• September 4, 2015

We Need a General Theory of Individuality

We Need a General Theory of Individuality 1

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

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Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

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. 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.

No geneticist would dispute that in every sexually reproducing species, individuals possess distinct genotypes (monozygotic twins excepted). In the best-studied species, Homo sapiens, we know that individuals differ apparently even in traits that don't provide an adaptive advantage, like fingerprints, as well as in physical appearance and personality. Field biologists can often distinguish individuals among their study animals by distinct physical and/or behavioral traits. Almost certainly such individuality is at least as apparent to the animals themselves. Every pet owner knows, moreover, that individual dogs, cats, or horses are not interchangeable, yet theoretical constructs in biological science, in particular, often proceed as though they were. Thus biologists theorize about adaptive traits for "the" adult male or "a" juvenile female, knowing full well that there are only individual adult males and juvenile females—each of them distinct, albeit similar enough to be grouped together.

Medical science, by contrast, is unusual in that it has long acknowledged the importance of individuality among its subjects. Thus, in their training, physicians are repeatedly urged to treat the patient, not the disease. Although there are typical syndromes and basic commonalities among organ systems and ailments, good doctors know that individual Homo sapiens may, for example, develop tuberculosis without fever, or idiosyncratic unresponsiveness or hyper-responsiveness to certain drugs. That is why The New England Journal of Medicine and most medical-specialty journals devote considerable space to individual case reports, something rarely found in other sciences. One of the hottest current areas at the interface of medical genomics and pharmacology concerns the prospects of directing particular pharmaceuticals and their optimal dosages, not to Homo sapiens generally, but rather to the DNA profile of each individual patient.

One of the frustrating things about reading older classics of natural history is the extent to which observers like Ernest Thompson Seton and C. Hart Merriam reported on prey-catching behavior of "the" lynx, or vocalizations of "the" golden eagle, without specifying whether the subject in question was male or female, juvenile or adult. Modern biologists demand that information because we recognize that neither "the" lynx nor "the" golden eagle exists; rather, there is only this lynx and that golden eagle. In fact, one of the triumphs of modern biology has been precisely the overcoming of a tendency to think in something like Platonic ideals. Taxonomists no longer concern themselves with the "type species" of a genus, implicitly recognizing the crucial role of individual variation.

Yet even as we yearn for more-detailed identifying information about lynxes and golden eagles, we do so to combine them into yet another conceptual group, smaller than the species but larger than the individual, like "the" adult male lynx or "the" juvenile female golden eagle. Most textbooks in animal behavior, including my own, contain extensive material, both descriptive and theoretical, concerning the behavior of such larger categories, but not a single entry for behavioral individuality. Generalization thrives, but individuality suffers.

Whether they are comparative psychologists looking for laws of learning, ethologists seeking to identify species-typical behaviors, or evolutionary psychologists concerned with the adaptive value of behavior, researchers in behavioral biology typically view deviations from the statistical norm as aberrant, either genetically or experientially. And for good reason. Few of us would credit as "science" a lengthy rendition of seemingly disconnected anecdotal accounts of individual cases. Furthermore, such detailed descriptions quickly become downright boring to anyone not intimately concerned with the individuals in question.

Accordingly, scientists try to reveal underlying processes, to identify and enunciate principles, to go inductively from the specific to the general. Yet, especially when it comes to living things, each specific case really is distinct. That is why the biological (and social) sciences are so involved with statistics. Chemists can concern themselves with "the" sulfuric acid molecule, or physicists with "the" neutron, confident that having seen one, they have pretty much seen them all. But students of the life and social sciences are always confronted with diversity. As a result, we lean heavily on complex mathematical techniques that tell us whether it is safe to generalize and, if so, how far we can go, and with how much confidence. That is what statistics is all about, and no reputable report in biology or the social sciences will present empirical data without accompanying confidence limits, correlation coefficients, or similar attempts to aggregate findings in a meaningful way—which means, subject to valid generalizations.

Just as Galileo, in the course of his enforced recantation, is said to have muttered of the Earth, "Nonetheless, it moves," many a researcher, considering the homogenization of disparate data so neatly massaged into a satisfying generalization, is likely to have muttered, of the various individuals thereby erased, "Nonetheless, they are different."

