"Sociobiology Sanitized: The Evolutionary
Psychology and Genetic Selectionism Debates."
Science and Culture, 1998.
In the late
1970s I attended meetings at which sociobiologists E. O. Wilson
and David Barash, critic Stephen J. Gould, and others were on
a panel. Standing blocked by the crowd in the hall outside the
doorway to the packed hall I was unable hear the speakers. I spied
a little door near the stage, and figured that if I could get
to that door, I could get next to the stage and the front row.
I sneaked through the hotel kitchen and found the door. Just as
I opened it I was passed by a number of African American students
who ran up on stage and poured water on Wilson's head. Wilson
responded by saying to the audience that he felt like he had been
speared by an aborigine. The crowd applauded the martyred Wilson
(on crutches at the time--from a skiing accident) and some in
the front row muttered epithets at the disrupters and at me, who
appeared to have held the door for the demonstrators. The water
pitcher story has been repeated scores of times in journalistic
accounts, but none of these mention Wilson's racially tinged response.
Two decades later the debate concerning
the genetic determination of human behavior has been reanimated
in the general intellectual and middle-brow media with a somewhat
more restrained tone. The study of evolutionary accounts of human
behavior is now called "evolutionary psychology" to
avoid some of the justifiably bad connotations that were associated
with sociobiology. During the last few years the linguist Steve
Pinker, (1997) philosopher Daniel
Dennett, (1995) New Republic
editor and science popularizer Robert Wright,(1994)
and science writer Matt Ridley (1994, 1997) have
produced feisty, polemical expositions of evolutionary psychology
for a broad audience. Stephen J. Gould has returned to the breach
to criticize evolutionary psychology, but several writers considered
to be on the left have defended sociobiological approaches and
criticized postmodern rejection of biologism.
The core theories of evolutionary
psychology are the same as those of sociobiology. Several of the
commonly made distinctions between evolutionary psychology and
sociobiology turn out not to distinguish the two. So what has
changed and what is new?
I believe part of the difference
is a tactical retreat from some of the more belligerently ideological
and sexist pronouncements of the past which attracted criticism
and condemnation. Another difference is the greater restriction
of evolutionary psychology to studies of humans and comparisons
with primates, rather than with distantly related species such
as insects. Nonetheless, the centrally sexist claims of sociobiology
remain in evolutionary psychology, presented in more neutral,
theoretical mode of expression.
FROM SOCIOBIOLOGY TO EVOLUTIONARY
Sociobiology initially made an immense
media splash and received enormous coverage. However, the rapid
counter-attack of biologist critics at Harvard made clear to the
academic world, at least, that sociobiology was not, as E. O.
Wilson initially attempted to present it, the unanimous utterance
of Scientific Authority. Preparing their statement before Wilson's
book was printed, equally prestigious biologists, also chaired
at Harvard, claimed that the emperor had no clothes. Gould and
Richard Lewontin were able to use the pages of The New York
Review of Books (NYR) and Natural History to carry out a
running battle against sociobiology. Although the preemptive counterstrike
by leftist biologists prevented uncritical acceptance of the veracity
of sociobiology by the general intellectual community, the sociobiology
won on two other fronts. First, in the popular press, notions
of character "running in the blood" and "bar room
wisdom" about sex differences eased acceptance of "gee
whiz" accounts of sociobiology in the major news and popular
science magazines. Second, in professional biology, psychology,
and anthropology supporters quietly developed networks of supporters
with their own technical journals. During the 1980s, while popular
attention to sociobiology decreased somewhat, a number of major
new technical journals were devoted to sociobiological research.
A difference between the evolutionary
psychologists (and their philosophical defenders) and the earlier
sociobiologists is that Dawkins, not E. O. Wilson has become the
paradigmatic hero. Part of this is due to Dawkins' amazingly simple
and striking prose, but this hardly accounts for the change. E.
O. Wilson produces readable and widely sold book, and he is at
least as highly respected by his scientific peers than he was
two decades ago, and is further admired by both by both scientists
and the public for his later work concerning extinction, endangered
species and biodiversity. However Wilson, as point man for sociobiology,
from the very start made a number of policy pronouncements, such
as concerning the social costs of women entering politics, law
and science (Wilson, 1978).
The initial preemptive strike against Wilson's big book by Lewontin
et. al emphasized the policy pronouncements and close-to-the surface
value-judgments concerning enterpreneurship and other social topics.
Wilson has more recently allied himself with the fellow Harvard
professor Thernstrom in forming an organization to dismiss and
denigrate (without any actual investigation) the academic quality
of Womens Studies and Ethnic Studies programs.[Flint, Globe] Dawkins,
on the other hand, does not make explicit social policy pronouncements.
