Re: Sociobiology and labels (was "WHAT!?!?")

Jerome Barkow (barkow@IS.DAL.CA)
Sun, 5 May 1996 13:50:43 -0300

Jerry Barkow here, commenting:

Evolutionary biology in the social sciences has a real labelling problem.
The sociobiology term tends to be used by biologists simply to refer to
modern (post George Williams' sixties innovations) evolutionary biology.
Some people seem to think the label is just an alias for biological
reductionism and worse and, unfortunately, some non-academics haved used
it in that manner. Anthropologists working from evolutionary perspective
tend to use the term "behavioral ecology" (when they are examining
cultural patterns to see if the behavior is compatible with evolutionary
biology/ecology), while other anthropologists may use "evolutionary
psychology" (when they are using a theory of psychology compatible with
evolutionary biology, unlike non-biological approaches, such as extreme
Skinnerian behaviorism).

When people like Symons, Cosmides, Tooby, or Buss use "evolutionary
psychology," they are talking about the psychology of the human species.
Some people like to use the term when they talk about behavioral
genetics, that is, the genetics of behavioral diversity within a species,
and this (to me) confuses the issue. Nothing wrong with behavior genetics
but, as a social-cultural anthropologist, my first goal is to understand
the complex psychology that underlies and makes possible human cultures
and societies, and I like to refer to that psychology as "evolutionary
psychology." But, again, don't get confused by labels. My 1989 "Darwin,
Sex and Status" (U of Toronto Press) used the term "sociobiology" but
actually was about how human evolved psychology generates culture. The
1992 "The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of
Culture" (edited by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, OUP) used the
"evolutionary psychology label" but was again concerned, in part, with
how evolutionary processes have generated the highly complex psychology
that, loosely, has been referred to as "cultural capacity." What all this
means is that one has to be aware of the substance of any given piece of
work and not just react to how it has been labelled. Generalizations in
terms of labels like "sociobiology" cannot have much meaning.

The alarums and diversions over the "sociobiology" term has led much of
anthropology to miss the point: can anthropology continue to grow while
using the simplistic psychology of a Malinowski or a Marvin Harris, a
psychology incompatible with what much of academic psychology has been
moving to, in recent years; or is it time for the discipline to at least
catch up with the post-behavioristic, complex cognitive psychology of the
nineties? The fact that this latter psychology is compatible with and in
part influenced by evolutionary biology is probably not nearly as
important for most anthropologists as is the fact that it is a complex
rather than our usual simple, black-box, "drive" psychology.

Yes, the synthesis is underway, but it is much broader than the
traditional four squares of the anthro subfields, and it is happening
within political science and economics, too, and not just psychology.

Jerome H. Barkow

On Sun, 5 May 1996, Jay Bernstein wrote:

> On Sun, May 5, 1996 0:29:26 at Deus Ex Machina wrote:
> >OK I'll bite. Does anyone else find sociobiology dubious? I wonder why
> >nobody reads Shapiro? I ask is this sociobiology stuff thought up or
> >"theorized" in the same manner that Elaine Morgan did when she wrote
> >her books? In other words is sociobiology actually based on legitimate
> >research or is it just a bunch of "cool thoughts?" Any qualified
> >physical/biological anthropologists care to comment on any of this.
> >I don't know enough about it to make a serious judgement, but I have my
> >doubts.
> Not a qualified physical anthropologist, but a cultural anthropologist
> writing.
> Like everyone trained in the cultural anthropology graduate program at
> Berkeley in the 80s I was taught to shun sociobiology. I read Elaine
> Morgan and that was cute. I never heard of Shapiro (you don't mean Warren
> Shapiro do you?). And I think cultural anthropologists were right to scorn
> 70s sociobiology. I don't want to get into a discussion of it, and don't
> have the materials here, so let's leave it at that.
> But more recently a new subject, evolutionary psychology, has flourished,
> and it is sophisticated, theoretically powerful, and relevant to
> anthropology. It is important in understanding sexual behavior and
> male/female differences and conflicts. In an age where feminist
> anthropology has taken the upper hand and you can't get a job unless you
> can do "gender studies" (actually, this is just a coded excuse to prefer
> women over men--but that's a thought for another thread), evolutionary
> psychology is a very important antidote. I call your attention to the
> writings of David Buss, Timothy Perper, Donald Symons, Tooby and Cosminides
> (sp.), Donald Brown, and William Jankowiak.
> I think this stuff is very important, and "cultural constructionists"(see
> volume edited by Ortner and Whitehead) shun it as an article of faith.
> To answer your question, the new evolutionary psychology, which probably
> should not be called sociobiology, uses biological theory but ethnographic
> field methods of interview and observation, and is not dubious.
> Jay Bernstein