This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Naturizing What We Do: A Review of the Film Sociobiology: Doing What Comes Naturally
by Tedd Judd
Tedd Judd works in clinical and research neuropsychology in a Boston hospital. He is a member of the Sociobiology Group of SftP. He is a feminist with interest in human rights and the behavioral sciences.
In the past few years much energy and enthusiasm has been directed towards the supposedly new idea of extending the comparative study of animal social systems to human social systems. However, we of the Sociobiology Study Group see this movement as the latest reappearance of a much older doctrine of biological determinism, a belief which has most often served conservative, repressive political systems1. We maintain that sociobiology’s new found popularity is due more to its political than its scientific consequences. For example, political indoctrination can be seen quite clearly in the popularizations of sociobiology, as in the recently released educational film, “Sociobiology: Doing What Comes Naturally.”
“Sociobiology: Doing What Comes Naturally” is advertised as, “A film on a new area of scientific inquiry with revolutionary implications for the disciplines of biology, anthropology, sociology and psychology. Featuring Harvard University Professors Irven Devore, renowned social anthropologist; Robert Trivers, prominent biologist and social theorist; and Edward 0. Wilson, zoologist and author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.” In this review we will consider the social policy positions advocated by the film and the scientific claims used to support them. We will discuss the historical social and scientific context of this film and sociobiology at large.
The introduction and conclusion of the film are largely claims about the importance of sociobiology for social policy. The narrator says “A new biology, sociobiology, can help us plan our own survival and we need all the help we can get…. What we learn may become the biological basis for a better future …. We may get new power over a thousand genes … ” Trivers concludes, “It’s time we started viewing ourselves as having biological, genetic and natural components to our behavior and that we should start setting up a physical and social world which matches those tendencies.”
The first substantive claim of the film is that social sex roles are probably genetically determined. This is the primary social message of the film and for many people the most plausible claim. This “most plausible” claim appears in the beginning of the film, perhaps to encourage the later acceptance of less widely believed ideas. Immediately after the introduction Trivers is introduced as a Harvard sociobiologist and “supertheorist” who “believes the sexes are biologically programmed or wired to behave the way they do in almost everything.” Trivers’ opening speech is an extended speculation about the genetic basis of university women’s needs for emotional attachments preceding sex with emphasis on his disagreements with portions of the women’s liberation movement. The footage following these speculations is of disrobing fashion models and young women in hot pants. The focus is quite deliberately on the pelvic area.
Next, Devore is introduced to tell us that, “Before [the development of birth control and abortion in the last few decades] human sexuality was always inevitably linked to pregnancy and bearing children, and for the first time we have the opportunity to release women from this traditional child-bearing role.” This brash claim is surprising for an anthropologist and observer of human behavior in that it ignores an extensive literature on folk methods of birth control and abortion2 and the entire spectrum of human sexual behavior which does not involve sexual intercourse between fertile individuals of the opposite sex. It is even more surprising in that it is the first substantive statement in the film with the possibility of scientific or historic verification.
The next part of the film concerns male competitiveness and aggressive dominance featuring the assertion that dominance reflects and results in greater sexual opportunities. The narrator tells us that “The message for males isn’t subtle and it isn’t subliminal; get out there and fight for your life…. go for yards, dig, be a home ground hero.” Football players, boxers and fighting baboons are spliced next to pictures of sexy women and the words “Possess Her” flash on the screen. This section is introduced by Devore who tells us that, “You know, you don’t have to be a scientist to notice that among humans men are much more interested in status and in politics than women are. And it’s an interesting question to ask whether there’s anything in our background that might have led to this or whether it’s just an outcome of human social institutions. And to me the answer is quite clear, wherever one looks throughout the vertebrates, all the animals, the primates and so on one finds males competing for status with each other.”
Once again we find that Devore has distorted the situation. His claim is untrue of many human societies3 and of portions of our own society. In our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, dominance behavior of any kind is very difficult to discover in the wild4, there is scant evidence of any competitive struggle for dominance between males,and what dominance has been detected or inferred appears unrelated to sexual opportunity5. In lemurs, another primate group, dominance behavior has been observed chiefly between females6. Furthermore, even in Devore’s own work on baboons the link between dominance and reproductive success is far from clear7, and the dominance heirarchies among baboons which he describes in this section of the film may be very different or absent in other parts of the baboon’s natural environment8.
