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Brute Physical Facts and Social Construction

The progressive and the traditionalist are equally detached from the underlying reality as currently described by science.

· 11 min read
Brute Physical Facts and Social Construction
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis before taking part in a roundtable discussion on January 23rd, 2020 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

According to the former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, and it’s not even a close call. “If you ask, ‘who’s the most likely to take this Republic down?’ It would be the teachers’ unions, and the filth that they are teaching our kids,” he told Semafor in a recent interview. This statement is startling given that Pompeo is a graduate of Harvard Law and West Point, until you realize that he is probably positioning himself for a 2024 Republican presidential run, where the primary electability criterion is one’s stand on certain cultural issues.

Pompeo and other Republican hopefuls are addressing the Republican base, like my friends and neighbors in Florida. While some of us may struggle to understand their hyperbolic invective, my MAGA neighbors understand it, and it resonates with their own concerns. They have impassioned and unalterable beliefs about many social/cultural issues such as gender, race, territoriality, abortion, and equality. They are certain that “men are men and women are women”; that race is a real phenomenon; that equality is not inevitable; that life begins at conception, and that America’s borders must be defended from foreigners.

These beliefs are intuitively plausible, often embedded in instinctual biases, and culturally reinforced. They not only form the bedrock of their adherents’ own social order, they are also attributed to the Founding Fathers and implicated in the success of Pax Americana. To question these beliefs and cultural norms is to threaten America and their way of life. In this context—and in the absence of a credible external threat—it is not surprising that the greatest threat to the Republic is perceived to be the university-educated “liberal progressives” who question and disavow these traditional norms and try to replace them with their own.

The struggle between those who like things as they are and those who would change them is as old as civilization. Is there anything new about the current conflict? The radical progressive position on many social and cultural issues differs from previous conflicts in that it is detached from reality, which makes it genuinely dangerous. Unfortunately, the extreme reaction used to galvanize the Republican base is equally dangerous, and for similar reasons. Effective resistance to the radical progressive agenda needs to be guided by nuance, reason, and evidence from the natural sciences, particularly biology.

That progressive agenda, often derided as “wokeness” by the Republican base, began as a call for hyper-vigilance to societal inequalities and injustices. The term has now been repurposed as a pejorative for radical progressive beliefs about LGBT issues, racism, inequality, power, hierarchy, abortion, and so on. At the heart of modern progressive education lies a theory of social construction: the notion that there are no external physical/biological constraints or tethers on societal organization. We can use reason to construct/conceive of the world in any arbitrary way we like. Biological facts are irrelevant to discussions of gender, race, inequality, power relations, hierarchy, and so on. These are all simply social constructs that can be changed by societal agreement. In his 1999 book The Social Construction of What?, philosopher Ian Hacking notes that one of the attractions of social construction is that one can right perceived wrongs by simply redefining concepts.

The idea unifying the Republican base, on the other hand, is that our historic (Western-Christian) social and cultural norms provide the only appropriate tethers for organizing society. There is something substantive and eternal about these norms. So, concepts of gender, race, inequality, etc. have immutable constraints or meanings. To violate these traditional constraints is unnatural and therefore evil. (Different societies and religions will, of course, disagree on what these norms are.)

This distinction between the progressive and traditional views is explicitly recognized in the Vatican’s document on gender, titled “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Issue of Gender and Education”:

Human identity [on the untethered/progressive view] is consigned to the individual’s choice, which can also change in time. These ideas are the expression of a widespread way of thinking and acting in today’s culture that confuses “genuine freedom” with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible.

While the Vatican document makes reference to God and his laws, the thrust of the argument concerns society’s need for an anchor, and that this anchor is provided by religious and cultural norms. For the irreligious, this anchor is provided simply by historic cultural norms. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann associates the traditional conservative view with a “preference for order,” and the progressive view with a “preference for openness.”

It is easy to understand how one might come to believe that the cultural and/or religious norms that one is born into anchor and constrain society. It is more difficult to understand how one comes to believe that we can construct the world in any arbitrary fashion we wish, and that there is no reality independent of us. This relatively recent development (approximately 50 years old) has infected university social science departments across the country and is now spilling into the school system. The story of how we got here is somewhat complex, but in what follows, I’ll provide a few highlights.

A common-sense view of the world begins with naïve realism. Naïve realism draws a distinction between our representations or descriptions of the world and the world itself. It accepts that certain physical facts/categories such as hydrogen atoms, galaxies, and viruses, and processes such as thermodynamics and evolution, have an existence independent of our representational systems and societal beliefs and practices. Science provides a good description of this external world. If humanity gets wiped out, hydrogen atoms, galaxies, and viruses will continue to exist, because that existence is not dependent upon whether we believe they exist and how we describe them. Most of us accept that there is something correct about this view.

