Popular journalists have begun writing off the sociobiology revolution. “Can Sociobiology Be Saved? and quote the learned opinions of Stephen J. Gould and Ashley Montagu (would they lie?). They indulge in vaguely worded smears: Konrad Lorenz was a nazi, E. O. Wilson is a Southerner, and sociobiology is a code word for racism among members of the British National Front, the French Nouvelle Droite, and the American New Right. They hint darkly of a conspiracy between fascists and biologists to alter the genetic destiny of the human race. Even M. J. Konner, who should and does know better, disfigures an other wise splendid book, The Tangled Wing, by comparing contemporary genetic determinists with the racial theorists of the Third Reich. Anyone who has ever earned his bread by the sweat of his face in a college classroom will recognize the typical signs of the higher McCarthyism.
The assault is succeeding partly because American universities remain dominated by good old-fashioned leftist bigotry. Even the science departments are not immune: both Science and Scientific American have recently come under fire for their adherence to the party line on pop issues like environmentalism The banner of academic freedom, it seems, is broad enough to cover only one side of the street. But there are other reasons. Even American conservatives–especially the Christians among them–are suspicious. After all, it is a scientific revolution made up of neo-Darwinists, materialists, and atheists. Besides, intellectual conservatives tend to be historians or English professors, whose image of science was formed by Matthew Arnold. Even right-wing fans of sociobiology usually turn out to be talk about popularizers like Robert Ardrey or Desmond Morris. A few years back a prominent conservative organization held a discussion of “the new synthesis.” Few people in the audience seenied to understand the social and political relevance of the debate.
Two recent books illustrate both what sociobiology is and why it makes so many academics see red: The Extended Phenotype by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins and Not in Our Genes by geneticist R. C. Lewontin, neurobiologist Steven rose, and psychologist Leon J. Kamin. Sociobiology, both sides would agree, is essentially a biological approach to studying the behavior and social life of organisms. In particular, it assumes that behavioral traits are, by and large, programmed genetically. The type of mud a wasp uses to build her nest, the size and shape of its construction, the number of eggs she lays (as well as how and when), the decision whether to build a new nest or attempt the take over of an existing one–all these traits, it is assumed, have a genetic basis. The pioneers of sociobiology, W. D. Hamilton, Robert L. Trivers, Edward O. Wilson, were primarily concerned with reproductive success. After all, the “survival of the fittest” should mean that organisms with beneficial traits will survive and propagate more successfully than rivals who lack the trait. These traits–sharp teeth, strong muscles, and the infinite complexities of human social behavior–are all genetic in origin.
Richard Dawkins may be the most radical of the genetic determinists. The essence of his view is summed up in the word selfish. His first book, The Selfish Gene suggested that “the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even strictly the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity.” In other words, organisms, including the human organism, are simply vehicles adopted by genetic replicators as part of a strategy of survival and reproduction. Samuel Butler put the matter crudely a hundred years ago: a chicken, he declared, was simply an egg’s way of making another egg. The selfishness of genes can and will be used to explain just about every facet of organic life, including parental care and the altruism we display to ward relatives (what Wilson calls “softcore altruism”). The self-sacrificing kindness we display to kindred is to some extent a function of our degree of relatedness, that is, the percentage of genes we are likely to have in common. If I carry gene A, I have a 50 percent probability that a given one of my children or siblings will carry the same gene.The figure goes down to 25 percent in the case of grandchildren. This sort of thinking obviously lay behind J. B. S. Haldane’s bon mot about altruism. When asked in a pub if he would sacrifice his life to save his brother, Haldane replied not for one brother, but he would for three brothers or nine cousins.
Dawkins puts this notion of genetic selfishness at the heart of the struggle for survival. In his view, animal communication becomes a form of manipulation: the sender compels/persuades the receiver to alter his behavior. The male canary sings in order to induce a reproductive condition in the female-persuading her, in effect, to produce off spring that will carry his genes. But Dawkins does not restrict himself to the gross level of animal reproduction. In an almost terrifying display of reductionist brilliance, he speculates on the selfishness of DNA itself. His hypothesis–that “phenotypic characters of an organism [that is, the manifested attributes] are there because they help DNA to replicate itself”–leads him to wonder about the reason for “junk” DNA, the surplus which may never be translated into RNA. Why, for example, does a salamander need 20 times the number of different genes that are found in man? From Dawkins’s perspective the question almost answers itself: there is a “molecular struggle for existence” (Orgel & Crick) which is a microcosm of the large-scale struggle between organisms. Not even the sanctity of our cells is respected. Cytoplasm may be in competition with nuclei in determining the sex ratios of gametes (sex cells), and mitochondria (organelles involved in energy release) may be in origin invading cells, bits of protein which have established a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the cell–a parasite at the heart of our existence.
