Saturday, November 16, 2002

Nature/Nurture

To be honest, it never ceases to amaze me that we still engage in the nature/nurture debate, as if we have to choose one or the other. From my perspective, there is little difference between biological determinism and the notion that we begin as tabula rasa - both positions are too sharply contained for me.

In Sociobiology and You, Steven Johnson writes that "To include biological explanations in a discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations." I think Johnson is quite brilliant, but I agree and disagree. I am in favour of more inclusive accounts of human/social existence, and it seems rather obvious to me that we are products of both our biology and our environment - so, of course, we should not be afraid of complementary explanations.

But, in Universals, Human Nature and Anthropology, Donald Brown writes that "Whereas some things were "obviously" natural, and some were just as "obviously" cultural, there was no method for separating the cultural from the biological in cases where they might be mixed." And it is in these grey spaces, where things are not clear-cut, that meaning and power are negotiated - and a complementary position can quickly be realigned as an alternative position.

So while I agree that biological explanations should be taken into account (anthropology can be quickly distinguished from sociology because of its traditional sub-disciplines: culture, linguistics, archaeology and biology), I would draw attention to the notion that (hard) science currently has more social/public, if not ontological and epistemological, authority than do the (soft) humanities. And in that sense, when we invite Science to the table, it can have a stronger voice that is able to threaten, if not eliminate, other kinds of explanations.

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