Re: Biological = trivial?

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Fri, 26 Jul 1996 16:58:11 -0700

As part of a very interesting posting, Tanner writes:

>Here is what I mean. Language has been found, empirically, to exist among
>all known groups of the human species. We now also know, in broad outline,
>that language is related to certain genetically-determined charactersitics
>of the human brain and other organs. I am not saying that genetics is all
>there is to explaining language, but at least it is fair to say that
>genetics accounts for the *universality* of language among humans. Religion
>(which I say is not, in principle, a universal human behavioural trait) is,
>because non-universal, unlikely to be explained to any extent at all by
>reference to genetics. Rather, its actual widespread empirical distribution
>(however generally or narrowly defined) among human groups is a phemonon of
>a different order from one like language, calling for the inclusion of
>different kinds of explanitory principles. This is why the class of
>widespread but less-than-universal forms of behaviour are, in my view, of
>such great theoretical significance.

I think the last sentence should be read to mean that the class of
"widespread but less-than-universal forms of behavior" will not be easily
(if at all) accomodated within the class of theories that provide the
explanatory principles for biological/genetic phenomena, properly speaking.
Thus, these behaviors, by virtue of not being accomodated within the
standard, biological theory, will require a new theoretical framework, in
much the same way that while biology is grounded in chemistry, it required a
new theoretical framework, namely natural selection, to account for
evolutionary phenomena. (As a side comment, it is interesting to see how
work on self-organizing systems that comes out of thermodynamics is seen as
providing a basis for making sense of biological phenomena--a return to the
previous level).

Such a new theoretical framework is,indeed of great importance.

I don't think it all that useful to focus on so-called universals in that
while they make "signal" the need to introduce the preceeding level into the
arguement (i.e., the capacity of the brain to do language like behavior is
genetic in its origin), once that is established the hard work still
remains. It seems to me that the reference to universals is actually a code
word for avoiding direct involvement with what is involved, namely how the
brain operates. If language is universal, it is because we share, at the
level of the species, brains that constructed in a largely similar manner.
The latter implies that there will be a whole series of "universals" when we
push the surface phenomena down to the level of the functioning of the
brain. Indeed, the presumption generally made is (a) cultural is a
consequence of how our brain operates, and (b) we share similar brains
across our species.

However, by pushing cultural phenomena to this level, we also run the danger
of losing sight of the fact that there is little predictive power to be
realized by so doing. For example, I would disagree with Tanner about
religion and genetics in the following sense. I would suggest that religion
(and by religion I only mean some general notion of some kind of creative
power or force extrinsic to us and ordinary phenomena) arises out of a
problem that arises with a brain that is capable of consciousness (which
itself must be genetic in origin if you assume that we are totally "natural
phenomena"). Such a brain is capable of asking questions about origins, and
if that same brain also insists upon an answer, then the invention of a
"creative power" almost becomes (if not becomes) a necessity. (To repeat a
question I posed about a year ago: Could an android such as Data of
Startrek exist without the properties we associate with humanness? To what
extent are we dealing with an interacting package that, like Gordian's knot
cannot be disentanbled, or are we modular with parts that can exist in

While I thus would disagree with Tanner's discounting genetics when we
discuss religion, I would equally agree that we don't get very far from a
genetic/fitness framework when we want to account for and understand the
variability we find in how religion (or other cultural phenomena) is
expressed across different societies.

D. Read