A Neuroscientist Reads Foucault – Part 2: Aesthetics, Chapter 1 – Nietzsche, Genealogy, History

Foucault starts off this chapter with a critique of what he refers to as the “English” approach to genealogy.  This resonated with me as someone whose ancestry is about 50% English, and whose father is obsessed with a particular type of genealogical research – family genealogy. It was very amusing to see Foucault specifically critique the “English tendency” towards being too linear, too reductionist, too simplistic, and “ahistorical” – in other words, meaning isn’t meaning without context, and thus reconstructing a genealogy without recognizing the singular nature of one’s own perspective means we risk misinterpretation, misreading, and perhaps even becoming lost in our own fantastical interpretations of the past.

Foucault is not referring strictly to family genealogy, of course, but historical genealogy more broadly – piecing together old and ancient materials in an attempt to string together a narrative that we can comprehend – and it seems, the English were (and perhaps are) particularly guilty of fitting ambiguous pieces and corrupted fragments together into nice, parsimonious little packages. It does make concepts simpler to grasp, just as my last name being Bryant is easier for people to remember than the 100-odd surnames my dad has painstakingly written out on notecards and documented in articles for the Virginia Historical Society. It is also a convenient way to ignore troubling or unpleasant puzzle pieces – like the fact that we have an ancestor named Dorcas (!).

Foucault’s genealogy isn’t macroscopic in focus (“How the Bryants came to America”), as each event that is recorded is situated in a specific time and place (“the indentured servant market in Western England during the early 1700s”). Foucault writes “Genealogy does not oppose itself to history as the lofty and profound gaze of the philosopher might compare to the molelike perspective of the scholar; on the contrary, it rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and indefinite teleologies. It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.'”(p. 370). In our example, “How the Bryants came to America” is problematic because it assumes incorrectly there there was a discrete entity of “Bryant-ness” that “originated” in Cornwall and whom fate tapped to travel to Virginia in search of a better life. As a narrative, it is a convenient way to bracket a question, but too quickly it becomes a search for an ultimate origin, and the realization of a completed goal. If we zoom into the ending of this story (a Bryant arrives in America, starts family, etc) we would find complex situated realities (wage stagnation in England, aggressive recruitment by the Virginia Company, perhaps deceit or outright exploitation) as well as missing gaps and difficult-to-comprehend actions (what happened to the record of the ship? how long was the indenture period?). We cannot truly reconstruct these events, and we must stay vigilant to the temptation to speak for these historical figures, whose traces are not truly, completely legible to us in our current environment.

What if we chose to challenge the “origins” portion of the story here? Here is where things get particularly interesting for an evolutionary neuroscientist. The amateur genealogist may say, with reasonable certainty, “My ancestors were Cornish”, and be satisfied with this answer to the question of “origins”. The evolutionary biologist says with reasonable certainty, “My ancestors evolved in Africa”.  I’ve just argued for destabilizing familial genealogical concepts of origins – and now I’m going to argue the same for biological/psychological accounts of human origins.

Hominid evolution. Multiple hominid species co-existed and interbred at different points in time. From evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite.

Hominid evolution: multiple hominid species co-existed and interbred at different points in time. From evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite.

When discussing the issue of human origins in scientific fields, one often hears the term “EEA” deployed, which stands for “environment of evolutionary adaptation”. The assumptions are that we can use the scientific method to gather evidence to reconstruct the climate, geography, and environmental resources that existed when humans evolved. The implication is that this reconstruction can inform our understanding of human biology and psychology – the EEA should, by this reasoning, reflect the ideal environment for which humans are perfectly adapted.

There are obviously many problems with this line of reasoning and the assumptions built into them, so I’ll just focus on one example, which also happens to be the example that Foucault and Nietzsche take issue with – scholarly work on the origins of human morality. Foucault, in writing about Nietzsche’s reaction, writes “it is obvious that Paul Ree was wrong to follow the English tendency in describing the history of morality in terms of a linear development – in reducing its entire history and genesis to an exclusive concern for utility” (p. 369).

The evolution of morality is currently a hot topic within the fields of neuroscience and psychology. In my own department, researchers are examining the role of the neuromodulators oxytocin and vasopressin on behaviors of rodents and labeling these behaviors as “love”, “bonding”, “consolation”, and so forth. Dr. Frans de Waal has been arguing for many years for the existence of proto-morality in chimpanzees and monkeys; for example, the fact that macaques will refuse a cucumber as a reward when they see a conspecific receiving a tastier reward (grapes) for the same task has been touted as evidence for the existence of “fairness” in our monkey ancestors, laying the evolutionary groundwork for human concepts of right and wrong.

I do still feel this kind of research is valuable and thought-provoking, but I don’t think it is necessarily producing the answers that scientists may think it does. The hypothesis that monkeys have a “proto-morality” creates problematic teleological assumptions. But then, the concept of human morality has been so entangled with old notions of “progress”, we may never be completely free of those kinds of conceptualizations. I would be interested to see the development of a form of evolutionary psychology and biology that takes into account the other, disparate trajectories of our fellow primate species. They have, after all, been evolving as long as we have.


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