Not Just Physiology

My good friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz sent me (by mail!) a copy of “When We Were Nicer” by Steven Mithen, which originally appeared in the 24 January 2008 edition of London Review of Books (pages 24-25). Mithen uses the article to review On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail. As this is a review of a review of a book that I have not read, I apologize if some ambiguity pops up here.

I won’t go into the whole article, but it appears that Mithen & Smail are trying to import the Behaviorist Revolution into Anthropology, a 95 years after it began and about 75 years after it fell out of style. Mithen and Smail reject the plain meaning of written documentation, great ideas, and the power of human culture. As Mithen writes in his first paragraph:

Are you enjoying your morning coffee as you read this? Or your evening glass of wine? Did you enjoy watching the match last night? Have you read any good books lately? Oh and by the way, how is your sex life? According to Daniel Lord Smail activities like these are the true drivers of history. Forget great men with great ideas; them march of progress or the ‘sees of change’: the essense of historical processes is the manipulation f human chemistry by the substances we consume, and the activites we engage in willingly or which are imposed on us against our will.

Along the way, Mithen and Smail also attack “the crude evolutionary psychology that has become popular in recent years: that of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker and their acoyltes, who argue that we are still biologically fixed Stone Age minds constituted by mental models evolved to solve problems of Pleistocene environments.”

Their concerns are echoes of those of John B. Watson and the other behaviorists. The Behaviorist Revolution was kicked off by Watson’s manifesto, “Psychology as the Behaviorst Sees It,” but was rapidly expanded in other works. The Behaviorists rejected the idea of “mental state,” reducing psychology to applied psychology: the body responded to certain stimulus with certain responses, while attempting to satisfy basic drives. They rejected introspection, the idea that someone’s self reports were a valid means of psychological inquiry. They rejected the study into innate behaiors, believing that (at least among mammals) all behaviors — including language — were learned through patterns of stimuli and responses.

In psychology, there are very few behaviorists. The reduction of psychology to physiology rapidly ran into the problem that even mice thought more than the behaviorists predicted. The best of the behaviorist ideas were repackaged by B.F. Skinner as behavioralism (called by Skinner radical behaviorism). While behavioralism has been further refined into cognitive models of psychology (such as the OODA loop), even behavioralism provides us enough ammunition to shoot down physiological reductionism.

Take the idea that, say, the motive for suicide bombing is sex, rather than the “great idea” of God’s Holy Word. At first glance, the physiological case is appealing. The Muslim suicide bomber believes that paradise will be filled with virgins, and so gladly enters it. But if the reason is physiology, why don’t all Muslim men detonate themselves? Why are there female suicide bombers? Watson and the behaviorists had no answer for this sort of question, which is why they quickly fell from grace. Behavioralists like Skinner, by contrast, would grant that we observe ourselves, we criticize ourselves, and we grow from this. Even more, cognitivists like John Boyd would argue that our physiological drives from our orientation, along with our prior learning, and that this orientation itself interacts with conscious decision, where our knowledge of great ideas matters even more.

But the physiologists are left with sex, random acts of violence, and an inability to make meaningful predictions.

Ironically, the physiologists fail not only be acknowledging the complexity of conscious thought: they also don’t acknowledge the complexity of unconscious thought! The criticism of Tooby & Cosmides echoes Watson’s criticism of those who studied instincts in the human race: instincts elevate a species above physiology, by creating the ability to rapidly see patterns and engage in behavior with no obvious pay-off. The otter with his dam, the bird with her nest, the man with his art create things not out of physiological drive but because they want to, without even knowing why.

There’s a lot to be said about the role of biology in culture. But rejecting everything but physiology is as foolish as rejecting physiology itself.

I think Frontline is stalking me

So two weeks ago Frontline‘s special, “Young and Restless in China,” featured the gated community in Beijing I’ve stayed in for three years running..  (The power line they are talking about was visible from the kitchen window, and I walked on the path they interviewed the activist on).

And now last weeks’ Frontline World, “Jesus in China,” features shot of a wedding in Beijing at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception… They even show a couple standing under a flowery arch that is the same flowery arch we stood under!

If the next Frontline episode is in Nebraska or South Dakota, then I’ll definitely know that something is up!