The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh

The Nation
Feature Story

June 9, 1997

When social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth took the podium at a recent interdisciplinary seminar on emotions, she was already feeling rattled. Colleagues who'd presented earlier had warned her that the crowd was tough and had little patience for the reduction of human experience to numbers or bold generalizations about emotions across cultures. Ellsworth had a plan: She would pre-empt criticism by playing the critic, offering a social history of psychological approaches to the topic. But no sooner had the word "experiment" passed her lips than the hands shot up. Audience members pointed out that the experimental method is the brainchild of white Victorian males. Ellsworth agreed that white Victorian males had done their share of damage in the world but noted that, nonetheless, their efforts had led to the discovery of DNA. This short-lived dialogue between paradigms ground to a halt with the retort: "You believe in DNA?"

More grist for the academic right? No doubt, but this exchange reflects a tension in academia that goes far deeper than spats over "political correctness." Ellsworth's experience illustrates the trend -- in anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and other departments across the nation -- to dismiss the possibility that there are any biologically based commonalities that cut across cultural differences. This aversion to biological or, as they are often branded, "reductionist" explanations commonly operates as an informal ethos limiting what can be said in seminars, asked at lectures or incorporated into social theory. Extreme anti-innatism has had formal institutional consequences as well: At some universities, like the University of California, Berkeley, the biological subdivision of the anthropology department has been relocated to another building -- a spatial metaphor for an epistemological gap.

Although some of the strongest rejections of the biological have come from scholars with a left or feminist perspective, antipathy toward innatist theories does not always score neatly along political lines. Consider a recent review essay by centrist sociologist Alan Wolfe in The New Republic. Wolfe makes quick work of Frank Sulloway's dodgy Darwinist claims (in Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives) about the influence of birth order on personality, but can't resist going on to impugn the motives of anyone who would apply biology to the human condition: In general, he asserts, "the biologizing of human beings is not only bad humanism, but also bad science."

For many social theorists, innate biology can be let in only as a constraint -- "a set of natural limits on human functioning," as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written. It has, from this point of view, no positive insights to offer into how humans think, act or arrange their cultures. For others, the study of innate human properties is not merely uninteresting but deeply misguided. Stanford philosopher of science John Dupré, for example, argues that it is "essentialist" even to think that we are a biological species in the usual sense -- that is, a group possessing any common tendencies or "universal properties" that might shed some light on our behavior. As feminist theorist Judith Butler puts it, "The very category of the universal has begun to be exposed for its own highly ethnocentric biases."

But the notion that humans have no shared, biologically based "nature" constitutes a theory of human nature itself. No one, after all, is challenging the idea that chimpanzees have a chimpanzee nature -- that is, a set of genetically scripted tendencies and potential responses that evolved along with the physical characteristics we recognize as chimpanzee-like. To set humans apart from even our closest animal relatives as the one species that is exempt from the influences of biology is to suggest that we do indeed possess a defining "essence," and that it is defined by our unique and miraculous freedom from biology. The result is an ideological outlook eerily similar to that of religious creationism. Like their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, the most extreme antibiologists suggest that humans occupy a status utterly different from and clearly "above" that of all other living beings. And, like the religious fundamentalists, the new academic creationists defend their stance as if all of human dignity -- and all hope for the future -- were at stake.

The new secular creationism emerged as an understandable reaction to excess. Since the nineteenth century, conservatives have routinely deployed supposed biological differences as immutable barriers to the achievement of a more egalitarian social order. Darwinism was quickly appropriated as social Darwinism -- a handy defense of economic inequality and colonialism. In the twentieth century, from the early eugenicists to The Bell Curve, pseudo-biology has served the cause of white supremacy. Most recently, evolutionary psychology has become, in some hands, a font of patriarchal social prescriptions. Alas, in the past few years such simplistic biological reductionism has tapped a media nerve, with the result that, among many Americans, schlock genetics has become the default explanation for every aspect of human behavior from homosexuality to male promiscuity, from depression to "criminality."

Clearly science needs close and ongoing scrutiny, and in the past decade or two there has been a healthy boom in science studies and criticism. Scholars such as Evelyn Fox Keller, Sandra Harding, Emily Martin and Donna Haraway have offered useful critiques of the biases and ethnocentric metaphors that can skew everything from hypothesis formation to data collection techniques. Feminists (one of the authors included) have deconstructed medicine and psychology for patriarchal biases; left-leaning biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and Ruth Hubbard have exposed misapplications of biology to questions of social policy. However, contemporary antibiologists decry a vast range of academic pursuits coming from very different theoretical corners -- from hypotheses about the effects of genes and hormones, to arguments about innate cognitive modules and grammar, to explorations of universal ritual form and patterns of linguistic interaction. All these can be branded as "essentialist," hence wrongheaded and politically mischievous. Paradoxically, assertions about universal human traits and tendencies are usually targeted just as vehemently as assertions about differences: There are no differences between groups, seems to be the message, but there is no sameness among them either.

