October 31, 2006

Political correctness, biology and culture

Yesterday ("Two new reviews of Brizendine", 10/30/2006) I quoted Rebecca Young and Evan Balaban's description of a primal melodrama: "the foil of 'political correctness' against which the author wages a struggle for truth". Independent of the logical content of the debate over the biology and culture of sex differences, there is certainly also a larger ideological struggle, in which several intellectual armies have been campaigning for centuries. I mentioned one skirmish on one of the fronts of this war -- Paul Ekman's fight with Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and Ray Birdwhistell -- and promised to tell the story in another post. Here's the first installment: setting the stage for the battle.

In 1998, HarperCollins published a new edition of Charles Darwin's "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals", with an Introduction, Afterword and Commentaries by Paul Ekman. Although Darwin's work is available for free on line (here, here, etc.), this book is worth buying for Ekman's additional contributions.

Ekman's Afterword is subtitled "Universality of Emotional Expression? A Personal History of the Dispute". It starts like this:

There is a story to be told. Not just the scientific story of how Darwin's views on expression were confirmed (or not) by research in the hundred years after his death. There is a story about how the clash of strong personalities, world politics, and the role of friendship and loyalty influenced the judgments of key figures in the scientific community. It is a drama that involves strong feelings and concealment, a drama not entirely over as I write, with the actors struggling over the ownership and interpretation of Charles Darwin's legacy about facial expressions of emotion.

Ekman explains that

I considered limiting myself to the scientific evidence, but if I had, readers might not understand what all the furor is about. The story involves more than Darwin's evidence, or evidence found since then. For readers to understand the controversy and make their own judgments, they need to know what is not in the scientific reports; they need to know the motives, history and social factors which influenced the principal antagonists. It was only a small group of actors. I was one of them, and I knew all the others, and am the only one still alive to tell this story.

The other key actors were Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Ray Birdwhistell and Sylvan Tomkins. Ekman says of himself:

I am the last actor, entering this fray as an unknown scientist, half the age of each of these luminaries when I began my research on expression in 1965.

1965, when I started college, was a time when empiricist epistemology -- the view that what we think and feel is entirely a reflection of our experiences -- was still intellectually dominant. Ekman puts it this way:

Through the first half of this century, the behaviorists in psychology claimed that learning was responsible for all that we do and all that we are, including our attitudes and personalities. Individual differences could be wiped out if everyone had the same environment. THere would be no differences between men and women if they were only brought up in the same say. Parents were held responsible by psychiatrists for the neuroses and psychoses of their children. If they had acted differently, their offspring would be healthy, creative and productive. In education, differences in cognitive skills were attributed solely to poor schooling and impoverished home environments, with no acknowledgment that there might be inborn differences in kinds of intelligence. In anthropology, the cultural relativists triumphantly produced accounts of exotic cultures where people lived, mated and raised their offspring in ways so different from ours. The first half of the twentieth century was a time of optimism about the perfectibility of man. There was no acknowledged limit to how much human nature could be reconstructed by changing the environment. Change the state, educate the parents, modify child-rearing practices and we would have a nation of renaissance men and women. Nothing was innate. Our genes played no role in any of the differences in talent, ability or personality. Everything about our social lives was thought to be created by experience, and experiences could be changed and improved. As Margaret Mead put it in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (published in 1935), 'We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.'

Ekman notes that "This one-sided viewed developed in part as a backlash against Social Darwinism, eugenics and the threat of Nazism", and quotes a passage from Margaret Mead's autobiography, where she explains that "we knew how politically loaded discussions of inborn differences could become ... [and so] ... it seemed clear to us that the further study of inborn differences would have to wait upon less troubled times".

Ekman's reaction to this ideological stance is mixed:

I sympathize with Mead's political concerns, but she had more than postponed the study of inborn differences. She had argued forcefully that biology played no role in human nature ... Her concern that racists would misuse evidence of biologically based individual difference led her to attack any claim for the biological basis of social behavior, even when biology is responsible for what unites us as a species, as in the case of univeral expressions of emotions.

For decades any scientist who emphasized the biological contributions to social behavior, who believed in an innate contribution to individual differences in personality, learning, or intelligence, was suspected of being racist. ... In that political climate the claim that facial expressions are the product of culture was accepted without evidence, but no one looked for evidence. It was obvious, it fitted so well with the reigning dogma.

Mead's student Ray Birdwhistell developed and applied the system of kinesics to describe body language, and he concluded (on the basis of microscopic analysis of very small samples of behavior from various cultures and contexts) that

As research proceeded ... it became clear that this search for universals was culture bound .. there are probably no universal symbols of emotional states.

Ekman observes that Margaret Mead prepared a 1955 edition of Darwin's Expression, in which she "included pictures from a conference on kinesics", and wrote an introduction in which she "did not say anything of Darwin's proposal that expressions are universal, nor did she mention the word 'emotion'."

Ekman concludes this section with a sentence that Geoff Pullum will appreciate:

I wonder how Darwin would have felt had he know that his book was introduced by a cultural relativist who had included in his book pictures of those most opposed to his theory of emotional expressions.

In a Language Log post a few days ago ("Embedded rhetorical questions", 10/29/2006), Geoff asked whether it's possible for "an interrogative content clause that [is] the complement of a verb like wonder [to have] rhetorical force". He proposed an artificial example, and asked readers to "send me good, clear, attested examples if you happen to spot them in texts or hear them viva voce".

I think it's clear that Ekman believes that Darwin would have indignantly repudiated Mead's introduction, and that he assumes that his sympathetic readers will believe the same thing. Thus his "I wonder how Darwin would have felt..." is actually an invitation to contemplate the way that he believes, and believes that we believe, Darwin would have felt.

Some other time , I'll sketch the fascinating scientific and personal story that unfolded on the stage that Ekman has set. For now, let me just observe that my favorite sentence, from what I've quoted so far, is this one -- presented here in a slightly abstracted form:

In that political climate the claim that ____ was accepted without evidence, but no one looked for evidence. It was obvious, it fitted so well with the reigning dogma.

Ironically, this is the same process at work when proponents of "the emerging science of sex differences" present traditional sexual stereotypes amid a flurry of irrelevant references to scientific publications. Political correctness serves no single master.

[The story continues here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 31, 2006 08:46 AM