Buchanan 1998: Being human


koalas have fingerprints too

This was a very persuasive article. It almost lured me into believing that human life is so very very different from everything else in the natural world – to the extent where we can claim to be separate from it. But not quite.

No, an apple can’t choose to ignore gravity, but the apple tree did evolve to produce abscisic acid that severs the connection between the stem and the fruit at an appropriate time for its seeds to be dispersed. Evolution is an incredibly complex process – almost too complex for us to comprehend – it is subject to myriad factors and pressures and is dependent on on random mutation. Sometimes I think social scientists could do with understanding a little more about the rest of the natural world; they might realise that it has more in common with the human, social world than they imagined.

The idea of ‘free will’ is taken completely for granted in this paper, but many biologists would question the extent of this freedom; they might argue that our genes are actually the driving force, and that we have simply evolved as effective hosts, alongside many other organisms, none of them perfect hosts by any means, but good enough (the insects are probably the best).

If only trees and apples and DNA could speak! Especially the latter… we’d get a hell of a story out of that double helix. Bees, as well. I’d like to talk to some bees… if we could, we might find out that they think they have free will too.

I’m not sure how we can be sure that our capacity for moral choices is unique. Presumably, like all our other characteristics, our capacity for morality would have evolved, and I’m curious as to why we would be the only ones to have it. Convergent evolution is rife in nature – hooves, for example, evolved from claws in several unrelated lineages. Perhaps morality is a ‘glitch’ that will eventually lead us into a genetic dead end along with the giant panda. Or perhaps it’s just a random quirk, like fingerprints (a trait we share with the koala bear – not many people know that).

For me, what makes us distinctly human (from a human perspective, of course) is not so much about free will as about language. Essentially, this paper is about investigating matters of free will and choice among our fellow human beings. Having a common means of communication – language – enables us to investigate matters of free will and choice more deeply than we would be able to with, say, a tree frog. So, we can go beyond observing and counting in order to make predictions, and start eliciting narratives that make explicit what is going on for people and enable us to develop a deeper understanding of the situation – and its significance. Other animals – and plants too – have their own means of communicating with one another, but it makes perfect sense that the greater the commonality in our communication, the more nuanced and delicate our awareness can become. This idea has been touched upon in readings for both units so far; in terms of what it is possible to know, and in terms of academic (and other) discourse(s).

Something that frustrates me greatly is the reporting of public health and education research in the media; projects are often over-simplified – presumably in order to generate controversy – in a way that implies a positivist perspective and approach. Take this Guardian article on Sheffield University’s study on breastfeeding, for example. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would expect that, in addition to simply adding up the numbers to see whether breastfeeding increased, there is some kind of deeper investigative work going on; talking to the participants in the study about their choices, etc.. The quotes from the researchers themselves are about the thoughts and feelings of the new mothers they have been working with, and carry the hallmark of an interpretivist perspective. So, assuming they *are* going to be doing more than just counting heads on breasts, why don’t the journalists admit to this? Is it because that would make the research sound more reasonable, and therefore not controversial enough to make it to press? Do they not understand anything beyond the scientific method? Do they think *we* won’t understand?

Education and public health are always going to be controversial; they present us with the same moral dilemma: Is it better to leave people to make their own choices, or to force them to do what we think is best for them, with all the incentives and nudges in between? The tipping point – whether one believes that this is ‘real’ or socially constructed – is always going to be in flux, and the humanistic perspective at least carries a sense of honesty about the complexity of the social world.

Buchanan, D. R. (1998) Beyond positivism: humanistic perspectives on theory and research in health education. Health Education Research. 13 (3), 439-450

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