The assertion of a biological basis for human male aggressive dominance behavior leads to the next social message: other human social pecking orders are also genetically determined. These social orders include economic class, conflict within families and the social roles or castes which are established between groups on the basis of historical technological advantages in warfare. Following a sequence of splices illustrating symbols of social class such as dress and language we are asked, “What genetic code drives the Pacific salmon to return thousands of miles to the spawning bed where it was born?” then, “How far back can we go in understanding the origins of our behavior?” We are shown fire ant colonies and told, “The individual is nothing. Roles are determined strictly by genetic code. There is no upward mobility here. Once a worker, always a worker.” (There is no mention of the fact that nutritional deprivation is responsible for some of the castes, nor that ants have extreme female dominance.) Then Wilson tells us that with qualifications human social behavior can be classified according to general qualities of behavior which have been “discovered” in “lower” animal societies. The implications of these juxtapositions probably will not be missed by the high school and college students for whom this film was made. The message is that a class society with a vastly disproportionate distribution of wealth is biologically justified or perhaps inevitable.
Warfare is also considered. “Is it possible our own inner biological clocks have been sending man to battle since the beginning of time?” the narrator asks. In talking about genetic predispositions towards warfare Trivers tells us that a few key phrases about the other country and martial music are all it takes to send hundreds of thousands marching off. He explains with enthusiasm that “One of the most striking characteristics of warfare, and certainly of classical warfare, is that when you overrun the other country, you loot and pillage, but you also grab up the women, and you either inseminate them on the spot or you take them back as concubines. You kill off the adult males; you sometimes castrate young boys and bring them back as servants. So I think warfare has traditionally had a strong sexual counterpart to it, which is certainly biological, and you don’t have to look far to see that there’s that tendency running today.” While watching footage from the Vietnam War we are told about the natural superiority of groups which develop technologically superior weapons. (One wonders about the biological significance of the Vietnamese victory.)
Elsewhere in the film Trivers claims that these “insights” into human nature have lain virtually dormant for 110 years since Darwin first enunciated the theory of natural selection. This claim is simply untrue. In the past century there have been many celebrated attempts to apply the theory of natural selection to human social behavior and time and again they have been discredited only to reappear in subtler forms9. Such attempts began with the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer10 and continued in the eugenics movement in this country and in Europe. Similarly, Nazi racism and its extermination policy were directly supported by applications of evolutionary theory to human behavior. Some more recent attempts are represented in popular but scientifically flawed books including Lorenz’s On Aggression11, Morris’ The Naked Ape,12 and Tiger and Fox’s The Imperial Animal13. Even Wilson acknowledges their failures in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis14 while praising them for their style and vigor.
These attempts have usually failed as scientific endeavors because they have represented the wishful thinking of social theorists and biologists projecting the current social norms onto nature — they “naturize” the things we do in our culture by looking for analogies and metaphors in animal behavior. In so doing they produce a systematic distortion of nature’s complexity, a glossing over of facts and a biased selection of data. Natural history becomes a mythology of human nature — a cultural inkblot where our most deeply ingrained customs and institutions are projected. Nevertheless, these efforts frequently go well-rewarded especially by the attention and research money of those whose interests they serve, namely, male supremacists, racists and the capitalist upper class. Much of sociobiology may represent the latest reappearance of the same type of argument. At any rate, the scientific fallacies underlying such arguments are also apparent in this film. Many of these have been mentioned above. We will summarize here the most common types of errors and deceptions.
The hallmark of the projective natural histories of biological determinists is that species are often chosen to illustrate points about human social behavior because of the behavior seen in that particular species, not because of the species’ evolutionary relationship to humans. This disregard for phylogeny (the evolutionary history of the “species”) is apparent throughout the film. Baboons are dwelt on at some length and monkeys, elk, salmon and even ants are discussed, but chimpanzees — which are closer to us and we to them than any other living species — are barely mentioned. Other species are regarded as representatives of earlier stages of human evolution instead of as species which have their own evolutionary history. In the film’s overeager introduction we are told, “Our behavior may be more influenced by monkeys and lower forms than we think.” Later we are told that “the dream [of sociobiology is] to connect the behavior, the biological evolution of lower life forms, and to project them to understanding behavior in man [sic].”
The variability within a species is also often ignored. The male dominance of savanna baboons is described in detail yet the very different social organization of the same species in a forest habitat is never mentioned. Even the rich variety of social organizations within our own species receives little attention. The footage of humans is mostly from U.S. cities.
