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« Oakeshott for a Day | Main | Symmetry, Classicism and Eros Redux »

August 29, 2002

Tales of Sociobiology


Two short tales of the left’s reactions to sociobiology. The first is set during my least-favorite decade, both personally and ideologically.

On 15 February 1978, a young woman carefully poured a pitcher of ice water onto the head of Edward O. Wilson while he sat waiting to address an audience at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A band of accomplices joined their pitcher-pouring confederate on stage to wave placards and chant, “Wilson, you’re all wet.”….

By his own account, he was utterly surprised to have achieved the kind of notoriety that evidently inspired his band of youthful appointments. But Wilson is also known as the “inventor” of sociobiology, having published a book of coffee table dimensions in 1975 entitled “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.” In the interval between the book’s appearance and the AAAS meeting, a group of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard University did some publishing of their own. Richard Lewontin, a leading geneticist, and Stephen Jay Gould, just beginning his own rise to fame and fortune as a writer on matters evolutionary, were among the authors of a manifesto printed in the New York Review of Books.…

In their broadsheet, Lewontin, Gould and fellow co-signers declared that Wilson had produced a theory that could be used to justify the political status quo and existing social inequalities. Worse, according to them, sociobiology was founded on the same kind of pseudoscience that was used as a foundation “for the eugenics polices which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”…


Although Wilson soon responded in print to these unnerving charges, the vehemence of the opposition to sociobiology and the personal nature of the initial attack and follow-ups colored the general view of Wilson and his apparent creation…

As a result, to this day many persons, academics and nonacademics alike, have the sense that sociobiology may be slightly or substantially tainted, all the more so because Gould has continued over the years to cast aspersions on the discipline and its practitioners…

In this he has found allies in various academic camps with some feminists and social scientists especially eager to dismiss sociobiology as misguided at best and socially pernicious at worst…

Wilson’s postmortem of the affair is straightforward and plausible…The mid-1970s were years of intense political activity on campuses, much of it initiated by left-wing professors and their students who opposed the war in Vietnam. At Harvard University, the war and various other injustices came under fire from a number of scholars of the Marxist or semi-Marxist persuasion, including Wilson’s colleagues Lewontin and Gould. Lewontin and another colleague wrote at about this time, “As working scientists in the field of evolutionary genetics and ecology, we have been attempting with some success to guide own own research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy…”

Marxist philosophy is founded on the premise of the perfectability of human institutions through ideological prescription. Therefore, persons with Marxist views were particularly unreceptive to the notion that an evolved ‘human nature’ exists, fearing that such a claim would be interpreted to mean that human behavior cannot change. If our actions really were immune to intervention, then the many ills of modern societies could not be corrected….

Lewontin and his fellow members of the Sociobiology Sudy Group managed to convince themselves and some activist students that the sociobiological approach would offer ideological support to the enemy, namely, the rich and powerful who resist social changes that would benefit the poor, the disadvantaged, and the female members of society. By making an example of Wilson, a fellow biologist, they presumably hoped to make a dramatic statement that would highlight their own political positions and advance their goals. To some degree, the strategy worked…

[T]he Sociobiology Study Group and their allies in another organization called Science for the People did generate great publicity by publicly tarring Wilson with a connection to Nazis and eugenicists. As a result, they did indeed reach a large audience, albeit at the expense of “sacrificing” a fellow biologist, something that Lewontin and company do not seem to regret.
-- John Alcock, “The Triumph of Sociobiology”

The second suggests that Darwin may have been correct; even left-wing opinions may actually evolve…over a long enough timeframe. (Although ordinarily left-wing thought seems to be far more fundamentalist in structure—in the beginning was Marx.) The following was published in 1999.

To be blind to the facts about human nature is to risk disaster. Consider hierarchy. To say that human beings under a wide range of conditions have a tendency to form hierarchies is not to say that it is right for our own society to remain hierarchical; but it is to issue a warning that we should not expect to abolish hierarchy by eliminating the particular hierarchy we have in our society…When the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia abolished both the hereditary aristocracy and private wealth, a hierarchy soon developed on the basis of rank and influence within the Communist Party, and this became the basis for a variety of privileges...


Seeing this tendency to form hierarchies as inherent in human beings helps us to understand the rapid departure from equality in the Soviet Union…The point is: what egalitarian revolution has not been betrayed by its leaders? And why do we dream that the next revolution will be any different? None of this shows that hierarchy is good, or desirable, or even inevitable, but it does show that getting rid of it is not going to be nearly as easy as revolutionaries usually imagine. These are the facts that the left needs to grapple with. To do so, the left needs to accept and understand our nature as evolved beings.
--Peter Singer, “A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation”

I'm reading (surprise, surprise) "The Triumph of Sociobiology" and re-reading Paul Johnson's "Intellectuals"--what scum lefties are!



posted by Friedrich at August 29, 2002


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