Goodbye to all that

Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature

Could epigenetics finally re-write the script about human nature? Maybe. But first we better tell the incredibly diverse group of academics over at The Edge, who gathered to discuss Napoleon Chagnon: Blood is their Argument. After this whole new promotional opportunity for the Steven Pinker Empire, it’s been interesting to note a newly-launched empirical critique: see War, Peace, and Human Nature.

Scrolling through The Edge, I can’t help but think again about not being an anthropologist. As I said in Party Like It’s 1999, if you told me 20 years ago, back in 1993 when I was looking at graduate programs, that Napoleon Chagnon would be a big hit for the Academic Edge in 2013, I probably would have steered more toward programs in Latin American history.

You’ll forgive me for reminiscing back to fall 1993 classes with Gillian Feeley-Harnik, Emily Martin, Sidney W. Mintz, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and really believing that anthropology and academia had definitively changed. Of course not all for the better–and I was myself part of a re-whitening of an anthropology that in the 1990s grew less diverse than it had been in the 1970s–but it seemed that the kinds of ideas Chagnon had begun brandishing were becoming more and more anomalous.

Thank you to Kenan Malik for tweeting out my previous critique along with the new treasures. My other favorite responses so far:

  • I rarely advise anyone to “read the comments” but for this Boing-Boing on Napoleon Chagnon, that’s where the fun starts. The original piece is basically a promotional link to The Edge, but most of the comments (so far) rip into the Dawkins gang.
  • See Cris Campbell’s Ignoble Savages & Napoleon Chagnon for a response parallel to my own–we both gravitate toward Daniel Everett and Brian Ferguson. Although it was not my experience that Chagnon was required reading in graduate school, I generally agree that “while the older generation continues to play personal and political games, a younger generation makes four-field anthropology an altogether more vibrant and hospitable place.” However, I am a bit surprised at Campbell’s labeling as odd “that these scholars apparently operate on the mistaken assumption that the Yanomamo are ‘primitive’ exemplars of our evolutionary past.” This is hardly an oddity for that forum–it’s been their operating principle! I would additionally argue that it is precisely the men pictured on The Edge who are the “older generation” playing “personal and political games”–games that I do not find among most senior anthropologists today.
  • Greg Downey: “Ugh, bunch of old guys & honorary old guy Pinker get together to fawn over Napoleon Chagnon at The Edge. I actually think Chagnon hard done-by, but I’m over the outrageous assertions of his supporters… I lost respect for all involved.”
  • Jason De León: Richard Dawkins confirms he’s not an anthropologist by stating that Chagnon is “Arguably our greatest anthropologist”
  • Jane Henrici: “Purple prose on anthropology, anthropologists, science.”
  • oops ohno: “STEVEN PINKER convenes an event to worship NAPOLEON CHAGNON. Introduction by RICHARD DAWKINS. I just can’t even. This is the worst. I–. Ugh.”
  • Andrew Badenoch: “Pinker’s line is classic: ‘it doesn’t matter whether they’re literally hunter-gatherers.'”

At the very end, however, is a quote from Daniel Everett, which goes quite nicely with UC Santa Barbara trained anthropologist Brian Haley’s comment, corresponds to the basic message of Anthropology and Human Nature, and would also fit with what Marshall Sahlins describes in The Western Illusion of Human Nature. Here’s Daniel Everett:

Theoretically I agree with Chagnon that, contrary to Marvin Harris’s work, culture is not simply the reflection of material environment. On the other hand, I find no evidence in Chagnon’s work for a notion that human nature either exists or that human cultures directly reflect human biology. The great leap forward of human beings has been their cognitive flexibility, not their rigidity.

Chagnon is controversial, but he ought not to be. The controversy doesn’t emerge from his descriptions but from our biases of how people ought to live and how western scientists should manage these peoples’ “image.” His descriptive work is first–rate, a sentiment also expressed by missionaries who have lived among the Yanomamö decades longer than Chagnon. Many of them think his descriptions are the best written on this people.

