• Email
  • Print

Designer Genes

Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology

by Kenneth Bock
Columbia University Press, 241 pp., $18.95

Useful working relations between biology and the social sciences have proved exceedingly difficult to maintain. This may seem surprising because of their common interests. The social sciences deal with the behavior of human beings, and biology contributes to the understanding of the way human beings function. Demography and the health sciences have both biological and social roots. Modern psychiatry is both biological and social. A large and fundamental part of modern science involves the use of laboratory animals to aid in the solution of human problems.

The difficulties in the relations of the biological and the social are not of a general nature. They are specifically related to the interpretations of the history of human cultures. Kenneth Bock, a professor of sociology, believes that the wide diversity of human cultures and the rapid pace of human history both show that human actions have constructed the histories and that the explanation of these actions cannot be found in “the supposedly tougher realities of organic control.”

Most social scientists probably thought that social and historical analysis was freed from evolution, biological analogy, racism, and eugenics many years ago. Recently, however, sociobiology has claimed to explain much of human behavior and has vigorously attacked the idea of a largely independent social science. In Human Nature and History Kenneth Bock has replied to that attack by showing the way human actions make history and by demonstrating again and again that this history cannot be explained by genetic or other biological factors. For example, in less than two hundred years there has been a revolution in methods of transportation. The history of trains, automobiles, and airplanes helps us to understand the human actions which led to this rapid transformation. Changes in technology certainly affect the way people live, but we would learn nothing from biology about the causes of these changes.

The same point may be made when we consider the human ability to speak. Even our closest ape relatives cannot learn to speak, but human beings learn to speak so easily that it is only in the rarest cases that learning to do so is prevented. Parts of the brain have evolved to make this learning easy, and human beings can learn any language. But compared to biology, languages change very rapidly, and the humanist is well advised to consider linguistic history and the differences among languages without feeling that the evolution of the brain has much to contribute to these subjects. Indeed, it is clear that part of the confusion between biology and history lies in the nature of the questions being investigated. Biology is essential in the study of human origins: bipedalism, tool using, hunting, brain size, and ways of life hundreds of thousands of years ago. Biology also is essential to understanding the way the body works. But there is no evidence that biological change caused the historical events of the last few thousand years, or in the much shorter time spans in which there are rich records of human history.

As Bock points out, sociobiologists seem upset that their new formulations have not received an enthusiastic reception from historians, social scientists, and philosophers, and his book shows why this is the case. A large part of the reluctance to accept sociobiology is owing to the fact that it appears to repeat the errors of the past. It is important to remember that biological explanations of human behavior have been used to justify slavery, imperialism, racism, genocide, and to oppose equal rights or ERA. The appalling misuse of biology in recent human history is reviewed in Stephan Chorover’s From Genesis to Genocide.1 Anyone who reads that book will have a vivid picture of why one should be extremely careful before accepting a new biological explanation of historic facts. For example, nothing is gained by substituting modern pseudobiology for Galton’s ideas on racial inferiority.

Bock sees several major factors which make it highly unlikely that humanists will find sociobiology useful. Sociobiologists maintain that a science that is useful in the study of nonhuman social behavior must also be useful in the study of human social behavior. Here the issue is that biologists and humanists are studying different kinds of problems. In Wilson’s elegant studies of insect societies, social behavior is largely genetically determined, has existed for very long periods of time, and is usefully regarded as the product of natural selection. In marked contrast, human ways of life are very recent from an evolutionary point of view, are learned, and may change rapidly. In this country, for example, attitudes on slavery changed drastically in less than one hundred years—but the so-called slaves in insect communities have no way of altering their social situation.

Many sociobiologists attribute the unwillingness of humanists to accept biological solutions of human history to the desire to keep the brutes at a safe distance. Sociobiologists seem to feel that they are delivering a repugnant message that is being repudiated for subjective reasons. But Bock shows at some length that notions about the relations of human beings and other animals have a long tradition in European history. At different times animals have been regarded as superior, inferior, or some strange mixture of the two, but the idea of a chain of being connecting all the various forms of life has taken many forms and goes back to Aristotle. There is nothing new in insisting on a connection between human beings and other animals.

Lately, sociobiologists and some of the more traditional biologists have urged a return to Darwinism, and have insisted in no uncertain terms that the study of human social behavior should follow a Darwinian model. Bock describes “a note of true exasperation” among sociobiologists when this advice is not followed. However, he shows that “the idea of social and cultural development was shared by Darwin and humanists of his day, and it should be clear that Darwin received the idea from the humanists, and not the reverse.” Cultural evolutionists supplied the evidence for natural selection in human history, and Darwin simply relied on the works of such men as E.B. Taylor, J.F. McLennan, and Sir John Lubbock. There has never been an idea of fixity in social and historical studies, and the nineteenth century was committed to the idea of change and progress.

The contradiction may be illustrated by the contrast of Darwin’s contributions to biology and his use of the history of his day. When Darwin added the idea of natural selection to biology he supported it by detailed evidence. He provided a concept which revolutionized much of biology and has continued to be useful to the present day. Concerning social evolution he provided nothing new, and the concepts he borrowed have proven useless. The building of supposedly evolutionary sequences was under way before Darwin, and it took a major effort to remove these misunderstandings and found modern social science on real history and social facts.

