In a repudiation of some strands that emerge from evolutionary psychology, I argue that the genetic capacities of at least 95% of the population means that they can become individuals with talents (characteristics) and behaviors that are as remarkable as we see in those we revere most for their scholarship or projects. Taking the materialist picture of the world, we can deny the kind of agency (or free will) that is commonly attached to the creation of behaviors and talents of individuals, where we turn inabilities and inefficiencies of some skill or action, that cannot be easily explained by previous environmental structures or genetics, onto some internal power resting within that individual—say through that individual’s will or reasoning. This “will” or “reasoning” is a fine explanation: there are problems in this individual’s will or reasoning that is causing her behavior or that is keeping her from developing some talent. But this will or reasoning, though being a complexity of this individual’s brain/mid, that is, resting wholly within internal conditions of this being, can still be traced or analyzed as something that has been structured by the previous interactions of genes and environment or by a previous internal state of affairs of this individual’s brain. And the likewise is true for any talent or skill that we praise, once we set aside genetic and environmental explanations for that behavioral set. For those keeping score, what I am offering we could probably construe as some kind of behaviorism (also see Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility).
We can separate standard behaviorism out. The basic idea of behaviorism revolved around the belief that it was best and easiest (and possible) to ignore the middle conceptions in the process of: EnvironmentMind/Mental FunctionsBehavior. Since that middle term was difficult to understand, rested within a subjective sphere of each individual, and was not necessary for controlling the individual—since simply controlling the environment would necessarily lead to behavior changes, behaviorism tried to leave it out. In some sense, ultimately speaking, this is not an incoherent project. It is only that it in the end would have actually been a tougher project than to begin to understand the brain, such as through neuroscience. Both sides of these equations that are trying to understand behavior, either through strict behavioral analysis of the environment conditions or of a psychological or neuroscientific project of understanding how the brain/mind produces behavior, are nowhere near the capacity of giving a thorough overall assessment of behavior. Some combinatorial effort is also lacking at this moment in time. Human behavior is just too complex, but we have made a great deal of progress. The more important consideration here is simply accepting the deterministic structures that underwrite both of these ways of viewing human behavior.
Onto evolutionary psychological explanation for behavior and identity, the following still makes some sense to me, and I will tweak it to more current thinking. Here is Richard Rorty speaking against E.O. Wilson:
However, Professor [E.O.] Wilson would be right, if indeed evolutionary biology were able to set constraints on sociocultural experimentation, if we were able through the discovery of further epigenetic rules to say, "this looks like an interesting way to program ourselves (way to develop ourselves, use to make of ourselves), but it won't work because it runs up against a certain epigenetic rule." For all I know there are such rules, but I'm not going to take the sociobiological or evolutionary psychological initiative very seriously unless they produce some testable hypotheses of the form, "if you try to do so-and-so, it won't work:" if you try to nationalize the means of production, it won't work; if you try to let women into combat units in the military, it won't work; if you try to let overt homosexuals into the military, it won't work; if you try to tax the rich in order to make things better for the poor, it won't work. Until they can say, "here's something that we might plausibly think to do but biology is against (there's an epigenetic rule which will foul it up)," as one might say to a software programmer, " that sounds like a good programming idea, but it won't work because of the way the thing is hard-wired," then I think we should be dubious of the claim that we're going to get beyond rather uninteresting epigenetic rules like the ones about the incest taboo and color spaces.
Rorty here lays out what will be an ongoing theme in much of my thinking. Following the 60's backlash, the waning of feminism, the fall of communism, the entrenchment of American conservatism, the rise of greater genetic and brain understanding (etc.), there arrived a malaise about givens to our social institutions, ensconced in ideas like “genetically, human just do not have the psychological equipment to allow for socialism.” Or in the examples of parents who swear their daughters just always loved pink and their boys blue; or that their girls just naturally took to Play-doh cooking kitchens. Anyways, more on some of those at a later date, but much of my focus here is on knowledge and skill attainment. So, to steal Rorty's structure:
Evolutionary psychology does not say: “If we had taken these 10,000 high school dropouts (that is their bodies as inherent in their DNA) and placed them in the homes of the elites (of parents who thoroughly asked questions about socialization/education) and sent them to the absolute best schools and provided them with the best psychologist and doctors and nutritionist, they still would have been dropouts. Questions that have to be asked: If we had given them a radically different environment, would they have attained college degrees? Would they have learned foreign languages? Would they have been adequate doctors, lawyers, managers. The answer in almost every case is surely going to be yes, we must assume (not counting individuals with significant brain damage).
What I am focusing on here is just the raw genetic capacity for skill attainment, say the skills and knowledge of what a baseline doctor would need. Behaviors are complex, and are even more complex to analyze as they interact with prevailing institutions, which in turn structures the individual. Furthermore, there is playback between slight skill differences or temperamental differences that are in constant interaction with other in society, including primary socializing agents. The complexity of the social arising of identities, desires, attitudes, beliefs, and characteristics of any individual as they interact with other agents is one of the reasons why analysis of how genetics structure behavior is so muddled. A lot of this is walled off. People do not want the basics of their character to be put under the microscope. They also do not want institutions, say the basic habits of their family structures, to be questioned. George Herbert Mead has an enjoyable line that we can change individuals and institutions will necessarily change; or we can change institutions and the individuals will necessarily change. That they are opposite sides of the same coin. When we drastically alter the social discourses and social world in itself around individuals, we can make large changes to who those individuals are.
There will be plenty more to say about identity in the future, about how we form the selves that we do, and about how socializing processes can take small characteristics and turn them into ensconcing attributes or life opportunities. Though I think evolutionary psychology has gotten a lot wrong and made poor statements about the connection of genes to behavior and identity, it is also unquestionable that we are creatures of evolution, that certain propensities and brain structures exist because of evolutionary pressures. The question is what do these qualities mean for the kinds of selves and societies that we build. Can we radically alter identities? If we dramatically change institutions on a social level or on the individual level, do individuals radically change? And, lastly, what are the limits to the kind of institutions that we can place around individuals? Some of these questions were highlighted in two popular books recently, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Amy Chua's the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, which I will take a look at as well. Jesse Prinz claims in his excellent book Beyond Human Nature that the nurturist position is coming back into the mainstream, but I have not quite seen that, but perhaps time will tell.
Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Jesse Prinz, Beyond Human Nature
George Herbert Mead, On Social Psycholoy
Owen Flanagan, Self Expressions
Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality
Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
Bronwyn Davies, Frogs, Snails and Feminist Tales
Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility