- Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality by Helen Longino
In Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality, Helen Longino meticulously examines a wide variety of research programs devoted to studying human behavior, specifically aggression and sexual orientation. She teases apart the methodologies of the various approaches, examining their epistemic structure, the assumptions they must hold fixed, the research questions they enable and those they necessarily occlude, their underlying ontologies, the interests that motivate them, the ideological investments they help buttress, and the practical and political uses they serve. By the end of the book she has made clear that the so-called ‘nature-nurture’ debates invoke a hopelessly simplistic and distorting dualism when it comes to any interesting question about the etiology of a behavior. This is a readable, informative, rigorous, and elegantly organized new work from a leading scholar who has had a major hand in turning the interplay among science, ethics, and social interests into a topic of rigorous philosophical study.
In the first part of the book, Longino devotes a chapter or substantial section to each major methodological approach to studying aggression and sexual orientation, including (using her labels): quantitative behavioral genetics, social-environmental approaches, molecular behavioral genetics, neurobiological approaches, and several ‘integrative’ approaches (such as developmental systems theory) that focus on the interactions and dynamics between causal factors over time rather than trying to isolate one causal contribution. She also briefly discusses human ecology, which takes the unit of study to be the behavior of a population, studied in its material environment, rather than the behavior of an individual.
Longino shows elegantly how each of these research programs is equipped to reveal certain specific kinds of truths about behavior, while making other important dimensions of the phenomena invisible. Many of her examples are technical and detailed, but I can recap a few relatively simple and powerful examples: (1) Behavioral researchers have no shared understanding of what an ‘environment’ is or which features of it we need [End Page E-97] to measure. Whatever operationalization of ‘environment’ is used within a study or set of studies, this operationalization is not itself scientifically validated, but merely presupposed (33). Thus how much of a behavior shows up in a study as due to the ‘environment’ depends on just what we measure. On the behavioral genetic approach this will include everything other than genes, but on, say, the neurobiological approach this will be everything other than neural structure. But these are quite different senses of ‘environment’ with different scopes, and there’s no good reason to think they are easily commensurable. (2) ‘GxExN’ researchers use techniques to study the etiology of behavior that were developed expressly for studying disorders (112). This work thus presupposes that we can understand whatever behavior is under study on the disorder model, and will yield no well-formed results to the extent that this model does not fit. But it is at best non-obvious that a disorder model is unproblematic when it comes to aggression or—especially!—sexual orientation. (3) Most of the research programs Longino covers treat the behaving individual as the unit of analysis and study, as opposed to, for example, human ecologists’ focus on whole populations. But as she demonstrates, this affects what kinds of causes we can study, because patterns at the population level may not be detectable using the kinds of measures that can be manipulated at the individual level. Furthermore, some kinds of behaviors may require more than one participant to exist at all; for instance, the very same thing that counts as an aggressive act within one interaction may be a peaceful act in another (175).
Longino does a lovely job of showing what sorts of social interests are served and buttressed by which kinds of research. For example, social-environmental approaches will, in virtue of their methodology, focus on social factors that are manipulable, and this makes them particularly amenable to generating suggestions for social interventions. Such research thus better serves the ends of those who are looking to implement...