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
Review: Sociobiology—The Skewed Synthesis
by The Sociobiology Study Group
Many of us in Science for the People have been involved in the struggles to expose the pseudo-genetic explanations for social and political problems, including the Jensen-Schockley-Herrnstein propaganda on IQ, genetics and race1 and the myth of the XYY male2,3. We believe this work is very important because these theories are and have been 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. The latest attempt to reinvigorate these biological-determinist theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, sociobiology. This past summer we have been treated to a wave of publicity and laudatory reviews of E.O. Wilson’s book, Sociobiology, The New Synthesis4 including a front-page New York Times article which stated:
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, 1975).
Yet, upon examination, these theories say nothing new, have no scientific basis and tum out to be merely a reflection of the social prejudices of the “sociobiologists.” Their impact is to help support the status quo, and convince people that revolutionary changes in social relationships (e.g. class structure and sex roles) are impossible.
Recently, Science for the People groups in Boston and Ann Arbor have formed to analyze and combat this latest appearance of biological determinism. The Boston group prepared a critique which was published in the New York Review of Books (Nov. 13, 1974) and both groups are preparing articles for popular and academic journals. We are also examining a high school curriculum (Exploring Human Nature, put out by the Educational Development Center, Newton, Mass.), which is essentially a “sociobiology” text, organized by I. DeVore and R. Trivers of Harvard University. Sociobiology courses are also being taught now at a number of universities and colleges. An article in the November, 1975, issue of the American Biology Teacher proclaimed the importance of sociobiology and recommended the setting up of sociobiology courses in high schools. As we have seen with other instances of biological determinist theories, the steps from academic journals to educational and public propaganda to social policy are very rapid. Sociobiology is not just an academic question.
What follows are excerpts from the critiques we have written.
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 and political policy. From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey and now E.O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior. These theories have resulted in a deterministic view of human societies and human action. Another form of this biological determinism appears in the claim that genetic theory and data can explain the origin of certain social problems, e.g. the suggestion by eugenicists, such as Davenport in the early twentieth century, that a host of examples of “deviant” behavior — criminality, alcoholism, etc. — are genetically based; or the more recent claims for a genetic basis of racial or class differences in intelligence by Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein and others.
Each time these ideas have resurfaced, the claim has been made that they were 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 tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges of 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 said:
The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest . .. The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God. “5
These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930, and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.
A Critique of Sociobiology
In our view, the major arguments of sociobiologists about human nature, as represented in Wilson’s book, are unsupported and politically reactionary in their implications. The premises are that:
- All human societies share certain kinds of human behavior, which together can be considered to be our “human nature.”
- These behaviors, this “human nature,” are mainly the result of specific genes, and thus of evolutionary adaptation. The major sources are not to be found in cultural evolution or political and economic conditions.
On what basis does E.O. Wilson draw his conclusions? Most of his book is a review of massive amounts of published data on ant, bee, bird and primate behavior. In brief final paragraphs to three chapters on animal behavior and in his introductory and final chapters he implies that these data on the apparent genetic programming of animals lead to similar conclusions about human behavior.
. . . a single strong thread does indeed run from the conduct of termite colonies and turkey brotherhoods to the social behavior of man (p. 129)
In his first and last chapters, Wilson names specific “basic mechanisms of human nature: aggression, allegiance, love, sexual drives, xenophobia,” Elsewhere, he adds to the list — male dominance, sex-role division of labor, mother-child bond, parent-child conflicts, altruism, spite, indoctrinability, military discipline, territoriality and even genocide. Wilson declares these traits are universal, even though anthropological data points to the exact opposite — to extreme variability of behavior among human societies. He has a variety of loopholes to explain the societies he admits do not show his universal traits. The societies which do not seem genocidal, Wilson says, have simply “reverted temporarily to the pacific state.” Other societies which he admits “show no territoriality at all,” will still fit his scheme if we “define territory more broadly.” In fact, Wilson’s list of universal traits looks more like a description of human behavior in modem industrial society than a comprehensive view of human nature. For Wilson, our own society’s sex roles, aggression, military discipline, etc. are natural. What exists for North Americans today he has rationalized to be universal and innate.