Which leads us to ask: Why are they different?

For biologists, understanding ideally takes place at both the proximate (immediate) and ultimate (evolutionary) levels of causation. On the proximate level, several factors appear likely. Genetic differences among individuals are obvious sources of individual variability, such differences being produced by mutation as well as (in sexually reproducing species) meiosis and sexual recombination, the basic processes whereby novel DNA is produced and then rearranged as each new individual is formed.

Proximate causes of individual differences must also include the different environments experienced by each individual, with "environment" defined broadly to include all experiences, personal and social. Age-related effects would thus also be expected, as the passage of time provides an opportunity for both genetic and environmental influences—not to mention their interaction—to be more thoroughly expressed. A newborn deer hiding in the brush, for example, will become immobile in response to almost any intruder, whereas adult males' response will depend on whether that intruder is another buck or a cougar.

Individual differences should probably be distinguished, however, from differences based on distinctive biological and social roles. Thus, among the hoary marmots, Marmota caligata, which I have studied extensively, adult males are typically either socially dominant within their colony, or clearly subordinate to a dominant individual. In a sense, the differences between dominant and subordinate males reflect important aspects of their behavioral individuality. When and if a satellite male assumes the role of dominant male, his behavior becomes that of such males generally. Reproductive females, for their part, are more aggressive than their nonreproductive counterparts, spending more time near their burrows; those roles switch when their reproductive roles reverse. Although social and biological roles are crucial to each specific behavior, it seems most useful to control for "role effects," and to restrict the concept of behavioral individuality to distinctions among individuals that are socially and biologically as similar as possible in all other respects, notably age, sex, social status, physical health, residence situation, and reproductive state.

Even in cases of genetically identical individuals, idiosyncratic differences in personal experiences can nonetheless be expected to generate a gap in observable characteristics among individuals. Such experiences may begin quite early in life: Intrauterine positioning, for example, can influence phenotypic variation among rodents. A fetus surrounded by males on either side is liable to be androgenized compared with one surrounded by two females. Despite extensive and intensive studies of behavioral development, we still know remarkably little about how individual differentiation actually occurs.

At the ultimate, or evolutionary level, individual differences are even more problematic. One deceptively simple explanation is that the adaptive significance of individual differences is directly equivalent to the adaptive significance of sexual reproduction itself, a subject that has received substantial attention from evolutionary biologists, but that still remains oddly resistant to straightforward explanation. Here is the problem: Given the many costs of reproducing sexually compared with asexually, it isn't clear why so many creatures opt for the former. A sexually reproducing individual projects only 50 percent of its genes into each offspring, while for asexual creatures, it is 100 percent. That would seem to convey a twofold benefit to any organism whose ancestors opted out of sexual reproduction.

It seems increasingly likely that sexual reproduction enhances the fitness of its practitioners by generating an array of offspring, at least some of which are likely to be adapted to an ever-changing environment, and/or by keeping ahead of parasites and other disease-causing organisms. In any event, a common thread amid diverse theories is that the adaptive significance of sex relates to the production of genetic diversity.

But in order for such genotypic diversity to convey a fitness benefit, it must be reflected in phenotypic diversity, which is to say, it must have some demonstrable effect on the way each individual looks, acts, or responds physiologically. In other words, there must be individual differences. It is therefore ironic that many biologists who are quite familiar with the theoretical dilemma associated with sexual reproduction, and with the received wisdom as to its adaptive significance, nonetheless tend to disregard the existence of substantial individual differences among their research subjects, or scratch their heads when asked to explain its prevalence.

Before biologists fully appreciated—and were confounded by—the genetics of sexual reproduction, Charles Darwin recognized individual differences as essential to the process of natural selection itself. Thus differential reproduction produces evolutionary change only if the more fit are different in ways that can be inherited from the less. Individuality therefore occupies a fundamental place in our understanding of basic evolutionary biology, italicizing the paradox that it has been so rarely investigated.

