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We Need a General Theory of Individuality

May 4, 2010

David P. Barash in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Needed, an oxymoron: a general scientific theory of individual differences. To focus upon individuality is to celebrate particularity, whereas any general theory must, by definition, submerge the individual case in a wider sea of pattern. Each of us cherishes our own separate, individual personhood, making much of the “fact” that we are different from everyone else (while also insisting, of course, that we aren’t all that different). But attention to individual differences runs the risk of being unscientific, insofar as science aims at generalizing, raising our heads above the individual trees to recognize the forest. Yet the need is there. When Kierkegaard insisted that his tombstone say “That Individual,” he was identifying both an existential truth and a profound scientific dilemma.

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. [More]

One Comment leave one →
  1. Joseph Ting permalink
    September 7, 2011 10:05 PM

    Contemporary society may well change behavioral patterns. The accentuation of individual behavioral difference in children growing up in affluent societies may well reflect modern parenting attitudes that values the child’s sense of self above all else. Allowing the child or adolescent full expression of emotional and social temperament emphasizes self-worth and self-centricity. In addition to possibly imparting a competitive edge, self-realization contributes to maintaining a wide array of lifestyles and behaviors, excepting those that are overtly unacceptable or disadvantageous.

    The homosocial elements of the expanded behavioral repertoire in humans may well help attain and enhance advantageous relations in socially complex communities (We need a general theory of individuality, David Barash May 2 2010). However, Barash’s emphasis on adaptive and survival advantages conferred by an extended range of individual behavior neglects the entertainment and stimulation value of non-normative behavior that on surface confers no other apparent advantage. Behavioral diversity could be perpetuated by our innate curiosity toward, and encouragement of, that which departs from the widely accepted and advantageous norm. Variety (could well be) the spice of life in this context; if entertainment offerings are any guide, novelty and diversity (and not just good deeds or attitudes) have us enthralled. Popular, not necessarily good or altruistic, behaviors hold potential to being widely adopted by the impressionable. With relative affluence and abundant spare time, the prerogative is not merely to survive to pass on our genes, but includes a better-lived life of greater variety, in ourselves and others.

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