It is a disturbing picture, but Dawkins means to shock us. Even if he is wrong on every single point, his book is the highest sort of intellectual game playing. Time after time we are treated to elaborate “what ifs” which expand our ability to think about the nature of things by forcing us to imagine an alternate set of arrangements. He describes his method by referring to the Necker Cube, a two-dimensional representation which we can interpret, depending on our perspective, as two different cubes. Both views are equally correct. “Similarly the vision of life that I advocate … is not provably more correct than the orthodox view. It is a different view and I suspect that, at least in some respects, it provides a deeper understanding.”
Dawkins’s central theorem of the extended phenotype–his ostensible subject–comes late in the book: “An animal’s behavior tends to maximize the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behavior, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it.” The most obvious examples come from the strange world of parasites: the brain worm which induces an ant to be eaten by sheep so that the worm can complete its life cycle; the tapeworm larva that secretes a substance to stimulate abnormal mouse growth; the worm which causes an infected bee to turn kamikaze and dive straight into water. These are all examples of how the genes of one organism maximize their reproductive success by controlling the behavior of another. The extended phenotype also includes the deliberate manipulation of the environment–beaver dams and termite mounds.
This notion of an extended phenotype answers at least one of the criticisms expressed by the opponents of sociobiology: that it focuses only on the effects of genes upon behavior and adaption to environment–it says nothing about the impact of organic life upon environment. Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin oppose the view that organisms”develop as a series of modifications imposed upon an essentially passive, recipient object by the buffeting of ‘the environment.'” In their view, “organisms do not merely receive a given environment but actively seek alternatives or change what they find.” They reject Dawkins’s idea of the extended phenotype because, well, because it is Dawkins’s idea. They deliberately misrepresent his position by quoting as part of his theory certain ideas which Dawkins introduces as the “entertaining speculations” of his colleagues.
In fact, many of the criticisms made by Lewontin et al. are addressed and answered by Dawkins. The most basic objection is to genetic determinism per se. Stephen J. Gould and now Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin seem to find it morally and intellectually reprehensible to think that there are severe genetic constraints on human social behavior. After all, if men were naturally violent and territorial, if human beings inevitably sorted themselves out in pecking orders, if male dominance really is a natural phenomenon and not just the result of social and cultural oppression, then what happens to all those political movements to which they have devoted themselves? We might even begin to think that there is a connection between the Marxist suppression of private property and free enterprise and the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who died as a sacrifice to Lenin’s and Stalin’s gentle illusions about the brotherhood of man.
Dawkins wonders if his critics reject genetic determinism because they are not materialists. Obviously, as dialectical materialists, few of them are prepared to believe that man has free will because a supernatural creator made him that way. In fact, most of their objections are at the policy level.They are afraid that if we stigmatize criminal behavior or low intelligence as genetic disorders, then they will be regarded as inevitable or as an inherited curse to be eliminated from the gene pool. Dawkins describes such fears of fatalism as “pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale.” Genetic causes, like environmental causes, maybe either difficult or easy to reverse. The ill effects of certain hereditarydiseases are now treatable. The same cannot be said for the consequence of a government school education in the U.S. The issue of free will is completely irrelevant to the debate. As Dawldns realizes, the only serious alternative to some form of genetic determinism is religion.
“Not in Our Genes is an important and timely book, for it not only exposes the fallacies of biological determinism . . . but also presents a positive view of human behavior that could propelus past the stupefying sterility of nature-nurture arguments.” Stephen Jay Gould, The New York Review of Books.
Lewontin et al. are not religious in the ordinary sense, but their collective Marxism is a familiar surrogate. They speak of faith in science as the “bourgeois ideology”; they argue for a “dialectical” understanding of behavior. They repeat crude Marxian interpretations of history: Roman and feudal society, for example, was “repeatedly upset by servile revolts”; scientific abstraction is the analogue of mercantile exchange. Above all, they make liberal use of the mirror fallacy–the idea that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. are mirror images of each other. Does the Soviet Union use psychotropic drugs and shock therapy to “correct” the behavior of dissidents? No matter, because in the U.S. rapists are occasionally given drugs to inhibit their sexual (and violent) impulses. It is an old gambit. Sure, the Russians took over Eastern Europe, sent the tanks into Hungary, set up a Gulag which liquidated undesirable minorities, but what about the CIA involvement in Chile? The authors’ anti-American bias is so strong that it blinds them even to the astonishing material progress experienced by every class of society in the U.S.:
“In 1900 only 6. 3 percent of the 17-year-old population of the United States were high school graduates, while at present it is about 75 percent, yet the unequal distribution of wealth and social power remains.”
