The Nihilism of Reductionism and the Human Sciences


Boots.  Vincent van Gogh.

1.  The Premises of Reductionism 

Reductionism or the ‘philosophy of nothing but’ received analytical and critical attention (Koestler, 1968). The philosophy of nothing but characterises a basic perspective, a tendency by some scientists to reduce biology to physics, or people to what they are observed to do (ideas, motives, attitudes with beliefs being considered irrelevant), minds to machines and computers, and human social behaviour to instincts, drives and biological propensities.

If man is reduced to nothing but the ‘animal’ (naked ape, territorial ape), or consciousness to brain chemistry, or life to physical reactions of constituent molecular parts – then in nature and in man there can be no reasons, only physical causes. Jacques Monod, a noted molecular reductionist stated that “…science attacks values…upon which man has based morality, values, duties, rights, prohibitions.” (Monod, 1971). In common with Francis Crick, Jacques Monod regards the laws of physics as competent to explain all phenomena, regarding living things as chemical machines. For Monod science is beyond the sphere of values, and only scientific thought has validity, and that value choices are not judgements reached from knowledge. For philosophical implications of chance, accident and reductionism a comprehensive discussion has been published (Lewis,  1974).

The philosophy of ‘nothing but’ is the belief that ‘only’ he physical interactions of particles, or neurochemistry, or instinctive behaviour, are the determinants of behaviour, structure and function in the organisms. In essence, ‘nothing but’ concepts are speculative theories that contradict experience, regarding human values and culture as epiphenomena that can be reduced to atoms and molecules in motion. The publicity given to such theories has contributed much to their extensive acceptance by the general public. In this respect the media (press, television, and radio) are responsible for the acceptance of the pseudo-scientific categories of reductionism. The issue has been further confused by the alternation of responsible scientific opinion and sound science with the unwarranted ‘nothing but’ extrapolations. This not only implies a need for a perspective of a sociology of knowledge with regard to reductionism but also an analysis of the system of values within the system of mass communications.

The reductionism of molecular biology exemplified my Monod and Crick is not as influential as the sociological reductionism of some ethologists and behaviouralists. Reductionists make a fundamental mistake, a category mistake, because when life and mind are stated to be realities they assume life and mind possess the same kind of reality as bodies. To reductionists the assertion of the existence or possession of other qualities of living organisms (higher hierarchical levels) that differentiate them from inanimate objects (mechanisms, machines) implies that the physical has an insertion, an addition of a vitalist idea. If in an attempt to understand processes or structures it is necessary to analyse component parts, there is no justification to reduce ‘mind’ to molecules in order to remove values or superstitions (the ‘ghost’ in the machine). To understand the physiology of thinking it is not necessary therefore to reduce thought to chemistry, or attempt to explain or reduce aesthetics, for example, to physical terms.

Reductionism attempts to limit all true knowledge to the determination of the measurable interactions of physical particles. The concentration on the existence on nothing but the observed data restricts science to generalisations concerning sequences and coexistences. Such reductionist concepts thus attempt to include within physical theory ass human phenomena. In essence – all human behaviour is reduced to the laws that are applicable for the physical behaviour of molecules – which leads to the belief in the biological determinism of human social behaviour, past, present, and future.

The state of current science, with reference to reductionism, has been viewed not so much as the specialisation by scientists, but rather that specialists were generalising (Frankl, 1974). That which has been termed the terrible generalisateur as distinct from the terrible simplificateur. Biology becomes biologism, sociology becomes sociologism, and psychology becomes psychologism. The progression from this is that contemporary reductionism or ‘nothing-but-ness’ is alluded to as currently camouflaged nihilism or nothingness. It is at this point that popularity for such concepts would, or could, be explained as receptivity in a socially pessimistic milieu.

Reductionism in many respects is a methodological approach that has been elevated to a position of a social philosophy. A approach that reduces the human to the sub-human, or deduces that human from the sub-human. In this vein it is behavioural psychologists such as Skinner, Watson, and Eysenck, who insist that the observed in man must also be ascertainable in animals. The flaw thus appears in the formulation ‘nothing but’ in so far as it fails to see the component hierarchical levels, that human behaviour is more than the sum total of molecular configurations. As Frankl (1974) has pointed out – reductionism can be described as a form of projectionism that projects human behaviour into a lower dimension. Human social and cultural behaviour is not a closed system – it is an open system because humans in society cannot be viewed only in terms of either their biological (evolutionary, somatic), psychological (psychic), or social elements. The higher dimension, the higher integrated levels of humans possess lower levels, but the upper hierarchy cannot be explained entirely in terms of the lower. Humans as primates have evolutionary affinities with other primates (chimpanzees, baboons, extinct Australopithecines). In summary it is necessary to stress that the techniques of reductionism are not necessarily unsound. The unsound hypothesis is when unwarranted extrapolations are made from techniques (Rety, 1974).

