Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Cognitive Dissonance

Somewhat to my surprise, I have enjoyed several recent columns by David Brooks in the NYTimes. Today's column about how scientific explanations for human behavior have lost favor was one I enjoyed more through hopefulness than belief. For example, I would love to believe that what Brooks writes here is actually true:
It wasn't long ago that headlines were blaring about the discovery of an aggression gene, a happiness gene or a depression gene. The implication was obvious: We're beginning to understand the wellsprings of human behavior, and it won't be long before we can begin to intervene to enhance or transform human life.

Few talk that way now. There seems to be a general feeling, as a Hastings Center working group put it, that "behavioral genetics will never explain as much of human behavior as was once promised."
My hopefulness didn't last long. In today's Science Times (the same paper, for god's sake, on the same day) was an article about Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard professor and father of Sociobiology. Some gems from that piece:
...he proposed that many human activities, from economics to morality, needed to be temporarily removed from the hands of the reigning specialists and given to biologists to work out a proper evolutionary foundation.

Morality and religion, he suspects, are traits based on group selection. "Groups with men of quality - brave, strong, innovative, smart, and altruistic - would tend to prevail, as Darwin said, over those groups that do not have those qualities so well developed," Dr. Wilson said.
This is not some fringe character, mind you. So, to David Brooks and his editors at the New York Times, I'd like to make a suggestion: Don't publish opinion pieces that are directly contradicted by stories in other sections of your own paper, published on the same fragging day!

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