Sociobiology: A Sexist Synthesis

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Sociobiology: A Sexist Synthesis

by Barbara Chasin

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 3, May/June 1977, p. 27–31

During the 1960’s—a time of great social unrest, questioning of basic American institutions, and a growing interest in socialism as an alternative—there appeared a spate of books on the theme that humans are only another species of ape. Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, as well as lesser known writers, try to convince their readers that animal studies are the key to an understanding of human social behavior.1 War, violence, private property, inequality: all of the major negative features of capitalism are said to be natural and inevitable legacies from our primate origins. 

We are descended from an aggressive species. Man emerged as a hunting animal (“man” is the correct word here). One of the main themes of the biological determinists is that the males of both the human and primate species carry the trait of aggressiveness. Male primates do the fighting, the protecting, the hunting, etc.; among humans males engage in analogous activities. From our earliest days, so the story goes, the man was the active, aggressive, subsistence-providing person, while the little woman cleaned the cave, cooked the mastodon and reared the kiddies. A charming picture but, in all probability, completely false. These authors create a never-never land, which they then “explain” with allegedly hard-headed science. 

Biological determinism has been given a somewhat more sophisticated tone by Edward O. Wilson, Harvard biologist.2 Wilson adds a veneer of genetics and mathematics to the crude assertions of his predecessors. Yet beneath the surface lies the same tired refrain, that our destiny is controlled by our biology.

In his magnum opus, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Wilson informs us that both the nuclear family and a sexually based division of labor are universal phenomena: 

The building block of nearly all human societies is the nuclear family. The populace of an American industrial city, no less than a band of hunter-gatherers in the Australian desert is organized around this unit.. … During the day the women and children remain in the residential area while the men forage for game or its symbolic equivalent in the form of barter and money. The males cooperate in bands to hunt or deal with neighboring groups. If not actually blood relations, they tend at least to act as ‘bands of brothers’.3

The same point is formulated in slightly different fashion, in Wilson’s article in the New York Times Magazine

In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies and on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin. No solid evidence exists as to when the division of labor appeared in man’s ancestors or how resistant to change it might be during the continuing revolution for women’s rights. My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies.4 

Sociobiologists and Aggression 

In his New York Times article Wilson cites a book by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin, The Psychology of Sex Differences. The intent of the authors is “to sift the evidence to determine which of the many beliefs about sex differences have a solid basis in fact and which do not.”5 They conclude that there are two areas in which biological differences between men and women result in different behavioral characteristics. One is spatial-visual skills (which won’t be discussed here). The other is aggression. Simply put, Maccoby and Jacklin claim that males are more aggressive than females and that this is biologically based. 

Most biological determinists use the notion of the greater aggressiveness of males fairly consistently to explain the “fact” that men are the doers, the makers of history. For example, Wilson concludes that even when men and women have “identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science”6 because of this difference in aggressiveness. 

In their characterization of the relations between sex and aggression, Maccoby and Jacklin cover the range of arguments used by biological determinists on this issue. For this reason, and because Wilson uses Maccoby and Jacklin as evidence for his own assertions, a critique of their discussion is important. 

To begin with, what they mean by aggression is never made very clear. (That is a general problem in examining this phenomenon: what is actually being talked about?) One central theme which Maccoby and Jacklin discern in aggressive behavior is the intent of one individual to hurt another; but, as we shall see, their definition changes when the data do not correspond to this particular formulation. 

They cite four kinds of evidence for a biological basis for male aggressiveness: 1) a relation between aggression and levels of sex hormones, 2) similar sex differences can be found in man and subhuman primates regarding aggression, 3) sex differences in aggression are found early in life at a time when differential socialization cannot be occuring, and, 4) males are more aggressive than females in all human societies for which evidence is available. 

Let us look briefly at each of these arguments.

