helena_cronin's picture
Co-director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today
A Fearful Asymmetry: The Worrying World Of A Would-Be 'Science'

As I enter the courtyard of the British Library, I pass under the long shadow cast by the bronze colossus of Newton. With measuring-compass in hand, he is fathoming the deepest laws of the universe. But the baleful inspiration for this monument dismays me. For he is the Newton of William Blake's famous print, depicting all that the artist abhorred in his construal of Newtonian science—desiccated rationality, soulless materialism. With thoughts of Blake, the tiger and its "fearful symmetry" come to mind. And the phrase suddenly brings into sharp perspective a nagging worry that I had not articulated. I finally pinpoint what it is that so dismays me about the dismissive views of science that I regularly encounter. It is their fearful asymmetry—the discrepancy between the objective status of the science and its denigration by a clamorous crowd of latter-day Blakes.

If you work on the science of human nature, in particular sex differences, that asymmetry will be all too familiar. There is a vocal constituency of educated people—some of them scientists, even biologists, social scientists, public intellectuals, journalists—people who respect science, biology, even human biology and who, at least ostensibly, take Darwinism to be true for all living things … as long as it doesn't venture into our evolved human nature.

To understand the resulting asymmetry and how worrying it is, consider first a crucial distinction between two 'worlds'.

One is the world of the objective content of ideas, in particular of science as a body of knowledge, of actual and possible scientific theories, their truth or falsity, their refutability, tests passed or failed, valid and invalid arguments, objections met or unanswered, crucial evidence deployed, progress achieved. Darwinian science has high status in this world of objective knowledge as perhaps "the single best idea anyone has ever had". And, probably uniquely in the history of science, it is unlikely to be superseded; biology will be forever Darwinian—for natural selection, it seems, is the only mechanism that can achieve design without a designer. And the Darwinian understanding of human nature is a straightforward implication of that core insight. The first serious attempt at a science of ourselves … and, what's more, it's most likely right.

The other world is the subjective one of mental states, the personal and the social—thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, feelings, emotions, hopes, ambitions.

Armed with this distinction, we can pin down exactly what the asymmetry is and why it is so worrying.

Generally, the public reception of a scientific theory concurs by and large with the judgement of the objective world of ideas. Not, however, in the case of the scientific understanding of our evolved human nature and, above all, male and female natures. If the arguments against the evolutionary science of human nature were conducted in the world of the objective content of ideas, there would be no contest; evolutionary theory would win hands down. But, as a sociological fact, in the public market-place it loses disastrously against its vociferous critics.

How? Because, in a complete reversal of the objective relationship between the science and these critics, all the asymmetries are reversed.

First, the burden of 'proof', the burden of argument, is transferred from the criticisms onto the science; it is Darwinism that's on trial. Meanwhile, anti-Darwinian attitudes don't have to defend themselves—they are accepted uncritically; the standards for judgement of these views involve all-too-ready credibility and suspensions of disbelief.

Second, adding insult to injury, a plethora of home-made alternatives is conjured up to fill the gap where the real science should be. This DIY-science includes: pseudo-methodological denunciations, where mere name-callings suffice—essentialist, reductivist, teleological, Panglossian (all very bad) and politically incorrect (very bad indeed); the immutable 'entanglement' of nature and nurture, which renders nature impenetrable—thereby freeing 'pure nurture' to be discussed at length; a cavalier disregard for hard-won empirical evidence—though with a penchant for bits of brains lighting up (no; I don't know either); the magical potency of 'stereotyping' (bad) and 'role models' (good); a logic-defying power to work miracles on tabula-rasa psychologies, as in 'socialisation' (bad) and 'empowerment' (good); made-up mechanisms, even though discredited—multi-tasking, self-esteem, stereotype threat; complaints of 'controversial' and 'tendentious' – which are true sociologically but false scientifically (a case of raising the dust and then complaining they cannot see). The science-free policy that this generates is epitomised by the 'women into science' lobby, which is posited on a 'bias and barriers' assumption and an a priori rejection of—yes, the science of sex differences.

This mish-mash is low on scientific merit. But it is not treated as opinion versus science. On the contrary, psychologically and sociologically, it has a voice far more influential and persuasive than its objective status warrants.

At least it does at present. But, taking the long, impartial view of human nature as a product of the workings of natural selection, a wider vista opens. And that impresses on us how privileged we are to live in a time of Enlightenment values—how rare, how local, how recent such values are in our two-million-year history—and how much they are the values in which the nature of our species will flourish. Darwin's contribution to our understanding of ourselves is emblematic of human progress, an apotheosis not only of science but of the wider cultural legacy that is Enlightenment thought. Blake might not have known better. But, understanding the distinction between the autonomous objectivity of the world of ideas and the very different status of the psychological and social, we can appreciate the true value of science. And, with that perspective in mind, I feel less worried about those fearful asymmetries.