Yet I disagree that Chagnon has shown anything about either “human nature” or the evolution of our species. What he has shown us is valuable and important just the same–that there are a variety of human experiences and that in learning about this variety we learn more about our species. In fact, when I compare the descriptions of Amazonian and other communities around the world, including the community of social scientists, I reach the opposite conclusion–human nature is a fiction that some folks find convenient. When we finally liberate ourselves from this 19th century idea (going back to Adolph Bastian’s work on the “psychic unity of mankind”) we may begin to see the richness in human diversity. (Daniel Everett on Napoleon Chagnon at The Edge)

Or, as Marshall Sahlins might say: The National Academy of Sciences, The Edge, Human Nature, Goodbye to all that.

Daniel Everett has written a similar overview in The New York Daily News, Where nature and nurture clash: Pioneering a new theory of language:

We certainly are all cut from the same biological mode. But nature made us flexible not rigid. That is why the bold idea of Chomsky and the evolutionary psychologists simply cannot explain what we know about human diversity.

This shortcoming has lead to a new “nurture revolution” gathering steam around the world among primatologists, psychologists, philosophers, linguists, and evolutionary biologists. The basic idea of this nurture revolution is simple: Humans are not canned. We are flexible.

Meanwhile, from a helpful Kenan Malik tweet–one that really should be on The Edge–The Genome in Turmoil:

In part, this reluctance is a familiar story in every scientific field where new ideas challenge long-entrenched theories. But perhaps part of the initial aversion to epigenetics was motivated by something in our cultural consciousness. Epigenetics undermines age-old ideas of the organism, particularly the human being, as having a stable essence–whether it is a divine soul, a curled-up miniature being waiting to unfold into a fully formed adult, or a molecular program from which we can read off a biologically predestined future. The claim that “it’s in our DNA,” it seems, no longer offers the reassuring bedrock of certainty that we once thought it did. (Nessa Carey, author of The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance)

And then there’s Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes:

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.

Or not. If your grandmother was adopted by nurturing parents, you might be enjoying the boost she received thanks to their love and support. The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too. And for those unlucky enough to descend from miserable or withholding grandparents, emerging drug treatments could reset not just mood, but the epigenetic changes themselves. Like grandmother’s vintage dress, you could wear it or have it altered. The genome has long been known as the blueprint of life, but the epigenome is life’s Etch A Sketch: Shake it hard enough, and you can wipe clean the family curse.

Thanks to biological anthropologist Patrick Clarkin for the link, who has written about such issues in How the World Gets Under Our Skin. Clarkin writes of plasticity and the process of development: “Through that process of development, multiple biological outcomes from the same genes are possible. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that natural selection would favor genes that give an organism some plasticity to respond to environments that change within a single lifetime.”

Also of interest here, further musings from biological anthropologist Ken Weiss, Is genomic causation deterministic or probabilistic? Weiss is not so concerned with epigenetics but the heart of genomic causation ideas, and “deep problems in trying to understand the variation in life from a genomic causal point of view.”

At the same time, also on The Mermaid’s Tale, in Microbiomes R Us Anne Buchanan demonstrates how research on microbiomes can then be fed into yet another story of simplistic determinism. Epigenetics is potentially vulnerable to the same fate.

At the end of my talk on The Noble Savages Controversy: Napoleon Chagnon, Marshall Sahlins and Reintegrating Anthropology, two SUNY New Paltz psychologists needled me to take a stand on human nature. I hedged a bit–it’s difficult to say this coherently in front of a crowd–but tried to state that there really is no such thing:

Human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history. . . .

This does not mean, of course, that a human being can be anything you please. But it does mean that there is no way of describing what human beings are independently of the manifold historical and environmental circumstances in which they become–in which they grow up and live out their lives. (Tim Ingold, Against Human Nature, 2006:259,273)

As it turned out, the psychologists were quite helpful allies, admirers of Susan McKinnon and Developmental Systems Theory. Thank you again to Dr. Benjamin Junge and SUNY New Paltz Anthropology for inviting a speaker based only on a blog-post! [Comment clarification, a recommendation from anthropologist Christopher Lynn and a blog post.]

