Friday, May 20, 2011

In defence of men

To: Ian H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: In defence of men
Date: 29 July 2002 09:05

Dear Ian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 18 July, with the first draft of your third essay for the Associate program, 'In defence of Men'.

I must admit, I worried when I first saw this title. Having looked at the essay, however, I am confident that this will 'evolve' into a fully acceptable portfolio essay!

The problem that you are addressing is quite general: whether the (alleged) fact that human beings have genetically based predispositions towards certain types of behaviour can be cited in exoneration of those types of behaviour. You have chosen to illustrate that problem with the case of the 'male genetic tendency towards polygyny'.

It would have helped a lot if you had made the point at the beginning, or at least early on in your essay that the specific problem of male sexual behaviour has been chosen as an example of general issue. It is a very good example because there does seem in this case to be a very clear choice between the genetic imperative and actions which are considered ethically correct. You might, however, consider mentioning other cases which show a similar structure, in order to underline the point that we are dealing here with a problem of more general application.

A while ago, I answered a question on the Ask a Philosopher page, 'Does evolutionary psychology imply that man has no free will?' The reference, if you are interested, is:

In my answer, I said, "Human beings have a nature. We inherit natural predispositions from our genes. That is hardly surprising. It would, if anything, be a far greater cause for concern if it turned out that human psychology is infinitely malleable. That there was no such thing, from the inside, as what it is to be human. Then it would be completely up to us to make of ourselves what we will... [T]o be in possession of a capacity for reason is to be capable of making choices. If we submit to 'nature' then we are acting for a reason, which we may reflect upon and which others may praise or criticize, no less than if we resist."

In your essay, you argue along similar lines when you say that "Rose's... remark that since men are genetically inclined to polygyny, they cannot be blamed for philandering, is mistaken because it ignores a capacity for responsibility - the capacity to...think through what we are about to do and judge between competing desires".

This is the part that I agree with. You will see, however, that I go further in making the point that it is inconceivable that human beings should *not* have had a 'nature', a predisposition towards certain types of behaviour, or liking certain things and disliking others. This puts things into rather a different perspective. The point here could be made even if we did not know anything about Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection or genetics. Human beings have a nature. That is a fact which has been know and accepted by philosophers since the time of Socrates.

However, you also go further than I would be prepared to go, when you speculate about the evolution of two further traits: an impulse towards a form of altruism, and the ability to make reasoned choices between alternatives. If you are right, we could imagine a possible world where intelligent beings evolved who, as a result of very different local conditions, did not 'evolve' this limited tendency towards altruism, or, alternatively, did not evolve the ability to make reasoned choices. Here, however, I think that you are making the very error that you have sought to expose and criticize in your essay.

The 'self interested but nonetheless altruistic' impulse which you refer to would be Dawkins' 'grudger' gene (if I am not mistaken). Supposing that we accept the evidence for the existence of such a gene in the animal kingdom (e.g. the predisposition of certain monkeys to pick the tics from the fur of other monkeys who are willing to pick their tics) it doesn't follow that the existence of this gene is either necessary, or sufficient to explain altruism in human beings.

Nor would I accept that there is any interesting sense in which we have 'evolved the capacity for making reasoned choices'. We have evolved intelligence, certainly, but intelligence just *is* the capacity for making reasoned choices. It is meaningless to speculate how things would be for 'us' if we did not have this capacity.

I may be wrong in attributing to you the two arguments which I have just criticised. If these are not arguments which you are relying on then that is not at all clear from your essay. It certainly would be worth while, however, to consider these arguments in your essay in order to explain why you are not relying on them.

A book which was very well reviewed when it appeared in the 80's and which would be an excellent addition to your bibliography is Mary Midgeley's 'Beast and Man'. There's a good chance that it will still be in print. From what I have heard, I think you will find that the book has material which you will find very useful in beefing up your essay.

All the best,