Book review by Mary Midgley


Human Nature and the Limits of Science
John Dupré
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2001, 187 pp.
ISBN 0-19-924806-0



The Unscientificness of Scientism


This book’s blurb says that it is `a provocative, witty and persuasive corrective to scientism’ and this time the blurb is quite right. John Dupré’s main targets are the two doctrines now fashionably offered as ways to understand human nature – evolutionary psychology and rational-choice theory based on economics. He shows clearly how hopelessly unsuitable these two candidates are for the vacant position of Key to all the Mysteries. Beyond this, however, he calls for a serious pluralism. He explains why we need finally to abandon the seventeenth-century’s dream that this position could ever be filled – the idea that any single `fundamental’ explanation could be found for these complex subjects –


Nothing will serve to provide us with insight into human nature of quite the kind that we are currently inclined to imagine… a text grounded in one or a few comprehensive theories (as the example of Pinker’s book illustrates)…We might better think of the cultivation of a skill; the ability to understand, or have insight into, human nature and human life, than the writing of a text…[This skill  is needed because the topic is of a different order of complexity]… The search for simplistic theories such as those of contemporary sociobiology reflects above all the failure to see this divide.  Complexity in this context is not just a matter of very difficult sums that we do not yet know how to solve, but the concurrence of different kinds of factors, each of which may well be complex in the same sense, that we do not know how to fit together. (Emphases mine)


In fact psychology, like medicine, is an art, not a science. When we want an explanation, our difficulty is often to understand just what questions we need to ask in these various different contexts, and how those questions arise from the wider background of our life. It is no wonder that these various questions, when found, often turn out to require different kinds of answers.


The doctrines that Dupré attacks certainly do miss this complexity. Why, then, are they so popular? As he says, much of their appeal comes from a distorted notion of what it is to be scientific – essentially, from a distaste for complexity as such. They satisfy the kind of reductionism that is simply an irrational preference for highly abstract, idealized arguments over ones that try to represent a complex situation fairly. Attempts to state social problems in economic terms show this distortion particularly well. Dupré illustrates this nicely from discussions of the `labour market’ in which Work is treated either simply as a commodity or as a disutility – a minus to be quantified in any chooser’s equation. Work, as he says, can also be a source of self-fulfilment. ‘The vision of the individual as both a seller of labour trying to get the best price for what he brings to market, and at the same time a consumer of career paths trying to acquire the career that will best satisfy his particular tastes in work, is much harder to make coherent’.


Evolutionary psychology also draws on the same kind of reductionism. It prefers genes as causes of behaviour to environmental factors on the mistaken principle that all change is really caused internally, by the tidily explicable physical movement of particles. It also surely appeals to atomism at another level by splitting up the mind into a string of separate `modules’, rather than to considering it, along with the life it belongs to, as a whole. The resulting attempt to do psychology by ignoring all immediate data in favour of remote speculations about evolution is indeed, as Dupré says, remarkably perverse. Selves cannot be fragmented like this. Admirably, he insists that ‘the “I” refers to the whole organism, not just some neurologically salient bits of it’.


There is, however, one further reason for EP’s success, which Dupré does not deal with.  People who ask for an explanation of human conduct often really want an explanation of why things go wrong – why we act badly and are often unhappy. I do not think that we can deal with these reasonable questions without considering the possibility that there are real, lasting imperfections in our human nature – in our natural emotional constitution. Dupré, like many opponents of sociobiology, flatly refuses to glance at this possibility, rejecting the idea of human nature entirely. He writes, ‘There is no more to human nature… than the developmental cycles that currently constitute human life’.


So why are humans everywhere somewhat narrow in their sympathies, prone at times to xenophobia, often callous and sometimes extraordinarily cruel? Or why, again, do they everywhere make jokes, love their children, practise the arts and mourn the dead?


Culture, after all, is not an independent cause. It comes from people. These ‘human universals’ are real, not a fancy invented by sinister sociobiologists. EP’s suggestion about why things currently go wrong is that this natural constitution is in many ways ill-served by our present civilization, which has not been devised in a way that suits it. This, in itself, is surely not a stupid suggestion. The reason why EP’s version of it fails is that EP is using a resoundingly cock-eyed theory of human nature – not that there is no such thing as human nature there be understood.


I suspect that the public success of EP, and of sociobiology generally, owes a lot to its willingness to raise these important questions – questions which the regular social sciences have often ignored – however badly it may then have dealt with them. So I believe that critics of those doctrines need to take these questions seriously and to do better than EP in handling them, rather than simply dismissing them as idle. This, however, is the only thing that has worried me about this otherwise excellent, clear and helpful little book. It is first-rate on the Limits of Science. Human Nature, however, is a continent still to be explored.