Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Comes Naturally

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Note: With the permission of the author, we are reprinting below Louis Menand's classic essay against the reductionism of Stephen Pinker and other advocates of "The new science of human nature".  Menand's essay, What Comes Naturally: Does evolution explain who we are? first appeared in the New Yorker edition of Nov. 25, 2002. Menand, who teaches at Harvard, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2002 for his book, The Metaphysical Club. A brief comment follows the Menand essay.
What Comes Naturally
Does evolution explain who we are?

 “The new sciences of human nature.” Well, why not? The old sciences of human nature didn't have such a fabulous track record. They gave us segregated drinking fountains, “invented spelling,” and the glass ceiling—all consequences of scientific theories about the way human beings really are. Possibly, there is a lesson there, which is that the sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them. In totalitarian regimes, dissidence is treated as a mental illness. In apartheid regimes, interracial contact is treated as unnatural. In free-market regimes, self-interest is treated as hardwired.

Maybe this is unfair to the new sciences of human nature, though. It could be that the problem with the old sciences was simply that they weren't scientific enough—that they were mostly wishful thinking projected onto dubious data about skull size and the effects of estrogen on the ability to balance a checkbook. Today's scientists might have the capacity to get right down there among the chromosomes and the neurotransmitters, and to send back reports, undistorted by fear, favor, or the prospect of funding, about what's going on. Maybe the new sciences of human nature are really scientific. It's worth a look.

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at M.I.T. and the author of an entertaining and popular book on language (his specialty), called “The Language Instinct,” and a more wide-ranging volume, also popular, called “How the Mind Works.” His new book, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (Viking; $27.95), recycles some of the material published in “How the Mind Works” but puts it to a more prescriptive use. Pinker has a robust faith in “the new sciences of human nature” (his phrase)—he was formerly the director of M.I.T.'s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience—but his views in “The Blank Slate” are based almost entirely on two branches of the new sciences: evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics.

These are both efforts to explain mind and behavior biologically, as products of natural selection and genetic endowment. Unless you are a creationist, there is nothing exceptionable about the approach. If opposable thumbs are the result of natural selection, there is no reason not to assume that the design of the brain is as well. And if we inherit our eye color and degree of hairiness from our ancestors we probably inherit our talents and temperaments from them, too. The question isn't whether there is a biological basis for human nature. We're organisms through and through; biology goes, as they say, all the way down. The question is how much biology explains about life out here on the twenty-first-century street.

Pinker's idea is that it explains much more than some people—he calls these people “intellectuals”—think it does, and that the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things, including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our nature at will). The “intellectuals” in Pinker's book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker's view of the world of ideas is more nuanced than this.

Many pages of “The Blank Slate” are devoted to bashing away at the Lockean-Rousseauian-Cartesian scarecrow that Pinker has created. What the new sciences show, he says, is that, contrary to “the romanticism of intellectuals,” nurture is usually no match for nature. Rehabilitation often fails to cure violent criminals; identical twins raised separately exhibit uncanny similarities; reading bedtime stories has little effect on I.Q. Findings like these suggest that there are limits to what we can expect from efforts to make people happier, smarter, and better citizens by manipulating their environment. When revolutionaries remake society from the ground up, on the theory that a new kind of human being will emerge, or when feminists argue that if little boys played with dolls and teacups the world would be a less violent place, they are, in Pinker's view, breaking eggs with no hope of an omelette. They are simply frustrating drives and instincts that will find an outlet sooner or later. It's not nice to fool human nature.

