Recently, Canadian philosopher Joseph Heath wrote an essay on social constructivism in which he tries to clean up some ambiguities and tensions. I think he’s right to point out that the debate between social constructivism and biological determinism is really just an extension of the old nature versus nurture issue. At the end of the day, Heath suggests, we really haven’t made much progress in either debate, both sides digging into their familiar and worn-out defenses. The correct conclusion to the nature-nurture debates of old, Heath says, “would have been that there is a continuum, with some things being more biological and some things more social.” Instead, each side took the resolution “everything is both” to be a point in favor of their own side: people who believed it was nature all the way down still went around construing everything as biological or innate, and those who thought it was nurture all the way down still went around thinking everything was a question of social norms, environment, and upbringing. Nobody missed a beat.
New ways of talking about an old problem have disguised the fact that all we’ve really done is apply a fresh coat of paint and shuffled some furniture around. On one side, there are people like Jordan Peterson lecturing us about how there are certain structures in place that developed for evolutionary or biological reasons, arguing that we should be wary about changing them or even thinking about them as “constructed”—which amounts to the classic argument from human nature dressed up in evolutionary language. Then there’s the “gender is a social construct” people who think all our norms, practices, values, and ideas are social through and through and human beings, rightly considered, are just a product of their environments—which, of course, is just the nurture argument dressed up in the latest academic neologisms.
I agree with Heath when he says “a lot of things that are socially constructed cannot easily be changed,” but I don’t think this is a blow to the social constructivist position nor do I think any interesting conclusions can be drawn from this fact. As Jason Kuznicki writes, “Gender is constructed, but so are prisons.” The claim that there are social costs to change or that change is difficult—a mantra that Peterson echoes quite often—is just as empty as saying it’s social construction all the way down. As Kuznicki rightly points out, nowhere will you find Michel Foucault or Judith Butler saying that because gender is constructed that it is necessarily easy to change. Both sides draw way too much social and political firepower from their philosophical positions.
But Heath slips as he develops his own position and muddies the water further by bringing the concept of canalisation into the picture: canalized in the sense of ingrained, whether genetically or otherwise, “and thus more resistant to social or environmental modification.” I want to quote at length to avoid misinterpretation.
It is, of course, a scientific question how canalized the development of a particular trait is, and thus, how much socializing effort would be required in order to divert that trajectory. Unfortunately, there is a powerful political motive that interferes, for many people, with the impartial adjudication of this question. Whenever one has a trait that is involved, in one way or another, with some injustice, many people would like to believe that it is more “social” than “biological,” precisely because they would like to see it changed. This has had numerous consequences, perhaps the more obvious of which is the outrageous misallocation of the burden of proof that prevails in the social sciences, but also in everyday public debate, where proponents of “biological” explanations, in order to vindicate their claims, must rule out every possible “social” explanation, but where proponents of “social” explanations typically feel no obligation even to present evidence for their claims, much less rule out all possible “biological” explanations. For instance, when it comes to observed gender differences in children, biological explanations are ordinarily taken to be defeated by purely hypothetical accounts of how the observed difference could be the result of socialization.
It’s unclear to me why Heath thinks understanding whether something is social or biological is a scientific question. What would count as evidence? Brain scans? How do we know those neurons weren’t conditioned or if they were to what extent? He goes on to say that the “impartial adjudication” of whether something is an expression of our biology or whether its constructed gets hamstrung by political motives. This, he says, has the consequence of shifting the burden of proof on the biological determinists who “in order to vindicate their claims, must rule out every possible ‘social’ explanation.” In other words, whereas biological determinists have to refute every social explanation in order to make their case for determinism, social constructivists feel they are under no obligation to provide evidence for their claims. But this isn’t true. One can broadly gesture at history for a few examples and this would be just as crude, but more correct, than Heath’s gesture toward “science” to help us figure out whether it’s social or biological. Furthermore, it doesn’t strike me as all that disconcerting that there’s a higher standard for those who parrot biological determinism as an explanation for this or that practice—there probably should be.
To illustrate his point, Heath uses religion and the family as grist for his some-things-are-just- stable mill, and he makes the same error when looking at both. First, religion.
Religion is obviously cultural, and it is also, obviously, made up. In any case, from the fact that religions are made up, one might conclude that it would be easy to make up a new one. And indeed, many people have tried. What they discover, however, is that while working up a new “revelation,” or developing a set of new ritual practices, is not that difficult, securing their widespread acceptance is almost impossible.
This is the core of Peterson’s point about religion: if it’s not encoded, biological, blessed by evolution, whatever, then why do we still have these relatively stable religions? If the choice is between religion in general and no religion, it’s easy to say that these ideas and institutions are around for a reason. But working at this level of abstraction is pointless. Religion in general loses meaning when you look at not only the myriad religions that exist today (so much so that the idea of a religious sensibility means close to nothing since this sensibility expresses itself in an equal myriad ways), but the ways in which specific religions, like Christianity, have changed over thousands of years.
So why has Christianity been around and stable for so long? I’m doubtful that it has. Christianity has mutated, changed, developed, progressed, and everything in between over the course of its long career. The Christianity of Bible Belt Christians in 2018 would have been unrecognizable to 12th century French Christians, and vice versa. Indeed, part of someone like Peterson’s entire project hinges on this process of mutation, and dressing it up in evolutionary language is no more or less stable than those councils who were dressing up this or that change as the will of God. Describing something in a different vocabulary is change.
The same goes for the family. Although Heath argues that the family is “an extremely flexible institution,” he goes on to say that “social reformers have been trying, off and on, to abolish the family for literally thousands of years, without success.” And why has this proved unsuccessful?
