Re: Joel and Bryant /talk/ about Sociobiology and other stuff

Bryant (
16 Aug 1996 19:15:02 -0600

***Warning: This is long /and/ civil!***

In article <>,
Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax <> wrote:
>Bryant wrote:

>> How precise a prediction do you need, Joel?
>> I mean, he can predict the sex and species.

>The composition of an organism does not end with sex and species.

Of course. That's why I asked how precise his predictions needed to get.

>What I've been trying to point out all along is that the gene is
>not this thing which determines everything.

Agreed. I was just asking for clarification on how far you were taking
this argument in the other direction. The real issue, I think, is
*canalization*; some traits are very developmentally sensitive to
environmental stress, while others are not.

>For this reason,
>we've invented this very loose concept called culture to explain
>why people do things that they do which don't seem to be explainable
>by the static realities of genes.

This stuff gets confusing quickly, because we're talking about different
levels of organization. If a gene controls, say, horn size in adult
bucks, and neck muscles correlate with horn size, then isn't the gene in
question fairly called a gene for "neck muscularity" even though it's a
very indirect contribution?

Likewise, the structure of human social behaviors (and motivators, or
emotions) include human universals (e.g., resentment of
nonreciprocity, sexual jealousy) which contribute mightily to the
structure of cultures. So, whatever genes structure the brain module for
sexual jealousy are contributing very indirectly to culture, but they
shouldn't be considered moot, either. (The authors of the evolutionary
psychology text, Adapted Mind, subtitled their text ~'Human Psychology
and the Generation of Culture.')

(What do you mean by "static reality of the genes"?)

>As I have understood some vulgar variants on sociobiology, everything
>a human being does goes to helping the gene pool in some way.

That's group selectionism, which is not in favor among most
sociobiologists. (I think Firl explained how Game Theory helps us see
the low probability of greater-goodism evolving, earlier.) It's too easy
to characterize and deride folks we've never read. Gould makes it easier
by leaving one with the *sense* that one knows the score.

>it in a different fashion: I say that there are some things which
>happen in this little world of ours which happen for no reason. /But/
>the important thing is that they are not significant enough to affect
>the gene pool!

Right. Natural selection, then, wouldn't give a hoot how we responded to
these variables, leaving *lots* of behavioral elbow room. I agree.

As for suicide, which may have been adaptive under some circumstances
from a inclusive fitness point of view, I think we need to keep in mind
that the human mind was not built for the social arrangements it
encounters in the postindustrial jungle. Just as zoo animals behave
aberrantly in abnormal environs, so might humans. (Just a note, not a
refutation of your post.)

>you have a few individuals who make up their minds to kill themselves.
>From the point of view of the whole gene pool (as if this thing /had/
>motives of its own -- I'll give that one to the sociobiologists for now),

Note: sociobiologists don't claim such a thing. You misunderstand what
we mean when we say genic selection. We can talk about that separately,
if anybody wishes.

>What I would add is that the gene pool /doesn't care/ about suicide. The
>species /doesn't/ care.

Absolutely right! Agreed. (Universally, I hope.)

>Individuals may or may not care about surviving.
>In vulgar versions of sociobiology, the talk is as if the gene has a
>mind of its own.

1. Genome doesn't = gene. natural selection acts on individuals,
and, indirectly, upon their genes. But not upon populations or

2. Dawkins gets overly comfortable with metaphor, but of course nobody
believes that genes have intentions.

>together to form living organisms. Is there a plan in this? A pattern,
>yes, but when you start anthropomorphizing the gene, calling it "selfish",
>little alarm bells ring in my head.

Fair enough. Dawkins meant by "selfish genes" that the well being of the
individual is less important in the process of evolution than the
transmission of genes.

>I suspect that beyond this, I would still have my disagreements with
>sociobiologists. The thing I admire about Gould is that he has asked
>some good what-if questions. Vulgar sociobiologists sound to me like

Joel, I mean this very seriously and very sincerely, honest to god:
I do not think that Gould has described a living sociobiologist in his
attacks on adaptationism. In my view, Gould builds straw men and knocks
them down. Stephen and I have been talking in another thread about how
few sociobiologists even fit Gould's characterization of sociobiologists
as reactionary and anti-egalitarian.

>Where I know we undoubtably agree is that evolution plays a part in
>all this. I may misunderstand you, but my big difference with you
>is that I can't buy the idea of a river of life moving inexorably towards
>better and better survival.

Me, either. Survival is moot except for the role it plays in reproduction.
And I do not believe there's evidence for an inevitable "progression" to
evolution, either. It's a generation by generation affair, with very
little inevitability to it.

There is a school of biology (not just sociobiology) that emphasizes
optimality as a test of adaptedness. So, an optimality-school Darwinian
Anthropologist might look at Wai Wai foraging and see if the calories
expended per search hour are balanced optimally with the calories
secured. Most evolutionary psychologists reject this because it implies
that either evolution occurs very quickly or that folks are consciously
fitness-striving. We can discuss the differences later, if you want.

>Now, where do you stand?

I agree with a whole lot of this post, actually. I disagree on a few
points, mentioned above, though. I reject group selectionism and don't
think it's fair to characterize sociobiologists as group selectionists (a
few extist, but they're a few indeed: 3 that I know of, world wide).