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

Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax (
Sun, 18 Aug 1996 20:23:18 -0800

****WARNING: Mostly civil, but a couple of bits of friendly wit are
interspersed. :)

Bryant wrote:
> ***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.

If your aim is accuracy (giving an answer which has a high probability
of being realized), then precision down to a place determined by the last
number in the square root of two isn't necessary. When you talk about things
like pleasureable orgasms being reproductive fitness enhancer, you are
going beyond the simple questions like "What sex and what species is this
going to be?" Then you have to recognize that you are dealing in concepts
with lots of factors -- including many nonbiological ones -- for which
your /accuracy/ in prediction is going to decline as your precision in isolating
all the affective factors declines.

> >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.

The real issue is how we look at and discuss our data.

> >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?

Suppose you have a culture which puts to death all children with a neck
size over a certain diameter. What is going to happen to the presence
of bull-necks in the gene-pool?

> 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.')

Not everyone is afflicted by sexual jealousy. It is not accurate to
call it a human universal. Another example of a nonuniversal is
the "repulsion towards incest". If human beings detested incest
so much, why does it happen behind closed doors as often as it does?
If culture were merely the product of human genetics and sexual
desires (which makes sociobiology just sound like Freudianism in an
evolutionist's new suit), then incest would be legal. (In fact,
we might not even have a word to describe the relationship as distinct
from other sexual couplings.)

A society that chooses to accept and encourage incest /is/ going to
face some biological pressures. But these are not great enough to
wipe out the desire for one's sister completely. Nor can they
prevent an individual from acting on the desire. If a culture
chooses to ban certain sexual relationships between biologically
related individuals, then it will develop an advantage over those
with no such bans. Come the next plague and the relatively uniform
tabooless cultures will disappear -- unless they happen to be blessed
with the immunity for that particular plague. (In which case, they
will weather the plague with fewer casualties than some of their heterogenous

The trouble with homogenous gene pools is that over time, they turn into
all or nothing propositions for everyone around!

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

What is in your DNA. What you are born with. What never changes in your lifetime
(unless you have evidence for Lamarckianism!)

> >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.

Thank God that you don't believe in that.

As for Gould, you are simply wrong. Gould sees evolution as a process
with many possible results. He sees our being in the universe as cosmic

> >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.)
>Adaptive? Functionalist? No. It has its effect on the gene pool and
in some cases, if it is caused by a genetic defect which wipes out the
organism /before it can breed/, then it will tend to reduce its own
incidence in the gene pool. If not, you are still stuck with it and
it becomes just a thing that is around, which hasn't managed either to
be bred out or take over (in which case, suicide would just be the natural
end to the human life cycle).

Just one question: who built the post-industrial jungle? :)

And "abnormal"? What's normal? You're using a few terms here which set
off alarm bells in my head because they are not particularly scientific
from a socio-cultural perspective.

> >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.
>Good. I will drop this and merely use it as /metaphor/ for the gene pool.

> >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.)

I care, though! :) And that's an entirely different issue. (I expect
you will agree here, too.)

> >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
> genomes.

Starting from this understanding, I still disagree with the concept of
design implied in sociobiology. I don't see the genome as an entity,
but as a pattern, also with no mind of its own. Also, natural selection
acts /indirectly/ on populations. If you remove all the starfish with
red spots from a population, you are going to change the population
through natural selection.

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

Careful! Universal alert! :)

> >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.

To the individual, the well-being is very important. There's a story about
a man walking along a beach after a storm picking up the starfish he found
stranded there. An observer (possibly a population biologist) laughed at him and
said "Why are you doing that? It makes no difference!") The man picked up
another starfish, threw it out, and said to his critic "It made a difference to
that one."

The trouble that comes up in the application of sociobiology is that it
often leads to scoundrel explanations and short-cuts in sociological
explanations. Evolution should not be invoked in the setting of social
policy. (e.g. "We're brutal beasts by nature, so let's not talk about
measures like disarmament or gun control.") Instead, its understandings
should be used to help us determine if a course of action is really going
to get us the kind of society we want.

> >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.
>You mean that there /aren't/ people out there who try to determine the
function of male nipples and female orgasm?!!!

> >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.

In some cultures, people /do/ consciously strive for fitness. (And some
individuals certainly do -- witness the rise of health clubs.) :)

> >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).

Just a final note, but I've found it funny that you've often accused me
in the past of believing otherwise. My basic viewpoint about what is
evolution hasn't changed. I think in the past you mistook some attacks
on what was believed by Gerold Firl personally. (And Gerold has said
some /outrageous/ things.)

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