Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Why People Aren't Deemed to be Agents

Must it Be Either Nurture or Nature?

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent column I referred to Judith Rich Harris?s book No Two Alike
(2005) to illustrate a widespread tendency among contemporary students of
human nature, especially in the discipline of psychology. I made a mistake
to describe the book as in large part a response to the criticism of the
author?s earlier book, Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way
They Do (1999). Although some response is made by her to those critics,
this new work is not primarily devoted to their criticism.

In my discussion I characterized Harris? No Two Alike as advancing a
determinist view of human action and development and this, too, is denied
by the author, although here I think she is wrong. She makes clear that
she explores whether genes or the environment are the more important
determinants and settles on the environment, based, in part, on her study
of twins whose genetic make-up is identical yet whose development and
conduct vary considerably. So she argues it must be the environment that
makes the decisive difference.

It is this point that caught my attention about Ms. Harris?s work. That?s
because over my several decades of having paid attention to the discussion
about human nature and behavior?since before I wrote my book, The
Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (1974)?I have found that hardly any of the
scientists?what we might call soft scientists, such as psychologists,
sociologists, anthropologists and the like?involved in the research ever
even consider that one vital factor in how a person develops and acts is
indeed that very same person. In other words, a most widely assumed fact
about human behavior?in law, ethics, international relations, everyday
relationships, etc.?namely, that people are responsible for what they do
or fail to do, is virtually completely ignored by the scientists who set
out to provide a rigorous account of ourselves.

Why would this be so? Why the nearly systematic refusal of these
persons?who in their personal lives clearly share the widespread
assumption (and this is evident from Ms. Harris?s criticism of some of
those who criticize her other book and of me for misrepresenting her) of
personal, individual responsibility?to even explore this way of explaining
how people develop and act? Why not just leave it at, que sera sera?

I suspect that the main reason is that too many people in the soft
sciences, though not all, take it that when it comes to explaining
something, the only candidates have to be efficient causes. That is to
say, only when some events in the history of someone?s life are suggested
to have produced what needs to be explained?events such as their
upbringing, genetic history, or cultural, economic, and social
environment?are they treated as plausible. If an individual?s own choices
are suggested, these are deemed to be beyond the pale. They are deemed
spooky or mysterious, not scientifically respectable.

Some exceptions to this trend should be mentioned. The late Nobel
Laureate Roger W. Sperry, who performed the split brain experiments and
then went on to focus on psychophysics for the rest of his professional
life, had forged a radically different yet he instead every bit scientific
understanding of human behavior. His book on this, aimed at the general
reader, is Science and Moral Priority (1983). And there are several
philosopher who have also challenged the prevailing orthodoxy on this
topic?John Searle, Timothy O?Connor, and so forth.

Still, those who make the strongest claim to being systematic, thorough,
and experimental students of human behavior have tended to simply ignore
the idea that causes need not all be alike, that agents such as human
beings could well have the capacity to do things on their own initiative.
And this is disturbing, given that innumerable human practices and
institutions rest on the idea that we are responsible for what we do and
become. Ethics, law, politics, diplomacy are all replete with claims about
how some people ought to do this, not do that, should have done this and
not done that. And in only very exceptional cases are they understood in
terms of either the agents? genetic make-up or environmental influences.
(Defense attorneys, of course, try to press such explanations all the

If the Enron executives get convicted, it is highly doubtful that Ms.
Harris and her colleagues will step up and say, ?Leave them be, their
environment made them do it.? Nor will they defend politicians convicted
of corruption or world leaders accused of gross malpractice along such

But refusing to address this very serious conflict between how human life
is normally understood and how most professional, scientific people
understand it can only produce sever and widespread confusion and discord.

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