Within anthropology, the social science traditionally friendliest to biology and now the one most bitterly divided over it, nineteenth-century claims about universal human nature were supplanted in the early twentieth century by Franz Boas and colleagues, who conducted detailed studies of particular cultures. By the mid-1960s, any role for biological commonalities in cultural anthropology was effectively foreclosed when Clifford Geertz remarked that "our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products."

As neo-Marxist and behaviorist theories of the tabula rasa human gained ground over the next decade, other disciplines followed anthropology's lead. So completely was sociology purged of biology that when Nicholas Petryszak analyzed twenty-four introductory sociology textbooks in 1979, he found that all assumed that "any consideration of biological factors believed to be innate to the human species is completely irrelevant in understanding the nature of human behavior and society." In general, by the seventies, antibiologism had become the rallying cry of academic liberals and feminists -- and the apparent defense of human freedom against the iron chains of nature.

It was only with the arrival of the intellectual movements lumped under the term "postmodernism" that academic antibiologism began to sound perilously like religious creationism. Postmodernist perspectives go beyond a critique of the misuses of biology to offer a critique of biology itself, extending to all of science and often to the very notion of rational thought. In the simplified form it often takes in casual academic talk, postmodernism can be summed up as a series of tenets that include a wariness of meta-narratives (meaning grand explanatory theories), a horror of essentialism (extending to the idea of any innate human traits) and a fixation on "power" as the only force limiting human freedom -- which at maximum strength precludes claims about any universal human traits while casting doubt on the use of science to study our species or anything at all. Glibly applied, postmodernism portrays evolutionary theory as nothing more than a sexist and racist storyline created by Western white men.

The deepest motives behind this new secular version of creationism are understandable. We are different from other animals. Language makes us more plastic and semiotically sophisticated, and renders us deeply susceptible to meanings and ideas. As for power, Foucault was right: It's everywhere, and it shapes our preferences and categories of thought, as well as our life chances. Many dimensions of human life that feel utterly "natural" are in fact locally constructed, a hard-earned lesson too easy to forget and too important not to publicize. The problem is that the combined vigor of antibiologism and simplified postmodernism has tended to obliterate the possibility that human beings have anything in common, and to silence efforts to explore this domain. Hence we have gone, in the space of a decade or two, from what began as a healthy skepticism about the misuses of biology to a new form of dogma.

As a biologically oriented researcher who has made controversial innatist claims, Rutgers social theorist Robin Fox notes with irony that secular creationist academics seem to have replaced the church as the leading opponents of Darwinism: "It's like they're responding to heresy." Stephen Jay Gould, who has devoted much of his career to critiquing misuses of biology, also detects parallels between religious and academic creationist zeal. While holding that many aspects of human life are local and contingent, he adds, "Some facts and theories are truly universal (and true) -- and no variety of cultural traditions can change that...we can't let a supposedly friendly left-wing source be exempt from criticism from anti-intellectual positions."

The new creationism is not simply a case of well-intended politics gone awry; it represents a grave misunderstanding of biology and science generally. Ironically, the creationists invest the natural sciences with a determinative potency no thoughtful scientist would want to claim. Biology is rhetorically yoked to "determinism," a concept that threatens to clip our wings and lay waste to our utopian visions, while culture is viewed as a domain where power relations with other humans are the only obstacle to freedom.

But these stereotypes of biological determinism and cultural malleability don't hold up under scrutiny. For one thing, biology is not a dictatorship -- genes work probabilistically, and their expression depends on interaction with their environment. As even Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and a veritable Antichrist to contemporary creationists of both the secular and Christian varieties, makes clear: "It is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences." And if biology is not a dictatorship, neither is culture a realm of perfect plasticity. The accumulated lessons of ethnography -- and, paradoxically, postmodern theories of power themselves -- suggest that even in the absence of biological constraints, it is not easy to remold human cultures to suit our utopian visions. In fact, in the extreme constructivist scenario borrowed by secular creationists, it's hard to imagine who would have the will or the ability to orchestrate real change: the people in power, who have no motivation to alter the status quo, or the oppressed, whose choices, preferences and sentiments have been so thoroughly shaped by the cultural hegemony of the elite? Judged solely as a political stance, secular creationism is no less pessimistic than the biologism it seeks to uproot.

