Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Culture is Biological

Ed Morrisey writes:
One of the stranger aspects of Jeremiah Wright’s speech came in the supposed neurological explanation of the differences between whites and blacks. Wright claims that the very structure of the brains of Africans differ from that of European-descent brains, which creates differences rooted in physiology and not culture...

Hilzoy responds by pointing out that Wright said no such thing. But this seems to me to miss the more fundamental error (which Hilzoy actually repeats in her post) of thinking that cultural and biological explanations are somehow alternative, competing, mutually exclusive explanations of behaviour.

Clearly, that's just plain mistaken. If culture influences our thoughts and behaviour, it must therefore affect our brains (that's where the thinking occurs, after all). All behavioural and psychological differences have a neuro-/biological explanation. The only question is whether this biological difference is in turn best explained by environmental or genetic differences.

Even this latter question of 'nature or nurture' is often confused. As I explain in my essay 'Native Empiricists', both inevitably play a role: we are equipped with innate capabilities to learn effectively from experience, and - on the other hand - one need only to deprive a plant of sunlight to see how a nourishing environment is essential for the expression of genetic potentials (e.g. height).

But, if we are careful, we can find coherent questions in this vicinity. For example, faced with a difference between A and B, we might wonder whether a genetic clone of A raised in B's environment would have ended up in a condition more like A's or B's in the relevant respects. Unfortunately, people are rarely so careful.


  1. I think the distinction you want is encoded information that is easy to recall or change and thus 'plastic' in a way versus lower level or more permanent structures. But I agree that ultimately this is a matter of degree.

    I think though that we do have a good reason to distinguish structural changes in the brain of children abused while toddlers versus ideas someone hears in college. Both might be encoded in the brain and thus biological but I think we can distinguish them in important ways. And we can distinguish both from tendencies for particular brain structure due to DNA.

  2. Yeah, that's helpful. In many of these contexts it really does seem that 'plasticity vs. immutability' is what people really care about. Not only is this a matter of degree, but it would seem logically independent of origin questions altogether, right?


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