There are other possible ultimate explanations for the existence of individuality. In some cases, at least, it might be neutral or nonadaptive, a byproduct of selection that maintains genotypic differences for other reasons, such as the well-known case of sickle-cell anemia's being maintained in the human population because of a benefit conferred upon individuals whose sickle-cell gene is obscured by its genetically dominant alternative. Or it might be the unavoidable result of genetic "noise" that simply has not been selected against. It may even be maladaptive, although it stretches credulity that so fundamental characteristics of living things should carry a pervasive evolutionary cost. On the other hand, individual differences may persist, at least in certain cases, because, even though a "best" behavior or anatomy or physiology might exist, the vagaries of genetics combined with experience necessarily cause random and idiosyncratic departures from that ideal. It would presumably be adaptive, for example, for everyone to be well coordinated, but some are more so than others. In all probability, that isn't because of an evolutionary payoff to being a klutz, but because in the trajectory from one-celled zygote to adult human being, there are lots of opportunities for things to go at least somewhat awry.

It may also be that individual differences are directly selected if individuals benefit by being distinct from others. For example, when predators develop a "search image" of particular prey, individuals that differ from the most abundant form(s) of such images can experience an advantage. Selection of that sort could favor a continuously varying array of phenotypes, behavioral no less than physical. Individual differences could also be the result of sexual selection, if mate choice favored individuals who differ from the chooser, as a means of reducing inbreeding and its attendant disadvantages in fitness.

Several other factors could select for behavioral individuality, and (along with those described above) they are not mutually exclusive. Thus individual recognition between parent and offspring appears to be adaptive, predictable, and widespread. Especially when possible mix-ups could occur, selection should favor parents whose offspring are distinctive, hence not easily mistaken for a nonrelative. The inclusive fitness benefits of being able to identify kin beyond offspring/parents could also select for individual differences. The study of "kin recognition" has, in fact, become a cottage industry among students of animal behavior. When such recognition is demonstrated, attention is then typically directed to the mechanism whereby it is achieved, whether based on instinctive identification, imprinting from early experience, or simple physical proximity. Only rarely, however, does the chain of causation run the other way, to the possibility that individual differences may have been selected as a means of providing for the adaptive dispensing of nepotistic benefits.

It is also possible that the exigencies of reciprocal altruism have selected for individual differences among would-be reciprocators, as in the case of vampire bats, in which well-fed individuals donate blood meals to those less fortunate. In such cases, selection would probably be especially intense on the ability of initial donors—whether bat or human—to discriminate among their beneficiaries, all the better to insist upon subsequent recompense. By the same token, since the donor could subsequently be identified by the beneficiary, the donor is more likely to be paid back, and therefore more prone to benevolence.

Finally, environmental heterogeneity—defined broadly to include social as well as biological and physical environments—could result in proportionately more individual differences, both through simple adaptation to diverse experiences and through the selection of behavioral flexibility to exploit diverse environments. We might consider shared traits of a species or population as a kind of coarse adjustment in pursuit of fitness, and individual differences—however achieved—as the fine tuning.

Generalizations about behavioral individuality are, at this stage in our knowledge, difficult to support. It is tempting, for example, to suggest that "higher" animals with more-complex brains exhibit more individual variability than do their "lower" counterparts, which rely more on automatic, species-typical reactions to a narrow range of fixed stimuli. It would be surprising if jellyfish or barnacles turn out to demonstrate as much behavioral individuality as elephants or human beings do.

It may thus be significant that some of the most effective portrayals of behavioral individuality come from studies of large-brained animals like chimpanzees and gorillas. And yet, in their basic morphology, two oak trees are also likely to differ more from each other than two elephants are, at least in their physical structure, although we may assume that the inverse is true when it comes to behavior. Our inattention to such matters is emphasized by the fact that no common metric exists with which to make such comparisons.

