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Some thoughts on science and human nature…

The Faculty of Environmental Studies has an MES (Master's in Environmental Studies) program in which students spend about 2 years developing their own plan of study, taking a series of courses, acquiring some experience in the field (usually), and writing a Major Research Paper (usually). These MRP's are defended in an oral exam at the end of the program. The oral exam is usually a chance to talk about some of the interesting issues and aspects of both the MRP and the student's plan. Last week I was on an exam where a student, trained as a biologist, argued that humans were selfish and self-interested because that was what maximized their survival chances - basically a biologically based argument for selfish behavior. There is a book on the topic, "the selfish gene", by Richard Dawkins. But if we're going to talk about a biological Richard, what about Richard Lewontin, who wrote "biology as ideology". Okay, now I have to admit that I've read neither of those books, but I have read a book by a 19th century geographer and anarchist named Peter Kropotkin, who wrote "Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution", in which he argued that biology dictated altruistic behavior because that was what maximized survival chances. I mentioned the book to my student because the point, to me, is that science doesn't have much to say about whether humans are "selfish" or not. The question itself isn't scientific - it can't be formulated in a way that can be empirically tested. It depends very much on one's assumptions about what 'selfish' is, for example, and those assumptions aren't agreed upon at all (unlike, say, what an 'electron' is or, to be a bit more fluid, what an 'insect' is). It is, in other words, an ideological question. And in ideological matters, it seems to me that it's much preferable that people be open about what their assumptions are, than sneaking their ideology in claiming that it is 'science'. That degrades both science and honest thinking about questions of values, the public good, social and environmental good, etc.