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AAAS: Sociobiology on the Run
by Jon Beckwith & Bob Lange
In early February, several members of Boston SftP made the great escape from the snowbound city to attend the Washington AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). There we met with several other SftPers from Amherst, Ann Arbor, Stony Brook, Seattle, D.C., and Urbana. The meeting was very successful — in more ways than one.
First, it was good — as always — to link up with other SftP folk. We talked about what our respective chapters were doing, the Western and Midwestern Regional Conferences, revitalizing the lDB, the magazine, and plans for a national SftP conference in Ann Arbor this coming December.
Every evening there were planning/evaluation meetings for AAAS activities. The first day we targeted the session on Agriculture and Malnutrition in Latin America where we were able to bring up several important points and considerably enlivened the session. Most energy in the following days was focused on sociobiology symposiums. SftP did well on the floor, raising points, challenging speakers, etc .. and many people attended our countersessions. All in all, people felt like we put in a good showing and influenced a lot of people.
A literature table was staffed every day from 8:30–6 pm where we sold a lot of our materials, talked to a lot of people and made new contacts. Hopefully this will strengthen and expand the D.C. chapter as well as our national membership. There was also a spontaneous performance of Laboratory! which was well-received.
We felt good about going to AAAS. We learned a lot from it, made a lot of contacts, hopefully got some people thinking.
“They (social scientists), and most biologists, find that Wilson took all too much license, in the last chapter of his book, in trying to explain human behavior. He resurrected the nature-nurture issue in a way which ignores the conceptual advances of the last 20 years… ” Is this an excerpt from the latest broadside from Science for the People against E.O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis? Hardly! In fact, it is a quote from the official abstract for the recent two-day AAAS symposium on Sociobiology — an abstract written by one of the organizers of the symposium, George Barlow, who considers himself a sociobiologist. This is just one indication of a growing reaction within the academic community against the claims of Wilson and others concerning a genetic basis for human social behavior and institutions.
While the initial reaction nearly three years ago to Wilson’s book was universally positive, this was broken with the publication of a letter from the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People in November of 1975 in the New York Review of Books. In that letter we exposed the lack of scientific foundation for the sociobiologists’ claims concerning human behavior and the political function of this and other biological determinist theories. Our letter opened up an often acrimonious debate which reached an important stage at the AAAS symposium this February, in Washington, D.C.
The very fact of the AAAS sponsoring this symposium on the “controversy” is an indication of the success we have had in making the claims of the sociobiologists controversial. What caught many of us in Science for the People by surprise at the AAAS meetings was the extent of the spreading negative reaction to sociobiology. At this meeting, and at another recent meeting in which we participated at Wellesley College, sociobiologists seemed very much on the defensive. Many have rushed to dissociate themselves from Wilson. At the AAAS meetings, the discrediting of human sociobiology was reflected in the content of the symposium itself, in numerous private and public discussions which Science for the People held with those attending the meetings and in the receptivity to our ideas and literature.
The symposium itself was divided into two morning and two afternoon sessions with about five speakers at each session and question periods following the talks. Of the approximately 20 speakers, about six were directly critical of sociobiology, with several of them, including Steve Gould, Eleanor Leacock and Stephanie Shields, expressing also the- political implications. A few, David Barash, Steven Emlen and Wilson, spoke on human behavior. Most of the rest restricted themselves to rather neutral sounding animal studies. We raised many questions from the floor during the sessions, trying particularly to get people to focus on the political implications of sociobiology and the way it had already been presented in the popular media and the schools.
At the same time, we got the organizers to agree to let us use the symposium room for our own sessions which were held in the period between the morning and afternoon sessions. At one of these, we showed “Sociobiology: Doing What Comes Naturally,” a film for high school and college students which includes interviews with sociobiologists Wilson, DeVore and Trivers, and is a blatant example of the way in which these ideas are used to support the status quo. (See Tedd Judd’s review of the film in the last issue of Science for the People). Several hundred people attended and a good discussion followed. Both the Ann Arbor SftP group and the Boston Sociobiology Study Group brought to the meetings articles they had written on various aspects of sociobiology. We sold nearly a thousand copies of these articles.
The high drama of the meetings came on Wednesday afternoon, when the center of the controversy, E.O. Wilson, was to speak. The session began with a beautiful critique by SftP member Steve Gould, who spent some time demolishing a study by David Barash, an ardent sociobiologist who was the next speaker. (Barash is the author of one of the most outrageous works in the field — Sociobiology and Behavior — an Elsevier paperback which is widely used in college courses.) Gould’s talk received the largest ovation of the symposium. After Barash’s rather lame presentation, Eleanor Leacock, an anthropologist, tore into Wilson’s claims, citing much anthropological and other evidence. She also exposed and demolished the shoddy logic leading to some of the blatantly sexist assertions found in Barash’s book. At this point in the symposium, as Wilson was introduced as the next speaker, the tide seemed more than ever against him and his followers.
He was about to begin his talk when a group of 10–15 members of Committee Against Racism (CAR) marched onto the stage, yelled “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide,” and poured water over Wilson’s head. After a few minutes of confusion, and screaming both from CAR members and the audience, the former left the room and the moderator decried the incident, whereupon a large segment of the audience gave Wilson a standing ovation. He then proceeded to give one of the more outrageous and superficial of his speeches, attempting to claim that a large number of studies supported his claims for a genetic basis for human social behavior.
One of us rose at the end of Wilson’s talk to dissociate ourselves from the CAR action. Unfortunately, the atmosphere created by the CAR attack on him made it difficult to immediately challenge the downright distortions and exaggerations in his talk. However, in the final discussion period, we were able to continue our politicizing questions and criticisms.
While our general feeling was that the anti-Wilson-Sociobiology sentiments were not seriously diminished by the CAR action, it did provide Wilson with at least a momentary respite from the criticisms and restored some respect to his position. Furthermore, the press coverage of the opposition to sociobiology focussed excessively on this incident; Science for the People must develop ways of reaching the press to get coverage of our positions and actions, in spite of the occurrence of such distractions.
We feel that the trend that the sociobiology debate is taking is a clear victory for Science for the People. Large numbers of people have been alerted to the fallacies and dangers of these theories and many outside of SftP are joining the critics. It may well be that human socibiology is in some disrepute in the academic community. However, and this is extremely important, the academic refutations of these ideas do not prevent them from continually being presented in the popular media and school texts. Recent examples are the August 1, 1977 cover story of Time magazine on Sociobiology, “Why You Do What You Do,” and an article in the March, 1978 issue of Psychology Today by David Barash. The struggle must be continued, for history teaches us that biological determinist ideas from eugenics to Jensenism can have powerful social impact and must be combatted both in the academic and public arenas.