Journalistic teleology

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(editor's note) This is Noga Arikha's first post here. She will be blogging regularly on cognitionandculture.net. A philosopher and science historian, Noga published Passions and tempers: a history of the humours, a New York Times Book Review editor's choice, in 2007 (go check her web page). Welcome, Noga!

From a New York Magazine article by Jennifer Senior on a study by John Cacioppo and William Norton of the phenomenon of loneliness in big cities (just indexed on Arts & Letters Daily, and also reported in a paper from Abu Dhabi) :

"Loneliness, like hunger, is an alarm signal that evolved in hominids hundreds of thousands of years ago, when group cohesion was essential to fight off abrupt attacks from stampeding wildebeests. It's nature's way of telling us to rejoin the group or pay the price. "Nature," they simply write at one point, "is connection."

It's a controversial theory, certainly, not least because it's post-hoc and therefore can't be proved. From Cacioppo's point of view, our large brains didn't evolve in order to do multivariable calculus or compose sonatas. They evolved in order to process social information-and hence to work collaboratively. "And if you look at any city," he says, "you see that we have the capacity, as a species, to do so. They show we can work together, we can trust one another. We couldn't even drive through city streets if we didn't trust that people would follow rules that protect the group."

But why contrast the processing of social information with the performance of calculus or the composition of sonatas?

Some humans do compose sonatas – as far as we know no other animal does – and most humans listen to sonatas or their equivalents with pleasure and some measure of understanding. They too are a form of communicationing. Similarly, calculus has developed within a community of practice and thought. One might very well think of extending the meaning of social information to those technical practices.

I don't know whether it is Senior or Cacioppo who believes it right to write that our brains evolved "in order to do" something. Senior does point out the "post-hoc" nature of the book's theory, but does not notice the teleological form of her own phrasing. Our large brains didn't exactly "evolve in order to do" anything. That is akin to identifying some intelligent design, as did Aristotelians and Galenists, and to saying that evolution occurred towards a predetermined goal or final cause. Materialist natural philosophers of the 17th century understood the pitfalls of this old thinking and were careful with their claims about the sort of causality one might attribute to the natural mechanisms they studied. Now we may well and fruitfully identify biological functions and social phenomena, and agree that the two are in some way correlated, but the language used – and not just by journalists or generalists – to explicate how the one may illuminate the other often remains much too slippery for the post-hoc accounts to be of scientific value. Rhetoric matters!

1 Comment

  • Hugo Mercier
    Hugo Mercier 27 November 2008 (07:47)

    Is it wrong to say that our hearts evolved in order to pump blood? our guts to digest food? It just means that this is their function. I don’t see why that should imply any notion of intelligent design. I believe there is only a very small risk that a reader vaguely aware of Darwinian theory would interpret the text any other way. And if I agree that sonatas or calculus have important social aspects, it still makes sense to say that our brains didn’t evolve in order to create them (if only because there was no sonata or calculus when they evolved). That we use evolved capacities to create them is a truism (what else would we use?). Pointing to the fact that social-related skills can play a larger role than usually thought in creating these artefacts is very interesting, but doesn’t change the preceding point.