He did once red-bait Gould in the most indirect fashion be introducing
criticisms of him with an unrelated anecdote about Soviet troops
marching across Britain, but he has never made the sort of open
political and policy statements as had E. O. Wilson. Dawkins appears
to be solely concerned with the defense and propagation of Science,
and is now Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at
Oxford (which role Dawkins apparently understands as involving
the denigration of the humanities). Dawkins' ideology is
contained in his biological cosmology. He produces the ideas scientific
model for the social Darwinist without drawing any explicit social
Darwinist conclusions. Dawkins work is ideology in an even stronger
sense that E. O. Wilson's precisely because none of it is explicit.
Dawkins can present himself as the pure scientist in contrast
to Gould and Lewontin precisely by feigning political unconsciousness
A number of other developments also
occurred during the 1980s that, although not always directly and
explicitly linked to sociobiology, helped prepare the ground for
the new attempt by sociobiologists under the name of evolutionary
psychology at an assault on popular consciousness and the general
academic public. While general sociobiological theorizing in the
popular press concerning the causes of war, the nature of enterpreneurship,
and other matters declined, the immense economic and medical impact
of genetic medicine made the public all the more receptive to
biological explanations or excuses for social problems.
THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT
The Human Genome Project and the
biotechnology industry splattered the press with announcements
of amazing scientific discoveries, both real and imagined. Weekly
there were headlines of the discovery of a "gene for"
this and that trait. Often these genes for behavioral traits of
general interest are merely one link in an immense network of
biochemical pathways that produced the trait. Absence of the gene
led to absence of the trait, but the gene alone was not sufficient
for the trait, with numerous other genes and environmental factors
were involved. A number of "breakthroughs" in the discovery
of genes for psychological maladies such as manic depression,
schizophrenia, and alcoholism turned out to false alarms, but
the public was often unaware of the quiet back page retractions
of claims that had earlier been trumpeted on the front pages.
Nevertheless the weekly assault of newspaper articles claiming
the discover of genes for almost everything (including television
watching) made the public believe that numerous genes for behaviors
and mental conditions had been discovered. Daniel Kosman, editor
of Science magazine, could claim authoritatively that the nature-nurture
controversy was over and that nature won (Kosman,
THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST ANTHROPOLOGICAL
Another event, more directly linked
to sociobiology, was the widely broadcast "discrediting"
of the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead, and her cultural
relativism. The reigning anthropological view from the end of
W.W.II through the ascendance of sociobiology was the cultural
variability of human behavior and norms. Margaret Mead, a student
of Franz Boas. Boas was important in pioneering anti-racist theory
earlier than the British anthropologists. Mead was a major proponent
and popularizer of anti-racist as well as anthropological relativist
views, influential not only in professional organizations but
in popular media. (For instance, she wrote a column of advice
and opinion in the women's magazine Redbook.) The discrediting
of Mead was an important step in the propagation of sociobiology
in America. Shortly after Mead's death, Derek Freeman published
a book (1983), largely prepared
decades before, that he had feared to make public while she was
still alive to reply. Freeman claimed to show that Mead's account
of sexual freedom in Samoa was a myth. The press widely publicized
Freeman's claims. Evolutionary psychologists casually refer to
Freeman's work ass disproving Mead's claims that sexual and violent
behavior are culturally relative. There was a general celebration
of Freeman's discrediting of a woman who had been so influential
in the scientific societies and popular press. Neglected were
the facts that Freeman had studied a different village than that
studied by Mead, and studied it four decades later than Mead,
during which time a U. S. military based had influenced the behavior
of Samoans who worked on the base(for example, rape and assaults
had become more frequent). Also, Freeman re-interviewed some of
Mead's subjects decades later in the role of an honorary chieftain.
An elderly woman might give a different report concerning her
teen-age sexual activity to a community official and priest than
she would have confided to another young woman at the time. Freeman
in his earlier work on Iban agriculture (which contains some hasty
racial generalizations) (1970 para 59) bragged that he had 'devious"
ways of getting his subjects to say what he wanted.(1970,
para 63). Nonetheless, Mead was portrayed as a silly female
who had naively believed in a good human nature, while Freeman
was the objective male scientist. Some journalists referred to
"Miss Mead" and "Professor Freeman" despite
the fact that Mead had many more academic honors than her critic.
In fact the detached, supposedly Popperian Freeman had many axes
to grind and was as committed to sexual repression, (including
being outraged by the display of human genitals on statues in
a public park) as Mead was committed to sexual freedom. Writers
from psychologist Steve Pinker to science popularizer Martin Gardner
write as if Mead was victim of a hoax, and anthropological relativism
of cultural and mores is thus totally discredited.
