As I read the announcement and noted with admiration those receiving The Ingersoll Prizes, I can say in all humility that it never entered my head during the past several years that I might someday be so honored, and for that I thank you. I thank you also for the opportunity to make the following brief remarks to an important audience on subjects close to my heart.
Part of the reason for my surprise at being here comes from the continuing division between the two cultures of science and the humanities. We are accustomed to think of scientists in general as experts in narrow domains of physical phenomena who mind their own business when it comes to polity and ethics. Since the 18th century they have become steadily more blinkered in this respect. Little wonder—scientific knowledge doubles every ten to fifteen years, so that journals have grown from a single one in 1665 (The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London) to over 100,000 today. For their part the intellectuals, the men and women of letters who speak easily of polity and ethics, think of scientists—with some justification—as not competent by reason of training to serve as public philosophers. And they themselves rarely speak of science.
I was awakened to the dangers of this thematic fault line fourteen years ago when I published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which spelled out the biological foundations of social life in animals and went on to suggest that human social life, and even human social institutions, have biological foundations. That part of my book touching on human behavior was attacked savagely by a small group of scientists who identified themselves as Marxists and members of an organization called Science for the People. Until that moment I had no political agenda whatever, unless extending the influence of evolutionary biology can be considered political, and I was taken unawares. But I got interested in the subject of ideology fast, because some New Left groups at Harvard, the last survivors of the 60’s as it turned out, were demonstrating against sociobiology and holding what were euphemistically called discussion sessions, the main purpose of which was to discredit the dangerous new idea and—in a few extreme cases—to have me dismissed from Harvard. Within several months I got offers of professorships from four other universities, made with the off-the-record remark that I might find things too hot at my own institution and might like to move to a more congenial environment.
What had I done back in 1975 that was so inflammatory? Human sociobiology, the application of the method of evolutionary reasoning to human social behavior, is now well-established. There are two technical journals specializing in it, and it regularly gets favorable coverage in Time, Newsweek, Discover, U.S. News & World Report, and other bellwether publications. One international organization, the European Sociobiological Society, is flourishing, and a second, similar organization met for the first time at Northwestern University last August. That mostly American meeting was attained by both social scientists and biologists, was technical in content, and notably devoid of ideological disputes of any kind.
But back in the late 1970’s, as the ideological battle heated up, it became increasingly clear that what distressed the critics of Science for the People, when you cut through all the verbiage about racism and social justice, was the threat perceived to the core precept of their belief system—namely, that there is no human nature, that human behavior and human social institutions are entirely the product of economic forces and culture; in other words, that human beings can be shaped by imposing an ideal social order. Sociobiology seemed to suggest that reality is the other way around, that ideal institutions must conform to some reasonable extent with the biological realities of human nature.
I’m not sure what it means to win an ideological battle, but the more biological viewpoint now prevails. The critics are mostly silent. Not only is there a large amount of new evidence from genetics, neurobiology, anthropology, and psychology to support human sociobiology, but it is simply a more interesting viewpoint to scientists and intellectuals than those of the doctrinaire extreme left. And the failure of Marxist regimes everywhere has tended to discredit the idea of humanity as a tabula rasa, the viewpoint favored by the critics. Ironically, even before the Gorbachev era, sociobiology was becoming popular in the Eastern Bloc countries and China, and it’s even more favored today.
Yet—and this is the point I want to make with reference to my personal experience—the gap between the cultures remains broad and deep. Few intellectuals and public philosophers have given much thought to the implications of a human nature evolved by natural selection, a biological heritage that may predestine our self-appraisal and ethics, as well as the principal directions of history itself With some exceptions, most of the voices have been those of scientists, though the evidence is very strong that our common heredity affects our deepest feelings about sexual preference, marriage, childrearing, crime, individual freedom, myth, love of nature, the value of religion, and the intuitive moral judgments that guide the generation of moral law.
On the basis of sound research scientists can now say a lot, for example, about the genetic basis of the avoidance of incest, the genetic basis of the selection of certain symbols and art forms over others, the circumstances under which nuclear families give way to extended families and vice versa, the relation of available resources to sexual behavior, and many other processes of enduring social concern. To the extent that such knowledge takes hold, I suspect that it will confirm some conservative prejudices and some liberal prejudices, in a surprising patchwork fashion. The intellectuals who can bridge the gap and blend science and the humanities in this critical area, in an objective and compelling manner, may well create a new and more powerful set of social principles suited to the new scientific and technological age.
There are two reasons why we’re still nowhere near this point in intellectual history. The first is that intellectuals as a whole don’t understand the science, and scientists as a whole don’t care or don’t have the confidence to make the effort to teach them. The second reason is that the area of concern is in fact technically very difficult, so much so that only a handful of scholars are even working on it in a productive manner. Let me put it this way: the central question in the relation of science to the humanities is the exact mechanism of biocultural evolution. This is also to be regarded as the central question of the social sciences. By the exact mechanism of biocultural evolution I mean the detailed manner in which biology and culture affect one another.
We all know that culture is learned, but the evidence now suggests that the learning process is powerfully shaped by past biological evolution. We also know that a great deal (probably most) of biological evolution peculiar to human beings has occurred in the context of culture. The two processes are linked—but how? Most researchers in this field recognize that the key to understanding mechanisms of biocultural evolution must lie in cognitive development, the development through life of mental processes. These processes are shaped by the architecture and functioning of the brain, which are prescribed in turn by the genes. The genes for their part have been put in place by mutations screened by natural selection, that is, differential survival and reproduction, in the theater of culture, played out over many centuries and millennia.
I won’t burden you here with details of quantitative models linking these two engines of change together. Suffice it to say that primitive versions exist, but like the experimental hot fusion reactors at Princeton and elsewhere, they aren’t good enough yet to start yielding significant net results. When they do, I suspect they will have a profound effect on both science and the humanities.
I’ll close by coining a phrase: deep history. Deep history is a reconstruction of our past based on an understanding of biocultural evolution. The human heritage doesn’t go back just through the conventionally recognized eight thousand years or so of recorded history, but at least to two million years before the present, to the beginnings of the genus Homo. Culture is profoundly affected by that earlier genetic progress. Conversely, genetic evolution might easily have occurred even during the past ten thousand years; in theory at least, substantial amounts of evolution affecting mental properties can occur in as few as one thousand years.
Deep history would have no meaning if the human mind were a tabula rasa, an all-purpose computer—the view favored by a dwindling number of social theorists. But it is not. To the extent that our biological heritage affects the way our mind works, and hence the way our societies are assembled, deep history makes an enormous difference. Further research will show, I predict, that there is no discontinuity between biological evolution and cultural evolution. There is only biocultural evolution and a rich, wonderful domain between science and the humanities waiting to be explored.