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 …

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