THE NEW TWIN STUDIES
During the eighties was the extraordinarily
wide media publicity for the Minnesota Twin Studies. Shortly after
the publication of Wilson's Sociobiology, hereditarians suffered
the embarrassment of the exposure of the later twin studies of
Sir Cyril Burt as likely frauds. Since Burt's work had been used
by Jensen and others to base theories of hereditary racial IQ
differences, this left a gap. Thomas Bouchard and colleagues at
the University of Minnesota (conveniently in one of the "Twin
Cities," home of the Minnesota Twins baseball team.) gained
extraordinary publicity in all major US newspapers and magazines
for his "eerie" anecdotes about coincidental similarities
among twins. Bouchard was unable for almost a decade to receive
grants from National Institutes of Health or National Science
Foundation, but was supported by the Pioneer Fund which had been
founded explicitly to foster the spread of genes of the original
white inhabitants of the US (a few years ago the word "white"
was deleted from its mission statement, but the fund has a long
history of association with segregationist, anti-immigrant and
white supremacist figures). Bouchard was also unable for years
to get published in a peer reviewed journal for seven years, but
during this period was able to publish accounts of his research
in all major news magazines and papers in the US.(Dusek,
1987) He also introduced a segment on telepathy among twins
for the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. Reviewers for Science magazine
rejected his research articles, but the political news section
of Science published glowing accounts of that same research. Bouchard
was claimed by one reporter to have misrepresented his results
as published (Bazell, 1987). Many scientists outside of the field
assume Bouchard's work is solid, and fellow hereditarians in psychology
praise his work even though critics were unable to look at his
data. The crucial part of the research is the documentation of
the genuine separateness of rearing of the twins, an area where
past studies had failed. Leon Kamin has raised doubts about the
separateness of Bouchard's most famous pair of twins, the Jewish/Nazi
pair whose foible of double toilet flushing entered art in the
Scharzenegger/De Vito movie Twins. Bouchard's group promised a
book length study a decade ago, but it never appeared. The Human
Genome Issue of Science published a review article by Bouchard
covering research that Science's peer reviewers had earlier rejected.
What did this matter if itbolstered the importance of genetic
engineering by showing IQ and personality traits were 50% to 80%
heritable? Steve Pinker and other scientists follow Bouchard's
lead in citing "spooky" and "eerie" coincidences
supplied by Bouchard. These include such amazing coincidences
as two twins from the wild west who both wear cowboy hats and
drink the same brand of beer, twins who live on streets with the
same name, or have dogs with the same name. Some of the coincidences
(such as twins who both wore seven rings), if not staged for the
researchers, are genuinely amazing, but they are hardly amenable
to the scientific method. One of Bouchard's colleagues, Lykken,
fantasizes about an "emergenesis" statistics that will
draw conclusions from single cases, but sociobiologists and evolutionary
psychologists such as Pinker (who contrast themselves with humanists
by touting their own devotion to lawful regularities and replicable
findings) appeal to Bouchard's unique coincidence anecdotes to
make their case. (Pinker. 1994,
pp.327-328, 1997. pp. 21-22).
BRAIN IMAGING AND SEX DIFFERENCES
Claims have been made since the 1970s
concerning differences of male and female brains. One study, which
used fewer than a dozen brains of either sex and compared brains
of aged women who died of natural causes with those of young men
who died mainly in motor accidents apparently measured numerous
features of the brain until it found one in which sex differences
appeared (the splenium).(Lacoste-Utamsing and R.
Holloway 1982, Alper 1985).
This study was publicized with headlines such as His and Hers
Brains. An earlier series of studies showed women more able
than men to process different messages fed simultaneously into
left and right ear, though these studies made no tie with actual
brain anatomy.(Kimura 1987) Differences in scores on math aptitude
tests of boys and girls were used to infer a male math gene. (Benbow and Stanley, 1980).
The genetic explanation was chosen because the boys and girls
were claimed to be in the same environment because they had taken
the same math classes! This theory lives on. (Hammer and Dusek, 1995) These various claims
were popularized in a book which combined them with quotes from
Steve Goldberg on the inevitability of patriarchy, and from Michael
Levin on the lack of competitiveness and motivation of women and
the common but now erroneous claim that there are no female chess
grand masters in a popular book Brain Sex: The Real Differences
Between Men and Women (Moir
and Jessel, 1991) which was in turn made into an even worse
video marketted for secondary school classroom use.
In the 1990s, however, Functional
MRI studies, which are able to trace moment-to-moment changes
in glucose concentrations in the brain, were claimed to show defnititive
differences in brain localization of men and women thinking in
a particular linguistic task (Shaywitz,
Shaywitz, and Pugh 1995). However only about half the female
subjects showed the different localization from the males. The
other half of the females showed the same result as the males.
Composite color diagrams of a brains with all the male subjects
scanning results colored in on one and all the females on another
illustrated the article, and this was misinterpreted in the popular
press to be a direct photographs of single male and female subject,
giving "visual proof" that men and women think differently.
"Every social explanation has been exhausted. It is innate."
Finally, the initially controversy
of E. O. Wilson's sociobiology had been forgotten by many. It
took a bit over a decade for the sociobiology debate to recede
from memory and many of its theses to be revived under the banner
of "evolutionary psychology."
NOVELTY AND CONTINUITY IN
How does evolutionary psychology
differ from sociobiology? Some of its own partisans claim that
the name "evolutionary psychology" was explicitly chosen
to avoid the negative connotations that had been attached to sociobiology
by its critics. Evolutionary psychologists claim that it differs
from sociobiology in that sociobiology had emphasized differences,
while evolutionary psychology emphasizes similarities or commonalties.