When seeking to extrapolate from a sample to a larger population, life scientists typically present research results in terms of either mean or median, all the while knowing that there is no "average" individual. (Since there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, the average human being would have one ovary and one testicle.) The nature of statistical inference is such that results must be accompanied by measures of variation. It might seem that such measures effectively take notice of individual variability. But let's face it: We are overwhelmingly more interested in measures of central tendency, whether it be the area of a panda's paw, the alarm-calling frequency of a scrub jay, or the incarceration rates of young, unmarried men. We give at best only passing attention to statistical measures of dispersion, largely as unavoidable indices of irrelevant noise. Or—especially if one's own data are at issue—such measures are considered with trepidation, since if too great, they threaten to keep the results from "reaching significance." Very rarely are such indicators of individual differences seen as significant in themselves.

Like it or not, however, it is clear that individuality exists, and that it matters. The social structure of coyotes (Canis latrans), for example, is apparently influenced by interactive patterns among littermates; it has also been suggested that wolves (Canis lupus) are predisposed to social niches in their packs by individual traits that characterize them as pups. In yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), interactions among the young born in the same year are strongly influenced by their individual behavioral profiles, which in turn appear to be more consequential than patterns of genetic relatedness per se. Similarly, the greatest part of the variance in female reproductive success is explained by variance among individual females, rather than by the variance among different social groups or different genetic lines.

The impact of individual variability is probably especially great in highly social species (chimpanzees, elephants, human beings, hoary marmots) as opposed to relatively solitary ones (aye-ayes, rhinoceroses, woodchucks), which are less likely to encounter diversity. On the other hand, the fact that a species experiences a high level of social integration may suggest that individuals of the species are relatively unaffected by social vagaries, which may explain why they are capable of getting along in proximity. Species that are comparatively social might possibly develop greater behavioral individuality, since they are likely to occupy social roles that are more clearly defined. We simply do not know, for example, how eusocial versus solitary bees compare in their individuality. Nor, at this stage, can we even make cogent predictions.

I want to urge acknowledgment of the existence and importance of individual differences, and to disagree with Goethe's maxim "Individuum est ineffabile" (Individuality cannot be explained). Individual differences, I am confident, will eventually be explained. First, however, they must be recognized.

In part, the resistance encountered by human sociobiology, Darwinian psychology, evolutionary psychology—call it what you will—may reflect that none of the "ultimate" interpretations thus far offered account for the enormous amount of (perceived or actual) individual variation that human beings identify among themselves. Perhaps there is something about the human psyche that believes a theory of individuality will do insufficient justice to our own deeply cherished individuality.

The animated movie Antz begins with a hilarious scene in which Z, a troubled ant, is speaking (with the voice of Woody Allen) to a therapist about his feelings of "insignificance." To Z's consternation, however, the therapist approves enthusiastically: "Being an ant is being able to say, 'Hey-I'm meaningless, you're meaningless.' ... Remember—let's be the best superorganism we can be!" The reality is that the best superorganism a person can be is a terrible letdown for a species that has a hard time reconciling social homogenization with its insistence on being "me."

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.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, written with Judith Eve Lipton, is How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas (Columbia University Press, 2009).


1. generally_academic - May 02, 2010 at 01:44 am

In short, everyone is a unique individual, just like everyone else.

2. erlend - May 02, 2010 at 04:59 am

Individuality is perfectly explained as a patchwork of general principles. There isn't any ontological one-of-a-kind beyond that. A face is unique, not in terms of being wholly different from all other faces (in which case we probably wouldn't call it a face), but in terms it of being constructed by four subset of genes. Each subset is randomly inherited (by meiotic recombination) from each of four grandparents. Your face, then, is a patchwork of traits the faces of your grandparents. And due to the randomness of meiotic recombination, we're guaranteed that a string of Miss Universes will never be in the same family line of mothers and daughters. Beauty is genetic chance. Of course, in addition to this abstracted genetic contribution, the interplay between genes and environment (both pre- and postnatal) will also add to the individuality of the face. Still, all contributions to individuality stem from general, causal principles.

The same goes for personality. I'm unique in my personality, right? Yes and no. I'm unique in my personality because the exact placement on the five separate dimensions of personality is unique (cfr. the Big Five). The five switches of personality slide into unique configurations for each person. Yet, the five dimensions as well as the possible placements on them is universal across the species.

