The scholarly world has been rocked by an online article titled “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship” by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, which reports a massive hoax designed to expose “the problems of ideologically-motivated scholarship, radical skepticism, and cultural constructivism.” The authors wrote 20 articles advancing absurd positions and submitted them to prestigious academic cultural studies journals. Many of them were accepted, which the authors contend demonstrates that the journals were more about promoting sophistry than good scholarship.

We are both scientists who are familiar with the current of skepticism toward science that runs through the humanities. However, we also regard social constructivism as part of the essence of what it means to be human. We, therefore, think that social constructivism needs to be saved — from its most extreme proponents and its most extreme critics. There is a middle ground that needs to be established and defended against polarized views on both sides.

 

David Sloan Wilson and Lynette Shaw Discuss Social Constructivism

 

The reasonable middle ground is based on a combination of evolutionary theory and complexity theory. Evolutionary science became highly gene-centric during most of the 20th century, ceding the study of human culture to other disciplines. Only during the last few decades have evolutionists gone back to basics by framing evolution in terms of variation, selection, and heredity, with genes as only one of several inheritance mechanisms. Other mechanisms include epigenetics, forms of learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human[i]. With terms such as “extended evolutionary synthesis”, “dual inheritance theory”, “cultural multilevel selection”, and “niche construction” evolutionists are just starting to explore terrain that is new for them but well-traveled by scholars in the social sciences and humanities—a bit like the European explorers of the 19th century encountering native people for the first time[ii].

Complex systems theory and tools such as agent-based modeling are required to understand how the macro-level dynamics of social constructivism emerge from the micro-dynamics of human cognitive psychology. This enterprise is only beginning and the first models illustrate a rich array of possibilities, such as the spontaneous formation of subgroups, path dependency, lock-in, and endogenous cultural change. However, these are just proofs of concept until they are related to information on real-world cultural systems—and the “thicker” the description of a given culture, the better.

We understand and appreciate the motivating concern behind Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian’s exposé. For instance, Paul Boghossian’s book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, covers the same ground without resorting to guerrilla tactics. These excesses of humanistic scholarship should be acknowledged, critiqued, and addressed. Yet, scientists and scholars committed to the pursuit of objective knowledge need to be humble about their ability to overcome their own cultural biases. Here is a telling passage from the exposé, concerning the failure of the peer review process to weed out their absurd submissions:

This isn’t so much of a problem with peer review itself as a recognition that peer review can only be as unbiased as the aggregate body of peers being called upon to participate. The skeptical checks and balances that should characterize the scholarly process have been replaced with a steady breeze of confirmation bias that blows grievance studies scholarship ever further off course. This isn’t how research is supposed to work.

Unfortunately, this is how scientific and scholarly research does work whenever a community of scientists and scholars is trapped within the bubble of their own social constructions. A glance at scientific theories of race and gender during the 19th century is sufficient to make this point. The solution is to make the scientific community as culturally diverse as possible. Of course, the community must also be committed to the pursuit of objective knowledge. That is the middle ground that needs to be established and defended against polarized views on both sides.

Of related interest:

The One Culture: Four New Books Indicate that the Barrier Between Science and the Humanities is at Last Breaking Down

Why Did Sociology Declare Independence from Biology (and Can They Be Reunited)? An Interview with Russell Schutt.

Cultural Anthropology and Cultural Evolution: Tear Down This Wall! A Conversation with Robert Paul

Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism

 

References:

[i] Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of LIfe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[ii] Joseph Henrich discusses the encounter between European explorers and native people in his book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making us Smarter.

Published On: October 9, 2018

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

Lynette Shaw

Lynette Shaw

Lynette Shaw is a fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and an assistant professor of Complex Systems. One of her lines of work employs computational social science methods to study social constructions of value and money in the context of digital currencies such as Bitcoin. The second part of her research is devoted to theorizing and modeling the emergence of cultural dynamics from individual cognitive processing. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Washington in 2016.

9 Comments

  • […] Makul ortak zemin, evrim teorisi ile karmaşıklık teorisinin bir birleşimine dayanıyor. Evrim bilimi 20. yüzyılın çoğunluğu boyunca, insan kültürünün araştırılmasını diğer disiplinlere terk ederek, son derece gen-merkezli hale geldi. Ancak geçtiğimiz son birkaç on yıl boyunca, genleri sayısız kalıtım mekanizmasından yalnızca bir tanesi sayarak evrimi varyasyon, seleksiyon ve kalıtım açısından ele almaya ve işin özüne dönmeye başladılar. Diğer mekanizmalar arasında epigenetik, birçok türde mevcut bulunan öğrenme biçimleri ve insana özgü olan sembolik düşünce biçimleri var[i]. “Genişletilmiş evrimsel sentez,” “ikili kalıtım teorisi,” “kültürel çok seviyeli seleksiyon” ve “niş inşası” gibi terimlerle, evrimciler kendileri için yeni olan ama sosyal bilimler ve beşeri bilimlerdeki bilim insanlarının iyi bildiği bir alanı henüz incelemeye başlıyorlar—tıpkı 19. yüzyılda Avrupalı kaşiflerin yerli halkla ilk kez karşılaşması gibi[ii]. […]

