What sociobiology isn't (was: Re: Suppression of...)

F. Bryant Furlow (mycol1@unm.edu)
Wed, 18 Dec 1996 01:56:11 +0000

omar shafey wrote: [very large snip]

> Sociobiology is the study of the biological bases of behavior in the
> context of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. Applying genetic theory
> to societies and cultures presupposes the relevance of biological
> concepts such as the gene being the basic unit of selection; the
> concept of inclusive fitness and the role of relatedness; models of
> reciprocal altruism, the concept of evolutionarily stable strategy,

Sociobiologists do not "presuppose" the relevance of these theories to
the shaping of behavioral mechanisms in brains. Rather, they identify
things which must be true if a theory like those above accurately
describes the evolutionary nature of a given behavior. We call these
things "predictions," and subsequent to identifying predictions, we
test them. (I'm trying to be clear, here, not curt or cute or smug.)

> I contend that these biological models
> are too reductionist and are largely inappropriate in cultural
> analysis because complex human behavior and cultures are not
> determined by genetic complement and evolutionary theory.

You are confusing behavioral genetics with sociobiology, if I read the
spirit of the above statement correctly. Nonetheless, I think that you
are mistaken in a few ways.

1. No sociobiologist I've met believes that human behavior is
"determined by genetic complement [shaped by evolution]."

Rather, evolutionary psychologists (that is, modern sociobiologists,
since their discovery of cognitive psychology) believe that the
information-processing and behavior generating mechanisms in the
nervous system interact with environmental (including social)
variables which were encountered with some regularity in ancestral
environments in predictable ways. They believe that these
mechanisms evolved by natural selection rather than by drift or
mutation alone.

2. The appropriate way to establish the appropriateness or
inappropriateness of evolutionary analyses of complex human
behaviors is to test the predictions derived from evolutionary and
alternative, non-evolutionary explanations. If evolutionary
hypotheses are consistently falsified, then you're very correct:
they're not a useful tool for studying human behavior.

3. Evolutionary explanations only seek to answer "ultimate" or
"historical" (in the evolutionary sense) why questions. Proximate
or how questions are answering different queries, and are not
mutually exclusive with ultimate causation questions.


"Male birds sing because singing mechanisms in ancestral environments
afforded increased mating success to males."

"Male birds sing because seasonal hormone fluctuations trigger a
mechanism in the part of the avian brain triggering singing behavior."

...Both statements are true. The former is an evolutionary (ultimate
causation) hypothesis, and the latter is a physiological
(proximate causation) hypothesis.

Likewise, social (proximate) explanations of a given human behavior
are not necessarily in conflict with evolutionary (ultimate)
explanations of the same behavior.