsen as a kind of malignant bias.


I guess that's my point about the normative versus descriptive. The problem with that is the finite set of qualities you select to define something as "better" than another are arbitrarily chosen. In avoiding making normative claims about individual qualities, you make a normative claims about the set of qualities that should be chosen to define something.

Nothing is "by nature" better than anything else. Everything simply is. It is only when you start getting into the business of putting together arbitrarily chosen bundles of qualities that you get things like "better." But what real significance or meaning, outside of the whims of your fancy, do those particular bundles really have?

Scu said...

I think you are absolutely right about the inevitable nature of this issue. As we continue to insist on the political dimensions of thinking, it requires us to give up any pretensions on the innocence of thought. Philosophy carries with it all the risks and hazards of any political project.
In this case I know my current work both makes me more attuned to these issues in general, but also meant that I already knew the names of Harry Harlow and Stephen Suomi. And in turn, there are many times I overlook problematic issues because of my focus. That's the nature of focus, allows you to see something up close but also pushes away other things. This is, without a doubt, one of the delights that blogging has brought me. The chance to have a focus, but also a chance to constantly be brought of the narrowness by all sorts of people doing fascinating work.
Also, I'm really glad my post didn't get taken in the wrong way, thanks for that. I really respect what you are doing.

Brunson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B Blake said...

@LieutenantObvious: I'm not sure what relevance the cheetah and the mole example has to issues of male-female biology. Obviously, a comparison between a cheetah and a mole about which one is the better hunter doesn't have a legitimate basis, so the comparison of the mole as an "inferior hunter" or w/e just strikes one as plainly obvious, or perhaps as just as stupid thing to be considering in the first place. I don't see how male-female comparisons of the same species are necessarily illegitimate in the same way (although, they certainly may be and often are for other reasons; I can't think of a gender/sex related example atm, but the pseudo-science of phrenology springs to mind with regard to race and claims that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites).

I, also, agree with your basic point that things have to be put into a context and evaluated from a particular point of view for claims like someone is "better" or "worse" than someone else at some activity or w/e to even make sense. I think you're going to far though when you contend that the somewhat "arbitrary" nature of this process has "no real significance...outside the whims of our fancy." Yeah, a mole isn't as fast as a cheetah, but the mole's speed matters in in a way that is a lot more than a matter of "fancy" when the the mole is trying to evade a predator, or the predator is trying to catch the mole.

@blog: I suspect that most people having this discussion have already implicitly accepted the point I'm about to make and gone on blogging with it in mind. Still, I think it's a point worth explicitly spelling out.

We shouldn't consider certain scientific studies' findings automatically wrong because, say, they come from a scientific linage tried to systemic oppression. Doing that is essentially the same thing as ad-hominem attack an argument. E.g. Obama's stimulus plan for the economy is just ridiculous. Obama's a socialist![he's not for the record]

Rather, we ought to look at those strains as biased and therefore not as credible in their expertise about the issue in question as they may have initially appeared. Perhaps, that is why ad hominem attacks are so often appealing: because such attacks can sometimes be relevant in assessing the speaker's expertise, which is important, even if such considerations are not relevant to the actual merits of the primary disputed issue. There are lots of examples of this, but I'll suggest that unconscionable cruelty found in the Stanford Prison or Rhesus monkey experiments and whether or not such studies and their findings are legitimate is likely one such example. Though certainly, the unethical nature of most of the experiments requires that they not be repeated. Naturally, that gives them a somewhat more flimsy scientific basis, due to their low sample sizes and probably not very diverse samples of the targeted populations. I think, those facts ought to caution us against extrapolating conclusions from these types of experiments that aren't very, very strongly wedded to the evidence & data.