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 by furthering the activity of the fit by early marriage of the best stock.” Even leading figures on the left, such as George Bernard Shaw, claimed that special breeding would be needed to nurture new people fit for socialism.
Today, the direct application of biological ideas to the social sciences is viewed with far more suspicion. Eugenics is inevitably seen in the light of its association with Nazism, which through such figures as Ernst Haeckel and Eugene Fischer turned Darwinism into a crude rationalisation of Germanic supremacy. Moreover, as sociology expelled Spencer from the pantheon, 20th-century anthropology was beginning to challenge the idea that there are biological bases for behaviour: the works earlier this century of Margaret Mead and Franz Boas seemed to prove beyond doubt the sheer diversity of human societies and natures. Given this extraordinary range, it seemed unlikely that there were any underlying genetic dispositions towards such phenomena as monogamy or hierarchy.
Social scientists’ success in using the experience of eugenics to immunise their disciplines against future infection by natural science became evident in 1975. Wilson, until then best known for his work on insects, published a book provocatively entitled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. It proclaimed the birth of a new science applying the principles of evolution to animal and human societies. Reaction was immediate and uncompromising. Academics attacked Wilson for the “spurious” analogies he drew between human and animal societies. Wilson also suffered political abuse and was accused of lending support to every reactionary vice from racism and sexism, to hierarchy and dictatorship.
Even though Wilson is a serious scholar, it is easy to see why the reaction was so extreme. Sociobiology did not only threaten social scientists. It challenged several of the most profound beliefs of modern western culture: the belief in free choice as opposed to determinism; the belief in people’s capacity to make and remake themselves; and the belief in a fundamental or potential equality.
Twenty years later, the new wave of sociobiological ideas has been greeted very differently. Since Wilson’s first sally, half a dozen biologists including John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers, Leda Cosmides, George Williams and William Hamilton have built a far more robust body of theories that answer many of the conceptual and methodological doubts raised in the 1970s. Their work on animals has developed a rigorous set of concepts, such as “parental investment” (the amount of time and energy devoted to offspring), and the “evolutionarily stable state” (the state of equilibrium between, for example, strategies of dominance and submission). By modelling these, they have come a long way in explaining the intricacies of animal and human behaviour.
Just as important has been the number and quality of the popularisers (listed right). Their books are well written and scrupulously balanced in the judgements they make. The intellectual appeal of these books, and of sociobiology itself, derives from its use of a handful of fairly simple-but revolutionary-principles of natural selection drawn from Darwin. At their core is the idea that as random mutations are made in each generation, those better suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce.
But the new sociobiologists go further in three key ways. The first is conceptual: the idea that the gene, rather than the individual or group, is the key unit of life and change. We need to focus, they argue, on how a particular genetic disposition-such as the ability to lie-spreads through a population, rather than on the relative characteristics of whole groups or races. Whereas earlier theorists of group selection, such as Robert Ardrey, argued that co-operative groups will prevail over less co-operative ones, today’s theorists claim that within a co-operative group, more competitive genetic dispositions can flourish. Far better, they argue, to rest explanations at the lowest possible level.
This focus on the gene (with its implication that we are merely mortal vessels for near-immortal genetic information) needn’t imply any bias to selfishness. For example, small rodents may be programmed to make a suicidal warning signal when a predator appears, if this helps close kin to survive. But the key point is that selection takes place at the level of the individual, not the group.
The second building block is analytic: the idea that through mapping how individuals compete to adapt to environmental pressures we can learn which types of behaviour, and thus which genes, are likely to prosper. Here the theorists have a new set of tools, provided primarily by game theory and computers, that make it possible to model infinitely more complex interactions than would have been possible in the past.
The third building block is historical: the notion that much of our genetic make-up can best be understood by examining the conditions of life of the large primates-our nearest relatives-and the nature of the human species at the moment of “evolutionary adaptation”; that is to say the African savannahs of 100,000-200,000 years ago, when humans took their current form, gathering and hunting in small bands.
