Wednesday, February 21, 2007

5 letters on human nature


Just in time to intersect with the threads on humanism that have developed here and here arrive these letters from the New York Times editorial page.

The five missives respond to a recent opinion piece by David Brooks ("Human Nature Redux"). Brooks stated, without any particular argument, that belief in human goodness is as dead as Rousseau himself. He then observed with some shock that conservatives have not embraced evolutionary theory, a puzzling failure given that conservatism's truths coincide with evolution's emphasis upon the dark nature of man (<-- yes, I intentionally did not write "humanity" because gender seems an implicit part of Brooks' argument):
Here’s another perversity of human nature. Many conservatives resist the theory of evolution even though it confirms many of conservatism’s deepest truths.
I am guessing that those "deepest truths" include facts like humans have been since the days of the caves selfish bastards who'd sooner bash a club over a neighbor's head and steal his mammoth steaks than, say, found a charity dedicated to the discovery of an AIDS vaccine.

Oh, wait.

The column also contains a sentence that I swear has been plagiarized from, well, every undergraduate paper I have ever graded. Of Rousseau's noble savage Brooks writes: "This belief had gigantic ramifications over the years." Ramifications are bad enough, but when they are gigantic and endure not just for days but over the years ... watch out!

But back to evolutionary theory, selfish bastards, and (apparently) American conservatives. Here is the little aria that forms the middle of the piece:
Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal and divide the world into in-groups and out-groups.

This darker if more realistic view of human nature has led to a rediscovery of different moral codes and different political assumptions. Most people today share what Thomas Sowell calls the Constrained Vision, what Pinker calls the Tragic Vision and what E. O. Wilson calls Existential Conservatism. This is based on the idea that there is a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.

Today, parents don’t seek to liberate their children; they supervise, coach and instruct every element of their lives. Today, there really is no antinomian counterculture — even the artists and rock stars are bourgeois strivers. Today, communes and utopian schemes are out of favor. People are mostly skeptical of social engineering efforts and jaundiced about revolutionaries who promise to herald a new dawn. Iraq has revealed what human beings do without a strong order-imposing state.


Just the other day I was teaching Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, and I suddenly realized as I looked around the room that -- had humans not evolved the institutions of classrooms and universities -- my students would be slitting my throat and dancing in my blood. Fortunately conservatism has ensured their docility.

Anyway, I do want to call attention to the possibilities that writers like Brooks and some of the scientists he cites (like Wilson) preclude. In the five letters to the NYT, for example, Matthew Brookoff agrees with Brooks but argues that these conclusions about human nature argue for liberalism, with its checks and balances. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist, opines:

David Brooks is half right in asserting that evolutionary biology shows human beings to be selfish, nasty and competitive by nature. In the process, he conveniently doesn’t mention the other half, which is far less conducive to conservative political ideology: the adaptive outcome in question through the machinations of our selfish genes is often achieved by organisms behaving altruistically toward one another, contributing to genetic success by enhancing the success of other bodies like relatives, reciprocating friends and even, on occasion, unrelated individuals within the social group.

William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis, insists upon the place of altruism:

Recent studies have argued very persuasively that humans are different, and that E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker are needlessly pessimistic. We compete for status, true, but paradoxically the way we display status is by showing that we can afford to be generous to one another.

Michael Eigen, editor of The Psychoanalytic Review, inveighs against the stark binaries in Brooks' piece:

It is not a matter of one or the other or making a choice as to which is more basic. To put who we are in terms of one tendency versus another is to maintain an all-too-prevalent dissociative attitude that has played havoc with our sense of self for a good part of our history. I believe that evolution requires us to get beneath such categories and begin to partner the profound interweaving of multiple tendencies that give human nature the plasticity and persistence it demonstrates.

"Plasticity and persistence." Food for thought as medievalists here and elsewhere contemplate the universal, the ethical, the historically predetermined ... the human.

14 comments:

Karl Steel said...

I believe that evolution requires us to get beneath such categories and begin to partner the profound interweaving of multiple tendencies that give human nature the plasticity and persistence it demonstrates.

