Re: Feminist critique of sociobiology...critiqued

Paul Gallagher (
10 Sep 1996 00:18:40 -0400

In <511l8u$> (Bruce Scott TO
K ) writes:

>This pretty much sums up Marvin Harris's criticism (cf: _Cultural
>Materialism_). He does not however follow with pseudo-political
>allegations of sociobiologists' supposedly giving excuses for the status
>quo in any situation (he knows that this is not what they are doing).

I'm not familiar with Marvin Harris' criticism. What I wrote just seemed
like common sense. One of the features of the theory of natural selection
is that it allows for the explanation of phenotypes and the historical
processes that gave rise to them, on the basis of their teleology,
on the purported purposes the trait serves, without one having to know
the mechanisms that gave rise to it or how the trait works. The theory
of natural selection excuses ignorance. But people take advantage of
this, and they jump in looking for explanations of vaguely defined traits.

>But... maybe it is sloppy science, but an enemy of feminism?

Well, the sociobiological "hypotheses" that turn up often try to find
the basis for existing human social relations in "the genes." There is
the suggestion that they cannot be changed, and, if "ought" implies
"can," that moral critiques of existing social relations are misguided.
Indeed, I think it's implicit in some of E.O. Wilson's writings, despite his
disavowal of ethics, that since natural selection produced certain
social relations and beliefs, those that exist are good for the species'
survival and can only be altered at the species' peril (see my post in last month).