quick hit: general theory of individuality

Hat tip to my friend Joseph for sharing this article with my on Google Reader earlier in the week. Davis Barash @ The Chronicle of Higher Education asks why scientists have historically shied away from acknowledging and exploring the reality of the individuality of organisms.

One of the unspoken secrets in basic scientific research, from anthropology to zoology (with intervening stops at physiology, political science, psychology, psychiatry, and sociology) is that, nearly always, individuals turn out to be different from one another, and that—to an extent rarely admitted and virtually never pursued—scientific generalizations tend to hush up those differences. It can be argued that that is what generalizations are: statements that apply to a larger class of phenomena and must, by definition, do violence to individuality. But since science seeks to explain observed phenomena, it should also be able to explain the granular particularity of such phenomena. In fact, generalities lose potency if they occur at the cost of artificially leveling otherwise significant features of reality.

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The current dearth of "individuality theory" may thus reflect the fact that, until recently, advances in applying evolutionary biology to human behavior have been almost entirely the work of biologists, who typically have given individuality short shrift. By contrast, psychologists—stimulated in part by the early work of Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton—have generally been more receptive to individual differences, with anthropologists occupying a more or less intermediate position (although with no small amount of individual differences!). Perhaps the growing involvement of the latter disciplines in attempts to flesh out a truly evolutionary theory of human nature will result in fuller incorporation of behavioral individuality.

Western science since Aristotle has sought to identify and understand classes of phenomena, looking beyond the particular to organize knowledge into general categories. Accordingly, my request for greater attention to individual differences may seem strangely retrograde. Maybe the best way to justify so perverse a preoccupation is to substitute individual differences for the famed question about climbing mountains: Why study individual differences? Because they are there.

You can check the whole piece out over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I think it's well worth the read.

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