Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, a new journal, has published the results of a survey of academics, sorted by discipline, regarding their views about genetic and environmental determinism and the explanatory power of science.
The authors of “A Cross-Disciplinary Survey of Beliefs about Human Nature, Culture, and Science,” Joseph Carroll (Missouri), John A. Johnson (Penn State), Catherine Salmon (Redlands), Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen (Aarhus), Mathias Clasen (Aarhus), and Emelie Jonsson (Gotheburg), looked at four beliefs:
- Environmental Determinism: “the environment produces human behavior, values, beliefs, feelings, and gender identities and that culture operates independently of genetics.”
- Scientific Explanation: “science can explain nature, human behavior, imaginative artifacts, and subjective human experience.”
- Genetic Determinism: “genes produce human nature, behavior, values, beliefs, feelings, gender identities, culture, and the human life cycle.”
- Environmental Interactionism: “genes and environments [have effects] on each other and on human behavior, values, beliefs, feelings, and gender identities.”
The following figure (#2 from the paper) shows a ranking of disciplines according to belief in Environmental Determinism, from low to high. (On each of the following figures, the number of respondents in each discipline is noted parenthetically after the name of the discipline.)
Figure 3, below, shows how disciplines compare on belief in Genetic Determinism, from low to high.
Figure 4, below, ranks disciplines from high to low on Gene-Environment Interactionism.
Lastly, Figure 5, below, shows the ranking of disciplines on an endorsement of Scientific Explanation.
So, compared to academics in many other disciplines, philosophers are, on average, on the low end when it comes to belief in environmental determinism, a bit above the middle of the pack when it comes to belief in genetic determinism, about average in belief in genetic and environmental interaction, and towards the high end when it comes to confidence in scientific explanation.
What, if anything, should we make of this? For one thing, note that responses from only 17 philosophers were used in the survey. We might wonder how representative those 17 are. Additionally, as is evident from the number of respondent comments quoted in the article, there were multiple ways to interpret the survey questions and answers may indicate more of a difference in “emphasis” rather than a “qualitative difference.”
The authors write:
Are the social sciences and humanities moving toward consensus about the biological underpinnings of human behavior and cultural experience? If all the disciplines discussing these questions agreed on the validity of scientific evidence, some eventual consensus would seem more likely. The low regard in which science is held by disciplines that emphasize environmental causes suggests that there are no common criteria of epistemic validity by means of which the two groups—those who emphasize genetic causes and those who emphasize environmental causes, and especially cultural causes—could work toward a reasoned consensus.
The common willingness to affirm that behavior and experience are produced by interactions between genes and environments offers some prospect for reasoned debate. Even so, ambiguities and confusions over what is meant by that interaction—what culture is, where it originates, and how independent it is—are likely to impede rational agreement, and even rational disagreement, on some of the questions that most urgently concern social scientists and humanists: the causes of human behavior, the causes of variations in behavior, the sources of personal identity, and the sources of values, beliefs, and feelings. The degree to which science can illuminate these questions is itself an issue of central concern in both the social sciences and the humanities. The failure to reach agreement on that one question is the chief obstacle impeding rational debate on all the other questions. (p.27)
You can download the whole article here.