This is misleading. Theoretical sociobiological works often discussed
human nature and never claimed the significance of race differences.
It is true that the National Front and others who uphold biological
race differences such as Philip Rushton and racial IQ theorists
latched on to sociobiology, but sociobiology itself never claimed
that races were significant biological units. Even the Dean of
Harvard Medical School, Bernard Davis, (who had asserted that
Afro-American physicians would leave a trail of dead bodies after
them) denied that races were biologically real entities and in
theory upheld Darwinian population thinking, in which species
are real, but races or subspecies are minor statistical gradients.
Furthermore, though core theoretical sociobiology does not portray
dichotomous racial differences, both evolutionary psychology and
sociobiology emphasize sex differences, as evolutionarily selected
different sexual strategies are claimed to account for much of
the personality and behavioral differences between men and women.
Another claimed difference that is that evolutionary psychology
does not think that our behaviors are adaptations to contemporary
living conditions, but are adaptations to our earlier hunter-gatherer
lifestyle (Horgan, 1997, p. 45).
However this is not new either. E. O. Wilson had early claimed
that our psychological makeup was gerry-built in the Pleistocene
era and not necessarily adaptive to industrialized society (Wilson,
One must be careful not to make criticisms
of new theories too easy by falsely reducing them to older, cruder
theories, that are easier to refute. Nevertheless, it can be fairly
said that the evolutionary part of evolutionary psychology is
sociobiology under a new name, as some of its practitioners have
admitted. The genetic theories appealed to by evolutionary psychologists
are the theories developed in the early 60s by Hamilton (kin selection)
and in the 70s by Trivers (reciprocal altruism and parental investment).
One area where recent approaches
in cognitive science have contributed to the direction of evolutionary
psychology is in the emphasis on the modularity of mind. The mind
is seen as a Swiss army knife, and ensemble of separate devices
for specific behavioral and problem-solving tasks, not a general,
totally flexible, problem solving device. Here the atomization
of traits in the pan-selectionist version of ultra-Darwinism fits
with the cognitive scientists model of the mind as a hodgepodge
of special purpose devices. Gould and Lewontin, claim that the
evolution of mind is the result of a generalized increase in size
and complexity of the brain. Dennett and Pinker deny this. Rather
than our particular cognitive capacities being largely side-products
of a general evolution of brain complexity and flexibility, the
evolutionary psychologists see them asvery particularly selected
(Fodor, 1998, Gould, 1997, p. 50).
Some novelties in evolutionary psychology
are the result of new technology, but conveniently track, in their
results, shifts in social views. Sociobiology in the 1970s defended
the double standard, female monogamy and male philandering, and
claimed to find it in the animal world. A Playboy article entitled
"Darwin and the Double Standard" was a quite accurate
description of sociobiological theory, better than most popular
accounts. However, in the 1990s we find that female birds cheat
on their mates. Popular media accounts simply reported this as
the latest deliverance of science with implications for humans,
without noting the change of viewpoint from the previous view
of bird monogamy. Ridley and Pinker attribute this new account
solely to the newly available DNA screening. However, one may
wonder whether changes of the climate of opinionconcerning female
virginity and extra-marital sexuality helped support this worldview
The main differences between evolutionary
psychology and sociobiology are in the range of application and
tone of language. The sociobiologists expected the public and
the non-scientist intellectual community to immediately bow down
to their pronouncements. Wilson was rather shocked by the criticisms
of his theory, not from creationists, but from some evolutionist
colleagues. The early sociobiologists were much more unbuttoned
and free-wheeling in their speculations. Wilson discussed genes
for "enterpreneurship." The evolutionary psychologists
tend to focus on the genetic basis for gender differences and
tend not to range quite as far afield in their speculations as
did the early sociobiologists. The evolutionary psychologists
stay closer to the well-worked out core of their theory.
Also the evolutionary psychologists
also are somewhat more careful, perhaps for tactical reasons,
about their language and tone than were the early sociobiologists.
Michael Ghiselin, in The Economy of Nature and the Evolution
of Sex, a work that presented implications of the new genetics
of kin selection and predated Wilson's book, could be belligerent.
"Nice guys finish last," and conclude memorably: "Scratch
and altruist and make a hypocrite bleed." Ghiselin also claimed
that worker bees who kill male drones are acting as feminists
would like to (Ghiselin, 1974). Michael Barash, in a widely
used textbook, could say "Ironically, mother nature appears
to be a sexist," and smirk at rape, saying "Rape is
common among the birds and the bees," and speculate without
evidence that human males like male mallard ducks fantasize about
their wives being gang-raped (Barash,
1977, p. 283, Barash, 1979, pp. 54, 1978,
86.) Pierre van den Bergh (1978,
p. xiv) stated that he owed his book title Man to the
irritation provided by some of my feminist friends."