The search for ontological, personal uniqueness is possibly romantic in origin, based on a hope for emergent, non-reducible properties of individuals. But I side with science in this, not with myths or wishful thinking. Also, ethically, what makes the individual organism a moral telos, is not her differing from, but her similarities to a wider group of organisms. There are no unique rules you should be made to abide by for my sake only.

3. erlend - May 02, 2010 at 05:23 am

It should also be remembered that individual variation is written hard into evolutionary psychology and biology. Evolution would be impossible without it (not that evolution is the sake for which variation exists). Matt Ridley ("The Red Queen") expounds upon how sex arose as an evolutionary strategy, because by reshuffling genomes through recombination (meiosis) and outcrossing (breeding), organisms would, by force of differing slightly from their parents, stay one step ahead of the evolution of adapting parasites. Variations in personality can also be seen as a menu of adaptational answers to shifting social milieus, foremost in terms of within-population calibrated evolutionary changes, and possibly also from strategies of individual development.

4. willismg - May 02, 2010 at 08:14 am

(I'm sorry, but I couldn't make my eye-bleeding self read this entire article, so if this is redundant...)

Perhaps this merely means that the methods of science, as practiced in such things as macroscopic physics or chemistry, don't really apply to psychology, or even biology, and to try to shoe horn such things with the use of statistics is a misguided effort.

Maybe there is another way to address the analysis of groups of realated individuals. Physicists had to adjust their methods when the world of the atom and nucleus was found to not obey the deterministic laws to which they had been accustomed.

Certainly they use statistics, but to really understand, in so far as any can really be said to understand quantum effects, more "sophisticated" methods were developed to solve the relevant equations... perturbation methods, etc.

Maybe something analogous is needed in these other fields.

5. 22027212 - May 02, 2010 at 04:28 pm

The medieval Franciscan theologian and philosopher, Duns Scotus, developed a theory of individuality of creatures in his teaching on haecceitas. Roger Bacon reveals some of the same insights as his later confrere when treating the natural world.

6. arrive2__net - May 02, 2010 at 09:28 pm

I think the idea of advancing theories of individualization is an important contribution. Clearly individualization through genetic recombination is structured into human biology. Understanding it is more difficult because of the relative lack of control conditions (perhaps there once were human or ancestors who lacked this trait, individualization, but they all died, an evolutionary dead end). Is individualization driven by sheer complexity, or is it driven by a competitive environment where survival requires it? I think one relevant idea is that of mass death, if a threat came along that could kill one member of a species (parasite, germ, asteroid, predator, habitat loss, what have you) and all the members of that species are identical, all the members could be killed by it. Over evolutionary time, a given line may have encountered thousands of such threats, and perhaps individuated species had the edge. What happened to the original North American horse and woolly mammoth (and for that matter, the passenger pigeon). How did they die out in an environment that would seem to be an easy place for them to survive. Maybe they were too alike and too limited. Individuation make help a species spread out across niches. When all salmon, turtles, or penguins in a species breed in the same territory, they could be killed off when in reality there are plenty of other territories around, and a little more individualization might have saved them.

Bernard Schuster

7. ramber - May 03, 2010 at 09:40 am

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8. iris411 - May 03, 2010 at 09:47 am

A theory of individuality or a theory of diversity? No matter which name we go for, we need to remember that there is a cognitive & evolutionaary advantage to generalize and stereotype. Furthermore, there is something called group dynamics, which means a group is not a simple sum of the individuals, rather when a group is formed there are unique and new dynamics generated and along with it some individual differences lost(or don't matter any more). So there are more to be learned on genralized patterns even if we understand each individual perfectly.
Hence even if we have a theory of individuality, it is still one patch of all the puzzles in life.

9. hopeful_buffalo - May 03, 2010 at 10:35 am

Not recognizing individuality in the animal kingdom gives human beings the ability to justify devaluing those species. Humans have applied this to their own by race, justifying the belief they all are alike in humans; e.g., races, ethnic groups, but not even realizing that as they say that it is a behavior that twists around and destroys the very logic. In the nonhumans, it is easier to shove that family dog in the back yard and forget him if he is just a dumb dog that is not a unique, once in a lifetime being. Race horses on one hand are immortalized for their unique behavior/personalities and abilities, but still are abused as a group, being just a horse, just an animal. Really now, it would be so simple to have completely trained and cooperative animals if there was no individuality. If all patients could be treated the same, felt pain the same way, liked to eat the same things, reacted to stressors the same way, etc. how simple, and how unlike reality. What a horrible boring world this would be, if nature (whatever you want to call it) behaved as humans would have it behave. It is a world full of diverse individuals, it is just not a comfortable situation for many scientists and researchers, much harder to write that book!

