The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition


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Public Intellectual Work, Scholar Activism, and My Personal Road

Sociobiological propositions are constructed in three steps Lewontin, First they identify an aspect of human behaviour which appears to be universal, common to all people in all times and places.

The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe

Second, they assume that this universal trait must be coded in the DNA of the species. There is a gene for detecting histo-compatibility that leads instinctively to mate selection. Third, they make an argument for why this behaviour or characteristic increases the chances of survival for individuals and, therefore, creates reproductive advantage.

Mating with partners whose immune systems complement your own leads to healthier offspring who survive to reproduce your genes. Despite the popularity of this sort of reason, it is misguided from a sociological perspective for a number of reasons. Another implication of his argument was that if aggression is instinctual, then the idea that individuals, militant groups, or states could be held responsible for acts of violence or war loses its validity. However, a central problem of sociobiology as a type of sociological explanation is that while human biology does not vary greatly throughout history or between cultures, the forms of human association do vary extensively.

It is difficult to account for the variability of social phenomena by using a universal biological mechanism to explain them. Even something like the aggressive tendency in males, which on the surface has an intuitive appeal, does not account for the multitude of different forms and practices of aggression, let alone the different social circumstances in which aggression is manifested or provoked.

It does not account for why some men are aggressive sometimes and not at other times, or why some men are not aggressive at all.

INTELLECTUALS AND THEIR DISCONTENTS Pages 1 - 17 - Text Version | FlipHTML5

If testosterone is the key mechanism of male aggression, it does not account for the fact that both men and women generate testosterone in more or less equal quantities. Nor does it explain the universal tendencies of all societies to develop sanctions and norms to curtail violence. To suggest that aggression is an innate biological characteristic means that it does not vary greatly throughout history, nor between cultures, and is impervious to the social rules that restrict it in all societies.

Ultimately, this means that there is no point in trying change it despite the evidence that aggression in individuals and societies can be changed.

Remembering Historian Alan Brinkley

The main consideration to make here is not that biology has no impact on human behaviour, but that the biological explanation is limited with respect to what it can explain about complex cultural behaviours and practices. This observation about a seemingly straightforward biological behaviour suggests that smiling is inborn, a muscular reflex based on neurological connections. However, the smile of the newborn is not used to convey emotions.

It occurs spontaneously during rapid eye movement REM sleep. Only when the baby matures and begins to interact with his or her environment and caretakers does the smile begin to represent a response to external stimuli. Moreover, from the age of 6 months to 2 years, the smile itself changes physically: Different muscle groups are used, and different facial expressions are blended with it surprise, anger, excitement.

The smile becomes more complex and individualized. Therefore, social scientists see explanations of human behaviour based on biological determinants as extremely limited in scope and value. These sometimes radical differences between cultures have to be accounted for instead by their distinct processes of socialization through which individuals learn how to participate in their societies. From this point of view, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead put it:. Aside from the explanatory problems of biological determinism, it is important to bear in mind the social consequences of biological determinism, as these ideas have been used to support rigid cultural ideas concerning race, gender, disabilities, etc.

Several hundred individuals were also sterilized in British Columbia between and McLaren, The interesting question that these biological explanations of complex human behaviour raise is: Why are they so popular? What is it about our culture that makes the biological explanation of behaviours or experiences like sexual attraction, which we know from personal experience to be extremely complicated and nuanced, so appealing? As micro-biological technologies like genetic engineering and neuro-pharmaceuticals advance, the very real prospect of altering the human body at a fundamental level to produce culturally desirable qualities health, ability, intelligence, beauty, etc.

The concept of the gene and the idea of genetic engineering have entered into popular consciousness in a number of strange and interesting ways, which speak to our enduring fascination with biological explanations of human behaviour. If the old eugenics movement promoted selective breeding and forced sterilization in order to improve the biological qualities and, in particular, the racial qualities of whole populations, the new eugenics is focused on calculations of individual risk or individual self-improvement and self-realization. In the new eugenics, individuals choose to act upon the genetic information provided by doctors, geneticists, and counsellors to make decisions for their children or themselves Rose, This movement is based both on the commercial aspirations of biotechnology companies and the logic of a new biological determinism or geneticism , which suggests that the qualities of human life are caused by genes Rose, The concept of the gene is a relatively recent addition to the way in which people begin to think about themselves in relationship to their bodies.


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The popularization of the idea of the gene entails the development of a new relationship to the human body, health, and the genetic predispositions to health risks as we age. On the basis of what might happen to her based on probabilities of risk from genetic models she decided to take drastic measures to avoid the breast cancer that her mother died of. Her very public stance on her surgery was to raise public awareness of the genetic risks of cancers that run in families and to normalize a medical procedure that many would be hesitant to take.

At the same time she further implanted a notion of the gene as a site of invisible risk in peoples lives, encouraging more people to think about themselves in terms of their hidden dispositions to genetically programmed diseases. Many misconceptions exist in popular culture about what a gene actually is or what it can do.

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Like biological determinism in general, the gene introduces a kind of fatalism into the understanding of human life and human possibility. Often, a comparison of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences. But all cultures share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: Every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children.

Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In Canada, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit consisting of parents and their offspring. Anthropologist George Murdock first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world.

Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death, or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humour seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people Murdock, Sociologists consider humour necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Imagine that you are sitting in a theatre, watching a film. Cue the music. The first slow and mournful notes are played in a minor key. As the melody continues, the hero turns her head and sees a man walking toward her. The music slowly gets louder, and the dissonance of the chords sends a prickle of fear running down your spine. Now imagine that you are watching the same movie, but with a different soundtrack.

As the scene opens, the music is soft and soothing with a hint of sadness. You see the hero sitting on the park bench and sense her loneliness.

Suddenly, the music swells. The woman looks up and sees a man walking toward her. The music grows fuller, and the pace picks up. You feel your heart rise in your chest. This is a happy moment. Music has the ability to evoke emotional responses. In television shows, movies, and even commercials, music elicits laughter, sadness, or fear.

Are these types of musical cues cultural universals? The research team travelled to Cameroon, Africa, and asked Mafa tribal members to listen to Western music.

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The tribe, isolated from Western culture, had never been exposed to Western culture and had no context or experience within which to interpret its music. Even so, as the tribal members listened to a Western piano piece, they were able to recognize three basic emotions: happiness, sadness, and fear. Music, it turns out, is a sort of universal language. Researchers also found that music can foster a sense of wholeness within a group. In fact, scientists who study the evolution of language have concluded that originally language an established component of group identity and music were one Darwin, Additionally, since music is largely nonverbal, the sounds of music can cross societal boundaries more easily than words.

Music allows people to make connections where language might be a more difficult barricade. As Fritz and his team found, music and the emotions it conveys can be cultural universals. Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveals tremendous differences.


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  • In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance, maintaining a large personal space. Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking?

    The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. Someone from a country where dogs are considered dirty and unhygienic might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures, causing misunderstanding and conflict.

    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition
    The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, 2nd edition

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