Such blatant sexism did not play well, and with more widespread
awareness of rape and a widespread, if much less radical, feminist
consciousness, evolutionary psychologists avoid baiting women
to the extent that their sociobiologist predecessors did. Indeed
Randy Thornhill and others stopped writing of "rape"
among insects and wrote instead of "forced copulation."
Surprisingly, in the light of this
terminological reformation by leading sociobiologists, Dennett
gives a qualified defense of rape terminology in animal sociobiology
(1995, pp.491-493), claiming
in a tu quoque that feminists don't object to the term"lesbian"
for certain gulls (Kittiwakes), "homosexual worms" or
"mother" in animals. But it is a matter of what associations
are developed from the terms. Dennett cites a passage by the Shields
which disassociates the term "rape" in sociobiology
from human rape. He avoids mentioning the more snickering allusions
of Barash. Some critics, including myself, have objected to the
misuse of the term "lesbian" for cooperative female
Kittiwake pairs, as well as to claims about hummingbird prostitution,
and hangingfly transvestitism, and homosexual rapist worms. The
"homosexual worms" (spiny-headed worms) -- one of the
worst misuses of ordinary language in technical sociobiological
literature -- to which Dennett casually refers, are in fact not
engaging in homosexual sex at all, but inserting a plug in a competing
male worm's sperm duct to prevent it from heterosexually mating.
) Dennett objects to feminists who claim that sociobiological
accounts of rape contribute to popular justifications of rape
in the law court, but he seems totally unaware of the extent to
which sociobiology (including sociobiology of rape) has been popularized
in the mass media.
Nevertheless, despite the partial
terminological retreat by the new evolutionary psychologists,
feminism is a still their major target, though they have learned
that abusively sexist language can backfire and present their
case with more nuance. Pinker, for instance, attacks "Marxists,
academic feminists and cafe intellectuals"--an easy target--whom
he associates with Marxism, and thereby avoids attacking his women
readers in general who tend to hold views that a few decades ago
were called feminist. Oddly Pinker, claiming to be
an objective scientist, does not simply say that these straw-woman
feminists are factually wrong--he has to red-bait them, and appeal
to populist resentment of intellectuals (from whom he apparently
disassociates himself). The evolutionary psychologists no longer
go out of their way to insult women as did Barash or van den Bergh.
Indeed Pinker claims that evolutionary psychology makes men look
worse than women, aggressive and unfaithful.
THE POLITICS OF EVOLUTIONARY
Certainly none of the evolutionary
psychologists support major egalitarian change in social or gender
arrangements. Pinker quotes John Lennon, "Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood
of man." and writes "Incredible as it may seem, many
of us used to believe this treacle"(Pinker, 1997, p. 425). While Pinker and Robert Wright
consider themselves liberals, of the New Republic, drifting-toward-neo-conservatism
sort, Matt Ridley comes out as a nineteenth century libertarian
similar the earlier Social Darwinists, in claiming that biology
shows us that a libertarian society with minimal state is best
What the evolutionary psychologists
share, whether liberals like Dennett, neoliberals like Wright
and Pinker, or individualist conservatives like Ridley, is a stance
of cynical toughmindedness. Those who oppose evolutionary psychology
are religious mystagogues or at least tender-minded whimps, unable
to face the cruel truths of natural selection. Their stance is
reminiscent of what C. Wright Mills once called Machievellianism
for the little man. In a populist appeal Pinker (1997) often contrasts evolutionary psychology with
the intellectual establishment of feminism (p. 492) what many
intellectuals believe (p. 509), or with the fondest beliefs of
many intellectuals (p. 504), and cites Tom Wolfe to ridicule the
politics of the cultural elite (p. 502).
A few on the left have weighed in
favor of sociobiological views. Barbara Ehrenreich, a well-know
leftist journalist and political commentator (and formerly graduate
student in molecular biology at the Rockefeller Institute) wrote
with Janet MacIntosh "The New Creationists" (Ehrenreich and MacIntosh, 1997)
which denounced postmodernists as creationists just as evolutionary
psychologists lump humanists with Biblical creationists in denying
total explanatory power to biological natural selection. The article
started with an anecdote resembling those "political correctness"
anecdotes manufactured by the foundations of the right about a
postmodernist asking someone "Do you believe in DNA?"
Evidently to question the omnipotence of DNA is to disbelieve
in the existence of DNA for Ehrenreich, who previously authored
a rather sociobiological account of the origins of war. This attack
on postmodernism in the name of biologism helped inspire the conference
of "Left Conservatism" at which a number of literary
and gender studies people denounced Ehrenreich, Sokal (of the
Social Text hoax), and Katha Pollitt of the Nation magazine for
praising Sokal and castigating the cultural studies authors who
were objects of his hoax. Despite the terminological peculiarity
of the title of the conference, I think that scientism is presently
playing a role on the left similar to that which economism played
in the past.
Philosopher of animal liberation
Peter Singer has also stressed the need for the left to embrace
Darwinism and claims that this will involve rejection of left's
believe in the infinite malleability of human nature. Of course
this latter charge hardly applies to all of the left, and Marxists
influenced by early Marx have held to the existence of a human
nature, though not a static and context-independent one.
