Thursday, September 11, 2008

Explaining individual variance within species

A Primate's Tale is an autobiographical tale of Robert Sapolsky's trips to Kenya to study hormonal patterns in baboons. Robert is bursting with both scientific curiosity and liberal idealism, which makes it all the more amusing when he makes fun of himself.

One especially thought-provoking section of the book is when he considers what evolutionary psychology can and cannot explain:
Sociobiology is often faulted for the Machiavellian explanations it gives for some of the most disturbing of social behaviors. And for the suggestion that some of those horrendous behaviors are highly rewarding to their skillful practitioners. Less noticed is that it also generates just as valid (or invalid) explanations for some of the most selfless, altruistic, caring of behaviors and shows the circumstances under which those are highly rewarding behavioral strategies to follow. Yet, nothing about that science at this stage can begin to explain the individual differences--why did Isaac take the strategy that we recognize as being such a "nice" one, while Nebuchanezzar behaved in a manner that was vicious and rotten? At this stage, as a trained scientist, all I can conclude is that Nebuchanezzar was a shit on some fundamental level.
Indeed, some people may also be best described as "shits." But there has to be some biological explanation for this individual variance. Did they try to share at a young age and not recieve a reward for their kindness? Are they less able to project the consequences of their actions into the future because of an inability to properly store long-term memory?

Some people say that the nature versus nurture debate is over because the truth is clearly a combination of both. I'll buy that, but this is still a fascinating field--what factors determine personality?