next up previous
Next: Cognitive constraints Up: The Standard Social Sciences Previous: The Standard Social Sciences

The spectrum illusion

The SSSM's strength is its focus on variation in human societies. Laudably, it has led us to delight in diversity. When we look for differences we find them, and when we look for universals.... Well we didn't look for universals. As Ridley puts it in his prologue ``We have idiosyncratic, species-specific ways of behaving that distinguish us from chimpanzees and bottle-nose dolphins--we have, in short, an evolved nature. It sounds obvious when we put it like that but we so rarely do put it like that. We are always comparing ourselves to ourselves, a dismally narrow perspective.'' This ``dismally narrow perspective'' must be recognized so that we can broaden it. It is as if we blind ourselves to all but the color green. When looking at color we would see differences from one end of the green spectrum to the other. All we would see are differences. If we look at the range from red to violate, however, we will see that green is narrow band indeed. The problem of looking at a narrow range of behavior and only seeing the variation within that limited range instead of seeing the range itself we call the spectrum illusion. In Ridley's previous book (1993) he addresses the spectrum illusion thus

Human culture could be much more varied and surprising than it is. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, live in promiscuous societies in which females seek as many sexual partners as possible and in which a male will kill the infants of strange females he has not mated with. There is no human society which remotely resembles this particular pattern. Why not? Because human nature is different from chimp nature. [chap 1]

In the The Origins of Virtue, Ridley asks us to take the broad view, to see through the spectrum illusion, so that we can come to see what human nature is.

Suppose [...] you have been commissioned to write a book on life on earth, perhaps for a Martian publisher. You are devoting a chapter to each species [...] and you [now] have before you the job of describing Homo sapiens. How would you characterize the behaviour of this funny-looking ape? One of the first ideas that would come to mind is `social: lives in large groups with complex inter-relations among individuals'. It is that which is the theme of my book. [p. 7]

According to the SSSM a person is the product of their culture through the mechanism of learning. If human cultures can vary almost without limit and in unpredictable ways then humans must be able to learn just about any set of rules, mores, values, rites, etc. Psychologists were happy to provide us with exactly such a learning mechanism. Watson and Skinner provided social scientists with the gift of behaviorism. As [Watson1925], a founder of behaviorism, writes:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him [sic] to become any type of specialist I might select--doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.[p 82]

Notice, however, that we still have the narrow band of human activities. Watson is saying that from a human, he can make the human do anything that a human can do. That is hardly an interesting claim. Can he make a human who has the social skills to live successfully among, say, baboons? Or more to the point of Ridley's book, could Watson make a human being who could live entirely outside of human society, with no social or economic contact? That is, could Watson make a viable Rousseauian Nobel Savage? Maybe Watson could do this, but the task is of a different order of difficulty than teaching a human to play a particular role in human society.

next up previous
Next: Cognitive constraints Up: The Standard Social Sciences Previous: The Standard Social Sciences

Mon Sep 8 18:21:39 BST 1997