But where does this leave us? There are limits, after all, to the idea of limits. We manipulate the environment constantly in order to shape attitudes and behavior. We employ police to intimidate people into obeying traffic signs and anti-littering ordinances; we require kids to go to school; we air-condition workplaces and provide them with coffee stations. Peer pressure constrains the expression of sexual desire. Happy hours relieve feelings of stress. Religious services inspire people to do good works. Most of life is conducted in an environment of man-made stimulants and inhibitors, incentives and deterrents. Many impulses are channelled or suppressed, and many talents and feelings are acquired, and have no specific genetic basis or evolutionary logic at all. Music appreciation, for instance, seems to be wired in at about the level of “Hot Cross Buns.” But people learn to enjoy Wagner. They even learn to sing Wagner. One suspects that enjoying Wagner, singing Wagner, anything to do with Wagner, is in gross excess of the requirements of natural selection. To say that music is the product of a gene for “art-making,” naturally selected to impress potential mates—which is one of the things Pinker believes—is to say absolutely nothing about what makes any particular piece of music significant to human beings. No doubt Wagner wished to impress potential mates; who does not? It is a long way from there to “Parsifal.”

Pinker doesn't care much for art, though. When he does care for something—cognitive science, for example—he is all in favor of training people to do it, even though, as he admits, many of the methods and assumptions of modern science are counter-intuitive. The fact that innate mathematical ability is still in the Stone Age distresses him; he has fewer problems with Stone Age sex drives. He objects to using education “to instill desirable attitudes toward the environment, gender, sexuality, and ethnic diversity”; but he insists that “the obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education.” He thinks that we should be teaching economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics, even if we have to stop teaching literature and the classics. It's O.K. to rewire people's “natural” sense of a just price or the movement of a subatomic particle, in other words, but it's a waste of time to tinker with their untutored notions of gender difference.

Having it both ways is an irritating feature of “The Blank Slate.” Pinker can write, in refutation of the scarecrow theory of violent behavior, “The sad fact is that despite the repeated assurances that 'we know the conditions that breed violence,' we barely have a clue,” and then, a few pages later, “It is not surprising, then, that when African American teenagers are taken out of underclass neighborhoods they are no more violent or delinquent than white teenagers.” Well, that should give us one clue. He sums the matter up: “With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.” This is just another way of saying that it is in human nature to socialize and to be socialized, which is, pragmatically, exactly the view of the “intellectuals.”

The insistence on deprecating the efficacy of socialization leads Pinker into absurdities that he handles with a blitheness that would be charming if his self-assurance were not so overdeveloped. He argues, for example, that democracy, the rule of law, and women's reproductive freedom are all products of evolution. The Founding Fathers understood that the ideas of power sharing and individual rights are grounded in human nature. And he quotes, with approval, the claim of two evolutionary psychologists that the “evolutionary calculus” explains why women evolved “to exert control over their own sexuality, over the terms of their relationships, and over the choice of which men are to be the fathers of their children.” Now, democracy, individual rights, and women's sexual autonomy are concepts almost nowhere to be found, even in the West, before the eighteenth century. Either human beings spent ten thousand years denying their own nature by slavishly obeying the whims of the rich and powerful, cheerfully burning heretics at the stake, and arranging their daughters' marriages (which would imply a pretty effective system of socialization), or modern liberal society is largely a social construction. Which hypothesis seems more plausible?

In 1859, Charles Darwin announced his conclusion that all life forms are the result of processes that are natural, chance-generated, and blind. There is, he thought, no “meaning” to evolutionary development. Evolution is just a by-product of the fact that organisms have to compete with one another in order to survive. If there were no struggle, if some organisms didn't have to die so that others could live, there would be no development. That is all evolution amounts to. This recognition seems to have made Darwin literally sick. But, ever since “On the Origin of Species” and “The Descent of Man” (1871), people have used Darwin's theory to explain why one or another way of managing human affairs is “natural.” The notion is that a particular arrangement must have been “selected for”—as though the struggles among individuals and groups and ideas were nature's way of making sure that we end up with the best. Evolutionary psychology is therefore a philosophy for winners: it can be used to justify every outcome. This is why Pinker has persuaded himself that liberal democracy and current opinion about women's sexual autonomy have biological foundations. It's a “scientific” validation of the way we live now. But every aspect of life has a biological foundation in exactly the same sense, which is that unless it was biologically possible it wouldn't exist. After that, it's up for grabs.

