Against Sociobiology

By Bethell, Tom | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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Against Sociobiology


Bethell, Tom, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


To future generations, the Sociobiology Wars may come as something of a puzzle. The shared beliefs of the disputants were so much more impressive than their disagreements that historians may wonder what the fuss was about. Perhaps the controversy will come to resemble the Wars of the Roses, all of whose contestants believed in the divine right of kings. Their differing opinions as to succession seem rather trivial by comparison. In the case of sociobiology, all the principal actors accept the premise of materialism, sometimes called naturalism. They believe, or at least for the purposes of doing science they believe, that matter in motion is all that exists, and that mind and consciousness are merely special configurations of that matter.

Anyone who believes this must, as a matter of logical necessity, also believe in evolution. No digging for fossils, no test tubes or microscopes, no further experiments are needed. For birds, bats, and bees do exist. They came into existence somehow. Your consistent materialist has no choice but to allow that, yes, molecules in motion succeeded, over the eons, in whirling themselves into ever more complex conglomerations, some of them called bats, some birds, some bees. He "knows" that is true, not because he sees it in the genes, or in the lab, or in the fossils, but because it is embedded in his philosophy.

Sociobiology extended Darwinian insights about bodies to behavior, and may be thought of as having revived the old controversy about nature and nurture. Its participants were, mostly, Harvard professors, and included some of the best science writers of our day. Its two main antagonists, Edward O. Wilson and Richard C. Lewontin, both born in 1929, occupied offices one floor apart in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. For a while, they didn't speak in the elevator. Oddly enough, Wilson, the naturalist, was on the side of the genes, while Lewontin, the geneticist, was on the side of the environment (to oversimplify). A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Lewontin has recently published under that imprint a collection of his essays, It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. His best-known supporter, Stephen Jay Gould, is the author of many books on evolution and natural history. Richard Dawkins of Oxford is only one of the many biologists who have sided with Wilson.

The conflict, therefore, should be thought of as a dispute between like-minded professors whose understanding of life on earth differed in detail, but agreed on a key premise: any reference to a creator or designer must be excluded from biology from the outset, as a matter of principle. Just as creationists have their favorite biblical texts, so do materialists have theirs. It is from the Book of Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker): "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." No matter how much they disagreed with one another, they could all agree on that.

The controversy erupted in 1975, when Harvard University Press published Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. (A twenty-fifth anniversary commemorative edition was recently published, with a new introduction by the author.) The Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, and an expert on ants, Wilson has defined sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." The zoological chapters of his book, dealing with the social insects, fish schools, birds, elephants, and carnivores, were well received. But the final chapter, on human behavior, "ignited the most tumultuous academic controversy of the 1970s," as Wilson himself writes in the new edition.

Even before the trouble started, Boyce Rensberger, the science correspondent of the New York Times, wrote a front page article for the newspaper, "Updating Darwin on Behavior," outlining sociobiology's principal claim.

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