Followers of some older hereditarian
and race-based theories now call themselves "evolutionary
psychologists" to seem up to date, just as parts of the French
right and British National Front embraced sociobiology. David
Buss (the "doctor of love," as one website calls him),
a genuine evolutionary psychologist of sex differences in human
mating strategies, joined the University of Texas faculty. The
already present Texas Adoption Study group now has integrated
with Buss in a program in Evolutionary Psychology of Individual
Differences (including racial differences). One of their members,
Professor Joseph Horn, whose studies allege the intellectual inferiority
of Mexican-Americans, and who was at the time head of the conservative
National Association of Scholars chapter at UT, had his views
exposed by a Chicano student newspaper. The Chicano students noted
that Horn as Dean of students, was in a position to implement
his views concerning Mexican Americans unfitness for technical
or quantitative fields in advising Chicanos. In the name of free
speech--evidently for faculty only-- the UT administration prevented
distribution of the newspaper.
Matt Ridley praises Pinker's lack
of "political correctness" when Pinker archly mentions
"rainforests--or, as they used to be called, jungles."
Actually behavioral geneticists have used the jungle terminology
with more controversial effect. Frederick K. Goodwin, then director
of Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Adminstration and the
head of the National Institutes of Mental Health, made a comparison
of American inner cities to jungles and their denizens to apes.
This lead to an uproar, particular when the Violence Initiative
of the US NIMH emphasized genetic factors, and led demonstrations
against a conference (fairly balanced in terms of speakers' positions)
under the auspices of the Human Genome Project "Genetic Factors
in Crime" as racist, cancelation of federal funding and delay
of the conference. Evolutionary Psychologist Robert Wright wrote
a long and convoluted defense of the jungle analogy in the New
Yorker magazine.(1995) Wright
noted that the analogy of aggression by low status apes with low
serotonin levels was applicable to young white males as well as
to African Americans in slums. Wright totally dismissed the claims
of racism by noting correctly that the remark was not made with
consciouslyracist intent. But Wright, an editor of the New Republic,
and a politicalpundit as well as popularizer of evolutionary psychology,
is surely aware of the racial connotations in the USA of comparisons
of inner city residents to apes in jungles
GENIC SELECTIONISM AND 'SELFISH
Despite the new name, the general
lessening of totally off-the-wall speculation, far-fetched animal
analogies to very distantly related species, and the avoidance
of grossly sexist remarks, evolutionary psychologists present
the same theories as the sociobiologists. Central to the work
of most of them is the genic selection theory, claims that genes,
not organisms are selected. It is most well known as selfish gene
theory in popularizations by Richard Dawkins. This doctrine, genic
selectionism, has been criticized by biologists such as Gould
and Lewontin, but many journeyman biologists accept the theory,
even attributing the details of the theory to Dawkins himself,
when he was only popularizing certain trends in genetics and theories
of Hamilton and others.
The debates concerning evolutionary
psychology have revived the debate about genic selectionism. Part
of the debate concerns whether genes alone are selected, as Dawkins
claims, or whether individual organisms and species (and perhaps
also groups) are selected as well. Genic selectionism stems in
part from a literal, causal reading of the terms in the equations
of population genetics, in which genes rather than phenotypic
traits are treated as the objects of selection. Part of its appeal
also stems from its reductionistic nature. Selection coefficients
can always be calculated for individual genes. Another part of
the debate concerns the doctrines of "selectionism"
(that natural selection is the sole mechanism of evolution) and
"pan-selectionism," (that all traits found have been
selected for. Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory claims
that selection is for genes and not for organisms (let alone groups
or species). This fits with the theory of kin selection, in which
and individual can reproduce some of "its" genes by
sacrificing itself for a relative which carries a proportion of
the altruist's genes. Lewontin has criticized Dawkin's theory
by claiming that it confuses classes with individuals. The genes
which are reproduced by the relative are not physically identical
with the sacrificed individual's genes, but are simply similar,
the same kind of gene. Lewontin counters Dawkins claim that an
extraterrestrial, to gauge earthly intelligence would ask "Do
you understand the theory of natural selection?" with the
Platonic question "Do you understand the difference between
a class and its members?"--which, according to Lewontin,
Dawkins, in his "caricature of Darwinism" flunks. Sober
and Lewontin have put the distinction in more philosophical jargon,
distinguishing genotokens from genotypes. (Sober and Lewontin, 1982, p. 171)
Steve Gould was more mellow during
the 1980s than during the 1970s and wrote less about biological
determinism, returning to natural history topics dear to his heart.
However he reentered the lists after a particularly nasty attack
by Dennett in the New York Review. The immediate stimulus for
Dennett's insults to Gould was Gould's highly negative review
of Cronin's The Ant and the Peacock (Cronin,
1991). Helena Cronin, a young, Cambridge-trained philosopher
of science defended fairly standard genic selectionism and sociolobiology.