The other trouble with evolutionary psychology is that it is not really psychology. In general, the views that Pinker derives from “the new sciences of human nature” are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but “noble guys tend to finish last”; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring. On one subject, though, Pinker does take an unconventional position. This is the matter of child rearing.

Here Pinker relies on a 1998 book called “The Nurture Assumption,” by Judith Rich Harris, which has been the object of some controversy in the field of developmental psychology. Harris claimed that “shared family environments”—that is, parents—have little or no effect on a child's personality. (Strictly speaking, she claimed that parenting does not account for the variation in differences in personality, which is what genetic science measures.) Biological siblings reared together are no more alike, or less different, than biological siblings reared in separate families. Half of personality, Harris argued, is the product of genes, and half is the product of what she called the “unique environment”—that is, the particular experiences of the individual child. Harris suggested that children's peers might be the principal source of this environmental input. This is distinctly not Clinton-era thinking. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who sent parents of older children into a depression by announcing that personality is shaped in the first three years of life. If you missed those bedtime stories, there was apparently no way to make it up. Harris's theory makes nonsense of this anxiety, as it does of virtually all expert child-rearing advice, which Pinker calls “flapdoodle.”

What is personality, though? The answer turns out to be quite specific. The new sciences of human nature have discovered that personality has exactly five dimensions: people are, in varying degrees, either open to experience or incurious, conscientious or undirected, extroverted or introverted, agreeable or antagonistic, and neurotic or stable. (This is known in the literature as the Five-Factor Model, or FFM. The five dimensions are referred to by the acronym OCEAN.) All five attributes are partly heritable, and they are what behavioral geneticists look to for a definition of personality. It seems that there is no need for finer tuning, because OCEAN accounts for everything. “Most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions,” as Pinker explains.

When Pinker and Harris say that parents do not affect their children's personalities, therefore, they mean that parents cannot make a fretful child into a serene adult. It's irrelevant to them that parents can make their children into opera buffs, water-skiers, food connoisseurs, bilingual speakers, painters, trumpet players, and churchgoers—that parents have the power to introduce their children to the whole supra-biological realm—for the fundamental reason that science cannot comprehend what it cannot measure.

Science can measure anxiety. This is not just because people will report themselves, in surveys, to be more or less anxious; it is also because a genetic basis for anxiety has been identified. People with a shorter version of a stretch of the DNA that inhibits the serotonin-transporter gene on chromosome 17 are more likely to be anxious. That chronic anxiety is biological—that it is not caused solely by circumstance—is shown by the fact that medication containing a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (that is, an anti-depressant) can relieve it. (Would medication count as nurture or as nature?) But that's just the biology. The psychology is everything that the organism does to cope with its biology. Innately anxious people develop all kinds of strategies for overcoming, disguising, avoiding, repressing, and, sometimes, exploiting their tendency to nervousness. These strategies are acquired—people aren't born with them—and they are constructed from elements that the environment provides. The mind can work only with what it knows, and one of the things it knows is parents, who often become major players in the psychic drama of anxiety maintenance. The mere fact of having “the gene for anxiety” determines nothing, which is why some anxious people become opera buffs, some become water-skiers, and some just sit and stare out the window, brooding on the fact that their parents did not read them enough bedtime stories. These people are unlikely to be relieved by learning that cognitive science has determined that bedtime stories are overrated.

An obsession with the mean point of the bell curve has sometimes led scientists to forget that the “average person” is a mathematical construct, corresponding to no actual human being. It represents, in many cases, a kind of lowest common denominator. Yet scientists like Pinker treat it as a universal species norm. The classic case of this kind of apotheosis of the average is the kind of study, reported in the Science Times, in which the ideal female face is constructed by blending all the features identified by people as most beautiful. The result is a homogenized, anodyne image with no aesthetic or erotic charge at all, far less alluring than many of the “outlying” variants used to derive it. Pinker's evolutionary theory of beauty has the same effect. “An eye for beauty,” he says, “locks onto faces that show signs of health and fertility—just as one would predict if it had evolved to help the beholder find the fittest mate.” Elsewhere, he explains that “the study of evolutionary aesthetics is also documenting the features that make a face or body beautiful. The prized lineaments are those that signal health, vigor, and fertility.” But if this were all the eye required the girl in the Pepsodent commercial would be the most desirable woman on earth. And the only person who thinks that is the guy in the Pepsodent commercial. People don't go for faces that deviate from the “ideal” because they can't have the ideal. They go for them because the deviation is what makes them attractive.