[B]ecause the institution [of the family] organizes and channels a set of emotional and behaviour dispositions that are deep feature of mammalian psychology, which are extremely difficult to override. The most that anyone has been able to accomplish is to create a “sterile caste” (such the Catholic priesthood, or the Chinese imperial eunuchs), and these also tend to be unstable. By contrast, the “guardian” arrangement that one finds in Plato’s Republic has been tried innumerable times, and has never been made to work.
The mistake is the same: set up a supposedly stable institution or practice and compare it to the attempts to completely dismantle or destroy said institution or practice. The only thing this exercise proves is that people are relatively attached to what is familiar; it says nothing whatsoever about whether those familiarities are socially constructed or biologically innate. To concede a point, familiarity and stability might indeed imply evolutionary usefulness but it need not necessarily. Heath says in passing that “arbitrary” practices like “adoption” have “extended” these practices, and that what we refer to the family “exists in very different configurations in different societies.” But this takes him nowhere, as the example of failed reformers attempting to abolish the family only proves to him that the family is biologically, evolutionarily, and psychologically grounded, unchanging, stable. Relatively minor tweaks like adoption and gay marriage—tweaks that add up to much more than the sum of their parts when viewed historically—are brushed aside.
Trading in Platonic essences is a dubious practice. It’s why people like Jordan Peterson always get to say that the manifestations of this or that practice are but manifestations of this essential part of us or that essential social structure. You just gesture towards Essence A, the family, to Manifestation B, adoption, to make it seem as though the latter has always been implicit and a latent possibility in the original essence. Adoption? Well the core impulse to care for human beings is still there! Practice intact. With this strategy in hand you can, quite literally, say anything about anything. Going from essences to actual practices and back again requires one to be ambiguous and vague, and makes otherwise empty statements sound profound. I just doubt the payoff is worth it.
But the phrase I can’t make any sense of in Heath’s otherwise good essay is “made up,” as in his point that “Religion is obviously cultural, and it is also, obviously, made up.” Made up compared to what? Is it any more or less made up than the idea of literature? Or poetry? Chess? Or even separation of powers, federalism, or democracy? It seems to me that you can go down the deconstructionist rabbit hole and say everything is made up, since language itself is made up.
I think we should talk about human tendencies rather than (biological) human nature, and talk about contingencies rather than social constructs. What this does is loosen our grip on both foundations. A human tendency doesn’t claim anything close to final authority on who we are or the words we choose to speak, without having to deny that our genetic makeup has some measurable effect on both. It replaces the argument from authority with the suggestion that there are reasons we’ve done it this way, and it’s wise to look into those reasons. Talking in terms of tendency allows us to put genetic and biological influences behind Chesterton’s Fence, alongside tradition, without bestowing any absolute authority upon either.
In much the same way, the idea of contingency robs the social constructivist position of much of its social and political power. Talk of social construction conjures up images of structures that must be knocked down if we are to make progress, but also of the absolute freedom in deciding what to build next. Contingency, on the other hand, brings into focus the fragility of a way of life, held together by a particular shifting arrangement of norms, values, and institutions. This maintains the freedom we have in changing particular norms, values, and institutions, but brings to view the ever-present danger that we may throw out the baby with the bathwater. Since it is the overall arrangement which constitutes the social order, rearranging a few parts can result in big and unpredictable transformations. In short, contingency allows us to emphasize both our freedom to seek a better way of life, but also that such a way of life would be fragile in ways we may not be able to anticipate.
So contingency cuts both ways: in addition to seeing norms and values as socialized or “constructed” all the way down, it also acknowledges the fragility of those norms and values. They may indeed be “made up” but they are none the worse for that fact, and they are certainly not inferior practices merely because they are contingent or more fluid than we previously thought. Change comes about not through revolutionary swaps from one norm to another, but through the reconstructing and redescribing of experience in relatively minor, but nonetheless novel ways. Whether talk of contingency is more accurate than talk of social construction is neither here nor there; but it’s certainly more useful to talk this way—perhaps just for political reasons. When we equate construction with inferiority, we rob ourselves of the very materials we need to reconstruct and reform our practices.
The larger point is that neither intellectual sophistication nor anchoring one’s worldview in either biology or social constructivism will help decide ahead of time whether we should hang tight to a practice, revise it, or throw it out. To put the point crudely, it’s always a matter of cost-benefit where there are always costs and always benefits, and ignoring either costs or benefits to score a conversational point obscures the tragic aspect of all human interaction.
The debate between determinists and constructivists is somewhat moot considering our ethical focus should be on specific norms, values, and institutions and not general ways of viewing the world and then applying that scheme to all norms, values, and institutions. William James was right that people tend to be conservative about their beliefs, adding new insights and ideas only when they can be seamlessly incorporated into one’s previously held beliefs. But he was also right when he characterized beliefs as essentially coping mechanisms and thus fluid and malleable. Interactions with the books we read, the people we run into, and even contradictions within ourselves all chain us to living with a relatively coherent sets of beliefs while always needing to revise, reconstruct, and redescribe them in order to cope with the changing world around us.
I pretty much agree with Kuznicki when he writes:
To say … that gender is a social construct is therefore not to say that gender is a matter of arbitrary choice. Nor would I say that gender is an inescapable social prison. Like language, gender is externally constrained as to many of its features, and yet it’s also full of potential for nuanced and authentic self-expression. At its best, gender expression is neither arbitrary nor totalizing, but it occupies—if we allow it—a happy middle ground.
To argue about how much we are constrained by our biology or how much potential there is for “nuanced and authentic self-expression” is to once again drag the debate back to its previous stalemate. Although Kuznicki’s strategy is a bit different than mine—arguing for a middle ground rather than reframing the two sides—I’m willing to go with whatever strategy puts an end to these pointless debates about nature and nurture, determinism and social constructivism.
Featured image is The City Rises, by Umberto Boccioni