So, on the one hand perhaps epigenetics can rewrite the standard scripts on human nature and wake up academics on The Edge. On the other hand, the new genetics, including epigenetics, could be combined with ideas of culture as race-lite promoted by people like David Brooks. We should remember that one of the reasons for the revival of ideas like the Psychic Unity of Mankind was to counteract the post-Darwin stream of scientific racism. Because if epigenetics and genetics gets wired up with so-called cultural traits, we’re going to miss the days when all we had to worry about was Bill Gates reading Jared Diamond.

Update September 2013: See The Social Life of Genes for a glimpse of just how thoroughly genetic expression seems to be altered and constantly remade through ongoing experience.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Epigenetics on The Edge: Human Nature, Goodbye to all that.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 8 June 2013. Revised 22 September 2017.

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  • Jon Marks

    Can I put in a word for Bastian and the Psychic Unity of Mankind? The alternative was Haeckel’s (“Darwinian”) view that there are 12 species of people, at varying distances from the apes. That would make ethnology effectively impossible, because all humans wouldn’t be fully human.

    • Hi Jon, definitely, thanks! I was a bit confused by Everett’s dismissal of Bastian and the Psychic Unity idea. As I mentioned at the end–thank you for verifying!–most people who defended Psychic Unity of Mankind did so as an alternative to the very virulent racism of the time. One of my favorite passages on this is from Tim Ingold, who challenges the idea, but does explain:

      With the publication, in 1871, of Darwin’s The descent of man, the doctrine of common human potential–or, as it was then known, of the ‘psychic unity of mankind’–was brought into contention, challenged by the view that inter-population differences on the scale of civilisation could be attributed to anatomical variation, above all in the size and complexity of the brain. Thomas Huxley went so far as to declare that the superiority of the European over the allegedly small-brained savage was no different, in principle, from that of the savage over the even smaller-brained ape. There ensued a period of quite rampant racism from which anthropology did not begin to recover until the second decade of the twentieth century. It did so by reasserting the universality of human nature, and by insisting that whatever differences of biological endowment may exist between populations are of no consequence for history and cultural development.
      Indeed so long as it is assumed that the biological constitution of human organisms is given as a genetic endowment, there can be no escape from racism save by disconnecting cultural from biological variation. Clearly there is no foundation in fact for the raciological belief that cultural differences have a genetic basis. My point, however, is that in turning its back on racist dogma, subsequent theorising about human evolution has reconstituted the eighteenth-century view in all its essentials.

      The Perception of the Environment, 2000:388-389.

  • Christopher Lynn

    Actually, Ben invited you based on my recommendation, then the blog post I sent him. Just sayin’… 😉

    • Ah, a hidden connection. Thanks! The network does work after all. I’ve added a clarifying link above, and keep up the good work at the EvoS Consortium.

  • Helga Vierich

    YOu know, I am grateful for this discussion, as it leaves me in doubt among which commentators I feel sane. I spent a year on the Dawkins Foundation forum – and left because I began to feel increasing impulses to behave like a Yanomami and set to with a yell and a steel axe. the idea of the unity of Mankind, psychic or otherwise, is rather supported, not undermined by the revelations from genetics. And not only are we all more similar than different, but OUR EPIGENETIC PLASTICITY has a certain unity as well. Human nature is NOT infinitely variable – it is variable along certain well trodden pathways, pathways well trodden for more years than we have been human. We are not the only animals that react predictably to stress. We are not the only animals with a diurnal cycle that we disrupt at our peril. We are not the only animal that gets fat on too much sugar and too little exercise. We are not the only animal that suffers social breakdown when there is starvation or some limit to population density is exceeded. We are not the only animal that needs lots of love and touching and care in infancy.

