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Cardboard Darwinism

Vaulting Ambition

by Philip Kitcher
MIT Press, 456 pp., $25.00

Females of the Species: Sex and Survival in the Animal Kingdom

by Bettyann Kevles
Harvard University Press, 270 pp., $20.00

1.

Darwin began the Origin of Species not with fanfare, but with fantails—pigeons, that is. He wrote in Chapter 1:

Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have, after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons…I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain…I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs.

The public often equates the best science with the biggest questions. Surely the heroes of science are those who dare to ask how the brain thinks and where the universe ends. Practicing scientists, though not unmindful of these deepest conundrums, know that such questions, however vital and thrilling, are vacuous (at least for now) if we have no examples for testing competing hypotheses and don’t even know where we might find them. Progress in science, paradoxically by the layman’s criterion, often demands that we back away from cosmic questions of greatest scope (anyone with half a brain can formulate “big” questions in his armchair, so why heap kudos on such a pleasant and pedestrian activity). Great scientists have an instinct for the fruitful and doable, particularly for smaller questions that lead on and eventually transform the grand issues from speculation to action. While Lamarck (though a great empiricist on other subjects) selected an armchair as the source for his evolutionary treatise, Darwin chose pigeons, and revolutionized human thinking. Great theories must sink a huge anchor in details.

Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, affected working scientists as deeply as it moved those scholars who scrutinize what we do. Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even set the keystone, of truth’s temple—the additive or meliorist model of scientific progress. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution.

We are therefore awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed—and we must therefore scrutinize the claims. Few proclamations have been more overt, few pursued with clearer aims in conscious sequence, than human sociobiology in the form proposed by the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. The goal was audacious, but simply stated: to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud. The citadel must fall in stages to the battering ram of strict Darwinism. The first step was a chapter on the promise for a unified Darwinian theory of behavior, placed as a finale in Wilson’s great treatise The Insect Societies (1971). Then the general theory (1975), Sociobiology, the New Synthesis (an explicit manifesto of revolution for the cognoscenti, since we tradesmen of evolution call our own Darwinian orthodoxy, a legacy of perceived revolution during the 1930s and 1940s, “the modern synthesis”). As Insect Societies ended with a chapter on sociobiology, so Sociobiology ended with a chapter on Darwinian explanations of human behavior.

Sociobiology included a diagram with a clear martial metaphor; it showed the social sciences eviscerated and then absorbed—half-subsumed into neurobiology (as we understand how the brain works), the rest into Darwinian evolutionary theory (as we elucidate the value of behaviors in the ultimate Darwinian game of passing genes to future generations). Human nature would fall to the Darwinian tide in two stages. First, sociobiology tried to solve the easier problem of human universals, including gender differences that hold across cultures—the subject of Wilson’s first explicit book on human sociobiology, On Human Nature (1978). But a theory of universal behavior cannot be a comprehensive account of human nature; we must also encompass the differences among cultures, and the astonishing speed and lability of cultural change. Prima facie, the stately pace of Darwinian (genetic) change seemed a most unpromising source for locating the differences, but here’s the rub (or the “vaulting ambition” of Kitcher’s title): the greatest revision since Freud must be comprehensive. What good is a theory of human nature that cannot explain the differences among us? Thus the dubious final step had to be taken, and a theory of differences proposed (via feedback loops between genes and culture, for no one could attribute such speed in cultural change to genes alone). Lumsden and Wilson vested their final step in a deeply flawed and now discredited mathematical model in Genes, Mind and Culture (1981) and, shorn of equations for the layman, in Promethean Fire (1983).

But human sociobiology must be the most peculiar of self-proclaimed revolutions in science. We usually reserve the term for new structures of ideas, fundamentally new ways of knowing (like evolution versus creation by fiat, or quantum indeterminacy against the Newtonian machine). Human sociobiology, instead, only raided one field with the unmodified tools of another. Moreover—and here the precious irony—sociobiology wielded the most orthodox version of these tools at the very moment that its parent discipline, evolutionary theory, had begun a severe reassessment of the very principles invoked to fuel the revolution in human nature. Human sociobiology worked by pure extension of flawed (if broken) tools into uncongenial territory. Wilson’s martial metaphor may have been pure hubris, and quite mistaken—but it was certainly apropos.

As a severe critic of human sociobiology from its inception, I clearly am not an impartial observer. Yet surely the equation of bland nonpartisanship with objectivity—a silly notion fostered by the worst traditions of television news reporting—must be rejected. We may scrutinize a known critic more carefully, but ultimately we must judge his arguments, not his autobiography.

