On Genes, Free Will, and Altruism
A review of a book on the genetic contribution to human behavior and personality. Harden takes behavioral genetics seriously, and I’m with her there, but she believes things about moral responsibility for the inevitable differences and disparities that genes help produce that I find wrong-headed.
I wrote some summary review of this topic of what genomics will reveal about who we are and how we organize ourselves socially in my most recent book. It’s an important topic that is almost never talked about intelligently in my neck of the academic woods, as most social scientists know little or nothing about it other than that they hate the idea that there might be innate factors at work in contributing to who we are.
“Contributing,” note well. Environment and experience shape us as well. Just about everything we’re interested in looking at in the human sciences is some complicated combination of innate predisposition and experiential history in particular environments.
My take is that my discipline at least, and probably a number of other social science disciplines (I do not count the “studies” disciplines under that aegis, as there is not even a pretense there of trying to do anything scientific) will likely not be up to the task. Here’s how I wrap up that recent book:
As is perhaps only too clear from its content, this book comes out of a profound disillusionment, one might even say a loss of faith. In the two decades since I received my doctorate in sociology, I have come to believe that my discipline is off the rails, and dangerously, perhaps fatally so. I did not believe that twenty-five years ago, when I was happily engaged in the process of digging around in Parisian archives to gather material for a dissertation on a small slice of the discipline’s origins. Although I was worried then about the frivolous direction of much of sociology, and the disappearance of great sociologists who had influenced me and who were replaced by much lesser lights, I believed there was evidence to indicate the possibility of a renaissance, if only the message of the need to return to the sources and the original scientific impetus of the discipline were heeded by enough young scholars.
Today, based on the available evidence, I think it is more likely that sociology will collapse under the dead weight of its current concerns than that it will willingly reform itself according to the blueprint of this book and the other, better books that preceded it. Sociology is by some objective measures in evident decline at present. The last decade has witnessed a steady drop in ASA membership, from nearly 15,000 in 2007 to just over 11,000 in 2019 (a drop of around 25%). This is the lowest number of affiliates of the national professional organization for sociologists in the United States in nearly 40 years. Open, acute criticism and even outright disdain of the discipline is rampant, more than occasionally originating in sources who are themselves sociologists.
My book can be read, then, by sufficiently morbidly-minded readers, as an obituary to a dead discipline, or at least to one that is in the process of dying. It is also an act of mourning the loss of the expiring entity, which I have loved. But, even if this view is true, let us not mourn too much. It is a properly evolutionist way of thinking of the matter to recall that everything that exists eventually faces some catastrophe or insuperable problem, typically an ecology ill-suited for it, and it then passes into extinction and leaves the way for other organisms. Why not so with sociology in the form it currently takes? In this spirit, then, I can perhaps hope to have made some little contribution to the human science to come that will succeed it.