10. intered - May 03, 2010 at 11:42 am

I enjoyed reading this well written review. Beyond metaphor, however, I don't see how it makes a case for its prescriptive title. Among the psychological sciences (recall that the broad term 'psychology' spans incommensurable investigative logics) we see not one but several competing theoretical models under which we produce empirical investigations the goal of which is to understand, explain, and predict the relations among individual differences. If Mr. Barash is saying, "Hey, we pay too much attention to our commonalities and not enough celebrating our differences" I agree as a social observation. I disagree with his desire to reach a goal where all individual differences are explained or at least explainable. Mr. Barash seems not to understand that this end state implies full determinism, soft at least and perhaps more. The general tone and specific passages in his article ("celebrate particularity") tell us that he is not seeking a fully determined explanatory/predictive model (the latter distinctions are unclear in this article). In ordinary language, one does not celebrate a determined outcome. Celebrations entail the concepts of praise and blame; they impute positive emotions to outcomes in which the agent could have done otherwise. I don't mean to be too critical. This is an interesting article but, as a prescription for theory, it seems theoretically unsound.

11. deepwater - May 03, 2010 at 12:19 pm

and yet we persist towards a national standardized curriculum and learning outcomes assessment....because all students are the same (or nearly the same), and their potential as learners fits neatly into some economic/politically driven framework. Dare to be different and fundamentally you are on your own. (Oops, perhaps I have over generalized?)

12. pwiener - May 03, 2010 at 01:02 pm

I hate to sound a deconstructionist alarm, but although Prof. Barash describes very well the ways differences can be tagged, he doesn't actually define what he means by "difference." The most obvious source of difference, I would think, is the belief we invest in the distinctions individual selves assign to themselves and to others. It's all in the mind, and probably is a product of human consciousness. All the functions of difference Dr. Barash names may still apply, it's true - if we subscribe to notions of evolutionary biology. Or if we consider philosophy inferior to science. But doesn't the humor inherent in Antz depend on OUR not being able to observe or describe the "self-consciousness" of ants (E.O. Wilson notwithstanding)? In a like manner, our human differences may be invisible, and inconsequential, to ants. When we step on an ant, it may seem natural to do so, but to an ant it is an act of God.

13. intered - May 03, 2010 at 01:33 pm

Can a deconstructionist sound an alarm?

14. gomiller - May 03, 2010 at 02:16 pm

anthropologists and those in related disciplines are beginning to study complexity with some fervor...perhaps this is part of the answer? we have a complex adaptive systems initiative where I work - maybe if we analyzed individuals as if they were complex systems (which, they kind of are)...?

15. podritske - May 03, 2010 at 04:51 pm

If "we" were to focus on what makes us the same (e.g. a species differentiated in evolution with a volitional consciousness) instead of what makes us different, it should become evident that what makes us essentially the same is that we are all unique.

16. bobshelby - May 03, 2010 at 08:46 pm

As our first commenter indicates, individuality is held in common by masses of individuals, many of whose opinions are alike as peas in a pod. True, actual peas differ in size and hereditary potentials as shown first by Mendel. Others in this thread point out that individuality is guaranteed by the interaction of innumerable factors which, I point out, can result in very simple minded infacility with concepts.

Most people are hereditarily equipped, physically, with a nervous system capable of the highest cultural & mental achievement. Lack of intellectual stimulus or self-identity that accepts and values challenge toward accomplishment leaves people vulnerable to emotional appeal of rhetorical nonsense which they are unable to analyze or critically reject for better formulations.

17. ornery_mike_v7 - May 04, 2010 at 01:22 am

Quite an intersting theory, however, at this point in history, I'm afraid we should be looking at why & how Individualism is being erased, at many K-20 State Funded Institutions, in the name of Educational Reform. If any or most of you shiver at the students in our classes now, it will seem like the Golden Day's, when compared with those that will replace them.

