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The appeal of the SSSM

The SSSM has had a powerful hold on the 20th century American social scientist, and not without good reason. At its inception, it was a much needed reaction to the racism of 19th and early 20th century social thought. A great deal of that thought was founded on misconceptions of Darwinism. And now the most vocal critics of the SSSM are Darwinists.

It is important to recognize that Darwinism has always had an unfortunate power to attract the most unwelcome enthusiasts--demagogues and psychopaths and misanthropes and other abusers of Darwin's dangerous idea. [Steven Jay] Gould has laid this sad story bare in dozens of tales, about the Social Darwinists, about unspeakable racists, and most poignently about basically good people who got confused...It is all too easy to run off half cocked with some poorly understood version of Darwinian thinking, and Gould has made it a major part of his life's work to protect his hero from this sort of abuse. p. 264 [Dennett1995]

So, what are those misconceptions Gould wants us to avoid?

If we wish ``meekness and love'' to triumph over ``pride and violence'' (as Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi), then we must repudiate Darwin's vision of nature...

This charge against Darwin is unfair for two reasons. First, nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no basis for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help explain why we have moral feelings, but nature can never decide for us whether any particular action is right or wrong.) Second, Darwin's ``struggle for existence'' is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. p 327 [Gould1991a]

Many scholars reacted against both the racism and Social Darwinism that was being ``justified'' by science. Franz Boas in the first decade of the century correctly taught his students (including Edward Sapir and Margerate Mead) that many of the particular behaviors that appear in any particulary culture must be understood by examining their relationship to other aspects of that culture. Each culture is as rich and meaningful as our own, and our own contains rites and symbols, which we as insiders often fail to recognize.

Boas and his students sought out diversity and they found it. They delighted in showing how human societies could differ from one another and how what might be anathema in one culture could be obligatory in another. A resurgence of racialist anthropology in Europe and America in the 30s led Boas's students to redouble their efforts. That we are monogomous and many native australian cultures are polygomous is as arbitrary as the fact that our word for tex2html_wrap_inline623 is ``water'' and theirs might be ``bana''. Neither is more advanced or civilised than the other. They are just different ways of doing things. We are as bizarre and barbaric to them as they are to us.

To challenge the SSSM, and in particular to challenge it with evolutionary thinking, has been to be branded as politically incorrect at best and unspeakable at worst. Yet a search for human universals is probably the most anti-racist thing anthropology and sociology can do. Furthermore, talking about inherited psychologies runs the risk of being confused with those who talk about inherited psychological differences. But that confusion, although apperently tempting, should be avioded at all costs. We are not talking about inherited differences between individuals and groups, instead the evolutionary psychologists (EPers) are talking about those psychological predispositions and faculties, the output of millions of years of evolution, which are shared by each and every human being.gif

One universal is that we learn some practices and beliefs from the societies we are raised in. Another may be that we try to adopt practices that distinguish our group from others. These universals can easily be and often are argued for on an evolutionary basis by the both EPers and its critics (e.g., [Dawkins1989, Simon1990]). Does this mean that the SSSM is vindicated or that those particular claims about universals defeat the universalist program? [Dennett1995] describes his ``Only Slightly Nonstandard Social Science Model'' as differing from the SSSM by stating that instead of believing the culture is completely autonomous, it is merely largely autonomous. And ``Learning is not a general-purpose process, but human beings have so many special-purpose gadgets, and learn to harness them with such versatility, that learning often can be treated as if it where an entirely medium-neutral and content-neutral gift of non-stupidity.''

In principle this is a viable alternative to the SSSM, but we believe that Dennett, who otherwise sees things very clearly, has fallen victim to the spectrum illusion. And we must not forget that variation is not the enemy of universals. A snowflake, as a totally unrelated example, can have a large (practically infinite) number of shapes and still be ``snowflake shapped''. Even if every snowflake is unique, and there are an (almost) infinite number of possible shapes they can take, the shape of a snowflake is still highly constrained by the nature of how snowflakes are made and the laws of physics involved. Just as there is a snowflake nature and a human nature, there may well be a culture nature and an organization nature. Universals and diversity coexist perfectly when we come to understand that universals are often best stated as constraints on systems rather then claims that some superficial entity must appear in every system [Goldberg and Markóczy1997a]. We don't demand that a theory of snowflake nature should be able to predict the exact shape of any snowflake; we only demand that it define and explain the (infinite) class of possible shapes and tell us what can't be a possible snowflake. We should demand no more and no less from a full theory of organizations.

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Mon Sep 8 18:21:39 BST 1997