I haven't yet received any feedback on my recent post on sociobiology/"evolutionary" pysch. But I thought I would head off a few obvious objections from folks disposed to accept the legitimacy of such projects.
First, I'm not putting forward some position to the effect that "everything is just socially constructed" and there is not such thing as the "natural". I'm not saying that science, as such, is just mere political ideology (although it is clearly an instrument put in the service ends, and often unjust ends at that). My claim is that the facts about what human beings are like contradict the pseudo-scientific theories that fall under the heading of "sociobiology". My claim is that such projects are bad science.
These folks like to talk about "human nature". But there are deep confusions lodged at the heart of this idea. We talk about the idea often enough, but what exactly does it mean? What are we really asking when we ask if human beings are "naturally selfish", say?
It seems to me that we presuppose a mechanistic, objectified picture of human beings when we ask such questions. We assume that we are like computers and we then ask what the programming is like. This metaphor is deeply misleading.
A better way of thinking about our "nature" is a follows. Human beings, because of the way that we are biologically constituted, have certain capacities, natural powers that we can exercise in a variety of ways. We have the capacity for creativity, to ask ourselves questions like "should I have done x?", to reflect on abstract theoretical matters, and so forth. We have the capacity to feel a rich array of different kinds of pleasures and pains. We have a certain degree of plasticity: we can determine who we are in some sense (and this is why the difficult life choice of deciding "who you want to be" is so hard... any theory that suggested such a choice was easy or pre-determined is clearly missing something). We have the capacity to be responsive to reasons, though we often fail for various reasons to be so responsive. Having a capacity doesn't mean it must be exercised.
To be sure, affective impulses and motivations need to be taken into account- but such matters are hardly as simple as having a transparent "desire set" or a collection of "revealed preferences" or whatever. Moreover, any plausible theory of human agency would have to make the distinction between "natural" desires and "conventional" desires. As Raymond Geuss puts it, "it is by no means obvious that the hunger that is satisfied when Neolithic human tore raw meat with their fingers is the same kind of thing as the hunger that is satisfied by dining in a five-star restaurant in 2008." The broader point here, however, is that we have the capacity to not act on desires, whatever their grounding may be, as when the heroin addict decides to buck his overwhelming desire to continue taking the drug in order to begin recovery. To say that there must be some "higher order" desire dictating and mechanistically determining this person's desire to get sober is ad hoc and implausible; nobody working at a rehab clinic would agree that such an assumption makes sense at all. The point is that the addict could relapse, or she could not; the genuine uncertainty is what makes the job of helping addicts get clean so difficult.
Let's take a slightly different tack. To suppose that human behavior is mechanistically determined or predictable is a bit like making the following mistake. Suppose someone gave you a set of oil paints, a brush and a blank canvas and told you that you had to create some art object with only those materials. Now, clearly, there would be constraints on what you could do with those materials. You couldn't, for example, create a marble statue out of them. You couldn't make a film with them. But there is a wide array of possibilities before you nonetheless, as the history of painting makes clear. It would be absurd to say that because you had certain materials with certain physical constraints, that those materials determined (mechanistically) what it is that you would end up painting. It would be absurd to say that the subsequent artwork was predetermined by the materials you used in some law like way. But that is just like saying human beings are determined by their biological constitution. Giving us facts about our constitution doesn't yet say anything about what human agency is like. It's like saying that because you know how my bike is configured and what its function is, you're therefore in a position to say exactly where I'm going to ride on it. Absurd, to say the least.
There is a distinction between having some generative capacity to do something, and being mechanistically caused to do something. Adobe Photoshop, for example, is an open-ended platform that allows users to do a huge array of different things. But it does not follow that each time I use Photoshop that I am just being determined by Photoshop. It doesn't follow that Photoshop mechanistically causes and thus determines whatever I end up doing with it. The same mistake is made when we think about human powers and capacities in a mechanistic way.
So I am by no means ignoring or denying that we're part of the natural world: we have natural powers and capacities in virtue of which we are properly called "human". And I would be the first to say that we should investigate them scientifically and learn more about them. But the fact that we have natural powers and capacities doesn't give us much to go on if we want to understand what human behavior (or human societies, culture, or social norms, etc.) is going to be like in the future. That would be a bit like saying that because I knew you had a brush and a certain set of paints that I could mechanistically determine, from a mere analysis of those artistic materials, exactly what imagine you must end up painting. That is patently absurd. There is no way to draw a valid inference like that from a mere analysis of the paints and brushes. Every one of these pseudo-scientific charlatans should be forced to read Nelson Goodman's excellent 1954 Fact, Fiction and Forecast, particularly his famous article "The New Riddle of Induction".