The fact that Americans live on an unprecedented scale of affluence would not, I think, impress them. No aspect of their argument is untainted by ideology. Even the typography makes a statement: time after time a sic is put after a quotation as if to say, “Look, these people are self-evidently absurd.”
“An overtly expressed political commit ment does not debar a scientist from viewing nature accurately.”Stephen Jay GouldThe New York Review of Books
It is not that Lewontin and company do not have valid points to make on the perils of IQ testing and the abuses of mind-controlling drugs, but most of their book is taken up with laying red herrings across the trail of rational discourse: the usual slurs against Konrad Lorenz’s youthful enthusiasm for eugenics, the intellectual limitations of Robert Ardrey, the popularity of The Selfish Gene with the National Front. At least they are upfront about their politics. They most definitely do not like the idea of a limited human nature. They believe these truths to be self-evident, that “the inequalities of wealth, power, and status are not ‘natural’ but socially imposed.”
Since Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin find the methods and theory of sociobiology “fundamentally flawed,” it is worthwhile to consider how responsible they have been in constructing Not in Our Genes. As a major proof test for their case, the authors take up the subject of gender differences and what they loosely describe as “patriarchy.” Since much of the hostility to sociobiology has come from the feminists and fellow-traveling males, L.R.&K. might be expected to have done their homework. Our expectations are disappointed.
Scientific arguments to support inherent gender differences represent, they suggest, “a systematic selection, misrepresentation, or improper extrapolation of the evidence, larded with prejudice and basted in poor theory.” And yet, when we come to read the chapter, we discover systematic selection, misrepresentation, and improper extrapolation on a colossal scale. No references to the pioneering researches on newborn children by Anneliese Korner, the sociology of Alice S. Rossi, the psychological studies of Donald Braverman, the animal studies of, for example, Joslyn, or the entire issue of Science devoted to sexual dimorphism. They cite E. O. Wilson and Pierre Van Den Berghe for displaying a chauvinistic, Western dominated view of culture, but do not take the trouble to look up the myriad cross-cultural studies on sex roles and family patterns. Such research might be fatal to their prejudices. Male dominance is simply another form of oppression. Patriarchy, they declare, could not be predicted from the biological differences between men and women–that would be reductionist! Instead, they prefer the more modest view of dialectical materialism.They remind us that the disciplines used to investigate gender differences are”predominantly male science” as if women did not dominate the field of gender studies in every discipline.
When they take up the issue of sociobiology directly, they perform no better. “If aggression and patriotism are universal human traits, then was A. J. Mustie, who spent many years in jail for obstructing patriotic wars, other than human?” Suppose we told them that man is a two-legged animal with a capacity for language. “But,” they would object, “what about my uncle Jake who lost his leg in the war? What about mutes?” It is hard to believe they want to be taken seriously. They save their highest flights of fancy for their discussion of property. Real property, they claim, is a modern invention, because in the Middle Ages property was not a relation between man and thing but between man and man. Put aside what the authors don’t know about ancient land tenure or the varieties of landholding in primitive societies. Forget about the incredible diversity of feudal Europe. Do they imagine that the world was collectivist until the 17th century? or that because families (and not individuals) frequently exercise ownership rights, this means there is no owner? They even go so far as to confuse (apparently) real property with other forms of private property which are demonstrably universal. Even Marx knew better.
It is, in fact, embarrassing to see to what level this trio is willing to sink. That Steven Rose, a doctrinaire propagandist who has made a career out of vilification, should be guilty of such a travesty is no surprise, but for a distinguished geneticist like R. C. Lewontin to lend his name to such a discreditable enterprise is the saddest event in the history of genetics since the days when J. B. S. Haldane allowed the considerable magic of his reputation to be used by Stalin’s favorite scientist, T. D. Lysenko. The issues raised by sociobiology are important; the implications may even be dangerous. But the clerical obscurantism of American academics poses an even greater danger. It is hard to escape the feeling that if the heliocentric theory were inconsistent with Marxism, we would soon see the statues of Copernicus torn down and replaced by Ptolemy.