    That said, cultural variably also follows a patterned regularity. foragers are generally more similar than they are different in their social behaviour, their relationship to the land, their rituals, levels of violence, mobility, and the rhythm of work and leisure. There is an outlier in the sedentary groups. Horticulture and pastoralism are both economic alternative that entrain a certain kind of social organization and pattern of work and mobility. Fixed resources, even on the hoof, tend to be targets for rustling, something all but the sedentary foragers, do not present to one another.

    You guys know that. So get a grip.

    • Hi Helga, thank you for this–clarifies a lot. Thank you for all your efforts!

  • Matt Zimmerman

    Pete Richerson (via Lesley Newson) has been sending around this oldish essay by David Hull, “On Human Nature,” that might be of interest.

    • Hi Matt, thank you–certainly an interesting read, plainly written, and encapsulates some key issues. Thank you for posting!

  • Victor

    I check out Edge, from time to time, and was pleased to find their very interesting Chagnon-fest, which I read with real pleasure. I especially appreciated Pinker’s interview with Chagnon, which turned out to be far more probing and less doctrinaire than what I’d expected.

    I have very mixed feelings about all the criticisms of Chagnon, Pinker, Wrangham, etc. I too disagree with Chagnon’s notion that the Yanoama represent some sort of essence of “Stone Age Man,” and I also disagree strongly with Pinker-Wrangham’s notion that humans are inherently violent. On the other hand, even if they’ve come up with the wrong answers, I still find their work meaningful because they are asking the right questions. Which most anthropologists these days seem either afraid or extremely reluctant to ask. Anthropology some time ago took a turn away from the “big questions,” aka those bad old “Grand Metanarratives” we were told, on the basis of the best French authority, we were supposedly tired of. Well, maybe we were. Back then. Which is now pretty far back indeed.

    Epigenetics represents an interesting and possibly meaningful new take on the evolution question, but as I see it what’s been far too neglected of late, and for some time into the past is something at least equally as powerful: tradition. Which hardly anyone wants to talk about, for some reason. The general assumption being that human culture “naturally” changes over time — the usual model being language, which does seem to have some such built in tendency. My focus has not been language but music, and if you study the distribution of musical styles worldwide as I have, you’ll see that they tend to be extremely conservative. And in my view other traditions are much more like music in this respect, with language being the outlier. And if traditions generally are conservative, then by studying their worldwide distribution we can in fact begin to think after all about what our ancestors were like back in the “good old days” of “Stone Age Man.”

    I urge you to check out at least the Introduction to my book, Sounding the Depths, to get an idea of what I’m talking about and what my approach is like. It might interest you:

    • Victor

      Sorry, Jason, I’d forgotten that I’d recently posted some similar thoughts a while back on this same blog, also with a pitch for my book. It’s important to me that my somewhat off the beaten path ideas reach as many anthropologists as possible, so I’m not shy about bringing them up whenever given half a chance. Please forgive.

      • Hi Victor, no worries, thank you for the comments! I’ve been drafting some kind-of related thoughts on social change and will post with a link back. Thanks!

  • Karl Seeley

    Hi Jason,

    The idea of plasticity and epigenetics reminds me of the “nature vs. nurture” chapter in Freakonomics. The stated thesis was very broad, along the lines of, “Your upbringing has very little influence on who you end up being.” The statistical analysis was fine to an extent: it used the classic twin-studies approach to show that genes were very important in determining the variable that it used for “who you end up to be.”

    The problem was that “who you end up being” was defined as your IQ (as measured on IQ tests, of course) and admission to prestigious colleges. Missing from “who you end up being” were:

    – Your satisfaction in life

    – The quality of your friendships and family life

    – Whether you’re a mensch or a schmuck

    You know, just some small, unimportant matters…

    • Hi Karl, thank you for this and apologies for the delay. Unfortunately this whole nature versus nurture idea is still with us and probably will always be. But there are several signs that maybe the tide is turning toward a more biocultural perspective or what anthropologist Agustin Fuentes calls the Naturenurtural. However, people rarely believe anthropologists about these things, so it is comforting to see some genetics and biology discovering the same thing–The Social Life of Genes.