And I believe that evolution demands that we abandon the 'human' altogether, if it's understood as a human against the homogeneous group known as 'the animals.'

It's distressing, but typical, to see Brooks cite Pinker and to see the NY Times defend Evo-Devo. Not being at home right now, I don't have access to this, but I would strongly recommend this book (Susan McKinnon's Neo-Liberal Genetics: he Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology to anyone caught up in the notion that there's such thing as a 'selfish gene' (wtf?) or that some hypothetical UR-hunter/gatherer culture (whose every discourse was preceded with an *) predetermines our motivations now. I can't recommend McKinnon unreservedly, as she's caught up in the specialness of the human and a certainty in free choice, but, so far as this medievalist knows, her assault on Evo-Devos genetics, anthropology, and paleo-anthropology is unimpeachable.

I'd also recommend Matt Cartmill's A View to a Death in the Morning for an assault on the "hunting hypothesis," a long-discredited argument for the violent origins of the human species (rather than, I say more accurately, the violent core of the discourse of the differentially defined human), that seems to carry a lot of weight in various conservative or crypto-conservative world philosophies (whether of the fascist or dystopian variety).

Eileen Joy said...

I almost laughed out loud at JJC's musings over his Chaucer students slitting his throat and exulting in the bloodshed, a fate apparently nicely avoided by our "evolution." I'm sorry, but I do buy in quite heavily to many aspects of biological determinism [a la Wilson, Pinker, Dawkins, and company], but I've also always assumed that the longstanding historical debate--"are humans deep down mean and nasty or nice and generous?"--to have always been overly facile. Thanks to biology, in fact--whether in the work of Wilson or Barash--we now know that we are both, and there are good evolutionary reasons for being both--on separate occasions, and also simultaneously [indeed, Barash's view that generosity can also be advantageous, evolutionary-wise, is really just a nice way of still affirming evolutionary "fitness," by whatever means possible]. This reminds me, too, of something Iago says in "Othello":

". . . 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the
power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one
scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us
to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal
stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion."

Of course, we have to take into account that Iago is a liar, and also possibly lies even to himself.

I do not agree with Karl that evolution demands we abandon the "human" altogether [except I heartily share his condemnation of all the ways in which a supposed human/animal divide & hierarchy has caused a lot of misery in this world]. We *are* a unique species, just as my cat, Tom [yes, that's his cliched name!], belongs to a unique species. Tom and I are obviously different from each other, while we also share experience in certain biological and even "mind" processes. In the words of Barry Lopez, he belongs to one "nation" of beings, I to another. You can discard the word "human" if you decide it carries too much negative [even deadly] excess of historical memory, but what will you put in its place? How will we name ourselves, and under what term will we place that which we do "in our name"? The question is not purely academic [at least, I hope not].

Karl Steel said...

I'm down with biological determinism insofar as we are inescapably embodied creatures, but I do think the paleoanthropological/evolutionary material Pinker et al push is claptrap. I'm willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think it's unlikely. Again, I'd suggest the McKinnon.

I do not agree with Karl that evolution demands we abandon the "human" altogether [except I heartily share his condemnation of all the ways in which a supposed human/animal divide & hierarchy has caused a lot of misery in this world]. We *are* a unique species, just as my cat, Tom [yes, that's his cliched name!], belongs to a unique species.

Right. We're a unique species. So are cats. My objection is to l'animot, the homogenized group of creatures known as 'the animal' a group that as such either lacks all that makes up the human (reason, soul, rights in themselves rather than in imitation of human rights) or merits some respect according to how much they resemble some (necessarily idealized) conception of the human.

You can discard the word "human" if you decide it carries too much negative [even deadly] excess of historical memory, but what will you put in its place? How will we name ourselves, and under what term will we place that which we do "in our name"?

I don't know. Right now, in ethical terms, I'm pretty much treading water until something better comes along, some mode of being/acting that doesn't involving extending (or not extending) rights to creatures to the degree that you recognize them as being more or less like yourself. For instance, I'd like to discard rights systems that are based around subjectivity or even empathy. No more than I know how to dislodge death from its overwhelming symbolic force (see my post on fish some months back), I don't know how to create or even imagine the ethics that would satisfy me. All I know is that anthropocentric rights (notice how I slipped from ethics into rights) systems are only provisionally satisfactory.

michael uebel said...

