Commentary | Politics is not biology

Social sciences must not be beholden to physical sciences

On March 26, the Political Science Students’ Association, together with McGill’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, held a symposium on biopolitics – a relatively new field in political science focusing on the biological underpinnings of political behaviour. Under the heading “Politics: Is It In Your Genes?”, three researchers talked about studies showing, for example, that women are less aggressive than men, or that Republicans tend to focus more on the negative aspects of life than liberals.

This research has implications for political science, but is grounded in disciplines like biology, psychology, or evolutionary theory, and their intersections. The assumption is that the workings of different biological systems, coded in our genes, lead to certain cognitive or processing biases, which then inform our stance on issues of the day, explained John Hibbings, a political science professor at University of Pittsburgh. Politics, the researchers argued in line with the title of the talk, is in fact in our genes. At the same time, the presenters emphasized that genetics is not determinism, and that environment is crucial in determining the actual outcome of a person’s genetic makeup. One may ask then: why, if nurture has the last say, do we need to study biology at all to understand political behaviour?
For a while now, it has been a trend in the social sciences and humanities to shore up research by pointing to natural sciences or economics. Doing so seems to be a way for these disciplines to gain a legitimacy they appear to have increasing difficulty obtaining on their own. In a world that values quick and easily quantifiable results, it is not surprising that “mathandscience” (as Earl Shorris puts it in an article on the demise of the humanities in Harper’s magazine) gets all the attention and the money. Not only is there a clear profit to be made from something like engineering, but in addition, “science” has also since the Enlightenment been shorthand for objective truth, an unbiased account of the state of things as they really are. Claiming that one’s social science research is grounded in biology, therefore, could give a researcher an edge in competing for funding and publishing: their findings seem closer to objective truth than, say, the mostly thought-based work of a political theorist.

This way of acquiring legitimacy is a dangerous path to take. One of the most important tenets of the social sciences, and especially the humanities, is that there is no objective truth. How you frame the question of study, what method you use – there are always subjective choices to make, and they naturally affect your results. This is also true in the purportedly objective natural sciences. Using natural science to bolster social science research is a shortcut that undermines much of the work that has previously been done in the same discipline; at the same time, it makes it even more difficult for the social sciences to gain merit on their own terms. Interdisciplinarity is great and should be more common, but not when it’s at the expense of one of the disciplines involved. Sadly, this trend seems to be the rule when natural sciences and social sciences are combined, probably because of the aforementioned air of objective truth that the former still has: by virtue of it, the natural sciences are allowed to overrule everything else.

The panel discussion during the symposium evidenced this devaluation of the humanities. It included one economist, one professor of medicine, and one journalist, as well as the presenters – but not a single theorist. Had, say, a philosopher or a historian partaken, perhaps the problem of presenting social research findings as biological facts would have been discussed in more depth. As it was, the symposium not only failed to examine this question properly, but did not even manage to explain why this type of research is useful in the first place, especially since, as was conceded, genetics is not determinism.

There are too many benefits of the social sciences to cite them all here. But one important aspect of these disciplines, related to the matter immediately at hand, is their preoccupation with critical thinking. Not only is the questioning of dominant ideas and understandings necessary for the existence of free minds (to the extent that that is at all possible), but skepticism is also a prerequisite for the advancement of new knowledge. The fact that social sciences are increasingly delegitimized is a disturbing tendency, and the disciplines themselves should not aid the trend by contributing to their own marginalization.

Kira Josefsson is a U2 Honours Cultural Studies and Political Theory student. She’s also a Daily staffer. Write her at kira.josefsson@mail.mcgill.ca.


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