Once Wilson has established in the reader’s mind that indoctrinability, spite, etc. are universal traits he tries to prove that these traits have a genetic rather than a cultural or social-political basis. He uses four methods, none of them logically sound.
1) Wilson reviews massive amounts of data on animal behavior, then reasons that since humans are anatomically analogous to some animals, our behavior can be interpreted in the same way as the presumed genetically programmed animal behavior. This reasoning confuses analogy (similarity of function) with homology (similarity of structure and origin). Just because we have descended from animals does not mean that our behavior has developed in the same way. Just because two actions appear similar, their interpretations are not necessarily the same. Geese “dance” on occasion; people perform Swan Lake on occasion. Since the first is explained as a mating ritual, must the second have the same explanation?
2) Wilson attempts to strengthen the links between animal and human societies by using metaphors from human societies to describe characteristics of animal societies. For instance, in insect populations, Wilson applies the traditional metaphors of “slavery” and “caste”, “specialists” and “generalists” and “elites” in order to establish a descriptive framework. Thus, he promotes the similarity between human and animal societies and leads one to believe that behavior patterns in the two have the same basis. Oppressive institutions seen in human societies are made to seem natural because of their “universal” existence in the animal kingdom. But metaphor is no substitute for logical connections.
3) Wilson also establishes specific genes for various human social behaviors by simply stating them to be true, without providing any data:
Human beings are absurdly easy to indoctrinate — they seek it. True spite is commonplace in human societies.
These statements are Wilson’s entire “proof” for the existence of “spite genes” and “conformer genes.”
4) Once Wilson has deemed conformity, spite, etc. universal traits and has claimed a genetic basis for them, he goes on to explain how each trait is adaptive. Spite, for example, acts to increase a person’s ability to survive and to reproduce. Altruism or heterosexuality act to increase a person’s family’s ability to survive and reproduce. His model is infinitely elastic; if we act selfishly, that is individual selection at work; if we act altruistically that is kin selection — everything fits.
And what of counterexamples? Wilson himself calls xenophobia and territoriality maladaptive in today’s world. But again, he creates a loophole: these traits were once adaptive but have stopped evolving, therefore, becoming liabilities. Again, he manages it so that excepttions can only serve to prove the rule.
The Implications of Sociobiology
Where is Wilson going with these arguments? He has taken human behavior in modern industrialized society, as he sees it, and by analogy to animal behavior, by irresponsible use of language, and elastic arguments, he has portrayed this behavior as universal, genetic, adaptive “human nature.” The political implications are clear. For if our behavior is genetically determined, then efforts to alleviate social problems resulting from that behavior must fail. Genes are beyond our control.
The perfect society, one which lacks conflict and which acts with complete altruism and cooperation is possible only when all members are genetically identical. (from an interview with Wilson in People Magazine)
We are no longer responsible for our behavior, and for changing it if it is destructive or oppressive to others. In fact, according to Wilson, deliberate social change could be biologically dangerous.
Complete honesty on all sides is not the answer The old primate frankness would destroy the delicate fabric of social life. (p. 553)
If the planned society were to deliberately steer its members past those stresses and conflicts that once gave the destructive phenotypes their darwinian edge, the other phenotypes (cooperativeness, creativeness, etc.) might dwindle with them. (p. 575)
Occasionally, Wilson attempts to include disclaimers for any implications to his conclusions. For example, in a recent article in the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine (Oct. 12, 1975), he states concerning division of labor between the sexes:
This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies and, on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin… My own guess is that the genetic basis is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies…
But then he tries to deny the implications of these statements:
But this is only a guess, and, even, if correct, fould not be used to argue for anything less than sex blind admission and free personal choice.
Isn’t this like constructing a hydrogen bomb and then stating that you never meant for it to be used?
While Wilson attempts to dissociate himself from the more popular determinist writers, such as Ardrey, Lorenz, Tiger and Fox, by accusing them of employing the “advocacy” method, we believe that his approach and his conclusions put him in the same camp. All would have us believe that our behavior is biologically determined and therefore immutable. All rest their conclusions on an implicit political conception of the proper social order. In so doing they turn us away from the true causes and valid solutions to social problems.