Cronin's book had a preface by Maynard Smith. Dennett gained Gould's
ire by writing of Gould's "non-revolutions" (Dennett,
1993). Maynard Smith, who had previously discussed Gould's
work with respect, in a review of Dennett claimed that Gould is
so confused that his evolutionist colleagues don't bother to argue
with his theoretical claims, but find his popular writings useful
in opposing creationism, so avoid debunking his popular reputation
as a major evolutionist (Maynard Smith, 1995, p.46). It would appear
that ties with Cronin prompted Dennett and Maynard Smith to publicly
voice their insults to Gould in the NYR. Gould reentered the breach
to pen a two-part critique of evolutionary psychology (1997,
1997b), which in turn elicited
letters from Morris, Wright, and Steve Pinker. Dennett had earlier
written a feisty attack on theories of Gould, Lewontin, Noam Chomsky,
and Stuart Kauffman, who reject a strict selectionist account
of evolution and the origin of mind and language. Dennett, in
his NYR, letter speaks of Gould's "non-revolutions,"
claiming that Gould's alternatives to genic selectionism are empty.
Gould claims that speciation (the rise of new species) differs
in its mechanism from the sort of gradualistic changes observed
in the genetics laboratory. Gould also claims that macroevolution,
the major main trends evolution, depends in large part of species
selection rather than individual or genic selection, thus operating
at a different level from the microevolution or the sort observed
with breeding fruit-flies. Furthermore, Gould denies selectionism,
claiming that many traits have not been selected for and are not
particularly adaptive, and coins the term "exaptation"
to characterize the functioning of a trait which was not previously
selected for or adaptive. He claims this is different from the
previous, orthodox neo-Darwinist claim of "preadaptation"
where a trait previously selected for one function or adapted
to one environment is later selected for another function in a
different environment. Dennett denies exaptation differs from
preadaptation and accuses Gould of tooting his own horn by inventing
a new term for a well-known idea. Gould claims that exaptive traits
were not previously selected for, and that preadapted traits were
so selected for some other function.
Lewontin, Gould, and some other writers
have emphasized against selectionism a number of random and non-selective
factors in evolution. These include 1) purely random recombination
2) genetic drift, in which random sampling errors in reproduction
change the distribution of genes in a population 3) so-called
non-Darwinian evolution, which involves the random mutation of
the third letter in some DNA code words, in which two or more
words are synonyms which code for the same amino acid, and hence
the difference in the third letter makes no difference in the
resultant organism, and is not selected for (a significant theory
Dennett does not even mention) 4) structural constraints, such
as basic body plans, which may become far from optimally adaptive,
but which are too difficult to change by piecemeal natural selection
without making many other features of the organism maladaptive.
5) geological or astronomical catastrophes such as the asteroid
collision causing mass extinctions. 6) species selection, in which
differing rates of extinction, and, more importantly, speciation
(branching) produce more species in some lineages than in others.
Dennett simply emphasizes that natural
selection works within the parameters of structural constraints
and environmental catastrophes, and that species selection is
a kind of natural selection (though he neglects to note that it
is inconsistent with his following Dawkinsian genic selection),
but this does not settle the issue of how much of observed structure
is to be attributed to selection and how much to accidental results
of catastrophes and non-selective causes. Dennett emphasizes the
algorithmic, rule-following, nature of natural selection (and
claims that Roger Penrose does not understand what an algorithm
is.(1995, p. 308) But if that
algorithm is applied weakly or not at all in many areas in which
environmental catastrophes, developmental constraints, and purely
random drift account for major results, then the algorithmic natural
selection will not account for many biological features of interest.
On the issue of developmental constraints
(body plans which once set are difficult for natural selection
to change without fatal consequences) Dennett sets up and refutes
a straw man on older theories in which such body plan transitions
were non-evolutionary mysteries. He than grants that body plans
may constrain the direction of natural selection, but tries to
play down its significance (p. 277-278).
Although Dennett largely follows
Dawkins ( in opposition to Gould, Lewontin, and Kaufman) on the
nature of evolution and the role of natural selection, he is coy
about committing himself to genic selectionism (1995,
p. 327). He endorses the reductionism of Dawkins and Steve Weinberg
and distinguishes his own from "greedy reductionism"
and denies that anyone holds the latter. He writes, "Probably
nobody is a reductionist in the preposterous sense, and everybody
should be a reductionist in the bland sense" (p. 81). He
does make the preposterous sense preposterous by inventing "
A Comparison of Keats and Shelley from the Molecular Point of
View" and "Explaining the Decisions of The Rehnquist
Court in terms of Entropy Fluctuations," (although the latter
is not too far from some titles in political science). He claims
that preposterous reductionists "want to abandon the principles,
vocabulary, laws of higher- level sciences in favor of lower-level
terms." (1995, p. 81).
However, this leaves open whether the replacement would be in
principle possible, even if it is cumbersome and the higher-level
vocabulary is maintained for purely practical purposes.
