Thursday, March 17th, 2005

racial science ii

Filed under: random — alison @ 09:08

Ok, let me be clear about my bias here: I am one of those people who believe in the body. (This is sneaky appropriation of feminst vocabulary.) The mean way to describe me would be “biological determinist” except that all I think that biology determines is what an individual can bring to the table. Outcomes are up for grabs.

Old-style (Victorian?) ideas about the body were that it determined outcomes: women were inherently feeble, Jews were inherently sneaky, the lower classes were destined to fail. No matter how you raised someone, breeding would out. (See “Wuthering Heights.”)

John Locke, then Freud, then Skinner proposed a radically liberating view: that we come into the world prepared to learn, and who we are is the sum total of what we have discovered and what we have been taught. We bring no agendas of our own to the table. In the 1970s this translated into a lot of talk about “conditioning” and the hope that we could raise a nonviolent, gender-free generation.

The problem with using “conditioning” to explain away everything you don’t want is that to condition a lab animal you use a system of rewards and punishments. Rewarding with food works best when the animal is starved for three days first. So you can’t get away from the body: what the animal finds rewarding or aversive. At the very least, we determine our own rewards and punishments.

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Now to the present and what I am finding problematic. It’s not the articles about Leroi’s book in particular, it’s a sneaky sort of return to Victorian smugness I am seeing generally, the new emphasis on genetic science providing convenient camouflage.

[originally transmitted by e-mail March 17, 2005]

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