But there is also an obvious objection: we cannot know the natural world directly, but only through our various cognitive and perceptual filters. The rise of the social sciences in the 20th century (with their interest in social relations and concerns about naïve realism) produced a conception of the world known as social construction. Ken Gergen is among the most highly cited social construction theorists. He has set out its basic claims in the following three postulates:

  • Whatever exists makes no requirements on how we represent it.
  • My characterization of something does not follow from the thing itself but from the community I belong to.
  • There is no value-neutral construction of an object or world.

The first two claims are particularly important. They stipulate that our mental representations (or descriptions) of the world are not in any way constrained by the world itself. They are only constrained by our linguistic, cultural, and societal beliefs and practices. Another way of saying this is that there are no facts of the matter independent of language, culture, and societal beliefs. Reality emerges from the structure of our representational systems and our social relationships and practices.

The concept of money is a good illustration of a social construct. This piece of paper I am holding has a monetary value of $10, but only if there is societal agreement that it has. In this sense, it is a social concept or category, as are professors, lawyers, Christmas, corporations, governments, etc. There are no physical constraints on these concepts. They all come into existence through collective societal agreement, and can be changed by the same. They are truly socially constructed and are essential for civilization. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any type of civilization without social construction.

Once social construction took hold, however, many sociologists tried to impose it onto the natural sciences, arguing that the descriptions of science were also filtered through linguistic and cultural practices and thus no different from the textual descriptions of literary theory. The objection here is not to any specific empirical results but to the whole enterprise of the natural sciences as a way of knowing the world. While most of us would balk at believing mountains and viruses are social constructs, many academics in social and literary departments have embraced the belief that constructs like gender, race, power, hierarchy, and so on are indeed socially constructed and derive their meaning from the linguistic and cultural norms of society. I agree that these latter concepts are not like mountains and viruses, but nor are they like money and corporations.

There are two issues here. First, accepting that our knowledge of the external world arrives through perceptual and cognitive filters is a far cry from saying that it is detached from the world (see postulates #1 and #2 above). We may not know the world the way it actually is, but there is little doubt that our mental representations are constrained by the world, to some extent. Evolution ensures that our representations are sufficiently accurate to facilitate our survival and propagation. I can sufficiently distinguish between rabbits and tigers to approach the former and run from the latter.

Furthermore, the predictive powers of our scientific theories suggest they are capturing at least some aspects of an independent reality. It is difficult to walk on the Moon if the Moon and the laws of physics are just social agreements. The natural sciences have blissfully ignored social construction theory and continue to provide more and more accurate descriptions of the world. Some sociologists of science are now beginning to realize that there is something special about scientific descriptions and regret their zealous overreach. This message is not yet widely disseminated among social science departments.

Second, the disputed cultural war concepts are actually hybrid concepts: they have both physical (biological) and social construction components. I will illustrate with the example of gender.

Disagreements about gender generally involve the basis of (i) societal gender roles and (ii) determination of gender for a given individual. The traditionalist appealing to historic norms will maintain that that both are fixed and tethered in some way, appealing perhaps to common sense, God, and even biology. Societal gender roles are determined by intrinsic properties or behavioral dispositions of males and females. The determination of gender is determined by external characteristics. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

The radical progressive, on the other hand, will insist that traditional gender roles are historical social constructs designed to benefit patriarchy, and that they are enforced through early socialization of boys and girls. They can therefore be reconstructed more justly. Gender itself is self-determined by a feeling of maleness or femaleness. It is fluid, and can change from time to time.

But if we consult the biological sciences, we find that the facts in the world are somewhat different. Biology provides us with some basic facts about mammalian fetal development. There is a well understood story about how the sex determining region of the Y chromosome in genetical males initiates the release of two hormones, antimullerian and testosterone, during a critical window around six to 12 weeks in humans. The former suppresses the development of the female reproductive tract and genitalia. The latter masculinizes the fetal body.

A second later release of testosterone, converted to estradiol, serves to permanently sculpt developing neural systems and masculinize the brain. This process accounts for the gender-specific behaviors associated with courtship, territorial aggression, mating, and parental care in all sexually reproducing species. The feeling of maleness or femaleness that humans experience also rises from these biological processes. There is no reason to believe that humans are exempt from the basic laws of biology.

Differentiation of sex and gender in mammals. (Reproduced with permission from Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics.)