The debate on human sociobiology has been particularly murky because a legitimate political theme (misuse of genetic arguments to support existing social arrangements as biologically grounded) has accompanied a more interesting and abstract debate about modes of explanation from the start, a wrangle abetted by early Wilsonian statements that, to say the least, played poorly in feminist circles:

In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persists in most agricultural and industrial societies and, on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin…. My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies…. Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science. 1

Philip Kitcher has, I think, properly located the legitimate political issue as the greater care that should be demanded of those who choose to speculate when the consequences of confusing fact and guess are severe:

The true political problem with socially relevant science is that the grave consequences of error enforce the need for higher standards of evidence. In the case of pop sociobiology, commonly accepted standards are ignored. The mistakes merely threaten to stifle the aspirations of millions.

The dismissal of critics as politically motivated may bear some force as rhetoric for a counterattack, but such a defense only cheapens a fascinating intellectual debate. We raise the political point because it cascades from poor science.

Philip Kitcher and I approach the criticism of human sociobiology quite differently, though we share a basic attitude. I believe that the methods and arguments of this field rest upon a central flaw. I think (as I shall explain more fully later in this review) that the flaw lies in exporting to the analysis of human behavior the apparatus of the strictest form of Darwinian orthodoxy. That orthodoxy locates all evolutionary mechanics in the struggle among organisms for reproductive success. In Darwin’s world, the calculus of success is simple—winners pass more copies of their own genes into future generations, nothing else. The theory has no space for such concepts as “the good of the species” or “the harmony of ecosystems,” except as epiphenomena of the primal struggle for personal reward. This central character of Darwinism explains why sociobiologists have taken altruism as the test case for their approach—for, prima facie (though realities are deeper than appearances), acts of altruism could not be selected in Darwin’s world, since they harm individuals, whatever they may do for species. Thus, if the phenomenon that seems contrary can be rendered as consistent—by arguing, for example, that altruistic acts may save enough relatives to pass on sufficient copies of the altruist’s genes—the general theory achieves stunning support through resolution of paradox.

The central flaw in sociobiology results from this Darwinian premise: the different kind of behavior the theory purports to explain must be interpreted as adaptations of organisms. At a time when evolutionary theory rings, above all, with criticism of these very notions, revolutions based on selectionist orthodoxy seem curiously anachronistic. Exclusive focus on organisms has been challenged by a hierarchical theory that grants equal weight to selection as acting upon other entities of the genealogical hierarchy—genes and species, for example. Strict adaptationism has faltered badly as better understanding of genetic and developmental architecture forces us to view the parts of organisms as integrated into systems constrained by history and rules of structure, not as a set of tools, each individually honed to benefit organisms in their immediate ecologies.

Kitcher, on the other hand, takes another tack, and he has nearly convinced me. In a crowded literature (much of it quite good amid the mindless polemics and speculations), Vaulting Ambition is unquestionably the best criticism of human sociobiology that I have read. Kitcher argues that human sociobiology has no rigorous central core, that it represents a set of indifferent and largely speculative studies loosely coordinated by a common commitment to cardboard Darwinism. As such, it is slippery and elusive. It cannot be judged as an entity because it lacks coherence. Therefore, any proper assessor must undertake a patient dissection, case by case, until at the end nothing concrete remains to underpin the Darwinian superstructure. Darwin could invoke one hundred breeds of pigeons to support his theory of selection; human sociobiology is left with a single, flightless (and extinct) species of that ilk—the dodo. Kitcher writes:

If we could expose one error underlying all the faulty analyses of human social behavior, then it would not be necessary to proceed, as I have done, by examining example after example. Unfortunately, sociobiology is a motley. Not only is there no single monolithic theory to be scrutinized, but the individual Darwinian histories offered by pop sociobiologists may be flawed in any of a number of different ways. There is a family of mistakes, and in distinct examples distinct members are implicated.

As a philosopher of science with strong skills in mathematics and a good back-ground in evolutionary theory (he has also written the best book on creationism, Abusing Science), Philip Kitcher is uniquely qualified for this dissection. I admire most of all—for such diligence is rare in our frenetic world—the simple patience that Kitcher has mustered to invest such attentive care in the intricate details of case after case. A number of critics, myself included, might have done so before, but we didn’t have the gumption or the endurance once it dawned upon us that no shortcuts could be found. No critique is so damning as the sequential removal of examples, one after the other, for as Mies van der Rohe proclaimed in my absolute favorite among mottoes: God dwells in the details.

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    E.O. Wilson, The New York Times Magazine (October 12, 1975).

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