Breaking new ground or using science
to justify social inequalities?
By Jonathan Scott
H ~arvard biologist Edward Wilson is said tohave kicked off
"the most important intellectual controversy of our
generation" when he published a group of "speculative
essays" in 1978 extending the application of evolution-
ary principles to the study of human social behavior.
Wilson's evolutionary approach to human behavior is often cited as the
"invention" of "human sociobiology." His pioneering text, On Human
Nature, was not, however, an introduction of new material never before
explored. Wilson's ideas had been in development for perhaps 10 years,
researched among a rather small group of evolutionary biologists. It was,
nevertheless, an introduction of new ideas about human behavior never
before awarded a readership so large; It was never before such a hot topic
of discussion outside the scientific community.
Wilson's early critics can take equal if not more credit for
sociobiology's infamous reputation as a hotbed of controversy. Their
scathing reviews received perhaps even broader attention than
Wilson's text. His early critics, most notably a group later known as
the "Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People," had
discussed Wilson's "invention" in the context of the social
Darwinism of the 1920s and '30s used by U.S. elites to justify the
greedy excesses of U.S. capitalism. They were quite direct:
[Wilson] purports to take a more solidly scientific approach
using a wealth of new information. We think that this information
has little relevance to human behavior, and supposedly objective,
scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions. Thus
we are presented with yet another defense of the status quo.
Others were more harsh, insisting Wilson's "program" to be no
more than a "doctrine that perpetuates inequitable divisions on the
basis of sex, race, and class." Any such work in the biology of
human behavior, they argued, can be used to support social injustice,
to strengthen harmful views. Early criticisms alleged that Wilson,
because he "stresses the genetic basis of behavior," seemed to be
"endorsing a strategy of linking behavioral differences," which
encouraged "the denigration of particular racial and social groups."
Steven Jay Gould, the eminent Harvard paleontologist, was and
continues to be one of the more vocal critics, maintaining that the
central claims of human sociobiology have been embraced on meager
and unsubstantiated grounds, and consequently, are a collection of
harmful mistakes, poorly acquired but unfortunately widely accepted
as scientifically valid.
I delved into Wilson's group of essays one year ago, eager to
examine the work that provoked such a furious response and the text
that sparked the great "controversy," we still see today. I was
anxious, in a way, to uncover a hidden political agenda buried in
scientific jargon or maybe a new biological determinism
unscrupulously disguised as honest scientific inquiry. Needless to
say, Wilson's pioneering work left much to be desired in terms of the
"intellectual controversy" it was made out to be. As with any
exploration proposing original hypotheses, there are speculative
claims that deserve careful attention and criticism. But this, it seemed
to me, was one of Wilson's central aims: to provoke discussion and
debate by introducing a new approach to human behavior, hopefully
resulting in the accumulation of evidence supporting his claims, or
evidence (or simply lack of it) undermining the very bases for those
Leading the field
Now, ten years later, several important developments have ensued
Scott is a Daily news reporter.
that make the human sociobiology controversy particularly relevant
to the University. First, the University has become the world center
in terms of researching and teaching.the application of evolutionary
theory to human behavior. In the fall of 1986, the University formed
the world's first Evolution and Human Behavior program (EHB),
providing funds to support research and graduate training. Whereas
many university curriculums have added human sociobiology courses,.
none have a funded doctoral program. The faculty of the program are
from the, anthropology, biology, natural resources, psychology, and
Secondly, a recent criticism published in 1985 has received notable
acclaim, mostly from sociobiologists themselves. University
Anthropology Professor and EHB Program Member Richard
Wrangham calls philosopher Philip Kitcher'sValting Ambition, one
of the best pieces of sociobiological criticism" yet. "Unlike some
authors," Sociobiologist John Maynard Smith said, "he has
undertaken a genuine study. He does understand the ideas he is
criticizing... [and] above all he presents sociobiology in its strongest
and most coherent form..." Kitcher's critique picks up on the scathing
reviews already mentioned and develops them, along with specific
methodological criticisms, into a rather dense 435 page work. He
concentrates on human sociobiology's "central claims" and the new
science's supposed "wealth of evidence" backing those claims.
If the costs of being wrong are sufficiently high, then it is
reasonable and responsible to ask for more evidence than is
demanded in situations where mistakes are relatively innocuous...
[I]f we are wrong about the bases of human social behavior, if
we abandon the goal of a fair distribution of the benefits and
burdens of society because we accept faulty hypotheses about
ourselves and our evolutionary history, then the consequences of
a scientific mistake may be grave indeed.
'If we are wrong about the bases of hu-
man social behavior, if we abandon the goal
of a fair distribution of the benefits and
burdens Of society..., then the conse-
quenCes of a sCientific mistake may be grave
- Philip Kitcher, professor of.
Since Kitcher's critique is considered a respectable piece of work, it
seems necessary and quite relevant to see just how human
sociobiologists have responded to his arguments. And because a
central figure in Kitcher's critique, EHB Program Member Richard
Alexander, the foremost sociobiologist doing "empirical work on
humans" is here at the University, it is important to learn what
human sociobiology is all about. By framing this debate in an
understandable context, hopefully some of the misunderstandings
surrounding human sociobiology will be cleared up and questionable
areas of the new field reflected upon.
What's been proposed?