1). Their evidence for the importance of sex hormones comes mainly from studies of rats and monkeys. Since humans consciously control their behavior to an extent unimaginable in a rodent or even a monkey, it seems very unsound to assume, where social interaction is concerned, that as animals do so do humans

Looking at people, Maccoby and Jacklin do, in fact, admit that little is known about the relation between sex hormones and behavior. They refer to two studies. One is a report on testosterone levels of 21 young men in prison. The men with higher levels of this male hormone had allegedly committed more violent and aggressive crimes during adolescence. But to make their point, the authors of this particular study have to resort to a curious definition of aggression. Aggression, for them, includes not only such acts as murder and assault but escape from institutions.7

The most generous thing you could say about this research is that it is inconclusive. Furthermore, even if a correlation exists, the direction of causation is not therefore obvious. Hormone levels themselves have been shown to change as a result of experiences.8 Maccoby and Jacklin do not even discuss this possibility. 

The other study they use has a certain ludicrous quality. Seventeen fetally androgenized girls were compared to their eleven normal sisters. Fetally androgenized means that they received excess amounts of male hormones when they were fetuses. They had masculinized genitalia which were surgically corrected. But even after surgery “their behavior continued to be masculinized in the following ways: they much more often preferred to play with boys; they took little interest in weddings, dolls, or live babies, and preferred outdoor sports.”9 However, they did not fight significantly more than their sisters did. 

We are asked to believe, on the basis of this tiny sample, that an interest in such things as dolls, weddings, live babies and sports is linked to our hormonal make-up. This is a highly dubious proposition. The girls, it should be remembered, were born with male genitalia and their parents were aware of their sexual ambiguity. This could have influenced their interaction with these daughters—but this possibility is not discussed.

2). The evidence on primates contains a great deal of oversimplification. Primates, even of the same species, differ from one another in their patterns of aggression, dominance, sex roles, etc. Baboons living on the plains do show the classic pattern of dominant males making decisions regarding troop movements, having privileged access to food and sex and acting as the protectors of the young. (These animals are featured prominently in a film on sociobiology entitled “Doing What Comes Naturally.”) But what sociobiologists and Maccoby and Jacklin don’t tell us is that Forest baboons display little aggression and no male dominance hierarchies. When troops meet, which is rare, the encounters are friendly. When danger is perceived, the males run up the trees leaving the females and young to deal with things on their own. The adult females are more likely to direct troop movements than are the males.10 Thus, it is not at all clear that male primates are more dominant or aggressive than females. 

But even if they were, we would not have an explanation of human social behavior. The behavior of primates does not automatically explain ours.

3.) Maccoby and Jacklin’s third point- that sex differences regarding aggression are found so early that socialization can’t account for them—is very difficult to believe. What is aggressive behavior in a new-born infant’? Furthermore, there is evidence that differential behavior towards babies based on their sex seems to occur very soon after birth.11

4). Finally, there is the most important question of cross-cultural evidence. If we find that males are more aggressive than females in all human societies, there would be some reason to think this is a sex-linked characteristic. Maccoby and Jacklin use only two studies. One has to do with playground behavior in the United States, Switzerland and Ethiopia. Boys more often hit or push each other without smiling in each of these societies. The other cross-cultural evidence they use is based on Whiting’s and Pope’s discussion of data from six cultures. Maccoby and Jacklin themselves note that in this
material there were few physical assaults of children upon one another and sex differences didn’t account for these. But boys were more likely to engage in “rough and tumble play” (which is now synonymous with aggression; remember, the earlier definition was an intent to hurt), to have more verbal insults among themselves and to counterattack if physically or verbally assaulted. These studies of societies where boys and men are more likely to engage in some type of aggressive behavior than are girls or women hardly prove than men are innately more aggressive than women. 

In each of these four arguments there is something rather dishonest, and this shows up rather consistently in the work of biological determinists. They simply do  not discuss data that is inconsistent with their statements. 