Milder versions of the "nature/nurture" debate begat a synthesis: "There is no biology that is not culturally mediated." But giving biology its due while taking cultural mediation into account requires inclusive and complex thinking -- as Phoebe Ellsworth puts it: "You need a high tolerance of ambiguity to believe both that culture shapes things and that we have a lot in common." Despite the ham-fisted efforts of early sociobiologists, many (probably most) biologically based human universals are not obvious to the naked eye or accessible to common sense.

Finally, many secular creationists are a few decades out of date on the kind of "human nature" that evolutionary biology threatens to impose on us. Feminists and liberal academics were perhaps understandably alarmed by the aggressive "man the hunter" image that prevailed in the sixties and seventies; and a major reason for denying the relevance of evolution was a horror of the nasty, brutish cavemen we had supposedly evolved from. But today, evolutionary theory has moved to a more modest assessment of the economic contribution of big-game hunting (as opposed to gathering and scavenging) and a new emphasis on the cooperative -- even altruistic -- traits that underlie human sociality and intelligence. We don't have to like what biology has to tell us about our ancestors, but the fact is that they have become a lot more likable than they used to be.

In portraying human beings as pure products of cultural context, the secular creationist standpoint not only commits biological errors but defies common sense. In the exaggerated postmodernist perspective appropriated by secular creationists, no real understanding or communication is possible between cultures. Since the meaning of any human practice is inextricable from its locally spun semiotic web, to pluck a phenomenon such as "ritual" or "fear" out of its cultural context is, in effect, to destroy it. Certainly such categories have different properties from place to place, and careful contextualization is necessary to grasp their local implications. But as Ellsworth asks: "At the level of detail of 'sameness' that postmodernists are demanding, what makes them think that two people in the same culture will understand each other?" The ultimate postmodern retort would be, of course, that we do not, but this nihilism does not stand up to either common sense or deeper scrutiny. We manage to grasp things about each other -- emotions, motives, nuanced (if imperfect) linguistic meanings -- that couldn't survive communicative transmission if we didn't have some basic emotional and cognitive tendencies in common.

The creationist rejection of innate human universals threatens not only an intellectual dead end but a practical one. In writing off any biologically based human commonality, secular creationists undermine the very bedrock of the politics they claim to uphold. As Barbara Epstein of the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, remarks: "If there is no human nature outside social construction, no needs or capacities other than those constructed by a particular discourse, then there is no basis for social criticism and no reason for protest or rebellion." In fact, tacit assumptions of human similarity are embedded in the theories of even such ostensible social constructionists as Marx, whose theory of alienation assumes (in some interpretations, anyway) that there are authentic human needs that capitalism fails to meet.

Would it really be so destructive to our self-esteem as a species to acknowledge that we, like our primate relatives, are possessed of an inherited repertory of potential responses and mental structures? Would we forfeit all sense of agency and revolutionary possibility if we admitted that we, like our primate relatives, are subject to the rules of DNA replication (not to mention the law of gravity)? In their horror of "determinism," academic creationists seem to forget postmodernism's finest insight: that, whatever else we may be, we are indeed creatures of symbol and "text." We may be, in many ways, constrained by our DNA, but we are also the discoverers of DNA -- and, beyond that, the only living creature capable of representing its biological legacy in such brilliant and vastly condensed symbols as "DNA."

The good news is that a break may be coming. In spite of the nose-thumbing inspired by the Alan Sokal/Social Text hoax, constructive debates and conversations between scientists and social theorists have been initiated in newsletters, journals and conferences across the country. A few anthropology departments, including those at Northwestern, Penn State and Emory, are encouraging communication between their cultural and biological subfields. And although interactionist work has not had adequate space to flourish, achievements so far suggest that regardless of creationist disclaimers, biological and cognitive universals may be acutely relevant to social theory. Ann Stoler, an anthropologist, historian and scholar of Foucault at the University of Michigan, agrees. By failing to take our innate cognitive tendencies seriously, she writes, social constructionists may be dodging the "uncomfortable question" as to whether oppressive ideologies like racism and sexism "acquire the weight...they do...because of the ways in which they feed off and build upon [universal] categories of the mind." As Ellsworth says, the meeting of human universals and culture is "where the interesting questions begin."

But for the time being it takes more than a nuanced mind to deal with the interface of culture and biology. It takes courage. This climate of intolerance, often imposed by scholars associated with the left, ill suits an academic tradition rhetorically committed to human freedom. What's worse, it provides intellectual backup for a political outlook that sees no real basis for common ground among humans of different sexes, races and cultures.

Graphic Rule

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of
Blood Rites: Origins and History of
the Passions of War
(Metropolitan).
Janet McIntosh is a graduate student in
ethnology at the University of Michigan.

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