Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lawlessness in Biology and the Social Sciences

For many years, I taught a graduate course on the philosophy of the social sciences for students in my political science department. One year, as I was preparing to teach the course, I sent out a survey to all the faculty in the department. I asked them whether political scientists had discovered any general laws of political behavior. And if they believed there were such laws, I asked them to identify the laws. Remarkably, most of those who responded said that there were no such laws. Those who thought there were could identify only a few examples, and the only example that was mentioned more than once was Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy (the claim that any large organization will tend to be dominated by a few leaders).

This points to an obvious problem. If science is judged by its success in discovering general laws, then political science is not a science. Actually, by comparison with the physical sciences--that apparently have uncovered many general laws of nature--not only political science but all of the social sciences have failed to show any progress at all in formulating and testing general laws of human action. If one agrees with the criteria for science set forth by the logical positivists or logical empiricists in the first half of the twentieth century, the absence of lawlike generalizations in the social sciences shows that they are not really sciences at all.

But doesn't this indicate that in contrast to the physical sciences, the social sciences are similar to the life sciences in their lawlessness? Many biologists and philosophers of biology have noted that there seem to be no laws of biology comparable to the exceptionless laws of the physical sciences. The lawlessness of biology seems to be a consequence of the variability, particularity, contingency, and historicity of living phenomena, which separate the science of biology from physics and chemistry (Beatty 1997; Brandon 1997; Keller 2007). It is possible to formulate a conceptual framework for biology based on well-confirmed generalizations, but these generalizations must allow for the exceptions that arise from the contingencies and variations of life (Scheiner 2010).

I take this as support for the argument that the social sciences can become true sciences by becoming branches of biology. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provides the only general scientific theory that could sustain the social sciences as empirical sciences. This evolutionary theory includes both genetic evolution and cultural evolution as historical processes that include human action. In a Darwinian social science, there would be no general laws, but there would be contingent generalizations holding true for greater or lesser periods of time (Rosenberg 1980, 2007).

So, for example, what I have identified as the 20 desires of evolved human nature might be true for most of human evolutionary history. But the cultural evolution of liberal capitalism might depend on the historical contingencies of the last two centuries. Moreover, within the constraints of natural history and cultural history, human individuals will exercise judgment about what is best for them in their particular circumstances. Within such an evolutionary framework, we can explain and predict intentional human action as caused by human beliefs and desires, but our explanations and predictions will never have the certainty or precision attainable through the general laws of the physical sciences.

As an illustration of this Darwinian social science, we could explain Abraham Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as shaped by the universal political history of the human species, the cultural political history of the American regime, and the individual political history of Lincoln. This would be similar to the kind of scientific explanation of animal behavior that we see in the work of primatologists like Frans de Waal or Jane Goodall, who explain the behavior of their chimpanzees as showing the unique life history of each individual chimpanzee, the natural history of the species, and the cultural history of the group.


Beatty, John. 1997. "Why Do Biologists Argue Like They Do?" Philosophy of Science, 64 (Supplement): S432-S443.

Brandon, Robert N. 1997. "Does Biology Have Laws? The Experimental Evidence." Philosophy of Science, 64 (Supplement): S444-S457.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2007. "A Clash of Two Cultures." Nature, 445: 603.

Rosenberg, Alexander. 1980. Sociobiology and the Preemption of Social Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosenberg, Alexander. 2007. Philosophy of Social Science. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Scheiner, Samuel M. 2010. "Toward a Conceptual Framework for Biology." The Quarterly Review of Biology, 85: 293-318.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

The social sciences are certainly not science, and cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific method. Instead, these fields of studies are catechisms of the left's faith-based ideology.

E.O. Wilson wrote in Consilience about the melding of these disciplines into a coherent, scientific, and reductionist approach, even after getting a pitcher of water dumped on his head. But the fact of the matter is that the left, when confronted with science that conflicts with their ideology, simply accuses the heretic of being a reductionist (code word for an idiot).

I am afraid that those in control of the social sciences want nothing to do with science. Instead, I think that we will see in time with continued progress in the biological sciences, and that the social sciences will either have to join the party or fade into irrelevance.

Troy Camplin said...

Well, I would point to Mises' Human Action as one source. I also make an argument for laws of complexity in my book Diaphysics. Of course, the laws of complexity are more like strange attractors than vectors -- but that's the nature of complexity, is it not?

Empedocles said...

You should read the work of philosopher Ruth Millikan. She has been arguing for several decades now that psychology is a branch of biology, especially her article "Thoughts Without Laws."