There are societies where neither sex is aggressive. Preliminary reports on the Tasaday of the Phillipines have noted the gentleness of males and females and their lack of anything resembling fighting. There is no war, no word even for war, nor is there a sexual division of labor. Such leadership as there is has at times been exercised by a woman.12 In pygmy society too it is hard to find examples of males being more aggressive than females.13 Ruth Sidel’s descriptions of children in socialist China are worth citing here as well: 

The emphasis on the People’s Liberation Army and on defending the motherland stands in sharp contrast, however, to the lack of aggression you see in the children in their day-to-day life. That we never saw a child push another child, never saw a child grab a toy from another child, never saw any hostile interaction between children or between adults and children truly amazed us. When we asked about aggression at a kindergarten at the workers’ village in Shanghai, we were told by the kindergarten teacher, Lu Shiutsung, that aggression is not a problem, because the children have already “received collective trammg in nursery.” She allowed that occasionally a child might be aggressive, but this usually can be handled through “education.”14

Continuing, she notes:

What is so amazing, of course, in walking the streets of Peking or Shanghai, or visiting a commune or urban neighborhood, is that we never saw aggression among the children. No doubt it exists, but we never witnessed it. At one park in Hangchow, one of us handed a piece of candy to a boy of about ten; he immediately passed it on to his baby sister. He was then handed a second piece, which he passed to his mother. He kept the third piece; he had no one else to give it to. 

Felix Greene noticed the same lack of aggression in children during his trip: “I have spent a lot of time watching children playing on the streets—little tots all on their own. They are endlessly inventive in their games—a piece of wood or a bit of string will keep them happy for hours. They never fight’ Why don’t they? They never snatch—never ‘That’s mine!’ “15

Sociobiology and Sex Roles

The cross cultural evidence on sex roles is crucial and largely ignored or misrepresented in the works of the sociobiologists. There are societies, and one can argue that these were the typical human groupings for millenia, where there is little division of labor. But even where some division exists, it is far different from that portrayed by Wilson et al. Men and women may engage in different tasks but women are not confined to puttering around the campfire all day doing domestic chores.

Colin Turnbull spent several years living with the Pygmies of the lturi forest in the Congo. He writes: 

Between men and women there was … a certain degree of specialization, but little that could be called exclusive.16 The woman is not discriminated against…She has a full and important role to play. There is relatively little specialization according to sex. Even the hunt is a joint effort. A man is not ashamed to pick mushrooms and nuts if he finds them or to wash and clean a baby. A woman is free to take part in the discussions of men if she has something relevant to say.17

Wilson does not make any reference to Turnbull’s work on the Pygmies, but refers instead to his studies of the Ik of Uganda whose behavior is more congruent with a sociobiological model.18

Similarly, Patricia Draper’s account of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari desert reveals that the women provide from 60 to 80 percent of the daily food supply. Their gathering requires them to go quite a distance from the camp: eight to ten miles is not unusual. Women and men are equally likely to be absent from the camp. The women are skilled in understanding the meaning of animal tracks and provide invaluable information for the male hunters. The women also have the “ability to discriminate among hundreds of edible and inedible species of plants at various stages in their life cycle.”19 Furthermore, men are in no sense the dominant authority figures. The women control the food they collect to a far greater extent than the men whose kill is divided according to a rigid set of rules. 

This egalitarian situation is changing as the Kung are being resettled with agricultural people and their whole way of life is undermined. These changes are important to understand (even though we cannot provide that understanding here). Explanations in terms of genetic characteristics or of hormones do not enhance that understanding. In the agricultural situation, the men acquire certain kinds of responsibilities and chores that are not matched by those of the women, the mode of child rearing is changed, and so on. These are just two of the variables that are ignored by a biologically based form of analysis.20

Biological determinists do not deal with any of this data. While Wilson claims, for example, that data from the Bushmen support his view of human nature, he virtually ignores the material collected by Patricia Draper, and uses Richard Lee’s findings very selectively. Lee is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Bushmen and for all practical purposes Wilson ignores his work. 

