Re: Anthropology and Religion

Scott Sellers (
Fri, 20 Oct 1995 20:07:56 GMT (Gerold Firl) wrote:

>In article <45ugpi$> (Scott Sellers) writes:

>>I consider culture a major adaptation which essentially removes
>>humankind from a simple _struggle to survive_ in the biological sense, into
>>the realm of economic, political, and social struggle.

> A society with a life
>expectancy of 40 years is certainly further removed from the struggle for
>immediate survival than a society where the average lifespan is only 20
>years, but in both cases there is ample room for culture to effect
>differential survival rates for different phenotypes. As societies become
>more affluent, it becomes possible to lower the stakes; instead of life and
>death, we compete for more intangible benefits. But don't confuse the
>special circumstances of here-and-now for some universal human condition.
>*Culture* did not remove man from the biological struggle for survival.
>Culture has played a significant role in our past for a few million years
>now, and during that time we have evolved enormously. In fact, the
>sociobiological interplay of culture and instinct has *accelerated* our

I think I see your point. However, as I stated above, after the advent of
culture, the struggle for biological survival is manifested through social
struggle, in ways which I think remain unfathomable. It's one thing to say
that biology and culture influence one another. It's entirely another to
demonstrate how.

For the human species, biological survival becomes social survival. I
don't think we disagree here. The unit of survival is no longer the
biological individual, but the social group. We survive in socio/political
groups in which the exercise of human power over economic systems is
paramount to survival. The forms this power takes are culturally defined,
and are negotiated on social and political levels.

Notice, I don't argue against a biological substrate to all of the above.
Certainly individuals are motivated by biological urges, which influence
social interaction. This I don't debate. I do maintain, however, that the
behavior of social groups, including the actions of power, cannot be
reliably linked to biological selection. In part, this is because:

1) Social groups are not simply genetically defined. Therefore, group
success does not equate with genetic selection. If not always the case,
this is becoming increasingly true in our diversified society. Perhaps
this explains the sociobiological focus on racial differences.

2) The biological benefits of social action (the kind which people
undertake) are not uniform across members of a social group. Custom leads
people to behave in ways directly counter to their supposed evolutionary
interests. Consider the soldier. Or the Roman Catholic priest. But I'm
not just talking about the social grunts here. I would argue that the
social behavior of the ruling class in America today does not jibe with any
concern for biological selection. A class based camparison of reproductive
rates bears this out. There is no genetic rhyme or reason here.

>>I think attempts to
>>reduce these post-cultural struggles to "bio-logic" is at best grotesque
>>simplification, and most likely motivated from within political struggle.

>I see this claim made over and over again; I have tried to explain that the
>grotesque oversimplifications come from those who are unwilling or unable
>to address the real issues. The claim of political motivations seems to be
>just as hollow, and again sheds more light on the accuser than on the
>science. You try to claim that sociobiology is used to support the status-
>quo, but the reverse could just as easily be said. Sociobiology, by
>illuminating the links of custom and instinct, gives us a tool by which our
>unconscious assumptions can be examined in the broad light of reason. If
>you are truely interested in building a more perfect future, such a tool
>should be welcome.

I think my simplification is justified, in a way. Consider that my
original entry into this thread was in response to a poem of an Evangelical
Christian bent which held up sociobiology (and evolution) as a basis for a
worldview. As something to build a system of ethics on. The poet held a
dim view of the outcome.

It is just this kind of unwarranted extension of the meaning of
sociobiology that I oppose. We have both made the point that when
sociobiology is discussed, the discussion is rarely about hard science, but
more often bleeds into what I consider the political sphere.

We've had this discussion before. I maintain that science (particularly
sociobiology) does not exist in a vacuum. Experiments are formulated and
data is interpreted by scientists with particular views. Their results, in
turn, are interpreted by laymen who also have political interests. The
final outcome is hardly objective, but very meaningful.

The popular interest in sociobiology stems from its perceived power to
explain and justify behavior. In giving certain behaviors the imprimatur
of "instinct," sociobiology offers a sense of order, a "human nature,"
which is every bit as deterministic as the one proffered by Christianity.
This must be so, unless sociobiology admits that human behavior is so
complex that it is impossible to sift the instinctive from the rest.
Ironically, the instant sociobiology does this, it loses it's ability to
make a splash. There's the rub.

To me, the conjunction of primary interest here isn't the one between
biology and culture, but the one between science and politics. This is
where we struggle.

>Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
>me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
>=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf

Scott Sellers