Social Sciences


Social Sciences (part5)

Since then, a major shift has taken place. The heirs of the 1960s, unable to create a social revolution simply by letting it all hang out, have abandoned their romantic faith in nature and turned to their old enemy, nurture, to finish the social revolution. The emphasis changed from how nature can save us from the nurture that warped us to how social engineering can set us right. Old hippies who once believed in freedom now sit on academic committees hammering out complex rules for how people should behave on dates and what words are too dirty to be spoken, written, or thought. Nurse Ratched is now a member of NOW. The feminist movement, in particular, has had to fight against the idea that women are somehow submissive and weak and emotional by nature. Black people have had to fight against the racist notion that African Americans are intellectually inferior or lazy by nature. The struggle for social justice and equality has led to a dogmatic insistence that human beings are not products of nature but are shaped by their environment. A feminist once argued with me that even birds do not inherit the ability to build nests and fly south but somehow learn these things from their parents. It was an extreme example, but it was a good indicator of the trend.

In the 1980s, sociobiologists like Edward Wilson began to challenge the prevailing paradigm and to argue that human nature owes more to nature than to nurture. Since then, a host of new studies have argued, using data and all the rest, that nature after all really is in control and nurture but the icing on the cake. B. F. Skinner defines those natural factors that shape our species as "contingencies of survival" and those more recent factors that shape our individual personalities as "contingencies of reinforcement." Evolutionary psychologists argue that a middle ground exists between hardwired nature and social construction. They, like cultural anthropologists, see much of our behavior as having been shaped by the long human experience in Africa before civilization began. To them, our nature is part of our inheritance but is something that can change over time. The dilemma is in trying to figure out where to draw any lines. Denounced as racists and sexists by the social constructionists, these folks have had to shout loudly, but they have been heard.

So today, at the beginning of the new millennium, we are back where we always were, in a debate with two sides well matched and well armed. Do not therefore let anyone tell you that one side or the other has been proved right. An argument exists here, one you can exploit to your benefit in any paper you need to write. We are almost certainly shaped neither by nature nor by nurture solely but by the complex interaction of both. Where to draw the line is one of the first questions to ask. Think of an oak tree growing in the desert. It is still an oak tree with many of the natural characteristics of an oak, but because of its environment, it will not look like its cousins in Ohio.

If you are convinced that either nature or nurture is the chief cause of whatever trait you are writing about, then the problem becomes one of identifying those factors in the environment or in the genes that make us who we are. Remember the bottom-line question: What makes people tick? In some ways, a good social science paper is little more than gossip with footnotes. One of the most stubborn denials of the validity of any form of determinism, whether essential or social, comes with the need to believe that people can and should be held responsible for their acts. That horny high school principal in Fairfax, Virginia, needs to take responsibility for his acts and not blame them on some "psychosexual disorder." On that, I think even the feminists would agree. But doesn't an insistence on determinism eliminate personal responsibility? How can we call people "bad" and throw them in jail if they are not at fault? During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, after a mob dragged a white truck driver from his cab and beat him, apologists argued that the rioters were victims of "mob hysteria" that overcame their normal thinking thus mitigating their blame. Cooler heads pointed out that such excuses might also be made for white mobs that lynched blacks. Recently, a white ball player was forced to undergo psychological treatment for making racist remarks on television. Even racism is now a syndrome. How can anyone be held responsible for any evil deed?

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