Methodological individualism

David Brooks has discovered that human behavior is more complicated (and the science more uncertain) than some headlines he vaguely remembers seem to have suggested:

It wasn’t long ago that headlines were blaring about the discovery of an aggression gene, a happiness gene or a depression gene. The implication was obvious: We’re beginning to understand the wellsprings of human behavior, and it won’t be long before we can begin to intervene to enhance or transform human life.  

But, alas.  

Few talk that way now. There seems to be a general feeling, as a Hastings Center working group put it, that “behavioral genetics will never explain as much of human behavior as was once promised.”

"Behavorial genetics" seems kind of scientific.  What conclusion can we draw from the new-found skepticism about the glories of the scientific mind:

Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.

This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.

Wholly crap!  "Aggressive behavior in an individual" might be the subject of behavorial genetics (worthy of all well-informed (not Brooksian) skepticism), "poverty" is not a genetic property but rather a (relative) social and economic one.  One whose causes, by the way, are largely well known: lack of financial resources, etc. 

By linking poverty with behavorial genetics (whatever that might mean exactly), Brooks seems to claim the explanation for poverty lies mainly with the individual poor person.  But Brooks is then too respectful of the deep human mystery to inquire further about it.

So Brooks' pseudo-skepticism masks a very dogmatic adherence to the claim that individuals are largely responsible for their social destiny.  And that's not very skeptical.

 

*minor edit for "cogency"

6 thoughts on “Methodological individualism”

  1. “Brooks seems to claim the explanation for poverty lies entirely with the poor person.”
    “Brooks’ pseudo-skepticism masks a very dogmatic adherence to the claim that individuals are largely responsible for their social destiny.”
    jcasey, I can see your point, but I think you atribute to Brooks a little more than what he said. Just because he was skeptical about solving poverty by changing the “bad enviornments” is not enough to conclude that he is necessarly defending the other position. To ridicule the atheists’ position does not make you a believer.

  2. BN you’re absolutely right here. Brooks’s position doesn’t support the “entirely” at all. I even meant to change “entirely” to “principally” or “largely,” but then I got sidetracked for some reason and never fixed it. I’ll fix it now.

  3. Social problems are complicated and have varied causes. Wow.
    I nominate Brooks for today’s “I Gotta Be Me” Easily Achieved Goals Award.

  4. So, by Brook’s reasoning, we should not have had an American Revolution because “the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.”

  5. For a guy who asked me several months ago how I managed the energy to keep pointing out the stupidity of David Brooks, you have proven to have more stamina than I. Brooks and Goldberg….I can’t handle reading them regularly anymore. Their arguments are just too stupid.

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