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Against Sociobiology

Published in First Things

To future generations, the Sociobiology Wars may come as something of a puzzle. The shared beliefs of the disputants were so much more impressive than their disagreements that historians may wonder what the fuss was about. Perhaps the controversy will come to resemble the Wars of the Roses, all of whose contestants believed in the divine right of kings. Their differing opinions as to succession seem rather trivial by comparison. In the case of sociobiology, all the principal actors accept the premise of materialism, sometimes called naturalism. They believe, or at least for the purposes of doing science they believe, that matter in motion is all that exists, and that mind and consciousness are merely special configurations of that matter.

Anyone who believes this must, as a matter of logical necessity, also believe in evolution. No digging for fossils, no test tubes or microscopes, no further experiments are needed. For birds, bats, and bees do exist. They came into existence somehow. Your consistent materialist has no choice but to allow that, yes, molecules in motion succeeded, over the eons, in whirling themselves into ever more complex conglomerations, some of them called bats, some birds, some bees. He “knows” that is true, not because he sees it in the genes, or in the lab, or in the fossils, but because it is embedded in his philosophy.

Sociobiology extended Darwinian insights about bodies to behavior, and may be thought of as having revived the old controversy about nature and nurture. Its participants were, mostly, Harvard professors, and included some of the best science writers of our day. Its two main antagonists, Edward O. Wilson and Richard C. Lewontin, both born in 1929, occupied offices one floor apart in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. For a while, they didn’t speak in the elevator. Oddly enough, Wilson, the naturalist, was on the side of the genes, while Lewontin, the geneticist, was on the side of the environment (to oversimplify). A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books , Lewontin has recently published under that imprint a collection of his essays, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions . His best“known supporter, Stephen Jay Gould, is the author of many books on evolution and natural history. Richard Dawkins of Oxford is only one of the many biologists who have sided with Wilson.

The conflict, therefore, should be thought of as a dispute between like“minded professors whose understanding of life on earth differed in detail, but agreed on a key premise: any reference to a creator or designer must be excluded from biology from the outset, as a matter of principle. Just as creationists have their favorite biblical texts, so do materialists have theirs. It is from the Book of Dawkins ( The Blind Watchmaker ): “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” No matter how much they disagreed with one another, they could all agree on that.

The controversy erupted in 1975, when Harvard University Press published Wilson’s book SociobiologyThe New Synthesis . (A twenty “fifth anniversary commemorative edition was recently published, with a new introduction by the author.) The Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, and an expert on ants, Wilson has defined sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” The zoological chapters of his book, dealing with the social insects, fish schools, birds, elephants, and carnivores, were well received. But the final chapter, on human behavior, “ignited the most tumultuous academic controversy of the 1970s,” as Wilson himself writes in the new edition.

Even before the trouble started, Boyce Rensberger, the science correspondent of the New York Times , wrote a front page article for the newspaper, “Updating Darwin on Behavior,” outlining sociobiology’s principal claim. In the older view, Rensberger wrote, the insect societies of bees and ants and the hierarchies of monkeys were seen as “evidence for the remarkable variety of nature.” Now, however, researchers were coming to a “more profound conclusion.” Beneath the variety there lay “common behavioral patterns governed by the genes and shaped by Darwinian evolution.”

So that was it, then. Genes and evolution had shaped not just our bodies, but our behavior as well. Human behavior and human nature were not exempt. When Tom Wolfe referred to Wilson last year as Darwin II, he was being playful, but he also had a point. For Darwin’s theory of evolution was being adapted to explain almost everything under the sun. That prospect should give good Darwinians pause, however, for a theory so protean that it can account for all observations about life may be little more than a veiled truism.