Our closeness to other animals is emphasized — the date for the split off of the human line from other living primate species is erroneously placed at one million instead of 10–20 million years ago. We are told that “Man [sic] is already an endangered species.” The simple juxtaposition of footage showing similar animal and human behaviors is also used, for this is a point of political persuasion, not scientific argument.
Finally, and most importantly, any chosen aspect of human behavior and even specific historical events which can be construed to have a relationship to reproductive fitness are assumed to be genetically determined. This is reflected in the views of warfare, rape, technology, aggressive dominance and emotional attachment described above. “[In the] next century, we may look back on the youth revolt of today as part of our natural evolution,” the narrator suggests. Despite the fact that there is no direct evidence for separate and distinct genes which control specific human social behaviors, sociobiologists continue to present and claim validity for their own culturally biased beliefs in the form of supposedly scientific theories of human nature.
It is time we recognize that, although science is capable of modifying our beliefs about human nature, all attempts to build a comprehensive scientific theory of human nature must necessarily reflect the culture and beliefs of the theorists. Such theories are, therefore, intrinsically political in nature and should be treated as such. This conclusion provides us with a rationale and strategies for combating sociobiology and especially such vulgar popularizations as this film. It helps us to resist the use of biological theory as a political tool so that we can keep alive and advance our dream that we can find better ways for people to cooperate in providing for the needs of all humanity.
Since the appearance of this film, its use by speakers from SftP and the writing of this critique, professors DeVore, Trivers and Wilson have publicly stated (Anthropology Newsletter, Oct. 1977) that beyond giving the interviews they have had nothing to do with the production of the film and have requested that it be recalled. They conclude, “We deplore the vulgar misrepresentation of sociobiology by this film; we equally deplore the misrepresentation of the field by those who use this discredited film to imply that it represents an accurate statement of our ideas.” Whether or not this letter and recalling request would have occurred in the absence of the film’s use by SftP is a matter of speculation. In any case, they have not renounced their own statements in the film. Judging from their publications, these statements themselves accurately represent their ideas.
The film is certainly a vulgarization of sociobiology (and of these statements), yet sociobiology itself and the frequent public statements by these scientists are vulgarizations of the biology upon which they are loosely based. SftP continues to use the film as an illustration of the political nature of these statements and as an example of the ease and speed with which the speculations of sociobiologists are picked up and used in support of political positions. We join these scientists in hoping that the film will be recalled and no longer used in the indoctrination of high school students.
- Ann Arbor Science for the People Editorial Collective, Biology as a Social Weapon, Burgess, Minneapolis, Minn. 1977; Science for the People Sociobiology Study Group, “Sociobiology — A New Biological Determinism”; see also Boston Science for the People Sociobiology Study Group, “A Reading List on Biological Determinism,” Science for the People, Sept.–Oct. 1977, 9:5, p. 27. 27.
- N. Himes, A Medical History of Contraception, Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1936.
- R.R. Leavitt, Peacable Primates and Gentle People, Harper and Row, 1975; M. Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, William Morrow, N.Y. 1935.
- J. Reynolds & F. Reynolds, “Chimpanzees of the Budongo Forest,” in Primate Behavior: Field Studies of Monkeys and Apes, I. DeVore, ed., Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, N.Y., 1965; R.R. Leavitt, see Note 3 above.
- J. Lawick-Goodall, “The Behavior of Free-Living Chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Reserve,” Animal Behavior Monographs, No. I, p. 161–311, 1968.
- A. Jolly, Lemur Behavior. Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966.
- I. DeVore, “Male Dominance and Mating Behavior in Baboons,” in F.A. Beach, ed., Sex and Behavior, Wiley, N.Y. 1965.
- T. Rowell, The Social Behavior of Monkeys, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1972.
- Ann Arbor Science for the People Editorial Collective, Biology as a Social Weapon, Burgess, Minneapolis, Minn. 1977; Science for the People Sociobiology Study Group, “Sociobiology — A New Biological Determinism”; see also Boston Science for the People Sociobiology Study Group, “A Reading List on Biological Determinism,” Science for the People, Sept.–Oct. 1977,9:5, p. 27. 27.
- H. Spencer, Social Statics, Chapman, London, 1851.
- K. Lorenz, On Aggression, Harcourt, Brace & World, N.Y., 1966.
- D. Morris, The Naked Ape, Dell Publishing Co., N.Y., 1967.
- L. Tiger & R. Fox, The Imperial Animal, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, N.Y. 1971.
- E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1975.