18. lamiellj - May 04, 2010 at 09:06 am

In 1900, the German philosopher/psychologist William Stern published the first text in that sub-discipline of psychology that would come to be known as 'differential' psychology. In the very first line of text in that book, Stern identified "individuality [as] the problem of the 20th century." In speaking here of a 'problem,' Stern meant 'challenge;' i.e., he was telling his fellow psychologists that the field of psychology would have to find a satisfactory way to come to terms with the concept of individuality.

For the rest of the 20th century, and continuing now into the 21st, the view has prevailed that the way to meet Stern's objective would be through differential psychology, i.e., through the systematic study of individual differences. Stern himself knew better. In his 1927 intellectual autobiography, he wrote that "even then [i.e., even in 1900], I could see that true individuality cannot be reached through the channels of differential psychology," and an examination of his 1900 book reveals that, indeed, he had made this point emphatically.

Unfortunately, Stern's insights have largely been lost to posterity -- including, quite obviously, professor Barash and virtually all of those who have commented on his article thus far. Readers wishing to learn more about this remarkable scholar might start with a small book published just a month or so ago by Pabst Science Publishers (Germany), under the title "William Stern (1871-1938): A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works." But a lengthier treatment of the relevant material that is more detailed both historically and technically has been available since 2003 in a book published by Sage under the title "Beyond Individual and Group Differences: Human Individuality, Scientific Psychology, and William Stern's Critical Personalism."

Contemporaries who choose to remain oblivious to Stern's contributions in this domain should refrain from proclamations concerning our "need for a general theory of human individuality" and attendant suggestions that we need to focus more on individual differences. As of the early 20th century, there was already a comprehensive and philosophically sophisticated framework for conceiving of human individuality. Stern called it 'critical personalism,' and though access to Stern's ideas has undoubtedly been impeded in part by the fact that they were published in German, an English translation of Stern's 1917 monograph titled 'Psychology and Personalism' is now available in Volume 28 (August, 2010) of the journal 'New Ideas in Psychology' (sic!).

What is more, mainstream 'personality psychology' HAS been devoted to the systematic study of individual differences, for decades, laboring at great length under the misguided notion that a satisfactory framework for understanding individuality could be achieved that way. Grasping the deeply rooted error in this way of thinking is possible by thoughtful reflection on the simple truth that individual differences of the sort commonly investigated by 'personality' psychologists do not exist for individuals. The minimum number of individuals necessary in order to speak coherently about some difference between individuals is two, and the difference about which one then speaks cannot properly be attributed to either of those two individuals!

As it is said, those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it.

19. marka - May 10, 2010 at 07:33 pm

Provocative article! We are NOT created quite equal, and there may be good reasons for that, and good results as well.

One additional comment: "There are no unique rules you should be made to abide by for my sake only." If only that were true ... Our tax code is full of unique rules, promulgated and promoted by individuals to benefit only themselves, at the expense of others (who have to take on the additional tax burden, if nothing else). They may be written up to sound as if they are rules of more general application, but that is simply a rhetorical device, to get others to agree. And, of course, many people operate as if rules for the general good only apply to others -- I get to speed, run red lights, cheat on taxes, overstay my parking, build my fence & driveway on my neighbor's property, etc. -- but woe be to the neighbor who does so.

20. richardtaborgreene - May 16, 2010 at 09:28 pm

This article REMINDED me of a tome in memoriam of a female professor at Harvard whose lifework consisted, in large measure, of investigating the costs of our science-directed/derived mania for "means". So much social research and psychologic research reported what population/sample means do and are, and this lady (whose name escapes me and my books are packed for a move) examined lumps within samples/populations represented by means finding entirely different causal processes and factors operating within those lumps and missed/messed by means reported.

