Sunday, January 16, 2005

Hobsbawm on Marx and Evolution

There are a number of aspects of Hobsbawm's In defence of history that I agree with such as his defence of history against post-modernism and relativism. But his views on how evolution can come to the aid of history are a little confused.

His statement on how the study of genes has supposedly put an end to sociobiology shows a very poor understanding of the entire field of evolution -
Firstly, DNA analysis has established a firmer chronology of the spread of the species from its original African origin throughout the world, before the appearance of written sources. This has both established the astonishing brevity of human history and eliminated the reductionist solution of neo-Darwinian socio-biology.
It's a nonsensical argument and, what's more, not true. Clearly Hobsbawm is not partial to evolutionary psychology. No surprise, most left-wing academics aren't. But this is an ideological point of view that he is unsuccessfully trying to shore-up by an appeal to DNA evidence of our past.

It is exactly the "brevity of human history" that is the basis for evolutionary psychology. There has not been enough time since the evolution of our brains, and hence our essential psychology, for major new adaptations to occur. We live in a modern world but with mental tools that evolved in different circumstances.

The "reductionist" allegation must be one of the more mindless and petty insults. No-one who has read anything in the field by such authors such as Dawkins or Pinker would bother with such a pathetic attack.

He is right when he says that our way of life has changed dramatically over the past 100,000 years through "...the accelerating inheritance of acquired characteristics..." through culture, but by opposing this with "...and not genetic mechanisms" he shows little understanding of how "culture" is itself the product of genetically determined abilities.

His central thesis
...the new evolutionary biology eliminates the distinction between history and the natural sciences and bypasses the bogus debates on whether history is or is not a science.
has a lot going for it but Hobsbawm's attitude is that Marxist historians can pick and choose which aspects of evolution to take notice of.

In essence Hobsbawm is still defending the Social Constructivist view that human nature is determined by society. But it's a good example of how it is not just some on the Right who have a problem with evolution.

There is a great deal of very interesting research going on in the field of evolutionary psychology on how genes influence our economic behavior. Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation is a good place to start.

A book well worth reading on historiographical issues is by New Zealander Jonathan Scott - England's Troubles. The book's also worth reading for its outline of the development of liberal thought during the seventeenth century.

(As an aside, I do have some sympathy for post-modernism. Discourse is about persuasion and peoples' persuasive (rhetorical) techniques include more than just a reliance on facts. People seek to use communication often in-order to convince others and hence arguments are generally embellished. Also, language is perfectly designed to deceive. Observe the language of any Shakespearian character. Communication is, to a degree, about power.)

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