Joel and Bryant /talk/ about Sociobiology and other stuff

Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax (
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 12:49:11 -0800

Try to read this through before you answer.

Bryant wrote:
> In article <>,
> Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax <> wrote:
> >[Joel said to Lenny:]
> >
> >So you believe that you can expose any genotype to the world and precisely
> >predict what kind of phenotype it is going to end up as just by looking
> >at the genotype? I find /that/ hard to swallow.
> How precise a prediction do you need, Joel?
> (Note: that's not meant to be sarcastic or insulting.)
> I mean, he can predict the sex and species.
> That may sound flip at first, but think about it: where's the information
> during development? Initially, at least, it's in the genes. How well
> canalized the genotype is for a given trait will determine how precisely you
> can predict phenotypes.
> Environmental stress can corrupt the developmental integrity of an organism
> so that phenotype isn't exactly what genotype "had in mind."
> Alternatively, differences between imaginary clones exposed to different
> environments may represent facultative ("genetically determined")
> responses to different environmental parameters, if those variables were
> encountered with some regularity through evolutionary time and affected
> fitness in ancestral populations.
> Bryant

I am going to try to be nice to Bryant. See other notes.

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

>From the genotype, you can't determine how much this critter will
weigh at its maximum, how intelligent it will be, and, of interest
to an anthropologist, what behaviors it will manifest.

What I've been trying to point out all along is that the gene is
not this thing which determines everything. There is lots of
room in the phenotype for variations. While genes may affect
our ability to learn language (certain birth defects can inhibit
this), looking at it isn't going to tell me what language it
is going to speak. If you make me a child that is going to have
brown hair, brown eyes, and fair skin in a test tube, I can take
it off to Africa before we socialize it and have it speaking
Ashanti in no time.

I also note that some of the classic measureable factors, such
as brain size, have never been demonstrated to have all that
much affect. For example, we have the anomaly to explain that
one of the smallest brains on record belongs to a Nobel Prize
Winner for Literature, Anatole France. It did not prevent him
from developing a masterful grasp of the language as well as
some others.

For the anthropologist, called on to explain social phenomenon,
these understandings are important. We can't turn to slugs or
to sticklebacks to understand human beings. 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. Culture is chaos. If you
return to the example I gave of guessing who is going to turn up
in what house, you will see that cultural anthropology probably
is never going to be much of a predictive science for certain problems.

I've never said, as you've implied, that biology has no role. What
I have said is that we should understand that biology does not
determine as much as it enables. The human brain is wired for flexibility.
Part of the oddness of this flexibility is that sometimes it can act
in manners which are contrary to its own interests.

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

Let's take the example of suicide. For a moment, let's mutually agree
that suicide is something completely cultural. (It's not, but let's
say that it is for the sake of this thought experiment.) Within a population,
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),
what difference does it make? The human gene pool is huge and if a small
percentage kill themselves off, it will make /some/ difference, but not
a terrible lot. It won't eliminate the instance of suicide (unless it
happens in the first 15 or so years of life like clockwork). It will
randomly remove /some/ genes from the pool. This could be important from
the view of chaos theory if one of those individuals happens to be a
mutation who is carrying the only gene which will offer immunity to a
disease due to strike earth in the year 2525 (and the guy never bothered
to breed), but for the most part, this behavior isn't going to have much
effect on the gene pool.

What I would add is that the gene pool /doesn't care/ about suicide. The
species /doesn't/ care. 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. I say that it has no more mind than any other chemical
reaction or property. Some of the atoms in this universe have come
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. Isn't this making a gene into
some kind of God? We're giving /it/ a motive when we do that. I
don't think it is that smart, merely luckilly programmed by the process
of evolution.

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
the passage in the Bible giving man dominion over all the animals. I
don't think it was given to us: we're darned lucky in the cosmic
scheme of things to be around with all the physical features we have
(one of which is the flexibility of the brain).

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. I see the universe as a big gambling
machine which, on this one little planet we know about, happened to
turn out life. By luck of the draw, it also turned out intelligence.
As I see it, the gene didn't know where it was going. The other eight
planets in our system and their moons have, to date, turned out nothing
remarkable. If we want to pretend that life is a prize, then the Earth
got lucky. If intelligence is a prize, then we got lucky.

Now, where do you stand?



___ ___
/\ _|_ /\ Joel and Lynn GAzis-SAx
/ /\_|_/\ \
/ / /\|/\ \ \
\ \ \/|\/ / / "If we try to flee from our human condition into
\ \/_|_\/ / the computer, we only meet ourselves there."
\/__|__\/ William Barrett