Critique of TSW Part 23b Heredity-Environment Muddle

Blog 20141105 

Bill’s belief in finity and quest for definition prevents him from considering the interaction between heredity and environment as a unity.

I am ever so grateful to Bill Westmiller, whose comments are marked "BW: ". The quotes marked TSW are from "The Scientific Worldview" and my comments are marked "[GB: ".

Heredity-Environment Muddle (Part 2 of 2)

TSW:  "Lysenko believed in a simplistic form of Lamarckism ..."

BW: So did Spencer. It might have been useful at this point to explain why Lamarck's theory was simply false, instead of trying to establish a dialectic dualism. Instead, you jump into the political responses to his theory. It was insane to ban the study of genetics in the Soviet Union, simply because Lamarck, Spencer, or Lysenko didn't understand the scientific facts about the genetic evolutionary process or the critical characteristics of homo

[GB: Sorry, I assumed that my readers would know that Lamarckism was the theory that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Although eventually falsified, it was one of the few explanations for the progressive changes that were being observed in paleontology and biology. This was five decades before Darwin’s “Origin” and almost a century before genetics became popular. You are correct that the politicians in the Soviet Union should have known better—another example of the damage a macrocosmic mistake can do.]  

TSW:  "... leftists were forced to dredge up tired arguments against reduction per se and in favor of free will and the development of culture independent of evolution."

BW: Granted, they conflated evolution with Lamarckianism and racism, but simply characterizing their arguments as "tired" doesn't demonstrate why they're wrong. Leftists were simply stuck with a conflict between the dialectical materialism of "genetics" and the dialectical materialism of social evolution. For some reason, they imagined that free will didn't exist in the former, but did exist in the latter. I find it rather odd that "determinists" would resort to free will to defend the Marxist (r)evolution, which they considered inevitable.

[GB: Again, the leftists should have known better, but did not. This is not so unusual, what with most of us being brought up with the free will trope. Early on, I criticized Engels for his championing of free will, without which I guess he thought the revolution would never occur. On the other hand, to err on the macrocosmic side of the debate probably made sense to those who wanted to manipulate the culture in a radical way.]

TSW:  "From the scientific point of view, neither the hereditarian nor the environmentalist can be correct. It is a false dichotomy."

BW: It may be a false dichotomy, but both nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) can be true. From a scientific view, you can accept genetics (not Lamarckianism) AND environment (culture) as significant factors in the development of any individual human being ... all of them to different degrees. No dualism is required or useful. There is no need to invoke the dualism of micro/macro as a criteria for deciding which emphasis is correct; even worse to invoke Baer's formula to demonstrate some universal "balance" of generic influences.

[GB: Well, to each his own. It is a false dichotomy because it is not possible to have a microcosm without a macrocosm. My point is that nature and nurture are equally important, just like the length and width of a rectangle are equally important for determining its area. Baer’s equation was wrong because it implied that heredity and environment were independent factors.]

TSW:  "Even Barash could see that no organism exists in the absence of an environment."

BW: Perhaps, but that blanket assertion doesn't answer the question of *which* influences dominate which human characteristics. For that, you need scientific evidence about particular causes and effects ... which may suggest human norms ... but averages say nothing about the influence of any of those factors on any particular individual.

TSW:  "... ultraconservative biologist Garrett Hardin ..."

BW: Ultraconservative??!! He was a flaming leftist who should be a prime example of "overemphasizing the macrocosm". His question: ‘How do heredity and environment act together to produce the effect observed?’ may be a valid rejection of simplistic dualism, but it incorrectly assumes that all human effects are necessarily caused by both. That's practically Lamarckianism, assuming that nurture affects genetics, which is false. Nobody's skin color is affected by their cultural milieu; that's determined only by their parent's genes. Some effects are 99-1 "microcosmic" nature and some are 99-1 "macrocosmic" nurture. Finding the *cause* for distinct effects is what science is all about.

[GB: Gee whiz! I never heard of Hardin being called a “flaming leftist.” Maybe you should actually read some of his stuff. This was the one time I agreed with him. At least your analysis is consistently myopic. Nurture always affects genetics because genes cannot exist without an environment. Remember that little disagreement about Newton’s First Law of Motion? My point was that, for the law to work, the absence of matter (absolute space) was just as important as the presence of matter (in the inertial object).]

TSW:  "If the heredity-environment muddle is so much a transgression of scientific method, as it certainly is ..."

BW: It will remain an unscientific muddle as long as philosophers pretend there is some "dichotomy", or that the causes of ALL effects are equally a result of both Nature AND Nurture. They aren't.

TSW:  "Intelligence is a community project. If we spend our lives in a community that fosters intelligence, we become intelligent; if we spend our lives in a community that harbors ignorance, we remain ignorant."

BW: I agree with most of your commentary on intelligence, but I think this contradicts your proposition. In essence, it suggests that Nurture (culture) is 100% of intelligence and Nature (DNA) is zero. It also implies Lamarkianism, which claims that acquired traits are hereditary. As with other topics, your discussion falters on the lack of definitions for the terms you use.

[GB: Huh? How did you ever get that idea? Zero times something is still zero. Intelligence is a great example of univironmental determinism at work. One inherits a brain that is either fast or slow at storing and retrieving information; one inherits an environment that either provides sufficient information or does not. The result of all that is simply survival for one more microsecond.]

BW: Intelligence has two basic aspects:

1a(1): the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason

1a(2): the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)


In the first case, it is a human talent: the degree of ability to use reason. It isn't the degree of knowledge, nor the degree of physical ability, nor the degree of ability in any particular field of endeavor. In that sense, it is almost entirely genetic: a matter of brain functionality. Of course, all human beings have the ability (capacity) to use reason (abstract analysis), which is the "sapien" in Homo Sapien. However, I think it is well-established that it isn't equal in every individual. In the extreme, mental retardation and child prodigies are a consequence of physical characteristics in the brain, not purely qualities of their environment.

In the second case, it is an ability to apply knowledge, which is heavily influenced by environment, culture, and access to information. In this sense, it isn't just an inherent trait or talent, but the environmental opportunity to apply whatever knowledge (even meager) has been gained by instruction and investigation. That might be considered a "community project", but more often than not it's a "family project". Parents who value reason and knowledge will encourage it in their children.

However, the fundamental error in your characterization is contextual. For example, the most intelligent (by IQ tests) group of people in the world are Jewish Germans of the Ashkenazic region. That appears to be a consequence of both inherited diseases (DNA) and the peculiar economic situation of medieval Europe:


Whatever the initial causative factors, the "community project" wasn't entirely ethnic, it was also biologic: the most successful Ashkenazi had the most children. So, over many generations, the average intelligence in that population group exceeded worldwide norms (at least, that's the claim). That's fairly straightforward evolutionary selection. The most intelligent were the most successful and the most "prolific" (likely to produce offspring). So, it isn't purely a matter of culture, but a concurrent effect of both evolution and nurture.

I'm going to break this chapter into a third part, to deal with consciousness and sapience.

Next: The Mind-Brain Muddle

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