The problems with biology

Tuesday 2 July 2013

There are many common misperceptions about the biological level of analysis.  Often, the nature of these misperceptions is rooted in an "all or nothing" or dichotomous approach taken by students when evaluating research.  I would like to address three of the most common misperceptions that are made in student essays:

*  One of the problems with the biological level of analysis is that it is reductionist.

*  One of the problems with this study at the BLOA is that it does not take culture into consideration.

*  Animals are used for two reasons - to avoid both demand characteristics and ethical considerations.

By looking more carefully at these evaluation strategies, our students should be able to write more well developed and informed critical thinking on their exams.

The issue of reductionism

Even though you wouldn't know it from our students, reductionism was at one time seen as a strength of the biological level of analysis. Reductionist arguments are based on the idea that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that complex behaviors be reduced to explanations of individual factors. So, it is the idea that we could find a neurotransmitter that is responsible for depression or that a gene could be responsible for resilience. It is based on the idea of Occam's Razor that is that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one and researchers should test simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power. 

This was seen as a strength of the biological level of analysis because it was trying to identify specific factors that could be empirically tested in order to establish a cause and effect relationship.  A lot of the great biological research has actually not found these links, and that has given us great insight into human behavior.  To argue that a study provides evidence of a cause and effect relationship but is a problem because it is "reductionist", is not a very strong answer.

Others argue that inappropriate use of reductionism limits our understanding of complex systems.  This is more often what students are trying to say, but this is also problematic.  In the field of biology today there is great understanding of the interaction of environmental and biological factors. Although a study may be reductionist, the level of analysis cannot be so simply dismissed with this argument. 

Many students say that HM is "reductionist because it argues that memory are localized."  First, the study was a case study.  The approach was holistic.  Secondly, the idea that memory is localized in the brain is far from "reductionist."  Biologists have found that the consolidation of semantic memory from STM to LTM takes place in the hippocampus, but memory formation is much more complex than that and biologists recognize this.  A better example of reductionism would be an argument that a complex behavior like sexuality could be attributed to a gene (e.g.. Bailey & Pillard), but even there, Bailey & Pillard recognized the role of environment.  In the modern world of epigenetics, one may have a gene, but it takes an environmental stimulus to "turn it on."

The issue of culture

One of the common evaluations of biological research is that the sample was not cross-cultural.  Sometimes, students even include comments like "different races were not included."  One of the fundamental principles of biology is that we share a common biology.  Although there are genetic differences (e.g... sickle cell anemia or cystic fibrosis), it is assumed that the basic brain structure and functions of the nervous system are the same.  Culture may be considered in abnormal psychology with regard to the somatization of a disorder, but in general, it is not a very good argument - not to mention that comments about races being biologically different is something that has a long and painful history. 

The issue of animal research

Animal research remains a contentious issue in the study of human behavior.  Many students hold the misperception that the reason that we do research on animals is because we are able to violate ethics.  This is a misperception, or at least an oversimplification.  There are clear and strict guidelines for the treatment of animals in research.  It is true that animals do die in research and that a cost-benefit analysis must be made in order to determine whether the death of the animal is "worth it."  However, students rarely mention that the other key reasons that animals are used: for example,  the ability to see several generations in a short period of time, which is essential for Alzheimer's research.  Or the fact that their genetic and physiological make-up are very similar to humans and thus the results can be generalized to some extent. 

Another common assessment of animal research is that it is "free of demand characteristics." Anyone who has a pet knows that one's behavior can affect an animal's behavior.  It is ironic that we often object to animal research because of their very human characteristics, but then think that they would not be influenced by a researcher's behavior....

Tags: biology, biological, reductionist, culture, lab, field, demand characteristics, animal research


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