Modern authors who use an evolutionary approach to study human
sociality seem to be divided into two camps. The first group - led
by Wilson - supposes that biology will be useful in locating a core
of "basic" behaviors that will reveal to us how far we can go in
reshaping human behavior. A second group - led by Alexander -
considers biological information as, rather, "a means of altering hu-
man social behavior - of rerouting it so as to avoid such things as
devastating wars or pathological conditions that develop because of
faulty self-images" [Emphasis added]. As a starting point, however,
the two groups are in full agreement - i.e., they both apply the
theory of natural selection to human development. It can be crudely
stated as such: Individuals within populations vary in their genetic
composition and thus their ability to survive and reproduce. Those
that are most successful pass more hereditary material to the next
generation, and as a result, the population as a whole progressively
changes to resemble the successful types.
Wilson's group generally sees specific genetic mechanisms as the
"link" between the biological and social sciences. "Our focus," writes
Wilson, "will be on... the evidences of genetic constraint seen in the
strength and automatic nature of predispositions human beings
display while developing behavior" [Emphasis added]. Alexander
diverges rather markedly from this focus, interpreting conclusions
about genetic limitations as "a profound misunderstanding of biology
and evolution." He continues:
If there is one thing that natural selection has given to every
species, it is the ability to adjust in different fashions to different
developmental environments. If there is an organism most
elaborately endowed with flexibility in the face of environmental
variation, it is the human organism.
Essentially, Alexander's proposal is to explain human social
behavior by revealing how, in different situations, people adjust their
attitudes, practices, and institutions so as to maximize their inclusive
fitness - i.e., the total of their reproductive success through their
offspring plus that of their relatives. "The value of an evolutionary
approach to human. sociality," Alexander said, "is thus not to
determine the limits of our actions so that we can abide by them.
Rather, it is to examine our life strategies so that we can change
them when we wish, as a result of understanding them."
Studies and pursuant debates
So what types of behaviors do human sociobiologists study? Let's
take one example: female infanticide. An explanation using
evolutionary theory has been proposed as such: In certain stratified
societies, characterized by intense competition for scarce resources,
the practice of female infanticide is prevalent at the top of the social
pyramid but not at the bottom. The reason being, explained
sociobiologist Mildred Dickemann, is because upper-class families
maximize their reproductive success through female preferential
infanticide. Because sons receive many wives and all the dowry that
comes with them, sons are profitable while daughters are a drain on
the family resources. It "pays" to kill daughters at birth.
Critic Philip Kitcher finds problems with this hypothesis. How is
it that a "physiological variable, reproductive condition, gives way to
socioeconomic factor, wealth and status?" "The transition, "Kitcher
says, "raises a host of questions about the relations among biological
and economic variables, questions that require detailed exploration."
That economic gains will translate into reproductive gains, Kitcher
argues, cannot be assumed.
As one can probably tell, sociobiological theories deal with
regularly debated and often controversial human phenomenons. But
from a look at Wilson's proposal, and especially Alexander's, one can
also see that human sociobiologists are not promoting "biological
determinism." Essentially, their proposals have to do with studying
human behavior from a biologist's perspective. Perhaps humans are
too complex an organism to be studied like non-human primates, for
example, or perhaps too unique in the way they learn and transmit
culture to be studied from a biologist's viewpoint. Maybe this should
be left for the anthropologist or sociologist. These questions will be
dealt with, but for now I'd like to move away from Wilson and
concentrate on Alexander for two reasons. One, Wilson is at Harvard
and Alexander is here at the University; and two, Kitcher himself
acknowledges that Alexander is doing "the most important work in
How then has Alexander responded to Kitcher's central argument?
Namely, his contention that while animal behavior is, indeed, a
product of evolution - Kitcher supports non-human sociobiology -
the line must be drawn at applying the same approach to humans.
The human species encounters "innumerable situations - among
them some of the most troubling - in which the reproductive
interests of individuals clash... For these situations," Kitcher writes,
"pop [human] sociobiology has nothing to offer... People have
unparalleled abilities for assessing both their own situations and the
strategies that are being pursued by those around them." Hence,
human sociobiology has taken part in "guesswork," he concludes,
rather than a rigorous analysis of human behavior. Alexander does not
mince his words in response:
If Kitcher (and Maynard Smith) think humans are exempt from
an evolutionary approach because the species is so 'peculiar,'
then what alternative would they suggest? Can they possibly
believe that human social behavior - in all its peculiarity and
uniqueness - came about as a result of forces alternative to
evolution? What forces?... What is the theory alternative to an
organic evolution guided chiefly by natural selection that might
explain the peculiar human species? What theory does Kitcher (or
anyone else?) erect to replace an evolution guided largely by .
Is this a real science?
Alexander and company have critics in the University biology
department as well. "Human sociobiology is not science," Biology
Professor John Vandermeer argues. He contends that because almost
all sociobiological studies involve "the formulation of non-testable
hypotheses," any observation can therefore be "rationalized" to fit a
Continued on Page 13
Has evolution fashioned t
Has natural selection pla)
human institution like the
accepted that non-human &
of evolution, but where do
Richard Wrangham, one of the world's foremost primatologists, helped form the 'U's EHB program.
PAGE 8 WEEKEND/OCTOBER 28, 1988
WEEKEND/OCTOBER 28, 1988