The Illusion of Sociobiology

On Human Nature

by Edward O. Wilson
Harvard University Press, 260 pp., $12.50

The tradition of mixing the concepts of biology with philosophy and Weltanschauung stretches back into the last century and has Comte and Spencer as its unfortunate leaders: unfortunate, because their works are by now largely unreadable. Professor Wilson is sharply aware that his writing belongs to this tradition and he is aware of the dangers and deceptions within the tradition; particularly the danger that yesterday’s scientific speculations soon acquire a fusty look. Having been born in the excitement of today’s discoveries, they are then extrapolated into a golden scientific future, which turns out to be quite different.

Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity was an immediate predecessor of this book in usefully creating a stir and Professor Wilson also mentions the Huxleys and C.H. Waddington. They all called upon moral and political philosophers to take due account of the theory of evolution and of natural selection, and specifically to adapt their moral values to correspond to the scientifically ascertainable needs of the human race. They all accused philosophers, and humanists of all kinds, of being unnecessarily ignorant of the exactly known formative influences on human nature and of a willful innocence which left them pontificating in a void. Like the priests whom they supposed they had outgrown and displaced, philosophers were accused of turning their backs on ascertained facts in order to be consoled by their own moral inventions.

Professor Wilson says all these things in his new book, but with much more care and with more qualifications. He has not neglected philosophy in the academic sense, and he knows what limits philosophers are likely to place on inferences from scientific theories to moral requirements. He is much less dogmatic and confident of his conclusions than Monod was.

Briefly summarized, his argument runs like this: we have need now of a new discipline, called sociobiology, which will exhibit the junction of biology, in all its recently developing branches, with the social sciences. This new combined discipline will investigate the constraints that limit the options open to us when we wish to improve ways of life and social organization. There are fixities in human nature, as there are also points of plasticity and variability about which we may be uninformed. There are many sources within biology which can yield evidence about these constraints: studies of primate behavior, of brain physiology, studies of identical twins, learning theory, and, above all, studies within genetics of inherited traits and capacities, and of the physical basis of the transmission of them.

Professor Wilson alludes to some recent and current work in these fields, and much of his argument consists of predictions of future developments in these flourishing sciences. They should, he thinks, provide in future the explanatory background to accumulating knowledge in the social sciences; and by social science he seems to mean principally anthropology and sociology. He quotes liberally from social anthropologists to illustrate presumed constancies in sexual roles and in habits of religious observance. He infers that these have a …

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Letters

The Politics of Sociobiology May 31, 1979