Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Taking A Wrong Turn At The End


In what seems like an odd column for somebody who so frequently embraces an inch-deep version of evolutionary psychology, David Brooks warns us that our knowledge of how genetics affect behavior is very limited. (You needed to be told that, right?)

Is it needless to say? He extrapolates the idea that we don't know much about "nature" to argue against trying to improve things on the "nurture" side:
Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.
David, actually, some things are pretty obvious. We have a pretty good idea how poverty leads to reduced opportunity, how putting children from marginally literate homes into dangerous, failing schools is a recipe for poor academic performance, how child abuse and neglect may contribute to lack of later success and even mental illness and criminal conduct.... The fact that we can't pinpoint the interplay between environmental variables and a person's genes doesn't mean that we have to throw up our hands and do nothing.
This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.
That from a cheerleader for the Iraq War....

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