Review: Sociobiology — The Skewed Synthesis

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Review: Sociobiology—The Skewed Synthesis

by The Genetic Engineering Group

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 6, November 1975, p. 28 – 30

This article was written by a group associated with the Genetics and Society Project Group of the Boston Chapter of Science for the People. It is being submitted in response to the laudatory reviews of the recently published book by E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press). Wilson, a professor of biology at Harvard, has spent a good deal of his carreer working on social behavior in insects. He and a number of others in the field of animal behavior have decided to push for an extension of their conclusions to a view of human nature. One aspect of the public relations involved is the christening of a “new field,” sociobiology. As a result of a campaign by Harvard University Press and the receptivity of the press, the book and its implications have received wide publicity. 

Many of us in Science for the People have been involved in the struggles to expose the genetic explanations for social and political problems, including the Jensen-Herrnstein-Shockley propaganda on IQ, genetics and race1 and the myth of the XYY male2. We do this because we can see how such theories are used to oppress working people and minority groups and to spread an ideology which blames the victim of social and economic inequities for society’s problems. In a similar fashion, the theories put forth by the sociobiologists and their predecessors help to support maintenance of the status quo and to convince people that revolutionary changes in social relationships (e.g. class structure and sex roles) are impossible. One way we see this done is by the rapid incorporation of biological determinist views into school curricula. The indoctrination begins very early on. If the views of human nature put forth by the sociobiologists are not combatted, they will be appearing very soon in new biology texts. (We have already seen one text on human nature, put out by Educational Development Corporation, which is pure sociobiology propaganda.) 

Thus, while we continue to fight concrete examples of exploitation and oppression, we must also be on our guard to expose politics masquerading as impartial science which provides the ideological underpinnings for the maintenance of current power relationships. Sociobiology is not an academic question.

Wilson, E.O. (1975) Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Beginning with Darwin’s theories of natural selection 125 years ago, new biological and genetic information has played a significant role in the development of social policy. Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E.O. Wilson proclaim the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior. Such theories of “biological determinism” claim that genetic data can explain the origin of certain social problems.

Each time these ideas have resurfaced they have been said to be based on new scientific information. Yet each time, even though strong scientific arguments have been presented to show the absurdity of these theories, they have not died. The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently purport to provide a scientific justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex. Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community. For example, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. said 

The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest . … It is merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God. 

These theories played a strong part in the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws in the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also in the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. 

The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the creation of an apparently new discipline, sociobiology. This past summer, a front page story in the New York Times heralded the new field: 

Sociobiology carries with it the revolutionary implication that much of man ‘s behavior toward his fellows … may be as much a product of evolution as is the structure of the hand or the size of the brain. (New York Times, May 28) 

Such publicity lends credence to the belief that “we are on the verge of breakthroughs in the effort to understand our place in the scheme of things” (New York Times Book Review, June 27). Like others before him, Wilson’s “breakthrough” is an attempt to introduce “rigor and scope” into the scientific study of society. 

However. Wilson dissociates himself from earlier biological determinists by accusing them of employing a method generating unfalsifiable hypotheses. He purports to take a more solidly scientific approach using a wealth of new information. We think that this information has little relevance to human behavior, and the supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions. 

In his attempt to graft speculation about human behavior onto a biological core, Wilson uses a number of strategies and sleights of hand which dispel any claim for logical or factual continuity. The first 25 chapters of Sociobiology deal largely with animals, especially insects, while only the last chapter focuses on humans. Thus Wilson places 500 pages of double column biology between his chapters on “The Morality of the Gene” and “From Sociobiology to Sociology.” But Wilson’s claim for objectivity rests entirely upon the extent to which his last chapter follows logically from the fact and theory that comes before. Most readers of Sociobiology, we suspect, will be persuaded that the final chapter on human society flows naturally from what comes before. However Wilson’s claim to continuity fails for the following reasons:

1) When Wilson is forced to deal with phenomena such as social unrest we find that his explanatory framework is amazingly elastic. Such behavior is capriciously dismissed with the explanation that it is maladaptive, and therefore has simply failed to evolve. Hence, social unrest may be due to the obsolescence of our moral codes, for as Wilson sees it we still operate with a “formalized code” as simple as that of “members of hunter-gatherer societies.” Xenophobia represents a corresponding failure to keep pace with social evolution, our “intergroup responses …still crude and primitive.”

This approach allows Wilson to selectively confirm certain contemporary behavior as adaptive, and “natural” and thereby affirm the present social order. The only basis for Wilson’s definition of adaptive and maladaptive is his own preferences. While he claims scientific objectivity, Wilson reinforces his own speculations about a “human nature”, i.e. that a great variety of human behavior is genetically determined, a position which does not follow from his evidence. 

2) Another of Wilson’s strategies involves a leap of faith from what might be to what is. 

As Wilson attempts to shift his arguments smoothly from the nonhuman to human behavior, he encounters a factor which differentiates the two: cultural transmission. Of course, Wilson is not unaware of the problem. He presents (p.550) Dobzhansky’s “extreme orthodox view of environmentalism” : 

Culture is not inherited through genes; it is acquired by learning from other human beings… In a sense human genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new superorganic agent, culture. 

But he ends the paragraph saying “the very opposite could be true.” And suddenly in the next sentence, the opposite does come true: Wilson calls for “the necessity of anthropological genetics”, that is the study of the process by which culture is inherited through genes. Thus, Wilson’s preference for genetic explanations persuades the reader to make this jump. 

3) Does Wilson’s analysis of studies in non-human behavior provide him with a basis for understanding human behavior? Wilson anticipated difficulties in making the jump from nonhuman to human societies, and attempts to deal with them by ad hoc arguments. For example, a major problem exists in Wilson’s emphasis on innate biology: how can genetic factors control behavior if social structure within a group can change rapidly over the course of just a few generations? Wilson, of course, does not deny the enormous flexibility and rapid change in human action. But Wilson admits that according to standard population genetics, this period is far too short for the changes observed. He turns instead to the “multiplier effect,” which is a concept borrowed from economics. He uses this “effect’ in an attempt to show how small genetic changes can be amplified enormously in a limited time span. But nowhere does Wilson present any basis for introducing the multiplier. Further, he relies on the unproven assumption that genes for behavior exist. A crucial point in Wilson’s explanation remains purely speculative. 

4) Many of Wilson’s claims about human nature do not arise from objective observation (either of universals in human behavior or of generalities throughout animal societies), but from a speculative reconstruction of human prehistory. This reconstruction includes the themes of territoriality, big-game hunting with females at home minding the kids and gathering vegetables (“many of the peculiar details of human sexual behavior and domestic life flow easily from this basic division of labor” p.568), and a particular emphasis on warfare between bands and the salutary advantages of genocide. But these arguments have arisen before and have been strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies. (See, for instance, A. Alland, The Human Imperative or M.F.A. Montgagu, Man and Aggression). 

What Wilson’s book illustrates to us is the enormous difficulty in separating out not only the effects of environment (e.g. cultural transmission) but also the personal and social class prejudices of the researcher. Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists who have served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems. 

From what we have seen of the social and political impact of such theories in the past, we feel strongly that we should speak out against them. We take the new field of sociobiology seriously, then, not because we feel that there is scientific significance to its discussion of human behavior, but because it appears to signal a new wave of biological determinist theories.

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  1. See March, 1974, issue of Science for the People.
  2. See the Sept. 1974 and July 1975 issues of Science for the People.