I recall recommending Eigen's book Ecstasy in this forum, and I like his take on binaries of human nature as dissociative in form. This view accords well with Bromberg's important work on dissociation as well as with Fischer's.

Someday, Karl, you'll have to give me the cliff-note version to your thinking about animals and the human. I've haven't been able to follow it as strenuously as I ought to have. I'm still trying to get a handle on humanist ethics, so I can't say I'm up to speed with your thinking, which seems beyond me.

Side-question to the K-Man: What did you make of Labbie's chapter on animality and desire? I finished a favorable review of her book, and have been in contact with her regarding other projects she has going on. She really seems to be doing some creative work.

Karl Steel said...

Here's the cliff notes version of the thought behind this top-heavy clause, No more than I know how to dislodge death from its overwhelming symbolic force. The cliff-notes version of my thoughts on animals, well, I can send you my Exemplaria article before it comes out (no date yet), but not, like, soon, because I just want to keep my head down and finish the diss., and soon, which means not having to engage too much vis-a-vis that article.

What did you make of Labbie's chapter on animality and desire?

I don't know it at all. Can I have a longer cite? Sounds good, and maybe useful for my Kzoo anthropophagy paper.

Just read a very good piece on 13th-century angelology and 19th-century ethography, Lorraine Daston's "Intelligences: Angels, Animals, and Human," in Thinking with Animals (Columbia UP, 2005), in what is, so far, a good anthology. I can't say my suspicion of subjectivity in ethical systems begins with this piece, but it's certainly helped me think through some of my issues with subjectivity, although not in ways that I can quite yet explain...

(I prefer k'homme to K-Man. Or perhaps Madame de Steel)

michael uebel said...

Erin Felicia Labbie, Lacan's Medievalism(Minnesota UP, 2006). Chapter is "Duality, Ambivalence, and the Animality of Desire," pp. 66-106.

k'homme it is.

Karl Steel said...

Erin Felicia Labbie, Lacan's Medievalism(Minnesota UP, 2006).

Oh. That Labbie. The one JJC mentioned here a month ago or so and that I expressed uncertainty about. Er. I'll have a look at it soon.

Eileen Joy said...

We can't, I don't think, discard emapthy as something that is critical to thinking about rights, or more broadly, ethics. Peter Singer's whole argument re: animal rights is heavily dependent on the fact that animals suffer and experience pain. My interest in the suffering of animals [if I have any, and yes, I do] will lodge to a certain extent in my *caring* about whether or not an animal is/might be suffering/about to suffer [as well as it is lodged to a certain extent in my *caring* about whether or not animals can experience pleasure/joy/happiness. I agree with Jane Bennet that ethics are not possible without enchantment, even wonder: first, wonder, then, caring, then, ethics.

Karl Steel said...

We can't, I don't think, discard emapthy as something that is critical to thinking about rights, or more broadly, ethics

Perhaps not. But there's still the appropriative nature of empathy, insofar as I don't think of it as a "feeling with" so much as an imagining of the other "feeling as myself." If empathy's a heart of ethics, then it seems to limit us to acting only for others with whom we identify. So I'd like to dislodge empathy to allow for an ethics without identification.

Uebel:

Labbie's book. Just started it. I can't say that I'm not enjoying it, not yet, but I do have to say that this sentence gave me pause:

"As [the sign] is always bound to another signifier, the sign rarely stands in solitude, and it participates in the signifying chain that marks the relationship between language and desire" (11). Now, I'm not the sharpest tack in the, uh, tack-box, and lord knows I'm not (yet) deeply versed in theory, so perhaps I'm missing something subtle here, but I can't help but be reminded of Althusser's "Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed" and its sly slip between "hardly ever" and "always" (hat tip to Bérubé). In other words, is the sign always bound (seems likely) or is it rarely bound (unlikely) or is there just a silent "always" (as in between the subject/verb of the last independent clause, "it [always] participates"? I'll keep going, but this sentence really threw me.