When Dennett discusses the debates
about levels of selection (whether selection occurs on genes,
organisms, groups, species) he claims to have strongly held views
but does not reveal them. He claims the issue does not matter.
The only reason he gives for this is that whatever is selecting,
the selection involves the larger environment and so is not all
at the micro-level. But this hardly dissolves the issue of the
degree of genetic determinism claimed. The only substantive point
that Dennett makes in his hand-waving discussion of levels of
selection is that even if genes function only as a "counter"
recording the results of selection, counters can be quite important.
Dennett refers the reader to Chapter 16 for further explanation,
but I can find none there. There is a discussion of the naturalistic
fallacy in ethics, but no further discussion of scientific reduction.
Apparently all that Dennett means by "draining the drama"
from the problem is to deny that awful ethical consequences directly
follow logically from selfish gene theory. But this ignores the
more indirect ideological consequences in terms of cosmologies
or models of nature that in turn can have ethical effects. An
interesting sidelight of this is that Dennett, like Dawkins holds
the Dawkinsian vision of all lower organisms. The are robots,
but we, in Dawkins words can rebel against our genes. Surprisingly
Dennett, the militant denier of dualism and of non-naturalistic
mind, draws as strong a line between humans and other animals
as does Descartes.
What Dennett would have to counter
is Lewontin and Sober's argument that when selection coefficients
of genes are context-dependent and selection acts on gene complexes,
the artificially constructed selection coefficients of genes do
not play a causal role. (Sober
and Lewontin, 1984). It is true that if one claims that what
is selected are not genes but replicators as the later Dawkins
does, then whole genomes, incorporating all the contextural effects
of genes on each other, might be the object of selection. This
would preserve the restriction of selection to the genic level,
but it would give up the atomization of modular traits with which
evolutionary psychologists work.
On the other hand Dennett, surprisingly,
does not dismiss the "selfish gene" image as a "mere
metaphor" as do many scientists (somewhat in bad faith) but
claims that if corporations can have interests, then so can genes
(neglecting that corporations are made up of individuals who have
interests but genes are not) (p. 328). Perhaps Dennett holds a
view which "dissolves" the issues concerning reductionism
in relation to levels of selection, but he nowhere argues for
it of even states it clearly.
Although Dennett chastises B. F.
Skinner and E. O. Wilson for assuming that their opponents must
be religious mysterians, Dennett himself accuses Steve Gould of
all people of having secret religious motivations, based on the
fact that Gould often quotes the Bible as literature the way he
does Shakespeare. Ironically, the one "Biblical" passage
in Gould that Dennett quotes is in fact not from the Bible but
from a familiar African American song.
Similarly Dennett grossly misrepresents
the anthropologist Jonathan Marks, portraying him as a new Bishop
Wilberforce, denying humans ape ancestry. In fact Marks pointed
out the worse than shoddy treatment of data by C. G. Sibley and
J. E. Ahlquist in their claims concerning hybridization of human
and ape DNA. Dennett makes it sound as if Marks criticisms of
Sibley and Ahlquists data was roundly condemned by the scientific
community, as evidenced by an apology in the American Scientist.
What Dennett neglects to note is that there was a lawsuit threatened
against the magazine threatened by one of the criticized authors
because Marks review suggested excessive massaging of the data.
Despite the quality of Sibley and Ahlquists earlier raw data on
bird classification based DNA, it is generally agreed that their
work on human-ape relationships was worthless, and molecular evolution
anthropologist Vincent Sarich has suggested that even the published
versions of their bird conclusions is valueless, despite the value
of the voluminous but unavailable raw data. Because of Sibley's
eminence the human molecular evolution community has been unwilling
to criticize the work, for fear of harm to the reputation of the
field. This is far from the sort of replay of the Huxley-Wilberforce
debate in which Dennett and other evolutionary psychologists wish
to portray themselves as involved.
Interestingly several of the leading
sociobiologists and popularizers of evolutionary psychology, such
as E. O. Wilson, Randy Thornhill, and Robert Wright hale from
Alabama. One can speculate that the religious fundamentalist atmosphere
of the American Deep South may have led those who defected to
Darwin to find in Darwinism a cosmic world-view answering the
same questions that the dominant religious view claimed
to answer. Robert Wright (1988)
is quite explicit about this.
The notion that human beings have
evolved from other animals and are a part of biological nature
is tremendously important. It is unfortunate and misleading that
the evolutionary psychologists make it appear that a commitment
to evolution and to the importance of natural selection necessitates
a commitment to pan-selectionism, genic selection and the "selfish
gene." We have seen how Wilson and now Dennett attempt to
identify their opponents with anti-evolutionism. Even Barbara
Ehrenreich dubs her opponents the "New Creationists."
The split between selfish gene evolutionary psychology and cultural
constructionism in anthropology can only prolong the delay in
the development of a genuinely evolutionary view of humanity.
"Evolutionary psychology" by preempting the field of
evolutionary accounts of human nature and potential helps to prevent
a non-reductionist biosocial account of humans.
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