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The Politics of Sociobiology

In response to:

The Illusion of Sociobiology from the October 12, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

We were pleased to read Stuart Hampshire’s review of On Human Nature (NYR, October 12) in which he shows the crucial philosophical flaws which undermine the entire structure of human sociobiology. However, in restricting himself purely to the philosophical problems inherent in On Human Nature, Hampshire neglected the social and political issues which are at the heart of the sociobiology controversy. Three years ago many of us wrote a letter (NYR, November 13, 1975) in response to a review of E.O. Wilson’s earlier book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which we pointed out the political content of this new field. We expressed concern at the likelihood that pseudo-scientific ideas would be used once more in the public arena to justify social policy. The events of the intervening years have fully justified our initial fears.

Numerous articles in the popular media have used sociobiological theories to justify the status quo. In an article entitled, “A Genetic Defense of the Free Market,” Business Week (April 10, 1978) stated: “Bioeconomics says that government programs that force individuals to be less competitive and selfish than they are genetically programmed to be are preordained to fail.” Newsweek and Time have both run articles on sociobiology which comment upon the inevitability of male dominance. Considering the upsurge over the past ten years in women fighting for equality, it is no coincidence that the press has seized upon theories that can be used to perpetuate and justify the subordination of women.

Fortunately, human sociobiology has not gone unchallenged. Hampshire, in his review, points out how Wilson’s theory founders when he attempts to explain mental states such as indoctrinability by a causal physical theory based upon genetics and neurophysiology. Hampshire argues that only those human processes that can be described entirely in terms of objective observable behavior, without recourse to descriptions of mental states, are amenable to a proper sociobiological analysis. The example of a trait accessible to proper study chosen by Hampshire is male dominance. We disagree. Since we live in a society that is rife with sexism, the definition and measurement of male dominance, by necessity, depends upon the outlook of the observer. In its entire treatment of sex roles and sexual selection, On Human Nature reveals the sexism of our culture. For example, Wilson casually, and without substantiation, makes such statements as: “In general, girls are predisposed to be more intimately sociable and less physically venturesome.”

Because human behavior such as male dominance is intimately connected with political concerns, sociobiology has been able to achieve a public prominence totally incommensurate with its intellectual worth. It is precisely as a result of this link to political questions that a purely philosophical critique, even one which amply reveals the emptiness and illusion of a human sociobiology, does not undermine the acceptance of this new discipline.

That On Human Nature is political, that it contains prescriptive and proscriptive conclusions for social policy, is apparent. Wilson states without any scientific evidence: “Even with identical education for men and women and equal access to all professions, men are likely to maintain disproportionate representation in political life, business, and science” (p. 133). He goes on to say that society could compensate for this innate inequality, but at a price: “…the amount of regulation required would certainly place some personal freedoms in jeopardy, and at least a few individuals would not be allowed to reach their full potential.” There is no evidence that equality entails such costs. And on a broader political front, Wilson also is confident, without evidence, in declaring that certain social organizations are inaccessible to us: “We already know, to take two extreme and opposite examples, that the worlds of William Graham Sumner, the absolute Social Darwinist, and Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist, are biologically impossible” (p. 208, emphasis ours).

At the present time, many technical criticisms of sociobiology have come from within anthropology and biology. Among the issues that have been raised are the misuse of animal analogies, the methodological flaws in studies claiming to show evidence for the genetic basis of human social traits, and misreadings and distortions of the anthropological literature. Despite the sociobiologists’ disavowal of Social Darwinism, the science that stands behind sociobiology has as little rigorous standing in its application to human society as Social Darwinism did in its attempt to explain the social order. Unfortunately, there are those who have been attracted by the spurious promise of reducing such disparate fields as economics, government, and psychology to a biological science. Given the lack of scientific justification, this has only been made possible by certain ingrained cultural beliefs in biological determinism. Instead of quaint historical notions about individual human traits “running in the blood,” we now have “spite,” “competitiveness,” and “xenophobia” running in the genes, and with as little empirical evidence as had the outdated notions.

The application of sociobiological reasoning to the study of human behavior has met with controversy wherever it has been introduced. Since sociobiology has such political underpinnings, philosophical and scientific critiques alone will not deny it a receptive audience. Human sociobiology will rise and fall as one element in the political conflicts that surround the social institutions it tries to legitimate and defend.

Joseph Alper, professor of chemistry, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Jonathan Beckwith, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, Harvard Medical School; Bertram Bruce, scientist, artificial intelligence, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, Inc.; Robin Crompton, graduate student, bioanthropology, Harvard University; Val Dusek, professor of philosophy, University of New Hampshire; Edward Egelman, graduate student, biophysics, Brandeis University; Stephen Jay Gould, professor in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University; Ruth Hubbard, professor of biology, Harvard University; Hiroshi Inouye, research fellow, Harvard Medical School; Robert Lange, professor of physics, Brandeis University; Lila Leibowitz, professor of anthropology, Northeastern University; Richard Lewontin, professor of biology, Harvard University; Freda Salzman, professor of physics, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Stuart Hampshire replies:

In their letter about the political implications of sociobiology, which they think I neglected in my review of Professor E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, your correspondents object to my mentioning male dominance as an instance of a phenomenon describable entirely in terms of objective observable behavior. They say, “the definition and measurement of male dominance, by necessity, depends upon the outlook of the observer.” Not so; not necessarily. I chose this example precisely because in the study of animal behavior it is obviously possible, and it happens, that repeated patterns of observable behavior should be picked out which, by agreement within the science, are to count as instances of male dominance; at the same time it is obviously possible, and it happens, that male dominance should be defined or interpreted as involving a set of beliefs, attitudes, and states of mind, and that talk of male dominance should therefore fall within an intentional context. The example was chosen to illustrate this ambiguity.

Of course I agree that sociobiology has implications for social policy now, as it did in Herbert Spencer’s time. It is one of those old chestnuts that one can expect to be taken out of the drawer occasionally and dusted and polished until it looks almost as good as new.

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