reductionism, determinism and politics

I’m starting to read Alex Rosenberg’s 2006 book “Darwinian Reductionism”. It’s a good read so far, a few pages in. This quote caught my attention, and I hope to write more on it later.

“Thus, the reduction of apparently free choice to fixed and determined behavior will deprive people of the political Right of the premises needed for their argument that inequalities in wealth or income between individuals are morally permissible. For determinism about all human conduct (and its causes) makes it impossible to claim that some outcomes of individual choice are earned or deserved, because there is no such thing as really free choice. Similarly, macromolecular determinism undercuts the classical liberal (contemporary conservative) claim that equality of opportunity is the most society is obliged to provide, that equality of outcome— egalitarianism and redistribu-tion to attain it— immorally deprives those who have earned more than others through their own free choice. If our temperament, habits, abilities, and tastes are all to be fully explained by the macromolecular neurobiology of our brains and the rest of our bodies, and we have no control over any of them, if indeed they can all be adjusted by macromolecular intervention after our conception and/or birth, depending on how much money our parents have and what tastes and preferences they have been determined to bear, then surely the differences of outcome to which talents, tastes, abilities, and capacities lead simply reflect differences in opportunity which were never equalized.

Ironically, those, typically on the Right, who attach greatest weight to human agency, free choice, and individual responsibility make common cause with public intellectuals on the Left in opposing reductionism in biology. These philosophers, scientists, and others on the Left oppose a stronger doctrine distinct from mere physical determinism. They reject the view known as genetic determinism, according to which human traits, such as a disposition toward violence, or the division of gender roles which characterize most societies; or xenophobia, racism, alcoholism, and mental illness; or intelligence and industriousness, are fixed by genetic inheritance and impervious to environmental changes, that is, to social intervention, learning, reform, treatment. (Classic statements of the view are to be found in Gould 1981; Lewontin and Levins 1985, for example.) The doctrine of genetic determinism is morally nefarious in their view especially because it encourages complacency about inequalities, both social and natural, by attributing the former to the latter, and suggesting that natural, that is, genetic, inequalities are ineradicable. Genetic determinism not only encourages complacency about the status quo, it discourages attempts at reform or revolution by its suggestion that the status quo reflects strategies and institutions adapted by eons of evolution through natural selection. Opponents of genetic determinism view the success of genomics and molecular biology generally as providing a halo around these morally repugnant claims by relentlessly uncovering the gene for this and the gene for that, or at least alleging to do so. Opponents of genetic determinism do not wish merely to show that the scientific evidence is against it; they would like to pull the conceptual rug out from under it altogether by showing that genetic determinism is incoherent, conceptually confused, and resting on a logical as well as a moral mistake. And they believe that the falsity of reductionism in biology would provide that demonstration.”

Rosenberg, Alexander (Author). Darwinian Reductionism : Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology.
Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, (date). p 9.


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