In short, Darwin made major biological contributions that are still useful. In historical understanding, he was a typical Englishman of his day. He believed that the English were biologically and morally superior, that barbarians were incapable of higher morality or a sense of beauty. He accepted the idea that every trait in the sequence of savagery, barbarism, and civilization could be found in contemporary peoples, and so an evolutionary order could be constructed. Darwin believed that the order savage-woman-boy-man represented biological reality, a hierarchical order of the intellect. As Bock points out, in Darwin’s time many humanists “realized the futility of biological accounts of cultural difference and were looking, at this time, for historical explanations for the rise of civilizations.” The roots of what would develop into modern social science were well established by Darwin’s time—he simply paid no attention to them.

It is clear why Darwin’s social evolutionary thoughts represented no advance over those of many of his contemporaries. Not only do they offer no foundations for the further development of the understanding of human history, but even on the biological side Darwin provides no firm foundation unless his ideas are qualified in major ways. For example, evolution as a result of use and disuse is now described as “Lamarckian,” but Darwin believed in the evolutionary effects of use and disuse. Darwin described how the jaws and teeth of our early ancestors were reduced as a result of disuse, “as we may feel almost sure from innumerable analogous cases.” The urge to return to Darwin is based on a very selective reading of the works of a great nineteenth-century biologist. It is easy to see why the return appeals to sociobiologists because they recommend the same methods of evolutionary reconstruction and do not seem to be disturbed by sexism, biological bias, or the racist implications of their theory.

Turning from the Darwinian heritage and nineteenth-century problems, Bock states that “it seems clear, in any event, that the core elements of sociobiological theory that distinguish it from older human-nature studies are the arguments 1) that human nature consists, to some important extent, in a set of genetic components that control social behavior, and 2) that the components are the products of natural selection.” People act for their own reproductive advantage, that is for the survival of their own genes or the genes of their relatives—what is called “kin selection.” This in turn provides a basis for a genetic explanation of altruistic behavior and is seen as an advance over earlier formulations of natural selection.

The fundamental problem with this formulation of sociobiological theory is that no genes are known for altruism, aggression, or other categories of behavior. As a genetic theory without genes, sociobiology has great difficulty in presenting any substantial evidence for its numerous explanations. The ability to learn would, presumably, be much more advantageous to human beings than a limited ability to learn altruism. An example might make the issues clear. E.O. Wilson has suggested that there might be genes for homosexuality and that these could be selected, according to the theory of kin selection, if people possessing the genes helped their relatives.2 But it would certainly come as a surprise to the clients of the gay bars in San Francisco that they are spending their time helping relatives. Homosexual behavior is common in many cultures and its frequency depends on customs, not genes. Sociobiological explanations of human behavior are often ingenious, but, unless the suggestions are tested, natural selection becomes a sort of parlor game.

Stressing that the function of human social behavior is to increase the representation of one’s own genes in the coming generations may justify racism, social hierarchy, class structure, and slavery. In no case does acting to preserve one’s own genes lead to altruistic acts for those who are far apart from one another, whether in space or in society. It must be remembered that the whole concept of kin selection depends on social activities taking place with one’s kin. As populations become larger and larger and individuals more mobile, kin selection becomes less and less important. Sociobiology is built on a rapidly disappearing base.

Historians, social scientists, and those concerned with understanding human social behavior try to understand the events of recent history and the difference between various cultures. The differences between Iran and the US, for instance, are seen as the products of human actions in different circumstances. Sociobiologists argue that the differences might be due to some unknown genes, and that great effort should be made to discover the genes which predispose to cultural differences. Since there is overwhelming evidence—admitted by most sociobiologists—that cultural differences are recent, rapidly changing, and learned, the search for predisposing genes seems futile.

Further, sociobiologists argue that the differences among cultures are unimportant. Wilson has suggested that visitors from another planet, far more intelligent and sensitive than ourselves, might find us uninteresting, just a variant of a basic mammalian theme. They might then “turn to study the more theoretically challenging societies of ants and termites.” The intelligent and sensitive, in short, would share Wilson’s earlier biological interests and would not be particularly drawn to the study of human behavior. It is true that if people are uninterested in history and cultural difference and are unable to see much importance in the difference between a Bushman hut and New York City, then humanists and social scientists will have no subject matter. Obviously, the person who denies that social science has a useful subject matter cannot be expected to understand social facts or the differences between history and pseudoevolutionary reconstructions. Sociobiologists have limited the subject matter they are willing to consider in such a way that no bridge exists between their genetic theory and recent human history.

Bock points out that “we can compare the histories of cultures only if we are aware that cultures exist.” He describes the long intellectual history which led to abandoning the explanation of social and cultural phenomena by biology, race, or environment. He clearly shows why sociobiology is in essence a retreat to these earlier positions. Bock concludes by stressing that history is the record of the actions of human beings. People took the actions which resulted in the various courses of actual history; they took the actions which led to technical progress and social change. We are not aided in understanding the events of history by theories of human nature, genetic theory, or human biology.

Bock’s historical arguments are clear and vigorously presented, and are supported by an appendix of thirty pages of references and notes. Some of his points are difficult to summarize, and another reviewer might have chosen different examples. However, I think there would be no confusion over the main issue. Human history cannot be understood without studying the actions and thoughts of human beings. The universals of biology or genetic theory cannot account for recent history or the differences between cultures. It is in uniquely human history that the clues to human nature reside. Any understanding we may have of the social problems of the world today must come from studying human actions, not from postulating genes to replace the postulated instincts of many years ago.

  1. 1

    MIT Press, 1979.

  2. 2

    Edward O. Wilson, “Biology and the Social Sciences,” Daedalus, Fall 1977, pp. 127-140.

  • Email
  • Print