The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes:

A scientist who believes he has something important to tell us about human nature tends to say things like this: ‘If there is any hope of changing the world for the better, from reducing family violence to reversing overpopulation and international conflict, economists, educators and political leaders will need to base their interventions on a sound understanding of what people are really like, not on some fairy-tale version of what we would like them to be.’ That, at any rate, is what Douglas Kenrick has to tell us. Sam Harris begins The Moral Landscape in much the same way: ‘The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.’ Kenrick and Harris represent the two scientific fields – evolutionary psychology and neuroscience – that seem currently most determined to convince the public that their success in the lab qualifies them to tell us how to live. Still, for all their bombast, contemporary scientists are generally warier about making prescriptions than they were in the days of William Shockley, the physicist and advocate of eugenics – at the unpardonable end of the spectrum – and Linus Pauling, the chemist and Vitamin C enthusiast, at the nutty end. Their efforts now go towards proving that they know everything there is to know about human behaviour; they leave themselves little time or energy to make actual proposals.

(LRB 9 February 2012)