So it is with most of the things we care about—food, friends, recreation, art. Biology reverts to the mean; civilization does not. The mind is a fabulator. It is designed (by natural selection, if you like) to dream up ideas and experiences away from the mean. Its overriding instinct is to be counter-instinctual; otherwise, we could put consciousness to sleep at an early age. The mind has no steady state; it is (as Wallace Stevens said) never satisfied. And it induces the organism to go to fantastic lengths to develop capacities that have no biological necessity. The more defiant something is of the instinctive, the typical, and the sufficient, the more highly it is prized. This is why we have the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the Gautama Buddha, and the Museum of Modern Art. They represent the repudiation of the norm.

The point is self-evident, and you might think Pinker would just fold it into his theory. But he doesn't. Deviations make him suspicious, and modern art, in his book, is the prime suspect. Pinker believes not only that evolutionary psychology can explain why human beings create and consume art (it's mostly for reasons having to do with the drive for prestige). He believes that evolutionary psychology can explain what is wrong with art today—the decline of the high-art traditions, the loss of the critic's social status, and the “pretentious and unintelligible scholarship” of contemporary humanities departments. “I will seek,” he says, “a diagnosis for these three ailing endeavors.”

The key, it is no surprise, is the denial of human nature. “The giveaway may be found,” Pinker advises, “in a famous statement from Virginia Woolf: 'In or about December 1910, human nature changed.' ” She was referring, he says, to “the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism,” which is “more Marxist and far more paranoid,” and which gave us “Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine), Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung,” and similar outré fare. But “Woolf was wrong,” he tells us. “Human nature did not change in 1910, or in any year thereafter.”

It seems that aesthetics, unlike cognitive science, is not a body of knowledge worth acquiring. Pinker thinks that any moral sophistication derived from exposure to élite art can be instilled much more effectively by “middlebrow realistic fiction or traditional education.” So if people want to hang a painting of a red barn or a weeping clown above their couch, he says, “it's none of our damn business.” The preference for red-barn and weeping-clown paintings has been naturally selected. In fact, the “universality of basic visual tastes” has been proved, Pinker points out, by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who, in 1993, surveyed people's artistic preferences for color, subject matter, style, and so on. They proceeded to make a painting that incorporated all of the top-rated elements: it was a nineteenth-century realist landscape featuring children, deer, and the figure of George Washington. Pinker notes that the painting exemplifies “the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics.”

Jesus wept. To begin with, Virginia Woolf did not write, “In or about December 1910, human nature changed.” What she wrote was “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” The sentence appears in an essay called “Character in Fiction,” which attacks the realist novelists of the time for treating character as entirely a product of outer circumstance—of environment and social class. These novelists look at people's clothes, their jobs, their houses, Woolf says, “but never . . . at life, never at human nature.” Modernist fiction, on the other hand, because it presents character from the inside, shows how persistent personality is, and how impervious to circumstance. Woolf, in short, was a Pinkerite.

Pinker needed only to have looked through any trot on modernist writing to see his error. One of Woolf's principal specimens of the new, post-realist fiction was Joyce's “Ulysses,” a novel about twentieth-century Dublin whose characters are all based on characters in the Odyssey. You can't get a much finer tribute to universal human nature than that. The modernists were obsessed with the perdurability of human nature. This is, as Woolf said, precisely what distinguishes them from the realists and romantics who preceded them. It's why Kandinsky “invented” abstraction (to help preserve, he said, “the element of pure and eternal art, found among all human beings, among all peoples and at all times”). It's why Picasso put African masks on the prostitutes in “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” “Heart of Darkness,” “Women in Love,” “A Passage to India,” “Sweeney Erect,” “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”—they are as explicitly about the intractability of human aggression and desire as an evolutionary psychologist could wish. There is nothing Marxist about them. The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism.

