Sociobabology

Continuing on with Darwin’s Pious Idea, Sociobiology was introduced to the public in 1973 with E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. It was really an attempt to subsume all the behavioral sciences under the all encompassing canopy of biology, and, of course, an ultra-Darwinian version. It really had grander goals that those, as it even wished to displace philosophy itself, especially in the area of ethics. Cunningham notes beautifully what it really amounted to:

“From our poetry, our sorrows, our desires, sexual and otherwise, there now echoed another accompanying meaning, for there, within each bunch of roses offered on Valentine’s Day, lay the worm of natural selection.”

The critical failure of Sociobiology was its belief that it could leave out mind and culture in its algorithm. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Even those hardly enamored with transcendental, platonic, or theistic theories of being or biology, saw the problems inherent in a project like Wilson’s.

“In response to Wilson’s work, some of his closest Harvard colleagues, including Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin, formed the Sociobiology Study Group. They published a letter denouncing his work, feeling no need to show it to Wilson beforehand, their main criticism being that it was not science but politics, reminiscent of social Darwinism. As Rose, Lewontin, and Kamin put it, sociobiology ‘combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.’ Indeed, in the 1980s the British philosopher Mary Midgley referred to sociobiology as the biology of Thatcherism. Her point was that sociobiologists appeared to look at everyday life and read it through a Darwinian lens—competition, for example—only to arrive at just what we would expect in a Darwinian world. So the worry was that it was somewhat of an apologist for capitalism…largely due to the reaction it received, sociobiology went out of fashion pretty quickly.”

Good riddance.

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5 Responses to Sociobabology

  1. Burk Braun says:

    However, the irony is that what was political was Gould et al.'s critique. Sociobiology is back in spades, as we learn more about our nature/nurture process and genetic inheritance.

    The critic's history is as tawdry as they come…

    You will enjoy this measured review.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Back in spades? It is as controversial as it ever was. Name one thing we have learned, that has made a consensus of the these critics say, “Oh, wow, Wilson was right after all.”

    The true irony is that Gould, et al, knew they were being political while Wilson did not and never really understood that he was even when it was pointed out to him. This is what happens, when like Michael Scott of The Office, one is so blind to his own cluelessness. The fate of all “true believers.”

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  3. Burk Braun says:

    Well, all I need to refer to is the Stanford philosophy entry:

    “… by demonstrating that current studies of evolution and human behavior are based on Darwin's arguments for evolution (properly updated), we gain a strong rationale for thinking that something closer to sociobiology than to disconnectionism is needed to properly understand human sociality.”

    As an example, take a look at the reference list for this article… The ideas and program are totally current, and uncontroversial- that is why you don't hear much about it, or apparently know much about it.

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  4. Darrell says:

    “Well, all I need to refer to is the Stanford philosophy entry:”

    The Stanford site simply recounts any area of philosophical inquiry, theory, or school of thought like an encyclopedia. If you plug in “Empiricism” if will do the same thing. So what? What does such tell us about its current influence culturally or in the university?

    “As an example, take a look at the reference list for this article… The ideas and program are totally current, and uncontroversial- that is why you don't hear much about it, or apparently know much about it.”

    I looked at each one of these. I’ve read parts of Wilson’s book and I’ve read a number of things addressing his ideas and work. These abstracts touch on nothing that induced people like Gould and Lewontin to dismiss him as unscientific. What am I missing?

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  5. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Supposing that we wanted to have a rational discussion, we would want to be explicit about what we were talking about. For instance, if you read the review I pointed to above, the critic nicely separates some of the threads of sociobiology and of E.O. Wilson's personal approaches to it.

    Firstly, the idea that humans are somehow blank slates to be written on by culture.. is dead. We are, as any other animal, expressive of many instincts and behavioral patterns which can be altered by culture, but just as often are developed into culture in ways that make us blind to their origin. Like marriage.. I suppose you believe that has nothing to do with biology?

    The recent work on the “bonding” hormone oxytocin is a classic of the topic- that we as humans respond to our partners and others in ways that are biologically entrained.

    On the other hand, the reviewer points out that Wilson's “progressivism” is not realistic.. biology may diversify and ramify and adapt continually, but it does not “progress” in any general sense to any “pinnacle”, nor especially in any moral sense. Yet all the same, our evolution has included a variety of positive pro-social and empathetic instincts which provide the material for cultural evolution and cultivation with positive consequences, especially given the density with which we now inhabit the planet.

    Gould and his colleagues were pursuing a totally unrealistic, and indeed Marxist, program, claiming that humans can make of themselves “new men” of a new age. They claimed that all problems we face were solvable by appropriate social engineering, that no one was in essence different from anyone else, and that cultural constructs are endlessly malleable into any utopia we might wish to envision. All of which is far off the mark, frankly. I am drawing it in extreme fashion, but that program was easily as culpable for human misery as the worst forms of racism and essentialist bigotry.

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