human rights and the rituals of sociobiology

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Sat, 10 Dec 1994 12:17:43 EDT

Hi all. This'll be a quickie, I promise. But I just had to comment from the
dreaded "humanisitic perspective" re the transformation of the "human rights"
thread into a rah-rah session for sociobiology. A lot of what's been said has
been interesting and insightful, and to be honest I've learned more about
the tenets and dogma of sociobiology in the past week than I learned in an
entire semester of "Evolution and Human Behavior," a course here that is an
unapologetic (and undebatable) CCD class for sociobiology. But it struck me as
odd that what seemed to be forming into a discussion of "culture and oppression"
as Michelle Golden put it became a series of short lectures by Rob Quinlan and
Lee Cronk on why socio-b is number one. Actually, lecture is not the best
term; homily may be better. The most striking phrase in the entire debate is
when Rob talked about being "converted" to sociobiological theory. Now, I am
not arguing either for "paradigm lock" or for the inherent religiosity of
subscribing to a particular theoretical perspective, but I am arguing that
sociobiologists still fail to take into account that they, like all the rest
of us, are positioned observers who in the end are purporting JUST ANOTHER
THEORY. This does not mean I am advocating theory relativity; it is just a
reminder that, despite the rhetoric of objective science that they use, that
in significant ways they do not differ from the wonkiest postmodernist, and
that their belief systems structure their perspective. Sociobiology is not
the paradigm for how the world works; it does not get under the skin of all
those icky debates on ideology or eliminate all those annoying "memes" that
people seem so obsessed by (that in fact probably structure their lives AT
LEAST as much as their need to propogate their genes). It is *a way* of
making sense of the world. It can illuminate certain aspects of the human
condition, but it cannot do everything, and it does not touch the big T Truth.

As Mike Lieber so nicely put it, "specific cultural practices are manifesta-
tions of underlying cultural premises on the one hand, connected to other
cultural practices on the other, and part of a larger set of contesxts that include the natural environment to which practices are adapted, the intergroup social context in which both social and natural adaptations are played out, and the
larger economic-political orders that can and often do constrain the local-
regional orders." Yeah, it's cybersystem stuff, and more orderly than my
personal theoretical tastes, but its as good as Tylor's definition of what
goes on! And that's my point: sociobiologists *seem* to think that they have
unearthed some Rosicrucian revelation about the secret machinery of life, that
there is something that's *really* going on under all that other stuff like
social life, pleasure, hegemony, and all that, that we can peel all that stuff
off and discover the primordial skeleton of existence. BZZZZZTTT!!! Wrong
answer; thank you for playing.

And they rarely question why there are such "knee-jerk" (i.e., reactions not
couched in their paradigmatic jargon) reactions to biosocial approaches. I've
thought about this a lot because I get chills when I hear people (with a glint
in their eyes no less) speak dreamily about "inclusive fitness" and other
concepts that reduce life to a biological contest, emphasis on reduce. We
talked about art one day in my E&HB class and whether it was maladaptive or
not; my instructor kept trying to make the case that artists did art to bag
more babes. OK, I know a few arrowheads who do that, but that doesn't explain
homosexual artists. I think a few sociobiologists have tried to address this
obvious gap in their theorizing, but nothing they're written has satisfied me.
What socio-b comes down to is some archetypal race destiny thang (as in the
whole human race, although its interesting that so many racial determinists
embrace socio-b) that we are always linearly striving for improvement. The
obsession to determine the "ultimate causality" of something is a Holy Grail
in socio-b, one that I think is unattainable.

Pardon the above gap; a patron sat on my keyboard.

Anyway, Luis Medina's call to be more critical is the soundest advice I've
heard in this 'morphing discussion, and one which adherents to sociobiology
need to keep in mind. The indignant defiensiveness with which they often
respond to criticism should in itself be questioned: why are sociobiologists
so afraid of questions? Why the continuing polarization between the
"empiricism" of their approach and the shoddy "relativism" of ALL OTHER
APPROACHES? Their attempts to problematize an objective "culture" is admirable,
but to call culture "lint on a sweater" is a bit much, and it is that arro-
gance that annoys people. The smug tone of true believers like Napoleon
:I'm always right, godammit" Chagnon is part of the reason why folks curl
their lips at socio-b. The facts of rhetoric cannot be explained away by
objectifying biology.

Yours in the spirit of healthy discourse,

John Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston