Liberals Confront Sociobiology

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Liberals Confront Sociobiology


"Darwin's Truth, Jefferson's Vision" by Melvin Konner, in The American Prospect (July-Aug. 1999), P.O. Box 383080, Cambridge, Mass. 02238.

From the moment sociobiology (a.k.a. evolutionary psychology) first reared its head in the 1970s in the work of Harvard University zoologist Edward O. Wilson and others, liberals have been aghast. Prominent biologists on the left, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, strongly rejected the idea that many patterns of human behavior have a basis in evolution, branding it unscientific and a reprehensible revival of 19th-century social Darwinism. The notion that much human behavior is genetically "hard-wired," immune to environmental influences, is unacceptable to many others. But liberals ought to calm down and learn to live with it, contends Konner, a professor of anthropology, psychiatry, and neurology at Emory University.

In recent decades, he notes, sociobiological theory has gained "almost universal acceptance...among researchers in natural history and animal behavior and among many psychologists and social scientists." The theory has not proved useful in all circumstances, he says, but without it, it would be hard to explain, for instance, the research finding that a child is at least 10 times more likely to be assaulted or killed if he or she lives in a household with an unrelated male - a finding that holds true regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, or education, and in at least four countries. Children are much safer in households with men to whom they are genetically related. …

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