A new generation of scientists and writers is returning to biology to find explanations for human behaviour. Focusing on the gene, the sociobiologists have generated hypotheses about everything from altruism through mate selection to the near universal fondness for open spaces, trees and lakes. But does their popular appeal mask flaws in their methodology? Geoff Mulgan investigatesby Geoff Mulgan / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
When a new set of theories comes along which purports to explain everything from inner city violence to adultery, from charitable giving to child abuse, the world has to take note. In the 1990s, not for the first time, a group of scientists claim to have uncovered the inner workings of societies. They can loosely be labelled “sociobiologists,” a term coined by the American zoologist Edward Wilson-although some of them now prefer the title “evolutionary psychologists.” Their great insight is to explain not just how the human mind works, but how it has been shaped by evolution.
The result is more than just a series of interesting perspectives (such as, for example, game theory, on which they draw), or a new model of motivation (such as the economics of family life, with which there are some parallels). Rather it is a fully-fledged world-view: a good old-fashioned Popperian metatheory, such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, behaviourism and structuralism, through which familiar problems can be seen in a fresh light. Psychologically, sociobiology’s power is that, in the words of Robert Wright, one of its most able popularisers, “these ideas once truly grasped… can alter entirely one’s perception of social reality.” Politically, its significance is that it offers useful arguments for both left and right. Newt Gingrich has not been slow to draw on Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, an account of competition among chimpanzees in a Dutch zoo, to help define his philosophy.
The basic question sociobiologists address is one that has exercised philosophers, social theorists, scientists and bar-room opinionists for at least a century: whether human nature is primarily social or biological. In some respects it is strange that we are still arguing the point. After Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species and The Descent of Man, it seemed inevitable that the “hard” science of evolution would provide the social sciences with a firm, neutral foundation on which to build. Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the word evolution and the tautological catchphrase “the survival of the fittest,” thought it self-evident that human societies could be explained in evolutionary terms.
In such a climate it seemed natural that the new science would also provide a solid underpinning for politics and social policy. The eugenics movement, founded by Francis Galton, author of Hereditary Genius, presented itself as a soberly scientific initiative to “check the birth rate of the unfit and improve the race…