Cardboard Darwinism

Vaulting Ambition

by Philip Kitcher
MIT Press, 456 pp., $25.00

Females of the Species: Sex and Survival in the Animal Kingdom

by Bettyann Kevles
Harvard University Press, 270 pp., $20.00


Darwin began the Origin of Species not with fanfare, but with fantails—pigeons, that is. He wrote in Chapter 1:

Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons…I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain…I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs.

The public often equates the best science with the biggest questions. Surely the heroes of science are those who dare to ask how the brain thinks and where the universe ends. Practicing scientists, though not unmindful of these deepest conundrums, know that such questions, however vital and thrilling, are vacuous (at least for now) if we have no examples for testing competing hypotheses and don’t even know where we might find them. Progress in science, paradoxically by the layman’s criterion, often demands that we back away from cosmic questions of greatest scope (anyone with half a brain can formulate “big” questions in his armchair, so why heap kudos on such a pleasant and pedestrian activity). Great scientists have an instinct for the fruitful and doable, particularly for smaller questions that lead on and eventually transform the grand issues from speculation to action. While Lamarck (though a great empiricist on other subjects) selected an armchair as the source for his evolutionary treatise, Darwin chose pigeons, and revolutionized human thinking. Great theories must sink a huge anchor in details.

Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, affected working scientists as deeply as it moved those scholars who scrutinize what we do. Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even set the keystone, of truth’s temple—the additive or meliorist model of scientific progress. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution.

We are therefore awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed—and we must therefore scrutinize the claims. Few proclamations have been more overt, few pursued with clearer aims in conscious sequence, than human sociobiology in the form proposed by the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. The goal was audacious, but simply stated: to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud. The citadel must fall in stages to the battering ram of strict Darwinism. The first step was a chapter on the promise for a unified Darwinian theory of behavior, placed as a finale in Wilson’s great treatise The Insect Societies (1971). Then the general theory (1975), Sociobiology, the New Synthesis (an explicit manifesto of revolution for the cognoscenti, since we tradesmen of evolution call our own Darwinian orthodoxy, a legacy of perceived revolution during the 1930s and 1940s, “the modern synthesis”). As Insect Societies ended with a chapter on sociobiology, so Sociobiology ended with a chapter on Darwinian explanations of human behavior.

Sociobiology included a diagram with a clear martial metaphor; it showed the social sciences eviscerated and then…

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