Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Evolutionary Neuroscience

Last week, I attended a 2 ½ day workshop hosted by the Emory Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture. The main research question motivating the workshop was: how is the human brain distinct from that of other primates (in other words, what are the distinct structural and functional capacities or “specializations” of the human brain)? Part of the focus of the workshop was on methodology – how do different scientific methods (i.e. brain imaging) work and how can they be used to answer questions about human specialization? Part of the focus was on content – what specific specializations have been identified through the use of different scientific methods? There was a lot of information presented; these are just a few highlights:

  • Complex language has long been thought to be a human specialization; recent imaging technology (DTI) shows differences between human and chimp brains in the connectivity between two brain areas associated with language in humans
  • Analyzing and recreating how early stone tools were made suggests that the capacity to engage in complex, intentional, and social action (according to one speaker, the definition of technology) may be a human specialization not shared by chimps or other animals
  • Observational research and experimental psychology suggest that the willingness to cooperate with others (particularly with people who are not close relatives) may be a specialization of humans not shared by chimps or other animals
  • Observational research and experimental psychology suggest that the capacity for social learning (and imitation specifically) is a particular specialization of humans not shared by chimps or other animals

Overall, the workshop was interesting and thought-provoking. Especially useful to me was the discussion of brain imaging technology and the opportunity to see an fMRI machine in action – some of the scientific research I will be analyzing for my own project relies on brain imaging technologies.

Throughout the workshop, I also tried to think about ways in which scholars in the humanities could contribute to this scientific work. Over the course of the workshop, I realized that many of the presenters were, in various ways, touching on the problem of how to talk and think about similarities and differences without establishing hierarchies. Of course, the presenters wanted to emphasize the similarities between humans and non-human animals (no one wanted to fall into the trap of celebrating human exceptionalism). However, the presenters also wanted to focus on human differences (specializations). Yet, as they themselves noted, identifying differences goes hand-in-hand with making inter-species value judgments – i.e. humans have certain capacities for social learning, therefore humans are better than other animals. In addition, identifying differences between species often goes hand-in-hand with making intra-species value judgments – i.e. social learning is a particular capacity of humans, therefore those humans who are better social learners are better humans. These intra-species value judgments also seem to get caught up in discourses about gender and race – i.e. technology is a human specialization, thus cultures with more “complex” technology are more human. I think scholars in the humanities have spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk and think about difference without establishing hierarchy. This kind of work has certainly been going on for decades in women’s studies (i.e. Joan Scott’s 1988 classic “Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism”). Perhaps this is a point of connection where scholars in the humanities (including scholars influenced by poststructuralism) can contribute to work taking place in the sciences.

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