By combining these various tools the sociobiologists have developed a surprisingly powerful explanatory apparatus-a means of generating and testing hypotheses about everything from mate selection to sibling rivalry. Some of their conclusions are fairly obvious. They argue that because women have far fewer opportunities to reproduce than men (a maximum perhaps of 20-30 children per lifetime compared with nearly 900 children in the case of a particularly productive Moroccan king) their strategies for finding mates and keeping them (to help their children reach maturity) are likely to be very different. Of course, this does not disprove the obvious fact that many women are promiscuous: but it does suggest why male promiscuity is much more ubiquitous. Less obviously, perhaps, it suggests why men’s inability to know for certain whose child a woman is bearing has led many different kinds of society to develop the madonna/ whore distinction.
Their analysis of the trade-offs involved in reproducing genes is particularly fruitful. We learn that children have an interest in suckling as long as possible (to prevent the risk of new children competing for food), while parents have an interest in restricting it; this may be why battles between parents and children are so common in many animals.
We also learn of the complex trade-offs that evolution seems to make between different psychological characteristics (for example, between being trusting and distrustful), just as it does between physical characteristics (for example, between brain size and body size). And we learn why men find it so hard to admit that they are wrong, because an over-propensity to seek resolution after conflict might lead to a loss of status, and thus of the capacity to secure a good mate.
Whereas the eugenicists tried to find differences between the races, recent works have focused on the common structures of behaviour and belief across times and cultures. Indeed, they all agree that the human races have diverged so recently in evolutionary time that there are no significant differences between the races (and far more differences within them). By contrast, the differences between men and women are about as deep as could be-and an intriguing convergence is now taking place between sociobiological ideas, linguistics and neurophysiological accounts of the fundamental differences between male and female brains.
The claim that humans share common predispositions is a direct challenge to post-modernism and relativism. Just as Chomskyan theorists of language have shown that a propensity to communicate is “hard-wired” into our genes and need only be activated by parents, the sociobiologists argue that we are born with a set of moral senses that can be explained in terms of evolutionary advantage, and that therefore give the lie to the idea that beliefs are purely cultural products.
James Wilson, a sociologist well-known for his accounts of crime and bureaucracy, has written much the best account of this argument in his book The Moral Sense. He argues that, far from being wholly relative or particular, the moral senses, which include the dispositions to care for children, to be sociable and even to be fair-are broadly common across societies and history.
These dispositions are not dominant, but sit alongside dispositions to territory, sex and food, and, like them, they respond to nurturing and feedback. But they are not all equal. According to Wilson, the disposition to sociability tends to dominate, which is why strong group commitment can allow otherwise decent people to collaborate in war crimes. The reassertion of the natural origins of morality is attractive: virtue is innate-a potential within us all. It is even good to be nice. In George Williams’ words: “An individual who maximises his friendships and minimises his antagonisms will have an evolutionary advantage, and selection should favour those characters that promote the optimisation of personal relationships.”
But few of these morals are as benign as they may look. Sympathy, for example, is explained in terms of the likelihood of gratitude. We are good not for the sake of it, but because it confers advantages, and we-unconsciously-judge our sympathetic actions with a sense of the likely rewards.
But the real sting in the tail is the claim that the whole structure of moral disposition is held together only by our capacity to delude ourselves about our own virtue. That is to say, we are well-designed for hypocrisy, and for feeling profoundly righteous about actions clearly in our self-interest.
Hypocrisy is not the only unpleasant implication of the sociobiologist’s argument. The other side of the coin of generosity and co-operation is war, the willingness to turn against outgroups (and if necessary ethnically cleanse them), and the propensity to loyalty as a virtue (my country right or wrong) that overrides reason. Few of the theorists shy away from these implications and their attendant moral problems. For them, humans are today carrying minds shaped for living in small groups that rarely encountered other groups-minds grossly ill-suited for living in cities, for hugely powerful weapons or for family structures which leave parents isolated.
Nor is evolution itself something to be blindly celebrated. George Williams, for example, has written of the evil of the pain and death on which evolution thrives. And for Robert Wright, “to ponder natural selection is to be staggered by the amount of suffering and death which must be the price for a single slight advance in organic design.” Such moral outrage is matched by a circumspection about just how many conclusions can be drawn. It is clear that, even if there are limits set by our biological nature, culture remains hugely important in shaping human behaviour.