2.  Sociological Reductionism and the Ethologists     

Theories of the nature of human kind are the basis of many philosophies, political systems, and social theories. Human ‘depravity’ was a component of medieval thought, as well as the Victorian (Montagu, 1968). The Age of Enlightenment saw man in essence as basically rational, whereas in the period of laissez-faire the Social Darwinists saw man involved in a struggle for existence . This view of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was prevalent in outlook of Social Darwinism. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) failed to Grasp Darwin’s ideas on natural selection because he remained a enamoured of the analyses of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and which he remained (Runciman, 1970), and the discredit of Social Darwinism was due to his analogies between organisms and societies.

The Hobbesian view of humankind and nature was embraced by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who developed his theory of Homo homini lupus, with aggression as an instinctual endowment (Freud, 1930). Frued also elaborated the alleged drive towards death, or thanatos, as an intrinsic part of human nature (Freud, 1922). In Nazi Germany views were expressed in terms of ‘blood and soil’ with returns to instinct explanations, with man the ‘beast of prey’ and the exhaltation of war (Kolnai, 1938; Stern, 1974). Oswald Spengler developed the dictum of the ‘beast of prey’ (1922).

In the 1960’s there was an upsurge in biological thinking – the neo-biologists – concerning humans and their social life, seen especially in the work of a number of ethologists who also included the amateur and raconteur Robert Ardrey. In this context there was a basic biological individual known as man who was compounded of the same as other life forms, possessing deterministic drives and behavioural tendencies. Mind became the rationalising organ that gave meaning to a meaningless biological existence. In this respect society, and its institutions, became not so much the cause of, as the outcome of individual interactions. According to the neo-biologists, sociology had inverted the situation, claiming that we should not look (as did Weber, Durkheim and Marx) at the history of ideas and institutions for contemporary explanations. The answers were to be sought and found in sex, aggression, territoriality, pair-bonding, male dominance, and other evolutionary determined social bonds. Hence the concept arose of the human individual as ‘nothing but’ a biological entity as opposed to the socio-cultural. There were four central neo-biologists – Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris, and Lionel Tiger – who were preoccupied with the utility of biological thinking in the quest for an ethic.

Prior to the neo-biologists others argued that biology can provide an ethic, these included (Huxley, (1943); Waddington, (1960); and Chardin, (1959)), who were concerned with what ought to happen, whereas Morris, Ardrey, and Lorenz, et al were concerned with what did happen. The extrapolation of natural selection to society was a rationalisation of laissez-faire, and modern neo-biology was a revival of those Social Darwinist concepts in the  light of progress in anthropology and genetics. The popular belief of the ‘cave man within’, the ‘struggle for existence’, and ‘survival of the fittest, received considerable support as a result of the raconteur prosetylising of Ardrey, Lorenz, Tiger, and Morris. The upsurge in the 1960’s was heralded as “…the great revolution in science known as New Biology.” (Jay, 1972), plus allusions to alleged incurable aggression in man (Jay, 1971).

The two foundations of Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis (1961) were human evolution and comparative ethology. Hence the ‘man the killer’ and the ‘killing imperative’ concepts. In is The Territorial Imperative Ardrey postulated that conscience was the result of territoriality, and derived some of these ideas from Carpenter (1940). The issue stimulated a large amount of academic discussion (Montagu, 1969; Roper, 1969; Teleki, 1973). Depite the media popularised views of Robert Ardrey scientific opinion adopted a different position that “Intergroup hostility is a recent cultural innovation resulting from steeled economy of agriculture, pastoralism, and property ownership.” (Reynolds, 1966).  Robert Ardrey’s The Social Contract  (1970) was an attempt to analyse hierarchies in human society with reference to selected animal societies, in order to argue that social equality was ‘unnatural’. Essentially it was an attempt to refute the Social Contract of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1762). The idea of the social contact was implied by Thomas Hobbes (1651) in Leviathan. Hobbes regarded each person as taking himself for himself all that he could. Life was “…solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” – nature, the state of nature, was a state of war. Thomas Locke (1690) regarded nature as the recognition of rights of life and property to be recognised under natural law. Hence the obligation to obey civil law was, under the social contract, conditional upon protection of the individual and private property. A further discussion of the misconceptions of Robert Ardrey, including his dictum to organise hierarchical societies or perish, was taken up in the media (Reynolds, 1970).

