Sense and Nonsense About Sociobiology


Sociobiology Examined, edited by Ashley Montagu, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 355 pp., $5.95 paper.

The continuing public debate over sociobiology is the most boring in the world. On the one hand there is the sweeping and preposterous braggadocio of the claim by Harvard University's Edmond Wilson (the "father" of sociobiology) and his crowd to having reduced the social sciences to, in essence, mere satrapies of evolutionary sociobiology—a claim that, while accorded a measure of respect since it issues from an eminent scientist, is wholly unsupported by compelling fact. On the other hand there is the vast outpouring of defensive and usually biologically ignorant articles by those practitioners in the humanities whose turf seems in danger of being colonized by sociobiologists.

The whole is then overlain with a vicious attack upon sociobiologists' political motives by a small, hollering group of self-styled "Marxists" whose verbal sallies are as tough and uncivil as they are false. As a result, the debate has a curious, insubstantial air about it, as though Indonesian shadow puppets were throwing, but never landing, roundhouse blows.

So I was prepared to be bored when I was asked to review Sociobiology Examined, a collection of critical essays, most of which have been previously published in journals as variant as Science, philosophy, American Psychologist, and the New York Review of Books. Mercifully, however, the "Marxists" are here represented by only two token pieces (by Steven Rose and Stephen Jay Gould). Most of the rest are honest attempts that have at least a few useful insights, and—surprise of surprises!—three are simply outstanding. Two of these, by the philosopher Mary Midgley, are exceedingly clever and marvelously intelligent commentaries that, among other good deeds, skewer Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene quite neatly.

The third, by the anthropologist Derek Freeman, is the best of the lot, because it develops with a wealth of interesting and pertinent empirical detail the most important idea competing with sociobiology for pride of place. This idea is that culture itself is the raw material of evolution-like processes having nothing whatever to do with changes in the genes. Thus, new ideas and practices could be discovered (corresponding to a new genetic mutation), and these could perhaps spread, in competition with existing practices and other novelties, through the population and to succeeding generations (thus corresponding to Darwin's "survival of the fittest").

Instances of this kind of process are all around us—the spread of fashions, new songs, language changes, modernity, even political individualism. In this way, the pattern of cultural practices that led sociobiologists to think Darwinian genetic evolution must be at work—such as Wilson's "universals" of aggression, incest taboos, sex-role differences, altruism, and religion (see his recent On Human Nature)—is readily explainable by the idea that such customs confer real benefits on the societies that optimally develop them and then prosper and thrive relative to the rest. A society that failed, after all, to practice predominantly nonincestuous mating would not be long for this world, nor would one that failed to develop some means of fostering moral consensus (such as, by means of religion.)

No recourse to the genes is needed at all, then, to account for such universals. It is the great virtue of Freeman's essay that he understands this fundamental concept and fleshes it out with specific examples.

Freeman also points out the basic problem with locating the source of cultural practices and values in the genes: that the pace of genetic change is much too slow to keep pace with the rapid shift of culture. Put in other words, the only aspect of the cultural environment that is likely to be constant over many generations is its fluidity; hence, the only "constant" likely to be "seen" by the genes against the background of short-term cultural shifts is the enduring need for flexibility of response. In this view, the genes would be driven to extend rather than to constrain the range of human choice. This realization then liberates this topic from the burden of predetermination and immutability of the existing status quo (with its sexism, hierarchy structure, etc.) that has encumbered the public discussion.

In short, this book supplies a partial antidote to the overall poor quality of the debate on sociobiology as it transpires in popular articles, TV specials, and Time covers; one can gain some useful insights here. One should also, however, read F.A. Hayek's essay, "The Three Sources of Human Values," which remains the single best commentary on this matter to date.

What special interest might sociobiology hold for political individualists? One fascinating aspect is that the animal kingdom offers a multitude of instances of "spontaneous order," since all social order observed in the lower animals is obviously spontaneous and unplanned. An examination of these might prove fruitful in uncovering clues to general principles—concerning signaling, communication, homeostasis, etc.—that could prove useful in effecting the transformation of human society that we would like to see: the release of an ever-expanding range of social activity from the leech-like clutch of government and its delegation to the beneficent action of the spontaneous order.

William Havender is a research biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

Please to post comments