As late as 1963, the Columbia University geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had stated the older view of human behavior. “Culture is not inherited through genes, it is acquired by learning from other human beings,” he wrote. “In a sense, human genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new, nonbiological or superorganic agent, culture.” The tendency of Wilsonian sociobiology was to put the genes back in charge. Wilson’s life“long “dream of a unifying theory” materialized between hard covers in his 1998 bestseller Consilience . Ever“widening fields of knowledge were united in single “Ionian Enchantment.” Everything is material, everything can be reduced to the laws of physics, everything that is alive ipso facto evolved. Mind is matter. Things exist because they were selected for in life’s struggle. If they hadn’t been selected for, they wouldn’t exist. Everything is explained because everything is connected. In the “unification metaphysics” of Wilson’s late period, one may say, the insights of Himalayan gurus received the imprimatur of cutting“edge science.

For earlier researchers the word “instinct” seemed a satisfactory explanation of much animal behavior. Then it fell out of favor”it glossed over complex mechanisms that were not remotely understood. The history of science has repeatedly shown this tendency. A new word or concept creates the illusion of explanation”for a while. Then it wears thin, and philosophers must come up with something new. The current mania is for genes, thought of as the material cause of a vast range of human behavior, character, and malady. “Genomania,” as Lewontin has called it, began at about the same time as the sociobiology controversy. The almost magical powers imputed to genes reached what may have been a crescendo with the recently announced “decoding” of the human genome.

Fortified with the new terminology, the study of instinct was revived in the 1960s. Somehow, animals just did whatever was required: find food, avoid predators, make nests, reproduce. They didn’t have to learn”“only obey,” as Wilson put it. His own ants were “hard wired”; once born, they marched off and did their thing without trial or error. When Konrad Lorenz allowed that all these marvels must have developed through material evolution, by natural selection, the youthful Wilson was well pleased. “He secured my allegiance.”

A key contribution to sociobiology was made by an Englishman, William Hamilton. He would repair from his depressing graduate“student digs to the relative comforts of Waterloo railway station, and there was rewarded with a monumental insight. Darwin’s theory of evolution had implied that natural selection would generate a selfish world. It was “the fittest” that survived, after all, and that presumably meant looking out for No. 1. Yet, undeniably, there was a lot of altruistic behavior out there. Darwin himself had viewed with alarm the elaborate cooperation of the social insects. Hamilton’s explanation, published in 1964, took time to sink in, but once it did, the evolutionists sang his praises and have continued to do so without end. Kin selection”of course!

A gene exists not just in one organism, Hamilton argued, but also in others, closely related. Siblings share half their genes, first cousins share one“eighth of theirs, and so on. (These ratios were arrived at not by comparing the actual DNA of individuals, but as a deduction from the postulates of Mendelian genetics.) Consequently, Hamilton argued, an action that endangers the individual but promotes the survival of more than two siblings, or more than eight first cousins, would nonetheless be advantageous: it would promote the spread of the gene that triggered the behavior which otherwise seemed so ill“advised.

Hamilton’s argument became the backbone of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and it was a lifesaver for Wilson. The Darwinian scheme had been preserved intact. It had given away nothing by taking a more “inclusive” view of fitness. Then Robert Trivers expanded the analysis to more distantly related animals, positing genes for “reciprocal altruism.” That was judged to be less successful, but with the costs and benefits appropriately assigned, it could be invested with an air of plausibility.

The kin selection theory, published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology , was expressed in obscure mathematics, but that was one of its triumphs. It all seemed so precise, so up to date, and yet so mystifying to the hoi polloi. Nature had rejected it! Hamilton was rapidly promoted from his waiting“room outpost. And when he died of malaria in the course of a research expedition to Africa last year, his funeral oration in the chapel of New College, Oxford, was not just delivered by the atheist Richard Dawkins, but reprinted by the Times Literary Supplement . Tom Wolfe didn’t quite get it right, apparently. Not E. O. Wilson, but William D. Hamilton was truly Darwin II. “Those of us who wish we had met Charles Darwin can console ourselves,” Dawkins began his eulogy. “We met W. D. Hamilton.”

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Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.