Desmond Morris, who developed the ‘human animal’ concept had a more sophisticated outlook that either Lorenz or Ardrey, approaching the issues as a zoologists and primatologist, as well as the initiator of the ‘naked ape’ syndrome. Morris also introduced the concept of neoteny or prolonged infancy, paedomorphosis, as well as emphasising the ‘pair-bond’ or formation of relatively stable emotional relationships between males and females (1967). This particular publication received extensive press publicity and serialisation. In The Human Zoo (1969) which Morris rotted in the hypothesis of overcrowding causing stress, he described the modern urban situation as analogous with the ‘zoo’ in human form. His essential concepts revolved around status sex, self-rewarding sex, occupational sex, tranquillising sex, and commercial sex. The outlook of Desmond Morris was zoological rather than sociological in explanation, especially in what he saw as destructive competition as a result of a breakdown in peaceful competition. Further to this Morris said  that intellect, thoughts and ideas, are no good in the organisation of human behaviour. Again, he postulated, since Intimate Behaviour where he also attempted to reduce human sexual behaviour to primate display and ritual, is involved in the study of gesture, as well as the injection of social anthropological concepts )tribal, ritual) into his explanation of football crowd behaviour.

 3.  Reductionism and the Sociology of Knowledge

Within the field of the theory of knowledge the philosophy of ‘nothing but’ has made its intrusion. It is necessary to consider why such reductionist concepts, conclusions, and unwarranted extrapolations (e.g., animal to man, biological to social) have gained popular and uncritical acceptance in contemporary society. The philosophy of ‘nothing but’ has on many occasions been popularised and given credence by the media including the press, radio, and television.

The philosophy of ‘nothing but’, or reductionism, makes unwarranted extrapolations from animals to man, and incorporates certain ethological and anthropological models about drives and ritualisations, to achieve this end. Such a position is further exemplified by Lionel Tiger (1969) which discusses biology and sociology of a particular institution – that of male groups. The hypothesis is that behaviour reflects underlying transmitted propensities that have their roots in human evolutionary history. Again, Lionel Fox and Robin Fox (1972) concern themselves with thinking about human behaviour with treatment of material biased to extrapolations from baboons. The term of currency in The Imperial Animal is that of ‘biogramar’ used to describe inborn faculties and potentials, allegedly underlying and steering, social interactions, relationships, institutions. Furthermore, they use a reductionist computer analogy that is set up or ‘wired’ in a particular way – the ‘wiring’ being the result of natural selection.  

In essence, that which explains everything, as the philosophy of ‘nothing but’ or reductionism tries to do, explains nothing. It is suggested that the reductionist trends within the human sciences – termed ‘chimpomorphia’, ‘mechanomorphia’, and ‘ratomorphia’ by some – are not explaining anything scientifically by reducing human social life to such levels that they cannot see the wood for the trees, or the trees for the wood. Furthermore, it is the intention to explain the acceptance of ‘nothing but’ ideas, by sections or individuals in society, within the framework of the sociology of knowledge.

The sociology of knowledge is the study of the social basis for ‘everyday’ or popular knowledge. In essence it is the common sense knowledge about life, what to say, and what to do, or how to behave. The purpose of the sociology of knowledge is to show that these have a social fabric of shared meanings. Also, such a perspective examines the distribution and manner of transmission of the effects of this fabric. Therefore it can be said that “…there is ample evidence from social anthropology and studies of groups within our society that shared meanings and a shared body of knowledge and beliefs are characteristic of and essential to the life of social groups.” (Reynolds, 1976). It has been denied (Berger & Luckman, 1967) that we are biologically limited to certain forms of social organisation, and thus they say “…there is no human nature in the sense of biologically fixed substratum determining the variability of socio-cultural formations.” It is necessary to determine the origin of reductionist outlooks in society, and also to determine why these concepts have become popularised, accepted, and incorporated into belief. This requires the necessity to examine the role played by the media in the popularisation of the ideas of the neo-biologists, as well as attempt to determine why the receptive audience of the social milieu is so accepting of ‘nothing but’ concepts. It becomes an examination of the role played by contemporary nihilism, mystification, ideology, meanings and belief, and why certain ideas are held in contradiction to existing refutations.


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