Guide In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought

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  1. In Search of Human Nature by Carl N. Degler | Waterstones
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With some long-term planning and restrictions on the unregulated market in genes, the species could be free of disease, criminality and stupidity. Thus, the year Galton died, , the world was filled with optimistic, reform-minded eugenicists: Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Winston Churchill. Interestingly, Mr. Degler reminds us, it was the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern states, not the up-to-date, scientifically minded Northern establishment, that most strenuously resisted the sterilization laws.

The main imperfection is that Mr. Degler's intellectual tour is far stronger than his defense of his thesis. Without intending to heap aspersions on such a fine work, I am skeptical on several counts. The thesis that biology is back, but not as an explanation for group differences, can only be sustained, it seems to me, by relegating to footnotes most of the literature in behavioral genetics. Perhaps Mr. Degler is just playing safe with taboo topics as he gets closer to contemporary anxieties.

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But whatever the reason, his gripping tale wanes after the Bar Harbor meeting. The unavoidable and marvelous fact of human diversity and cultural variety gets lost in a wave of enthusiasm for the accomplishments of the new biologists, who, on the topic of group differences, as represented by Mr. Degler, seem evasive, with very little new to say.

In Search of Human Nature by Carl N. Degler | Waterstones

For instance, the contemporary sociobiological position Mr. Degler ascribes to E. Wilson -- that differences between species are primarily genetic but differences between human groups primarily learned -- could easily have been written by Franz Boas or Alfred Kroeber or Ruth Benedict or almost any other cultural determinist or learning theorist of the 's or 40's. It ducks the possible implications of sociobiology.

The real news in is that with social biology back, the study of the biology of race, culture and social class is not far behind. It is led by scholars who believe that whether the subject is lactose intolerance, mathematical reasoning or shyness, the possibility of genetically determined group differences is still a proper topic for scientific inquiry, just as it was in the 's. Degler skirts rather than engages this significant, even if hazardous, intellectual riptide.

Moreover, Mr. Degler does not try to develop a credible theory of the role of dogma in science. He argues, for instance, that biological explanations for social behavior went out of fashion during the Roosevelt years for ideological and political reasons.


While this is not implausible, it is offered almost as a throwaway line. Degler makes little attempt to analyze what those political objectives might have been.

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Were opponents of biological explanations trying to insure equitable treatment for all individuals regardless of group membership, or were they trying to form new economic interest groups for example, labor unions unfractured by hateful ethnic, racial and gender comparisons, or did they have other reasons? The analysis of dogma is even scantier when Mr. Degler gets to the doctrines of the contemporary biosocial scene. He is so clearly impressed by them that his thesis assumes an almost daunting asymmetrical shape. He implies that whatever influence ideology may have had over science, it ended in September , when real science, Darwinian science, began once again.

Degler's thesis is so casually defended, and held so close to his chest, that it can almost be set aside as incidental to his rich and stimulating exegesis of numerous and diverse social science texts, old and new. Nevertheless his historical account is relevant to contemporary debates about race, gender and ethnicity.

Indeed, after following Mr. Degler through a single arc of the nature-nurture pendulum it seems apparent that the last thing we need in our society today is a cataclysmic confrontation between born-again social Darwinists, eager to convict other groups of genetic inferiority in the name of hard science and free speech, and born-again social determinists, eager to make the world homogeneous in the name of social justice and equal rights.

Pluralism, the appreciation of differences, is the first victim of such confrontations, for it is rejected by both camps.

Hierarchy, a concomitant of excellence, is the second victim, for it is disparaged as the herald of oppression. And justice is the third victim, for uniform treatment is often unjust, as Anatole France knew so well when he made his ironic remark about the majestic equality of French law, which forbade rich and poor alike from sleeping under the bridges of Paris. Can we weave together difference, fairness, excellence, community and decency into our moral and legal fabric?

Can our presumptively pluralistic society learn to be truly comfortable with diversity? That remains to be seen. As our liberal democracy stands nervously poised at the start of another round of debates about pluralism, multiculturalism and group differences, it is incumbent upon us to understand why such debates are so difficult, painful, threatening, sometimes morally obnoxious -- and why, and on what terms, we must have them nonetheless. When Carl N. Degler began working on his new book, "In Search of Human Nature," he expected to find overwhelming evidence that those who believed human behavior was genetically determined were driven more by dogma than by a dispassionate interest in scientific truth.

But he was surprised to find that their opponents -- those who rejected biological for social explanations -- could be just as ideological. It's not there. The social theories were just a new way of thinking. The more Mr. Degler read, the less he found himself sympathizing with a tenet that many social scientists have long taken for granted: that people, with their highly developed brains, are so fundamentally different from other animals that biological explanations for their behavior are useless and even dangerous.

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But we do have ways of thinking about it that are fresh and that fit in with the idea that Darwin has something to say about humans, that we are not a new category of life that has no connection to lower forms. Degler doesn't expect many of his colleagues in the social sciences to sympathize with this view. Richard A. Shweder is a professor of human development at the University of Chicago, the president of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and the author of "Thinking Through Cultures.

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TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems. A version of this article appears in print on , Section 7, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: Dangerous Thoughts.

Laying the Foundation 59 4. In the Wake of Boas 84 5. Does Sex Tell Us Anything? Decoupling Behavior from Nature 7. Decoupling Intelligence from Race 8. Why Did Culture Triumph? Remembering Darwin 9.

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