Despite the rhyming title, this is a serious topic. But not always a controversial topic . . .
Sociobiology is an un-controversial field of study as long as we stick to studying animals other than human animals. Here’s how John Alcock describes sociobiology in The Triumph of Sociobiology (2001): “Genetic differences help explain why people develop differences in at least some aspects of their behavior.” (Page 53). Here’s another way to put it: “Sociobiologists want to know the evolved function or purpose of whatever aspect of social behavior they are studying.”
Alcock is a prolific and highly respected biologist who teaches at the Arizona State University. His textbook, Animal Behavior, is currently on its eighth edition. I used his textbook when I took a class on animal behavior a few years ago. It is a terrific resource, highly organized and thoroughly researched.
On the first day of that course (also entitled Animal Behavior), the instructor, a biologist who worked at the St. Louis zoo, bemoaned the fact that so many people get upset when scientists dare to study human animals as animals. Certainly, no one questions that the biological makeup of the most animals affects their behavior. Think about dogs, for instance. We are all “racists” when it comes to dogs. When a golden retriever seems to enjoy swimming, we summon up by saying “That’s how golden retrievers are.” That’s why hunting dogs hunt and why herding dogs herd, we say, without anyone taking offense. No one gets upset when we suggest that the behaviors of any animals other than human animals are systematically linked to their biology.
When it comes to human animals, however, we get nervous when anyone suggests that human behavior has anything at all to do with human biology. Those who study human behavior from the basis of biology constantly hear accusations that they are like Nazis and other vicious racists. But then again, why wouldn’t you study human behavior from the basis of human biology? Wouldn’t it be an extraordinarily strange thing to suggest that human behavior had nothing to do with human biology?
In The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock argues that the war against sociobiology is over and that sociobiology (Alcock sees no need to use euphemisms such as “evolutionary psychology”) has overcome the ignorant attempts to slander it. “The discipline employs a basic research approach that deserves our interests, respect, and even admiration as a potential source of improved understanding about ourselves and all other social species, from ants to antelopes.” (Page 4). Further, there is no need to apologize for sociobiology that conducted responsibly: “Social biology does not in any way provide an ideological foundation for accepting racism, sexism, genocide, rape, social dominance of the poor by the rich, or any other of the many unpleasant features of human behavior.” (Page 20).
In fact, Alcock’s entire book is a response to numerous misunderstandings surrounding sociobiology. In particular, Alcock argues that it is simply incorrect to assert any of the following:
Sociobiology is a novel and idiosyncratic theory of E. O. Wilson.
Sociobiology is primarily concerned with human behavior.
Sociobiology deals with the evolution of traits that benefit the species.
Sociobiology is a reductionist discipline based on the proposition that some behavioral traits are genetically determined.
Sociobiology makes use of capricious and selective comparisons between human behavior and that of other animals.
Sociobiology is a purely speculative endeavor, specializing in the production of untested and untestable, just-so stories.
Sociobiology cannot account for a learned behavior or human cultural traditions, only rigid instincts; and
Sociobiology is a discipline that, by labeling certain actions “natural” or “evolved,” makes it possible to justify all manner of unpleasant human behavior.
On this last point, Alcock spends a great deal of time pointing out that scientists who practice sociobiology do not equate “adaptive” with “moral.”
When, for example, a sociobiologist analyzes the efforts of men and women to climb the corporate ladder, the goal is to explain, to see things as they are, not to provide moral lessons for a reader. And if a sociobiologist presents evidence that male competitiveness and desire for high social status have an ultimate function, an “adaptive value,” he is not arguing that the behavior is moral, something that society should value, and courage, or reward. The statement that social striving is adaptive means only that the psychological mechanisms underlying this behavior have probably tended to promote individual reproductive success during the course of human evolutionary history. Traits with this effect have helped keep a certain genes in the gene pool, not because it was good for the individual, good for the group, or good for the species as a whole, but because possession of these trades happen to be correlated with success in gene propagation. No moral lessons can be drawn from the unfeeling, blind process of natural selection. Nor do sociobiologists attempt to draw such lessons from evolution. Instead, a sociobiological analysis provides a neutral explanation for human social endeavors, not a justification, not a moral prescription, not a normative declaration about what “ought” to be.
If anything, evolutionary psychology (sociobiology) teaches us to have humility when it comes to moralizing. Alcock writes this passage toward the end of The Triumph of Sociobiology (page 206):
As Robert Wright has written, “A central lesson of evolutionary psychology is that we should cast a wary eye on our moral intuitions generally.” That’s the heart of the matter and awareness of the ultimate reasons for our eagerness to make moral judgments and the realization that our emotions really work on behalf of our genes ought to make us less self-indulgent about our feelings, or has encouraging us to be a little more cautious on the moralizing front, a little more reluctant to express moral certitudes, a little more introspective, a little less likely to assume that whatever feels right to us is good for something other than our genes. Maybe, just maybe, men who really understand evolutionary theory and the naturalistic fallacy would be less likely to claim, “My behavior is excusable but similar behavior in my wife is an offense against God.”
Sociobiology, then, is no more an inherently dangerous science than chemistry or physics. Any of the sciences can be used in irresponsible ways by people with agendas. And it’s not only sciences that can be turned against humanity. Think of the damage caused by malicious uses of English, history and religion.
The Triumph of Sociobiology is a terrific book by a dedicated and thoughtful man. I recommend that everyone keep a copy of this book handy for the next time someone comes along-someone who is ignorant and afraid to deal with his own animal nature-and cries out that it is better to know less than to know more.
[I've dealt previously with criticisms of evolutionary psychology here. For those who want to read more about the discipline of evolutionary psychology (sociobiology), I also highly recommend the new third edition of Evolutionary Psychology: the New Science of the Mind, by David Buss (2008).]