“Postmodernism” might, indeed, be explained as a reaction against the modernist faith in “pure art” and human nature. But what does that have to do with beauty? Beauty is an effect produced by an object. Pinker has no more looked at the “postmodernist” work he reviles than he has read the Woolf essay he misquotes. Like Tom Wolfe, whose attacks on modern painting in “The Painted Word” he quotes, Pinker thinks that modern art is all ideas because it is only as ideas that he can experience it. In fact, Ofili's painting is not “smeared in elephant dung,” and Serrano's “Piss Christ” is not “a crucifix in a jar of the artist's urine.” It's a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine, and, technically and formally, a rather beautiful and evocative piece. It would satisfy a number of Komar and Melamid's populist criteria. Many people find it offensive, of course, but that reaction, too, is instinctive, and the discordance of the two sensations is part of the experience the object provokes. “Piss Christ” is not the most profound work of art ever created, but it is not just a crude prank.

As for Komar and Melamid's paint-by-polling: it is the art-world equivalent of the Science Times' ideal face. Komar and Melamid are satirists. They set out to find the visual lowest common denominator, and the work they produced (called “United States: Most Wanted Painting”) is preposterous even as kitsch. It tells us as much about art as a single dish combining all the flavors people said they liked would tell us about cuisine. Darwin's fundamental insight as a biologist was that, among members of a species, what is important is not the similarities but the differences. If human beings were identical, a single change in the environment could wipe out the race. Similarity, ultimately, is death. So why do Darwin's followers in evolutionary psychology want to make what people have most in common into a social good?

What the new sciences of human nature seem to show, for all their investigations down there among the genes and the neural networks, is that “human nature” is as much an abstraction as “God” or “the universal law.” It is a magic wand that people wave over the practices they approve of. If that makes them feel better, who can complain? Human nature is never the reason for their approval, though. It would be nice if we could justify our choices by pointing silently to our genes. But we can't. Our genes, unfortunately, are even stupider than we are. ♦


Comment by Alex Steiner

Menand's take-down of Steven Pinker, whose book, 'The Blank Slate', purports to provide a new and 'scientific' understanding of human nature, is a brilliant dissection of the pretensions of the pseudo-sciences that claim that human nature consists of little more than our genes and the instincts we have developed as a result of natural selection.  Menand deconstructs the absurdity of the theories of Steven Pinker and other practitioners of the pseudo-science of evolutionary psychology: theories that would reduce art and culture to the lowest common denominator of mediocrity, where paintings of weeping clowns and red barns are favored due to their expressing some (imagined) advantage in the struggle for survival that our ancestors on the African savanna faced. 
Menand also brings to the fore the political and social implications of Pinker’s brand of reductionism.  He writes,
The other trouble with evolutionary psychology is that it is not really psychology. In general, the views that Pinker derives from “the new sciences of human nature” are mainstream Clinton-era views: incarceration is regrettable but necessary; sexism is unacceptable, but men and women will always have different attitudes toward sex; dialogue is preferable to threats of force in defusing ethnic and nationalist conflicts; most group stereotypes are roughly correct, but we should never judge an individual by group stereotypes; rectitude is all very well, but “noble guys tend to finish last”; and so on. People who share these beliefs probably didn't need science to arrive at them, but the science is undoubtedly reassuring.
It is in Menand's discussion of realism vs. modernism in art that we have to point to an area of disagreement. Pinker who is profoundly anti-modernist, claims that the modernist sensibility was invented out of whole cloth and goes against the instincts of the average person who is much more comfortable with realism because realism most closely expresses the instinctual responses we have developed over the millennia through the mechanism of natural selection. Menand has no trouble puncturing Pinker's defense of middlebrow mediocrity, while exposing Pinker's complete ignorance of the history and culture of modernism.  (As Pinker has contempt for the historical and cultural sciences there is no particular reason to expect anything but ignorance from him in this area.) But Menand makes a misstep when he responds to Pinker's stupid characterization of Marxism as a source of

  "the new philosophy of modernism that would dominate the elite arts and criticism for much of the twentieth century, and whose denial of human nature was carried over with a vengeance to postmodernism,” which, Pinker says, is “more Marxist and far more paranoid."

