Robert Snower (rs219@IDIR.NET)
Sat, 4 May 1996 20:58:18 -0500

I started the "Great Synthesis" thread, so I might as well finish it. My
April 22 post said:

"We are due for a synthesis of physical and cultural anthropology,
comparable to the "Great Synthesis" (Isn't that what they call it?) of
genetics and evolution theory
that dominates biology today."

As Holloway pointed out, I was incorrect. It is not called the Great
Synthesis, but the Modern Synthesis.

But he is not correct, in my opinion, when he says there has been no sign of
an analogous synthesis between cultural and physical anthropology. As I
tried to say in previous posts, sociobiology has already provided such a
synthesis, by showing how the cohesion necessary to the development of a
society, and its attendant culture could evolve by way of natural selection.

The original problem was seen as follows: evolution is based on individual
selection, not group selection. That is, evolution is defined as the
differential reproductive success of individuals. It is therefore
inherently "selfish." It is impossible for society to evolve by this
process, because society depends necessarily on some degree of altruism,
i.e, giving up what is good for me by performing acts good for others,
"good" meaning good for reproduction.

The sociobiologists attacked this problem by analyzing kinship in terms of
"coefficients of relatedness," and showing that an individual's genes would
prevail if, for example, he behaved not in the interests of his own survival
and reproduction, but in the in the interests of three brothers, or even
more cousins, etc. The sociobiologists had found, they thought, a method
whereby altruism (helping others) could evolve and prevail, providing for
the possibility of social structures.

Then it was pointed out that while mammals, other than humans, don't really
have very closely knit social structures, some insects do. And the reason
for this, the sociobiologists theorized, is that many of the insects are
sterile, so that reproductive success meant in their case a delegation to
their sisters who were not sterile, the delegation taking the form of
cooperative, i.e., social, behaviour. Because of this odd genetic
arrangement, these insects predictably would have a much closer-knit social
structure than mammals.

Then Mark Shapiro, in the "Sociobiology of Homo Sapiens," came along, and
showed why man, by a very clever device, was enabled to develop as cohesive
a society as the insects. And, with this device, together with his brain,
thumb, or what have you, got to where he is today. But nobody reads
Shapiro, so very few people know the end of the story.

Now this is a real synthesis of evolution-cum-genetics with cultural
anthropology, because the explanation of much anthropological data lies
with, and has been traced to, the principles which are at the basis of

R. Snower