For all the confidence and brio of its advocates, sociobiology still has the feel of a young science. Its ideas are generating far more hypotheses than have been tested. Occasionally, sociobiological arguments come rather too close to that strand of economic thinking which has attempted to model such things as charitable giving, parenting or public service in terms of a calculus of self-interest. Even martyrs are analysed as opting for the posthumous benefit of a saintly reputation. Such approaches provide important insights, but often they are little more than sophisticated speculation, heavily tinged with political prejudice.
Sociobiologists also share with some economists a tendency to reduce complex issues to very simple generative principles. Edward Wilson, for example, wrote of the need for sociology to await a fuller explanation of the human brain in brutally mechanical terms: “Only when the machinery can be dissected at the level of the cell and put together again, will the properties of emotion and ethical judgement come clear.” His is the classic tone of the 20th century scientist-the belief that however complex the system, if we can only dissect it to its component parts everything will become clear. Unfortunately, where human societies are concerned, this doesn’t work; indeed it is in the very nature of complex systems that once disaggregated they can no longer be understood.
There is also much in the sociobiological account that remains ill-defined or controversial. Even the primacy of the gene is disputed by some respected biologists, such as Professor Michael Ghiselin. We know little about precisely what the “environment of evolutionary adaptation” was like since contemporary hunter-gatherer societies such as the Inuit and the Kung San vary widely. Although there appear to be common features-their small scale, the relatively limited interaction people have with others, the tendency for people to marry before puberty-it is clearly not possible to extrapolate backwards from contemporary societies.
Indeed, sometimes a little knowledge can be rather misleading. Edward Wilson makes the attractive argument that we are genetically predisposed to “biophilia,” and that the taste of the rich and powerful the world over for large green open spaces, low-hanging trees and lakes, reflects our origins on the African savannah: it is an aesthetic inscribed in our genes. Given that so many of the early hominid finds have been in East Africa, this is understandable. But how would the theory survive if it turned out (as some recent finds suggest) that humanity originated elsewhere in Africa, in the deep rain forests or, for that matter, in the river valleys of central China?
But despite these caveats the appeal of the evolutionary approach is undeniable. It genuinely does have an explanatory power which is missing from the more mechanical conceptual frameworks that still dominate, say, economics. This is surely why, just as Karl Popper applied evolutionary ideas to knowledge, economists are beginning to apply them to technologies and firms, and why ecological concepts of predator/prey relationships are now finding application even in studies such as political science.
For the moment these shifts are happening deep within academia. But as the full implications of the Human Genome Project-the vast global attempt to map humanity’s genetic makeup-filter through into public consciousness it is hard to believe that we shan’t see equally fundamental changes in popular perceptions. Even if it proves hard to define any clear links between genes, or groups of genes, and behavioural dispositions such as greed or homosexuality, a rising tide of genetic knowledge looks bound to alter our perceptions of what humanity is like. We can only guess how our culture will change in response. If we can identify a genetic disposition for crime it will be much harder to believe in guilt in the same way and criminals may come to be pitied as much as punished.
Education and health will come to be customised around individual nature (indeed, health care is already being shaped around genetic dispositions), rather than assuming that everyone can, with sufficient will, become an Adonis-like mastermind.
The death of humanism
Such shifts will also have an effect on our self-image. We shall no longer be able to see ourselves as made in the image of God, any more than we shall be able to believe in humanism in any meaningful way. Although sociobiology is a confirmation of our innate goodness, it is also a confirmation of the profundity of our flaws. Moreover, in subordinating the social to the bigger, and vastly longer-term logics of the gene, it confirms the fact that, as the microbiologist Clair Folsome put it: “Life is primarily an ecological property and an individual property only for a fleeting moment.”
The effect on our fragile egos may be painful. As Robert Wright suggests, we may end up seeing “human beings as a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of this misuse.” It is this that marks out the relevance of the new sociobiology to our age. What it is staking out is an internal set of limits analogous to the external limits that have been set by ecology-narrower boundaries within which we now have to define what it is to be human.