  • The problem we are having in academia relates to a schism that occurred in American Pragmatism between the that based on the ordinary language use of the word, pragmatic, and that based on the rigorous scientific PRACTICE of 19th Century chemists sponsored by Charles Peirce, which Peirce himself ultimately called PRAGMATICISM. In the 1950’s, in the Eisenhower years, we shared a Deweyan consensus about Truth and Democracy which the last 60 years has served to tear down. That consensus, regrettably, arose in part because of the powerful negative examples of the Nazi’s and the Soviets. Absent these totalitarian examples to oppose, we are becoming them. Society cannot precede without some common faith in rules of engagement, both intellectual and governmental, that lead to the truth. Over my lifetime, we have seen the erosion of institutions (eg,the Departmental Colloquium, the real oral defense? The dreaded Outside Member?) designed to check faddism in scientific research. For those among you who think that the history of scientific thought has something to do with its present problems, I strongly recommend reading some of Peirce’s work. It’s not easy going, and it is given, unfortunately, to the very vicissitudes of interpretation that Peirce would have deplored. But in this day when we have lost faith that there is a truth of any matter, or if there is, that we will ever share it, Peirce’s faith in the convergence of opinion through rigorous research by community of inquiry is wonderfully bracing.

  • Ted Howard says:

    Yes, this is deep and complex.

    Yes we are dealing with deeply nested sets of complex adaptive systems (up to 20 and sometimes more levels).

    The classical notion of “Truth” (that one can be absolutely certain of something) must be one of the first casualties, and it needs to be replaced with contextually relevant confidence. And in some contexts that confidence can be very high indeed, within 20 decimals of unity in the cased of modern processors with regulated temperature and power supplies.

    In some contexts, some systems can be very reliable indeed, in other contexts not so much.

    Of course some things are socially constructed, but not all things.

    Of course social construction has a role in our perceptions, but so do evolved biochemical and social constructs, and choice.

    The issue is not with the claim that some things are socially constructed, that is obvious.
    The issue is with the claim that all things are socially constructed, and that is not a simple claim to disprove, and I am satisfied that it has been disproved beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

    So where does that leave us?

    We are in a deeply dangerous border area, between scarcity and abundance.
    We have a socially dominant valuation mechanism (markets) that are scarcity based and cannot give a positive value to the universal abundance of anything.
    We have technologies capable of the delivery of universal abundance of a large and exponentially growing set of goods and services.

    Most people are still firmly inside of the accepted social construct of money and markets, and cannot yet step beyond it to see the existential level dangers present.

    And certainly, yes, markets do perform many levels of very complex and necessary risk management, including distributed cognition and distributed risk management and distributed governance. So developing effective transition strategies is a seriously non-trivial complex task; and it is one we need to complete in the next decade.

    • Bob Lapsley says:

      “Most people are still firmly inside of the accepted social construct of money and markets, and cannot yet step beyond it to see the existential level dangers present.”

      Exactly so, summarily ostracized, those few who do see and speak… from the margins.

  • Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Not a big problem. Pluckrose et al. mainly attacked silly postmodernism. It had no implications for real social constructionism. Evolutionary psychology chauvinists see all human behavior as a direct reflex of maximizing fitness, but human experience is actually layered. EP is true at base. But individual psychology and collective culture weigh in to create higher levels that are more complex.

  • Helga Vierich says:

    The supposed gulf between “socially constructed” and “evolved” behaviour is an excellent example of a completely socially constructed problem. Humans literally evolved to use intergenerational and inter-community transmission of a vast body of information. This constitutes culture. A cultural body of information does not just serve to supply the ideas people use to think with, but also to economic as well as social knowledge, technologies, and skills. Ideology is often explanation or at least justification, for the whole cultural pattern. Institutions too are shaped by the kind of economy people have, and also justified by ideas. So economic behaviour, social institutions, and ideas (especially the causal explanations) are all inter-related aspect that can vary among cultures. Being a highly mobile hunter-gatherer is no more determined by genetic predispositions than being a stockbroker: people who live in herding economies are not born with a stronger desire to follow livestock around; industrialism did not develop because of some mutation that caused coal miners to reproduce more successfully than farmers.

    What is generalizable and more plausibly evolutionary about human behaviour is that humans have a universal tendency to high grade food choices, to fall in love, to read with compassion and empathy, to be individualistic, to build shelters, to seek or create heat sources, to decorate things and bodies, to communicate symbolically, to enjoy parties, to have a high play drive, and an overactive agency-seeking cognition.

  • Peter van den Engel says:

    Evolution by itself means change, so therefore the construction changes with it. There is not one truth/ but an evolving one.
    However there are levels on which an accepted construction keeps behaving within its parameters and therefore becomes predictable. Like describing how a type of animal species behaves. Actually that is not evolution.

    Evolution theory in concept could be the only science being able to describe and foretell changes which are not symmetrical. Which is unique because all sciences are based on understanding only symmetries.
    The background for this as a reliable tool is provided by a.level of natural physics understanding which explains the behavior of energy and time. This actually includes understanding quantum physics as well, which is our standard reality and at the same time explains why and when it’s not always the same one.

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