But in correcting Pinker's cartoonish labelling of Marxism he writes, 
"The preferred mode of orthodox Marxism was not modernism; it was realism." 
That may have been true of Marxists such as G.V. Plekhanov who had a wooden ear for the modernist sensibility and whose reaction to the emergence of Cubism at the dawn of the 20th century was to call it "Nonsense cubed", but it was not true of many other Marxists and artists who were inspired by Marx.  In contrast to Plekhanov, whose pronouncements are well-known, the Marxist art critic Max Raphael approached modernist art with a fine sensibility and a Marxist analysis far more sophisticated than Plekhanov's.  But Max Raphael was little known and shunned by the international Stalinist cultural apparatus, which claimed to adjudicate art in the name of Marxism.  There were also vigorous debates among Marxists between defenders of realism and defenders of modernism, of which an exchange between György Lukács and Ernst Bloch is particularly notable.  This is a very complicated topic that I can only mention. For Pinker all such nuances are beside the point because he simply identifies Marxism with its Stalinist caricature. Pinker’s method, in his book The Blank Slate, is to set up various straw men that he then tears down.  One of Pinker’s favorite straw men are “Marxists” who he claims deny the biological basis of human nature and therefore see it as a “blank slate” on which anything can be written.  While Menand has no problem in general in deconstructing Pinker’s tortured logic, his correction of Pinker's distortion of Marxism unfortunately leaves standing another caricature of Marxism. 

But despite this one problematic area in his essay, Menand's piece is a tour de force in the tradition of anti-reductionism. And anti-reeductionism has been one of the pillars of a dialectical philosophy of nature.  It was expressed by Engels in a prophetic remark in his Dialectics of Nature where he wrote, 
"One day we shall certainly “reduce” thought experimentally to molecular and chemical motions in the brain; but does that exhaust the essence of thought?

Recent years have witnessed a small but growing reaction to the type of mechanical reductionism that has dominated discourse not only among scientists and philosophers, but in popular culture as well. Not a week goes by when the Science Times fails to publish an article on the theme that human psychology and culture are nothing more than responses to neural transmitters that scientists are "working out".  The opposition to this manufactured consensus was expressed in a recent book by a prominent contemporary philosopher, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. The book got some attention and was even discussed in a New York Times Op Ed piece. ( ) Other books and essays, some of uneven quality, have joined the discussion. Mention might be made of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini (2010) and The Science Delusion by Curtis White (2014). And of course there are the classic statements against reductionism written against what Menand dubbed "the old science of human nature" by Stephen Jay Gould, and the dialectical biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins. Menand’s essay is an important and elegant contribution to this body of literature.

1 comment:

Mitchel Cohen said...

Elegant and brilliant essay by Menand, and thoughtful comments by Alex. Thank you.

I also recommend a compilation by Koestler and J.R. Smythies: "Beyond Reductionism: New Perspectives in the Life Sciences"; Douglas Hofstadter: "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"; Julian Jaynes: "The Origin of Consciousness and the Development of the Bicameral Mind"; and Stuart Kauffman: "At Home in the Universe" -- all great books on these questions.

I remember as a kid challenging reductionism (without knowing it) in discussing the existence of God: "If God created the universe and God is part of the universe, then who created God. Did she create herself?"

Today, the reductionist-based genetic engineering of crops threatens to greatly reduce and ultimately wipe out life on earth as we know it (while being portrayed as the opposite, as feeding people and wiping out hunger -- NONSENSE! That's not the basis for why so many people are starving to begin with). So these arguments are not of little consequence.

I appreciate Alex's comments, and his class at the former Brecht Forum that addressed some of them.