I Talk to the Genes (but they donít listen to me)*
Closing Remarks on
'Nature versus Nurture, or Science versus Art?: A Reply to ĎOf Course
Someoneís At Home - Grandma, the Wolf and a Boojum' by David Large', by Nikolas Lloyd
by David Large
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Itís a shame that Nikolas has taken my remarks as being directed at him and his
work, rather than, as they are, at Steven Pinkerís work. I further regret that Nikolas
has chosen to adopt such a cavalier attitude. That he cherishes the notion of
scientific truth and insists on an ideal form of scientific practice in the real academic
environment reflects a certain, uncharming, naivety.
In his haste to insist on the power of science, Nikolas fails to acknowledge that if all
conjectures, theories, and ideas turned out to be false, things would be just the same
as they are; the world would be the same as it is. Similarly, I still say that data is just
data. Evolutionary psychologists may choose to gather and use it for their own ends,
but they should not think that this turns their beliefs into facts, their ideas into reality.
To do so is hubris.
Further, with any human endeavour, science included, we are not obliged to have
only one view; we have all the alternatives there are and no fewer. One alternative is
to stick our heads in the sand, another is to grasp the wrong end of the stick, and so
The onus is on the scientist to conduct well-formed research projects. The research
proposal should include controls and alternative outcomes. In other words, you
should set out all you are going to do before you start. Pinker is, to say the least,
allusive about this and, being charitable, I put this down to the sort of piece - popular
science - he was writing.
Before I replied to his original piece I asked Nikolas if I could read his work in this
area and, in particular, if he would explain to me why the Stone Age was so
important. He referred me to his web site where I found what he thought but not why
he thought it.
With respect to the debate we succeeded in having, wheels and cars are excellent
examples of the sort of replicators and, to push a point, self-replicators evolutionary
psychologists need to peddle their theories. Here, it seems Nikolas does not take the
notion seriously, at least not as seriously as Dawkins. Itís one thing to talk about
DNA, itís quite another to talk about replicators. This area of debate was not helped
by Nikolas, who seems unable to distinguish between the abstract notion of regress
and an empirical, indeed physical, notion of regression.
As it turns out, I am delighted to learn from Nikolas that no one denies there is such a
thing as human nature. Why didnít he say this before? And, if people like Pinker are
really being misrepresented then why donít they say so? I have in mind the recent
Open University programme where Pinker is interviewed by, among others, the
novelist Ian McEwan, who finds his work interesting precisely because his approach
is as I describe.
And, we now agree, science is not the only fruit: No matter how you slice it, you canít
learn to ski by baking a cake, irrespective of how many people like cake and how
much money you can get to bake cakes. So human nature is not just a question of
Ďevolutioní, but about reasons and persons after all; so no more nonsense about it
being genetic predispositions from the Stone Age.
The important questions are then: Do you really know what youíre investigating? Do
you know how much research you need to do before you are in a proper position to
begin an experimental programme? And, do you really know what youíre talking
* Apologies Clint, you made my day.