Conclusions and suggestions
There is no monovalent interpretation for how to - or even whether one should – unify biology with the social sciences. Furthermore, the differences between the research programs of, say, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, and Emerson and Gerard are astronomical. There is no question that there is a radical disunity in these two ways of articulating a biological social science. And if it is indeed the case that a compositional biological social science is rare today, that would certainly not count as unity: it would be an absence. Only if we continue (retry?) to develop a compositional biological social science can we even begin to understand how to unify these two fields (if that is what we desire).
I have also used this case study to inform an analysis of styles of investigation (see section 2 above). I have employed the compositional and formal styles because these are the styles I have examined in biology (Winther 2003; 2006a, b) and they are also the ones that I think guide research in the two cases of biological social science I have elucidated. I do not think that they are the only styles nor that they are necessarily independent from each other. But they can be individualized and they do motivate very different kinds of scientific research. Elsewhere, I have explored the different possibilities of integrating and unifying different styles and theoretical perspectives of research (Winther 2001; 2003; 2005). I found that for a number of future scenarios, the outcome would be pluralism rather than unification. Unification could, however, certainly also result. But even then, there are open questions: unification of what?, for which purposes?, under what interpretations?, and to what extent? These are questions for future research.
In this paper, I also brought up a compositional social science presented by two sociologists, Park and Burgess. They were mostly interested in sociology – biology was a concern, but it was not their central worry. Why did I bring them up? There are so many other schools of thought during that time period that I could have analyzed. Functionalism, inspired by Durkheim, was being developed. Marxism had existed for over half a century. A number of other anthropological and social schools of thought, and issues, existed (see Barnard & Spencer 1995).
However, Park and Burgess are special in the context of my analysis. First, they had links to the Ecology Group (but see endnote [iii]). More importantly, however, it is clear that there was a compositional style at the heart of their analysis and they relied on biological concepts as sources for some of their sociological analysis. Using concepts from another analogous field, and, thereby, find generative links between two fields, is a way to at least begin to negotiate a unification of some kind. Likewise, the Ecology Group, coming from the other side of the biologist-sociologist divide also used biological concepts - which they were exceedingly familiar with - to draw analogies and formulate concepts and explanations in a domain that they were less familiar with, human society.
Note that Park and Burgess moved concepts primarily in one direction, from biology to sociology, whereas the Ecology Group employed concepts in both directions. For example, they used social concepts to understand populations of termites or flour beetles (Tribolium) as well as inter-species communities. Furthermore, they also drew on biological concepts to understand human society in all its complexity, including symbolic representation and ethical principles. Put differently, Park and Burgess, and the Ecology Group, started in different places, moved in different directions, and employed different tools, but shared the same goal: to forge strong analogies [homologies? metaphors? indications of the 'same' (at a particular level of abstraction) causes and interactions at play?] between the biological and the social.
It is unfortunate that their attempts at synthesis were exhausted or cut short.At least in the case of the Ecology Group, I can mention some causes for its demise: (1) an increasing formalization of ecological theory, (2) an increasing concern with lower-, and mono-, level genetic and selective processes, (3) an increasing reliance on cybernetic, informational, and computational metaphors to present and generate ecological theory, and (4) an increasing rationalization and specialization of disciplinary structures so that broad-scale analogies and disciplinary synthetic efforts became increasingly discouraged (on this last point, see Gerson 1998). I do not know enough to speculate about the changes that occurred in the Chicago Sociology Group. One of its strands did lead to Symbolic Interactionism (e.g., Becker & McCall 1990), but this school was much less concerned with biological concepts.
What would a full and unified compositional biological social science look like? Is it an appealing image? Is it so much better than the genetically-based and/or formallybased biological social science that currently surrounds us? Could it, in the final analysis, be synthesized with the dominant biological social science now? And what shape and dynamics would other kinds of biological social sciences have? I think it is incumbent on me to at least try to answer these questions.
As a prefatory comment, let me note that I do think that there are a number of important people today investigating compositionality in biological systems. Ghiselin's (1974) and Hull's (1978; 1980) proposal and analysis of species as individuals is one such example. Gould's (2002) processual hierarchical selection model is another example. Furthermore, Levins and Lewontin are fascinating and key philosophical biologists – they are compositional formalists of sorts. Their 1985 classic book is filled with discussions of the mathematical, as well as the qualitative,analysis complex articulated systems. They are both formal and compositional biologists. So is the extraordinary philosopher of biology, William Wimsatt. There are also other excellent scholars working on compositionality. Furthermore, in organismic and systems biology, the concepts of homology, individuality, and part are central and there is significant discussion of these structural and processual concepts at a variety of levels of abstraction [e.g., Bolker & Raff 1996; Hall 1994; Hansen 2003; McShea & Venit 2001; Müller & Wagner 1996; Raff 1996; Wagner 1995; 2001; Welch & Waxman 2003; Winther 2001; 2005]. In biology, compositionality is alive and well. In biological social science, however, it is practically absent (but see Eldredge & Grene 1992).
In ending, let me attempt to provide some answers to the above questions. What follows does not count as 'careful scholarship'. But it counts as sincere reflections on difficult issues.
We live in an age where formal laws - simple, universal, and deep - are held in high esteem. Our technocratic proclivities and continued desires for Grand Unified Theories and universal algorithms seem to continue to close off spaces for narratives, metaphors, and complex understandings of articulated compositional systems. Or, rather, these technocratic proclivities fight with perhaps equally powerful proclivities, by other agents of a more 'holistic' (New Age?) persuasion, to express the richness of experience in a non-viciously abstract manner, to use William James' expression. Often, the desire to share stories, and the nature of the narratives, are strongly correlated with a compositional framework, in which systems are admitted to be complex and highly articulated, with multiple functional and processual loops (e.g, Wimsatt 1997). However, compositional frameworks can also, more rarely, be aligned with simplicity.
The point is, however, that a compositional biological social science could very well allow us to bring in ecological complexity, rather than genetic simplicity, into our understanding of ourselves. We will no longer (solely) search so avidly for genetic necessary causes of our behavior, or try to do the genetic fitness bookkeeping that will allow us to explain why we perform behavior X with respect to person 1, but behavior not-X (or Y) with respect to person 2. Instead, we will look for complex ecological relations and interactions. We will do more justice to the fact that we are part of a system, and that we can study forms of interactions and forms of life as both embedded observers and agents in that system.
Furthermore, with a biological compositional social science, we will be able to do justice to so many of our metaphors. How many ecological metaphors do we not use in describing the behavior of others, including political and economic agents? (E.g., 'That competitor company is a true predator' or 'Money flow is energy flow'.) Of how many organismic similes do we not avail ourselves? (E.g., 'He is cunning like a fox' or 'She is brave like a lioness'.) Certainly the superorganismic analogy is not dead either. It captures the imagination of many and the representation of social insects in movies and fiction is legion. It is interesting to see how biological and computational metaphors and 'creatures' are being increasingly hybridized (e.g., Haraway 1991).
Perhaps the biology-social science link will inexorably exhaust itself as a source of generative metaphors and concepts, and a unification or even coordination will remain impossible and undesirable. But compositional aspects in the relation between biology and social science seem to be perennial. Consider the Canadian movie 'The Corporation', by M. Achbar, J. Abbott, and J. Bakan. The movie is suffused with ideas regarding compositional relations. A corporation, we are reminded, is constituted by a group of people, yet it is, for legal and economic purposes, an individual. Clearly, there are bound to be many subtleties and difficulties with this general statement, but this statement can be more fully understood through a compositional analysis. For example, as one of the framing techniques, the movie portrayed corporations as demented psychopaths since their behaviors fit many of the criteria the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) presents for that mental disorder. Further investigation of the veracity of the stated criteria as DSM criteria for being a psychopath need to be made, but again, the inference here is highly suggestive: since corporations are individuals, with a correlated psychology, they can be, and should be, judged as such. Remedies, including therapy, could and should be found. Today they exist with too much impunity. Compositional issues abound in human society.
Renato Rosaldo in his Culture and Truth, provides windows into current anthropology and cultural studies. He discusses 'positioned subjectivity' and the fact that we always already have a perspective(s) when we face the world. This is not a necessary aspect of a compositional view, but it is highly consistent with a research style that emphasizes compositional relations. Rosaldo writes:
'The notion of relational knowledge presented here has been woven from concepts developed through previous chapters of this book. Consider how the introductory notion of the "positioned subject" anticipates the idea of "imperialist nostalgia", in which the "detached observer" appears as a complicit actor in human events rather than as an innocent onlooker. Furthermore, recall how narrative analysis requires a "double vision" that moves between narrator and protagonist and how my discussion of "subjectivity in social analysis" emphasizes the insights offered by "subordinate knowledge". Throughout, I have stressed, first, that the social analyst is a positioned subject, not a blank slate, and second, that the objects of social analysis are also analyzing subjects whose perceptions must be taken nearly as seriously as "we" take our own' (p. 207).
In social science we must take into account the phenomenological self and its associated perspectival experience of the world. Clearly this is something we can practically only study in humans, where we have our own experiences, and our symbolic interactions, with which to understand one another and ourselves. Note again, that an 'object of social analysis' and a 'complicit actor', etc. are themselves a part of both social analysis and of society, more generally speaking. The part-whole relation really is a very deep relationship and merits more investigation.
On another note, the ideas of compositionality and positioned subject can, perhaps, be combined to make a more responsible politics and ethics. Clearly there are always many kinds of interest groups in society – they are part of society. And each group is composed of (is?) positioned subjects. The environment and inanimate nature can be a positioned subject too, as actor-network theory in sociology of science tells us.
Furthermore, perspectives on the anatomy and physiology of society, such as Feminism, Marxism, and Environmentalism also exist side by side. So is perennial negotiation the solution? (E.g., Latour 1999.) Here is where the eternal dilemma of objectivism and relativism enters. Clearly, ethicists, politicians, activists, and, perhaps, some scientists, can say that there is a better set of social structures, and a better set of perspectives on that structure. For example, more equitable wealth distribution is superior to less equitable wealth distribution, ceteris paribus (but what goes into this clause?). Think of Rawls' argument concerning the original position, for example. Perhaps a compositional biological social science will be a medium through which informed expert judges could make decisions on these complex matters, decisions which require a fairly broad understanding of the groups (parts) involved and their positions.
I have few answers here to my questions and topics. I do suggest, however, that we are far off from having any sort of unification between biology and social science. I believe that it is worthwhile to investigate the possibilities, desirability, and implications of such a synthesis. In this context, a compositional style - in addition to formal and potentially other styles - must also be pursued.