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The Scientific Study of Society
The Scientific Study of Society
by Max Steuer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £82.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for social scientists and students, 13 Oct. 2003
The study of society is like research into a forest in which there are not only oaks and elms but many imaginary trees conjured out of the poetical mind. But which trees are the imposters - and which are real? The varied landscape hardly makes the task easy: the social sciences scatter across the varied terrains of economics, social psychology, political science, sociology and anthropology. A young scientist might hope to discover a new kind of tree -- or even a new part of this forest -- but it takes an individual that has been walking the territory for a lifetime to give us the needed eagle eye's view. Max Steurer a long time 'hiker' in the social sciences has looked at the latest ten year growth of this forest - at least as reported in the top journals -- and in this book reported upon what is to be found. Given the difficulty and ambition of the undertaking, it is amazing that anyone has managed the task - and done it with such success.
Max starts with a hands-on introduction to social science 'silviculture' so we know the difference between its real trees and those merely of poetic invention. Then he takes the reader on several trails through the forest - crime, migration, housing, the family and religion. For each he visits how research into them has developed in each area of the five social sciences. Lastly, having shown us the trees, he ascends and gives us an eagle eye view of the wood. He asks questions. Is one part, for instance, that of economics -- threatening to take over the whole forest? How does the forest relate to the needs of people whose lives depend upon it - can it provide the 'timber' to build better lives together?
The history of the scientific study of the sky makes the book both timely and important. Once the study of the stars and planets was a thicket of poetic impostors and real attempts at understanding the universe. Today, the images shot from the Hubble space telescope are amongst the greatest achievement of the human species while the ramblings of star prophecy has ended up the stuff they wrap chips in. The social sciences needs to turn the astronomy/astrology corner, and Max Steuer in this book has given it the intellectual tools. It may take a few decades (the study of the sky took centuries), but what Max calls 'social poetry' is fated go to the margins with its "feeling of deep understanding' just as astrology did with its own "feelings of deep understanding'.
Some books are are important for providing the ground from which science can grow. Max Steuer's book is of this kind. It needs to be read by every social scientist, student of the social sciences, and what used to be called the 'educated layperson'.


The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin Press Science)
by Steven Pinker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

45 of 80 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pinker is a Darwin right-winger: A retort from Darwin�s Left, 10 July 2003
Evolutionary psychology like politics has its Right and Left.
Both society and human nature raise the question: what is established and natural -- and what can and cannot be changed? In politics, the Right privileges the status quo and the well worn while denying that society can radically reorganize for the better. The Left celebrates our potential to advance, sees the past as oppressor, and liberation in what has yet to be.
Human nature has a similar conflict. The Darwinian Right sees human nature as already created when natural selection made our species. That evolutionary inheritance defines us - we cannot reorganize what is already laid down in the "status quo" of our genes. For the Darwinian Left, our genes are ingredients which get "cooked" by culture - tomorrow that transformation will be different -- and with it human nature.
The Darwinian Right has been looking for a manifesto, and that is what you get with Blank Slate. (For the Darwinian Left check out Stephen J. Gould, my recent book with Dorion Sagan, or his father, Carl -- or read this review's end).
Five stars for quality as manifesto and spin -- but its science merits nil - for Blank Slate distorts science where it does not fit the Right's storyline. Space prevents listing all but one contortion -- its evasion of the implications of neural plasticity.
The visual cortex has evolved for over 100 million years for sight yet in those born blind it processes touch and hearing. Likewise sight processing can be experimentally induced in the somatosensory and auditory cortices. The existence of such ectopic - wrong placed - cognitions refutes the Darwinian Right -- since these specialized cognitions exist in spite of lacking prior evolution. Why require evolution for our higher cognitions when neural plasticity can deliver them without its aid?

Pinker engages in spin by explaining away ad hoc the inconvenient reality of neural plasticity. He makes (page 85) the weak claim that such ectopic cognitions are "doing pretty much the same thing" across senses. He can give away that ground. But Pinker's right-wing Darwinism needs evolution for the "modules" of higher cognition -- if the same "doing pretty much the same thing" applies to syntax and semantics then the Darwinian Right is intellectually dead.
It is dead. The fatal sentence in the book occurs on page 93: "the plasticity discovered in primary sensory cortex [has been seen] as a metaphor for what happens elsewhere in the brain ... it is not a very good metaphor.". Pinker brazenly lies here - he has to -- to save his theory. It is however no metaphor -- as the honest part of Pinker knows full well -- higher cognitions can be ectopic (I pointed this out to him in an exchange, Pinker's reply to which grew into chapter 5: The Slate's Last Stand).
Brain tumors, for example, rarely cause higher cognitive problems since the functions of higher cortex areas they slowly destroy move onto neurons elsewhere. The recovery from brain injury and brain disorders likewise depends upon such flexibility.
But most importantly, functional imaging now shows that syntax and semantics activate the visual cortex of the blind. This discovery of language-in-the-visual cortex pulls the ground away from Pinker and the Darwinian Right. Pinker has to lie. If language cognitions can take up residence in the visual cortex, then evolution did not pack our brain with evolved higher cognition modules, full stop.
Pinker, the Darwinian Right-winger is also guilty of 'criminal' irresponsibility. Dr. Anton Wernig fought the established idea that the broken spine could not learn to rewire itself through neural plasticity to let paralytics walk. That established idea stopped a generation relearning to walk - but its claim about spinal fixity was wrong: given intensive exercise, spinal neurons can pick up new walking skills. Pinker's lie will makes it harder for researchers to get funding for innovative therapies to aid the brain injured if that exploits what according to him is mere "metaphor". This bestseller thus could condemn you to avoidable cognitive impairment in old age since key therapies (thanks to the Darwinian Right) will now go unexplored. That is a crime against us all.
So what is the alternative to Pinker -- the Darwinian Left?
The brain as palimpsest. Evolution might write, but culture can scrape and wash that writing off like an ancient scribe and write human nature anew.
Evolution as the provider to the brain of a set of programming language procedures out of which culture can program complex, novel and exciting cognitions.
The brain as rewireable with new symbol based cognitions that reuse earlier evolved ape ones.
Evolution as the provider of a neural "combustion engine" upon which culture is fitted like a varied chassis (car, light-aircraft, boat, machine tool, electrical power generator) that gets powered into widely different human natures - the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, the Neolithic farmer, the Monk, the Aztec, the Mandarin, Bach, the mathematician, the bureaucrat, the Manhattan intellectual ...
Culture not as something dumb but smart picking out evolved traits so we get extended in new ways. Think here of architecture - evolution made us biped, thus architecture designs stairs - if we had the bodies of chimps, buildings would have climbing frames instead. Culture similarly fits itself around and extends the potentials of our evolved brains.
Human evolution that as Carl Sagan in Dragons of Eden observed shifted the propagation of information from genes to cultural transmission: "We have made a kind of bargain with nature: our children will be difficult to raise, but their capacity for new learning will greatly enhance the chances of survival of the human species"
Human evolution as evolution that divorced human nature from genes by selecting genes to aid the mind to get shaped extragenetically by culture.
The Darwinian Left is a fascinating story to read -- but for that you will have to look elsewhere than this book.


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