Given this biology, how does the traditionalist and the progressive fare with respect to gender roles? The biology predicts certain gender-specific behavioral propensities. However, traditional gender roles have until recently prohibited women from voting, or being doctors, lawyers, and CEOs. The traditionalist would need to defend this (as they have in the past in Western society, and still do in some societies) in terms of gender-specific behavioral propensities. This fails because there are no such empirically supported extrapolations from the data. In this case the liberal progressive is correct in noting that these specific roles/prohibitions are simply historically sanctioned social constructions.

While progressives are correct about the arbitrariness of certain societal gender roles, they run afoul of the science when they try to decouple the human female’s biological child nurturing roles from pregnancy to birthing and suckling, from certain societally assigned motherhood roles. All other female mammals perform motherhood roles without learning, as a natural byproduct of their biology. Given the data about human and nonhuman mammalian biology, to believe that motherhood and child rearing are arbitrary learned behaviors in human females is as egregious as believing that biology prohibits women from voting and being doctors and lawyers.

Given the question of the determination of gender, or more specifically the belief in self-determination of gender through feelings of maleness or femaleness, the biology points to two independent processes that masculinize the body and the brain, and notes that there are two ways in which the modulation of the timing and/or quantity of hormone release can result in sex and gender ambiguity. It is this biology that informs “feelings” of maleness and femaleness or rare instances of ambiguity. The traditionalist would need to deny the possibility of this ambiguity. The progressive would appeal to early socialization, and insist that we can therefore choose our gender based on our internal feelings. But where do those feelings come from, independent of an underlying biology? Do they emerge from the soul? Are they powered by angel dust? The progressive must be either a dualist or willing to consider a biological explanation.

Interestingly, both the progressive and the traditionalist can selectively appeal to science when it is convenient. For example, the Vatican document mentioned above appeals to science to make its case for gender differences, but it conveniently fails to embrace the nuance and full range of its findings. On the other side, the progressive selectively embraces gender ambiguity while ignoring its biological basis and rarity, because doing so provides support for a preferred narrative.

The biological science underlying concepts such as gender, race, hierarchy, etc. is complex, nuanced, and incomplete. It does not determine these concepts. It provides constraints or guidelines on our social construction of these categories. Where these constructions respect the underlying constraints, they will endure. Where they are arbitrary or dependent upon religious and historical norms, they will be less successful and endure only until the norms pass or the supporting external factors change.

The example of gender highlights how biology contributes to our understanding of the cultural concepts in dispute, and how both the progressive and the traditionalist are equally detached from the underlying reality as currently described by science. It is true that the traditionalists argue that one cannot organize one’s life and society in any arbitrary fashion. There are certain constraints that must anchor any society. However, the constraints that they reach for are also social constructs (agreements) based on pre-scientific religious and social norms. As these are neither divinely guaranteed nor empirically vetted, they can be as disconnected from reality as the social construction engaged in by the progressives.

The disconnection from biological reality that underlies both progressive and traditionalist worldviews is what makes them dangerous. It does not matter whether this disconnection occurs because you refuse to recognize any independent facts in the world or because you adhere to outdated prescientific beliefs. Creatures with false beliefs will suffer consequences ranging from the failure to maximize opportunities to immediate death. Humans may have survived for tens of thousands of years believing that the Earth was flat and at the center of the universe, but correcting those erroneous beliefs led to numerous scientific and technological advancements that could not have occurred otherwise.

False beliefs about the COVID-19 virus and vaccination among many Americans led to the United States having three times the death rate from COVID-19 as neighboring Canada. While self-selected echo chambers are seductively pleasurable and may harbor us for short periods of time, in the long run, when false beliefs collide with the world, the world will always win. As Hannah Arendt noted, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, and the distinction between true and false, no longer exists.”

In the battle between the social constructions of the extreme progressives and the social constructions of the Republican base we all lose. The fight that will move us forward begins by realizing that many concepts giving rise to policy disputes are hybrid concepts, having both biological and social construction components. We need to devote our energies battling over the relative contributions of brute physical facts and social agreements. This is a legitimate fight, worth having, particularly when informed by evidence.

But unfortunately, as Pompeo’s remarks illustrate, this dispute in the political sphere is not a reasoned attempt to understand the world and our place in it. Reason takes a backseat to self-righteous zeal. It is much more cathartic to preach that all children should be free to select their gender, or to condemn critical race theory as “a divisive cluster of notions that reduces human beings to cogs in an identity wheel, segregates them according to DNA, and strips them of individual agency and rights” than it is to try and understand details and nuance. Understanding is hard work, particularly when it needs to push against instinctual predispositions, and the results do not usually fit on a placard or bumper sticker.

These ideas are developed in greater detail in Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics (MIT Press, 2022).

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