Eileen Joy said...

It's kind of eerie, but in completely different contexts--pedagogical, personal, and more professional--several people over the past few months have argued to me that part of the basis of empathy is identification--I can empathize with you if I can somehow *identify* with you, which statement is, I guess, meant to imply that, at some level, markers of "sameness" need to be involved. I've always understood empathy in a way directly opposed to this line of thinking. Empathy's power, I really believe, inheres in the ability of the empathizer to *feel* and *care* for someone or something for which categories of sameness might actually be impossible to formulate. I'd actually love to know Michael's thoughts on this, from the perspective of his reading in attachment theory, or psychoanalysis more generally.

I further think the term "human," although it carries [deadly] historical baggage, also contains within itself a powerful engine for transhuman empathetic energies that could do powerful good in this world.

Karl Steel said...

Let's try that again.

What did you make of Labbie's chapter on animality and desire?

Here's the short answer, with possibly a longer answer tomorrow.

Having read Labbie's introduction and that chapter, the really short answer is: produces some interesting readings (of Marie de France and Jean de Arras and a kind of lyric fablieau by Arnaut Daniel, so far as I understand it, Lacan and Freud's Wolf- and Ratman), but it's not really my bag. Here are some key quotes: "Bisclavret and Melusine are both courtly romances that configure desire as that which cannot properly reach its goal because of the abject horror bound to the search for pleasure" (106); "Any attempt to sublimate animality will result in its emergence in a different, potentially more threatening form that will carry with it the force and power of the symptom that returns from the place of repression" (90).

Slightly longer version. Labbie's interested in Lacan as Realist w/out God (as opposed, it seems, to Derrida's nominalism) got at through a complex play with the Lacanian Real and the Scholastic Real and discussions of universals and individuals in Boethius's Commentary on Porphyry. Somehow, animals in humans figure into this (citing, as E. Vance did, 'si est homo, est animal'), as figures of
drives, it seems, and of the unconscious, the forces neither subject to reason nor containable in language.

I found it a bit disappointing that: a) Labbie didn't engage with Derrida's work on animals except for his stuff on Heidegger and Uexkull from Of Spirit; b) her exegesis of Agamben's The Open were just as opaque as the original; c) the animal seems to be functioning in a pretty metaphoric rather than material way; d) symptom of 'c,' the only 'animals' she deals with are human/animal hybrids. Sure, I think all creatures are hybrids, but somehow I get the sense that Labbie's no more willing than Lacan to go after the human itself, especially as it relates to l'animot, or, at the least, to see what the concept of "the animal" does for the human.

So, I leave the final word up to people who know their Lacan (but I do have a question for you (hypothetical) people: she spends about 10 pages defending Lacan from charges of antifeminism for his bit about women existing only with a strikethrough (you know, crossed out). It's obvious enough to me what Lacan meant by that. Why should Labbie have to defend him at such length?), but for me, the animal guy, I have to say that while I'm pleased and surprised to see Bisclavret still producing good new readings, her work doesn't really help with with what I'm doing with animals. For that, I think I'm going to have to look to works on feminism and reason and feminism and violence. This summer's project.

--
Vis-a-vis empathy: I'd actually love to know Michael's thoughts on this

Me too. Or anybody's. I feel up a creek (or just creaky) on this.

erin said...

Thanks for getting my point and for also prompting me to think about further projects Karl et al.

Best,
Erin

Karl Steel said...

Erin, when I meet you, as I'm sure I will some day, I'll have to apologize in person for the tone of my posts here. I was deep in my diss's master thesis at this point and saw nothing but it. Because your book didn't give me exactly what I wanted at that moment, I read it impatiently, and it shows here. So: my apologies.

erin said...

No problem Karl,

I know i only touched the surface of these ideas, and I know there is a lot to be addressed surrounding the questions of animality and medieval texts as well as the post-human, and, in fact, the way that the medieval offers a new form of beast to the post-human... and all of these things in ways that I haven't yet addressed! It is a lot to think about, a lot to research, and time, reading, thinking, and synthesis where it is possible, will hopefully bring these ideas to light.

yours,
Erin