Sociobiology: The New Synthesis  

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"Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized." Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 2000 edition, p. 562


“Ethical philosophers intuit the deontological canons of morality by consulting the emotive centers of their own hypothalamic-limbic system. This is also true of the developmentalists [such as Kohlberg], even when they are being their most severely objective. Only by interpreting the activity of the emotive centers as a biological adaptation can the meaning of the canons be deciphered.” E. O. Wilson 1975, p. 563.


Arjuna to Lord Krishna: "Although these are my enemies, whose wits are overthrown by greed, see not the guilt of destroying a family, see not the treason to friends, yet how, O Troubler of the Folk, shall we with clear sight not see the sin of destroying a family?"

Lord Krishna to Arjuna: "He who thinks this Self to be a slayer, and he who thinks this Self to be slain, are both without discernment; the Soul slays not, neither is it slain. ” --epigraph


"Who were the critics, and why were they so offended? Their rank included the last of the Marxist intellectuals, most prominently represented by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin. They disliked the idea, to put it mildly, that human nature could have any genetic basis at all. They championed the opposing view that the developing human brain is a tabula rasa. The only human nature, they said, is an indefinitely flexible mind. Theirs was the standard political position taken by Marxists from the late 1920s forward: the ideal political economy is socialism, and the tabula rasa mind of people can be fitted to it. A mind arising from a genetic human nature might not prove conformable. Since socialism is the supreme good to be sought, a tabula rasa it must be. As Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin frankly expressed the matter in Not in Our Genes (1984): “We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just—a socialist—society. And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.” --E. O. Wilson in the 2000 edition of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis


"By current theory genocide or genosorption strongly favoring the aggressor need take place only once every few generations to direct evolution." --E. O. Wilson in the 2000 edition of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis


Natural selection of the character states themselves is the essence of Darwinism. All else is molecular biology.” --"Testing the Theory of Natural Selection" (1972) by Richard Lewontin

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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975; 25th anniversary edition 2000) is a book by the biologist E. O. Wilson. It helped start the sociobiology debate, one of the great scientific controversies in biology of the 20th century and part of the wider debate about evolutionary psychology and the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology. Wilson popularized the term "sociobiology" as an attempt to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind social behaviour such as altruism, aggression, and the nurturing of the young. It formed a position within the long-running nature versus nurture debate. The fundamental principle guiding sociobiology is that an organism's evolutionary success is measured by the extent to which its genes are represented in the next generation.

The book was generally well reviewed in biological journals. It received a much more mixed reaction among sociologists, mainly triggered by the brief coverage of the implications of sociobiology for human society in the first and last chapters of the book; the body of the text was largely welcomed. A review reached the front page of the New York Times, such was the level of interest in the debate. The sociologist Gerhard Lenski, admitting that sociologists needed to look further into non-human societies, agreed that human society was founded on biology but denied both biological reductionism and determinism. Lenski observed that since the nature-nurture dichotomy was false, there was no reason for sociologists and biologists to disagree. Other sociologists objected in particular to the final chapter, on "Man": Devra G. Kleiman called Wilson's attempt to extend his thesis to humans weak and premature, and noted that he had largely overlooked the importance of co-operative behaviour and females in mammalian societies.

Human biological determinism controversy

The application of sociobiology to humans (discussed only in the first and last chapters of the book) was immediately controversial. Some researchers, led by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, contended that sociobiology embodied biological determinism. They argued that it would be used, as similar ideas had been in the past, to justify the status quo, entrench ruling elites, and legitimize authoritarian political programmes. They referred to social Darwinism and eugenics of the early 20th century, and other more recent developments, such as the IQ controversy of the early 1970s, as cautionary tales in the use of evolutionary principles as applied to human society. They believed that Wilson was committing the naturalistic fallacy, attempting to define moral principles using natural concepts. Academics opposed to Wilson's sociobiology, including Gould, Lewontin, Jon Beckwith, Ruth Hubbard, and Anthony Leeds created the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People to counter his ideas.

Other critics believed that Wilson's theories, as well as the works of subsequent admirers, were not supported scientifically. Objections were raised to many of the ethnocentric assumptions of early sociobiology (like ignoring female gatherers in favour of male hunters in hunter-gatherer societies and to the sampling and mathematical methods used in informing conclusions. Many of Wilson's less well supported conclusions were attacked (for example, Wilson's mathematical treatment of inheritance as involving a single gene per trait, even though he admitted that traits could be polygenic). Sociobiologists were accused of being "super" adaptationists, or panadaptationist, believing that every aspect of morphology and behaviour must necessarily be an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation. Philosophical debates about the nature of scientific truth and the applicability of any human reason to a subject so complex as human behaviour, considering past failures, raged. Describing the controversy, Eric Holtzmans noted that "Given the baleful history of misuse of biology in justifying or designing social policies and practices, authors who attempt to consider human sociobiology have special responsibilities that are not adequately discharged by the usual academic caveats."

Wilson and his admirers countered these criticisms by saying that Wilson had no political agenda, and if he had one it was certainly not authoritarian, citing Wilson's environmentalism in particular. They argued that they as scientists had a duty to uncover the truth whether that was politically correct or not. Wilson called the claim that sociobiology is biological determinism "academic vigilantism" and the Sociobiology Study Group response "a largely ideological argument".

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political scientist, surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals needed to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society, claiming that leaders should know what human needs were in order to build a better society.

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