Human Nature and the Limits of Science

Human Nature and the Limits of Science

Human Nature and the Limits of Science

Human Nature and the Limits of Science

Synopsis

'excellent, clear, and helpful" His [Dupré's] criticisms are well made... His approach is certainly interesting and deserving of both scrutiny and elaboration... Dupré ends with the wonderful suggestion that his view leaves a role for philosophy as providing a 'synoptic and integrative vision', and so moving 'from underlabourer to Queen of the Sciences' -The Philosophers' MagazineJohn Dupré warns that our understanding of human nature is being distorted by two faulty and harmful forms of pseudo-scientific thinking. Not just in the academic world but increasingly in everyday life, we find one set of experts seeking to explain the ends at which humans aim in terms of evolutionary theory, and another set of experts using economic models to give rules of how we act to achieve those ends. Dupré demonstrates that these theorists' explanations do not work, and furthermore that if taken seriously their theories tend to have dangerous social and political consequences. For these reasons, it is important to resist scientism - an exaggerated conception of what science can be expected to do for us. Dupré restores sanity to the study of human nature by pointing the way to a proper understanding of humans in the societies that are our natural and necessary environments. Anyone interested in science and human nature will enjoy this book, unless they are its targets.

Excerpt

While working on this book I happened to turn on the third instalment of a television series on human hormones. The official topic of this episode was Love. In between images of chemical clouds bubbling out of glands and diffusing through the body, the programme traced the effects of hormones on sexual differentiation in utero and in puberty. Distinguished scientists reported the exciting and sometimes surprising results of our recent ability to measure the levels of hormones in bodies, and correlations between these levels and the emotional states of the subjects were noted. As different behavioural tendencies were shown to develop in males and females, evolutionists informed us about the functions these might have served for our Stone Age ancestors. Reaching the official topic of love, we were taught to distinguish its various phases—infatuation, obsession, companionship—and their hormonal correlates. Magnetic Resonance Imaging of obsessed lovers revealed similarities between their brain activities and those of the mentally disturbed, providing, apparently, scientific evidence that love is indeed a form of madness. Later, we learned that whether male voles remained faithful to their partners or indulged in untrammelled promiscuity depended on the presence of specific hormones, and we were invited to speculate as to whether similar mechanisms might operate in humans. And so on. Although much of this work was admitted to be at a somewhat speculative stage, the scientists involved expressed no reservations about the possibility that love might turn out to be caused by, or just to be—such ontological subtleties were not addressed—a sequence of hormonal surges; nor did members of the public asked to comment on some of these scientific claims, though some expressed the view that the topic of love should be left to poets, and that these scientific facts were better left unknown.

This programme illustrates the hold on our culture of what I call scientism, an exaggerated and often distorted conception of what science can be expected to do or explain for us. One aspect of

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