Contemporary Social Science is the flagship journal of the Academy of Social Sciences. As its editor I have put together a special issue that challenges purely biological explanations of human psychology and society, which was recently published http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rsoc21/current .
I wanted to bring together experts to challenge these biological explanations because you can hardly open a newspaper or listen to a factual broadcast without some reference to neuroscience or evolutionary explanations of things that people do, feel or think. Taken together these attempts at reducing people to organisms are being called ‘Biologising’. The special issue mounts a concerted attack on all attempts to biologise human beings.
The central argument against biologising can be illustrated with the analogy of trying to understand how the modern motor car has come into being and how it works by knowing only which bits heat up under different conditions. It would be very difficult to make sense of a car from this limited information. But just looking at the pharmacology and neuro-anatomy of people, with metaphors taken from our evolutionary past, is doing something even more simple-minded. It ignores the power of language and culture, self-awareness and consciousness that combine to create the uniquely human person.
The scholarly scientists contributing to these challenges in the special issue, and in the groundswell of other publications putting forward these arguments, show how ludicrous are many of the claims of neuroscience and other biologising explanations. Yet these challenges are dismissed in the rush to claim ownership of humanity by the biological sciences.
Everything from the poetry of John Donne, to explanations of the power of music, economic meltdown, political decision making, unconditional love, right across the alphabet from anxiety to xenophobia, has been subjected to reductionist, biologising arguments.
Serious challenges to these arguments are dismissed as unscientific, or implicitly religious. Yet the challengers are not evolution deniers, or closet Christians. They are showing that the social sciences can demonstrate that people are more than their biology. They are shaped by personal narratives, society and culture. Indeed it has been claimed that it is the biologisers , especially evolutionary psychologists who operate more like religious fanatics, believing that Darwinism can be applied to every aspect of human activity, far, far beyond the reaches that evolutionary theory was developed to cover.
This is not just a trivial academic debate, though. The view of people as mere organisms has implications for how policy is shaped. It influences specific approaches to matters such as legal decision making, how educational guiding principles are formulated or even the treatment of drug addicts. It is therefore essential that the biologisers do not get a free ride. The special issue opens up this crucial discussion about what it means to be human.
As social scientists, though, we have to explain why biologising is the present day orthodoxy. Perhaps the answer lies in the human quest for, and delight in, dramatic narratives. Perhaps that is the key to the hold biologising has. The attractiveness of neurobiological explanations is that they provide a gripping story; whether it be the magic of the brain, with all the exciting images so beloved of the mass media, or the tragedy of the struggle for survival. But storytelling is not in our genes, or human evolutionary history. It is the essence of what makes us human.
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