The paper, Ancient Admixture in Human History, was peculiar as far as genetics publications go in that it foregrounds particular abstruse statistical methods developed due to the stimulus of genome-wide variation data. The surfeit of genomic data has resulted in the emergence of many subtle and almost impenetrable works laced with formalisms which daunt most biologists. But given time and effort, these newer methods relying upon greater analytic sophistication are decipherable.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider Mathematical Models of Social Evolution. This is a book with a fair amount of formality, but the topic, culture, social change, are often considerations which we ruminate upon verbally.
I open up to page 238 (I literally opened a random page).
…According to this approximation, the altruistic gene will increase whenever
In intrademic models in which groups are formed at random, = 1. In contrast, if groups were made up of full-sibs, = 2. This provides a natural scale on which to judge the effectiveness of interdemic selection. If is near one, interdemic group selection is no more effective than intrademic group selection with random group formation, which is to say, it cannot lead to the evolution of strong altruism. If is large, then itnerdemic group selection is effective.
On first blush, the passage can seem impenetrable. But most of the people reading this are probably not intimidated by mathematical formalism. Many of you will know what intrademic and interdemic selection are. Some of you who are more numerically oriented may test some values to develop an intuition. The point is that the formalism is not there to intimidate. It is meant to illuminate. It is there so individuals thinking on the same problem can have a crisp currency with which they can exchange ideas.
Another major reason that this sort of formalism exists is that it’s clear when you think someone is wrong. A problem with many verbal arguments is that they are unspecified or vague in such a way that you’re not even sure if you disagree or agree with your interlocutor. The point is to get somewhere. Coherency. Contingency. And cumulativeness.
Applying a mathematical theory derived from evolutionary biology to cultural and social change strikes many people as strange. But there’s a method to this madness. Theory with data can give birth to a better understanding of the processes which define our world. A description of reality.
In contrast, let me quote Noam Chomsky:
“What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.”
Now let me open up the Alan Bass translation of Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference. From the bottom of page 91:
Therefore, there is a soliloquy of reason and a solitude of light. Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretically objective and technico-political possession….
Obviously, I can’t read French. But if I was reading a scientific textbook a translation wouldn’t matter. To be entirely frank when I read these sorts of works in the deconstructionist tradition I feel like I’m reading mantras, not analyses. Declarations of gurus and rabbis. Great ones to emulate.
These authors often like to “play” with language, and engage in a semantic game and lead you on a verbal wild goose chase. Some of them are also better with a turn of phrase and able to generate luxurious prose which pulls you along in an almost novelistic fashion. But reading a second time, often I have no more idea what’s really being said than I did on the first inspection.
Twenty years ago this was an academic discussion. I had long believed that some of my friends’ fixations with linguistic analysis and redefinition as the summum bonum of any intellectual were silly and useless, but I didn’t think they’d have a direct impact. No longer. This stuff matters. My friends are now tenured professors.
From Judith Butler’s 1988’s Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, in Theater Journal:
When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project….
Addendum: I really like to know things. I don’t read much fiction. That’s why some of the “scholarship” in tradition personified by Derrida, Butler, and yes, even Michel Foucault, infuriate me. They are the enemies of knowledge, but the potentates of pronouncement.