Why Do We Have Sociobiology? 

While claiming to be scientific, then, Wilson, like the other biological determinists, makes no attempt to deal with material that does not support his theories. This is not science: it is propaganda, touted by the media not for its scientific merits but for its political functions. 

Sociobiology’s, descriptions of what men and women do are wrong fOr the United States as well as for other societies. Wilson and those like him are attempting to convince people that women’s place is really in the home. Yet women are an essential part of the labor force, one of the most exploited parts of the labor force in fact. For their exploitation to continue unchallenged, women and men must accept the idea that “women’s work” is something secondary to their lives, something they should not really be doing. 

Certainly some women spend most of their time in what Wilson calls the “residential area” but an ever increasing proportion do not and cannot. Only 24 percent of women were in the labor force in 1930, now 48 percent of women are working or looking for work.21

Capitalism needs women in the work force. Changes in the occupational structure with a lower proportion of industrial and manual jobs and a concomitant increase in office work has necessitated hiring
people who are relatively educated but also willing to work for low wages. Women fit the bill. Women in 1960 were 97 percent of the secretaries, 84 percent of the bookkeepers, 96 percent of the telephone operators and 86 percent of the file clerks.22 While the demand for women workers has increased, it has simultaneously become more of an economic necessity for even married women to work, to offset what would otherwise be a drop in their husband’s real earnings.23 In addition, the number of female-headed households has doubled between 1940 and 1975 and these women need to work as well.24

The work women do may be crucial but this is not reflected in their wages. According to Labor Department figures, the difference between an average man’s annual earnings and those of the average woman are now over $5,000. From 1955 to 1974 the gap between men’s and women’s earnings increased by an amazing 74 percent. The typical white man working year-round full-time in 1974 earned $12,343; the typical black man under those conditions earned $9,082. Year-round full-time white women workers brought home an average of $7,025, and wages for black women were $6611.25

The women’s movement and its gains are under counterattack, including direct political repression. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the F.B.I. has released a 1377 page report which chronicles its anti-feminist activities between 1969 and 1973. The Church Committee of the U.S. Senate, in investigating government intelligence activities, produced evidence that the C.I.A., military intelligence and local police red squads have also operated against women’s groups.26

These figures reveal in statistical fashion a major aspect of women’s oppression. The women’s liberation movement has attacked and is attacking the exploitation that women suffer. All agree, whatever else their differences, that the situation must be challenged and a new social order built. There is energy, strength and organization among women. Links have been built and continue to be forged with other political groups and struggles. Many women have developed a new confidence in themselves and their own abilities in fighting the myriad forms of sexism. 

Theories of biological determinism are yet another kind of weapon used to preserve inequalities. Biological determinists such as Wilson have not consciously decided to protect American capitalism from the threat of women’s liberation, but their ideas are used by the people who control the media, the publishing industry, and the scientific and social scientific establishments. Those who create these theories are rewarded: they are given money and prestige. Ambitious students and colleagues see which way the wind is blowing and add to the proliferation of books and articles that so misrepresent the real nature of human beings. 

The faults in our society, the injustices, the inequalities do not lie in our genes; they are rooted in social institutions, and class structure. All over the world people have challenged—with a growing success—sexism, racism, poverty, degradation and brutality. Cuba, Vietnam, China, Mozambique, Angola are not utopias, but they are supporting a real effort to remove inequality. Whenever people join together to create a new order, those benefitting from the old try to crush the people and their vision. They use weapons to kill, maim arid terrorize: and they use theories to demoralize people, to convince them of their essential inferiority, and to reconcile them to the world as it is. But despite the damage that they can cause, despite their capacity to hold back genuine progress, neither the bombs, the napalm, the armies, the C.I.A., nor theories of biological determinism can stop the movement to build a new society.

