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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 hereditary basis and that they can be seen to confer a natural advantage on human populations organized in social groups. He means a natural advantage in the biologists’ sense of contributing to the adaptation of a population and hence to its survival, though not necessarily to the survival of the individuals who carry the advantage. Sexuality itself can be seen as a naturally selected device to ensure pair bonding, and it is simply bad biology to think of sexual intercourse as primarily designed for reproduction, as the natural law doctrine of the Catholic Church requires. Biology, in this view, corrects moral and social theory.

Professor Wilson characteristically avoids the better known errors of inferring from the behavior of primates to the behavior of men, and he avoids the use of concepts like aggression and territoriality in making such inferences. He remarks that “there is no evidence that a widespread unitary aggressive instinct exists.” He dismisses the claims, familiar in best-sellers on popular biology, that men are uniquely destructive within their own species, or that the persistence of warfare and factional infighting is to be interpreted as a variant of defense of territory, as known in some other species. He does not fall back into any of these variants of simplified social Darwinism.

The theory holding his argument together is that genes establish limits within which culture can develop both as unexamined social convention and as conscious belief. Sometimes a cultural trait is a hypertrophy, or enlargement, of a physically founded disposition and sometimes culture develops by playing variations on a basic, physically determined theme. For example, a tendency to polygyny—the mating of the male with more than one female—probably has an inherited physical basis and confers a natural advantage on the species; but the forms that it takes—polygamy, monogamy, mistresses, multiple marriages and divorces—may be very various.

Professor Wilson even surmises that there is an inherited need, represented in gene pools, for some kind of represented for the sacred, and that this need, passed from generation to generation by physical, not cultural, transmission, sets a limit upon the possibilities of a bare, scientific enlightenment as a basis for social cohesion. Just as the inherited need for pair bonding and some family ties probably makes ideal communal living impracticable, so, according to Wilson, there is an inherited need for some “sacralization,” with its accompanying myth, a need built into the human constitution. This is due to the long tested and selected advantage to a population of preserving social cohesion over many generations; and “sacralization” is a means to social cohesion.

The disputable hypothesis here concerns the method of transmission of these supposed human constancies rather than the constancies themselves. Professor Wilson is distinguishing between, on the one hand, human traits which have been naturally selected as conferring an advantage on descendants and which have therefore been physically transmitted through a population, and, on the other, human traits which are transmitted through specific social customs, and he argues that there is a physically inherited tendency of men to conform to social customs, whatever the customs may be.

The substance of his thesis is the guess that many more of the recognized human constancies than is generally thought are physically, rather than socially, determined. Standing behind this thesis is a philosophical claim that is not fully worked out but that is clearly implied and once or twice stated: that thought and belief and sentiment, and all that composes culture, are epiphenomena in human nature. That is, human nature is in the first place constituted by the transmission of genetic material which incorporates a program for human behavior—a program, however, that has a certain range of indeterminacy and that leaves options open.

The preprogramming, Wilson acknowledges, is unspecific when compared with the preprogramming of other species, and the cortex, and the human brain as a whole, is (as far as we know) a uniquely elaborate piece of machinery, designed through natural selection to record and respond to an immense variety of stimuli with an immense variety of patterns of behavior. More particularly, the human brain is now adapted not only to learning languages but also to pursuing knowledge indefinitely, and these inbuilt dispositions lead to complexities and elaborations in behavior which cannot be computed, even in outline. The question of whether there is a sense in which the multiply varied human responses must be assumed to be determined, even though they are probably incalculably complex, Wilson leaves to one side, wisely.

Professor Wilson naturally concludes that we can now apply the knowledge of biological possibilities and limits that we have just acquired in more intelligent social planning. His last chapter has the title “Hope,” and this application of biology to social science and planning is the hope. Men have, he says, inherited mythopoeic tendencies which served them well in primitive conditions, and he believes that scientific materialism by itself will not be rich enough as a replacement for religion and as solid social cement. What he calls “the evolutionary epic” is “probably the best myth we will ever have. It can be adjusted until it comes as close to truth as the human mind is constructed to judge the truth.” If the rather obscure end of this last sentence is overlooked, one can hear once again the steady hum of scientific optimism which was first given classical form in Condorcet’s great “Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain.”

This very bare summary of the argument is unfair if it has not given an impression of the good sense with which Wilson’s claims for scientific enlightenment are advanced, and of the caution with which the underlying issues of choice and determinism are reasonably left on one side. But still the argument of the book, and the philosophical assumptions behind it, seem to me misconceived and wrong.

One root of my disagreement is that Professor Wilson’s scientific materialism stops short of being materialistic enough. For instance, in the chapter on religion he asks: “Is the readiness to be indoctrinated a neurologically based learning rule that evolved through the selection of clans competing against each other?” The concept of indoctrination, I think, has no place in a physical science, and vast obscurities are concealed in that phrase “neurologically based.” One man’s indoctrination is another man’s learning, according to their evaluations of the propositions learned: do they have a different physical basis? Or again: “The mind is predisposed—one can speculate that learning rules are physiologically programmed—to participate in a few processes of sacralization….” But sacralization is not a concept that can be fitted into physical theory, if only because no criterion or sufficient test of whether a process is a process of sacralization is to be found in observable behavior. The thought of the subject is essential, as it is also essential to distinguishing indoctrination from other learning processes.

Another example of an inherited trait cited by Wilson will serve as a contrast: the dispositions that are involved in competitions among males for dominance in a group, and in recognizing and deferring to the dominant male. Being value-free and having behavioral criteria, these can be sufficiently revealed to observation, or can be tested by experiment; skilled observation may be sufficient to show, without indeterminacy, whether or not the dispositions are present. Therefore male dominance is a concept that can be introduced into a scientific theory without obscurity or indeterminacy.

Where the line is properly to be drawn between that which is observable and that which is not observable or testable is within limits open to discussion and argument; and more or less austere and restrictive definitions can be accepted for different purposes and in different sciences. Similarly, what counts as thought is also variable, although only within limits. The objection that I am bringing against Professor Wilson’s kind of scientific materialism, so called, is not just a methodological one, nor is it a technical point in the philosophy of science. Nor is it an objection which empiricist philosophers of the present day would particularly stress rather more than rationalists. It is a more general issue which has been at the center of philosophy since the seventeenth century, and the objections to sociobiology as a possible science cannot be understood until this issue has been clarified.

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