I do not think her or her lifework were trivial and in my own field of creativity research, again and again the top people in my field report one abstract model of creativity whose variables are so general, vague, and, to be honest, practically useless, that corporate changes made using them produce utterly trivial results (copying a product popular in Japan elsewhere 8 years later for an example from five Harvard Business Review articles of late). The means that capture and apply such reductionist models leave all the "good stuff" out from the point of view of BOTH theory and practice. You get TENURE but no changes in the world of ideas or in the world of practice. TENURE without new ideas and new practices seems more and more what we are structured institutionally to produce. Poor us!!!!

21. tardigrade - May 29, 2010 at 01:15 pm


22. tardigrade - May 29, 2010 at 01:20 pm

@18: "the simple truth that individual differences of the sort commonly investigated by 'personality' psychologists do not exist for individuals. The minimum number of individuals necessary in order to speak coherently about some difference between individuals is two, and the difference about which one then speaks cannot properly be attributed to either of those two individuals!"

Not so, the personality theories I spend my time on deal not with comparative differences, but with describable traits, attitudes, fears and motivations.

23. tardigrade - May 29, 2010 at 01:20 pm

"Although social and biological roles are crucial to each specific behavior, it seems most useful to control for "role effects,"

Oh god yes. I cannot count the number of psychological studies I've read journalist reports of that make certain conclusions, and all I'm thinking is: "If they factored in general personality types a completely different set of conclusions would have been drawn. These results are so biased by statistics as to be almost meaningless."

24. tardigrade - May 29, 2010 at 01:21 pm

"Needed, an oxymoron: a general scientific theory of individual differences."

The components* of such exist and are capable of being synthesized together.

- Personality Theory (my favorite being the Enneagram and the orthogonal instinctual variants) - this lends an intermediate structure.

- We can then bring in evolutionary biology (such as that of ultra-selfish genetic elements [see "Genes in Conflict" by Burt and Trivers])

- We can then bring in sociology/anthropology/studies of aging (I don't know much about this).

- As a branching point off personality theory, evolutionary biology and sociology we have varying kinds of intelligence. People tend not to like IQ tests, so miss out on Intelligence in general. Fortunately J.P. Guilfod and Mark Meeker weren't such people (see the "Structure of Intellect" SoI); more modernly, neither is Howard Gardner.

In my own reading, there are obvious and profound (in a scientific sense) relations and direct correlations between various intellectual/IQ theories and personality (even among non-human mammals).

There are enough variables in all of these to encompass a "General" theory of individual differences. It'll obviously miss specifics of individuals, but no theoretical framework could encompass these and be useable.

"Yet, especially when it comes to living things, each specific case really is distinct."

That's one of the things I admired about Meeker's work on the SoI - in some cases she was able to identify specific learning disabilities in people based on the pattern of responses to IQ tests, and come up with individually tailored programs to help these people overcome their difficulties.

25. president_fred - May 30, 2010 at 11:09 am

we need first to define terms. There are 2 common uses for "individual", as applied to humans. One is the "charismatic" individual, favored by the gods. This is the Henry Ford or Forrest Gump model beloved by Republicans and fundamentalists. The other is the interactive individual, represented as anonymously as an Internet address or social security number (and in movies, by Babe the Pig, who wanted to be a sheep dog). Both are stereotypes combined in the everyday meaning of "differentiated", meaning a person possessing an interesting point of view, as well as a knowable character.
The problem comes when one grasps that individuality per se is an anonymous capacity to interact. All the individual air molecules in a balloon interact; one can measure their individual behavior en masse as their average temperature or pressure. (Individuals tend to distribute themselves along a bell-shaped curve.) Individuality does not imply identity, however, which is why having a number can be alienating, and why statistics are threatening to those (like gun rights people) who fear losing their identity in the onslaught of data).
Identity implies that one is like others, and is like oneself, a "category of one", from moment to moment. Individuality implies a position different from others along a continuum of probability, and so no identity.
If you ask me, I'll write a book.....
Please visit profitandentropy.com, and read "Saving Capitalism from Finance". Our newest, version 10.4, should be on the site by 5-31.
Richard Goldwater

26. vroomfondle - May 31, 2010 at 05:59 pm

Brian :
"You are all individuals"

Congregation :
"We are all individuals"

Meek voice in congregation :
"I'm not"

[Monty Python's Life of Brian.]

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