Barbara Chasin works with the Sociobiology study group of Science for the People in Boston. She is a sociologist doing research at the Harvard School of Public Health on problems of agriculture, particularly the West African famine of 1968-1973. Other groups that she works with include the East Timor Defense Committee and People for Radical Political Action (a community group based in northern New Jersey).

>>  Back to Vol. 9, No. 3  <<


  1. Some examples of this are: Konrad Lorenz, On Agression, Harcourt, N.Y., 1966: Robert Ardrey, African Genesis, Dell, N.Y., 1967 (first pub. 1961); Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, Dell, N.Y., 1969; Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, The Imperial Animal, Dell, N.Y., 1971. Significantly, there was an article in the Oct. 1972 issue of Fortune Magazine, which called for more attention to be paid to our genetic propensities. See Tom Alexander, “The Social Engineers Retreat Under Fire”.
  2. Articles on Wilson’s work have appeared in Science for the People, 7, 1975, No.6, p. 28:8, 1976, No.2, p. 7; 8, 1976, No.3, p. 33.
  3. Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1975, p. 55.
  4. The New York Times Magazine, Oct. 12, 1975.
  5. Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin, The Psychology of Sex Differences, Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, 1974, p. vii.
  6. Wilson, New York Times Magazine.
  7. Leo E. Kreuz, and Robert M. Rose, “Assessment of Agressive Behavior and Plasma Testosterone in a Young Criminal Population”, Psychosomatic Medicine, 34, 4, 1972, pp. 321-32.
  8.  For example, Jonathan L. Freedman, Crowding and Behavior, W.H. Freeman & Co., San Francisco, 1975, pp. 32-33.
  9. Maccoby and Jacklin, p. 243.
  10. David Pilbeam, “The Naked Ape: An Idea We Could Live Without”, in David E. Hunter and Phillip Whitten, Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives, Little, Brown & Co., 1975, pp. 66-75.
  11. See for example, Jeffrey Rubin, Frank J. Provenzano, and Zelia Luria, “The Eye of the Beholder: Parents’ Views on Sex of Newborns,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 44, 4, 1974, pp. 512-519; Carol Seavey, Phyllis Katz, Sue Zalk, “Baby X, The Effects of Gender Labels on Adult Responses to Infants,” Sex Roles, 1, 1975, 103-109.
  12. John Nance, The Gentle Tasaday, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, N.Y., 1975.
  13. Colin M. Turnbull, The Forest People. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1962.
  14. Ruth Sidel, Women and Child Care in China, Penguin, N.Y., 1973, p. 150.
  15. Sidel, p. 114.
  16. Turnbull, p. 110.
  17. Turnbull, p. 154.
  18. Wilson, Sociobiology, p. 544.
  19. Patricia Draper, “‘Kung Women: Contrasts in Sexual Egalitarianism in Foraging and Sedentary Contexts”, in Rayha Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women. Monthly Review Press, N.Y., 1975, pp. 77-109.
  20. A useful book discussing the material basis for women’s roles is Ernestine Friedl Women and Men: An Anthropologist’s View. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, N.Y., 1975.
  21. Arlene Eisen, “More Women Work- The Double Shift”, The Guardian, Jan. 12, 1977.
  22. Lise Vogel, Women Workers: Some Basic Statistics, New England Free Press, Somerville, n.d.
  23. Lise Vogel, Women Workers: Some Basic Statistics, New England Free Press, Somerville, n.d.
  24. Eisen.
  25. The New York Times, 11-29-76.
  26. Arlene Eisen, “The FBI’s Tactics Against Women”, The Guardian, Feb. 23, 1977; Arlene Eisen, “FBI Targets Women’s Movement”, The Guardian, Feb. 16, 1973. See also Howard Husock, “The Feminist Papers: FBI Plays ‘I Spy’ ” and “More Tales from the Feminist Papers”, Boston Phoenix, Feb. 15 and 22, 1977.