Re: Feminist critique of sociobiology...critiqued

Bruce Scott TOK (
10 Sep 1996 15:16:50 GMT

Paul Gallagher ( wrote:
: (Bruce Scott TOK ) 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.

... which very often is not supported by deeper inquiry

: 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.

This is decidedly not how these scientists do their work.

: >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."

No, they propose a falsifiable hypothesis and then test it. Many such
tests are negative. The press only write about the positive cases.

: There is
: the suggestion that they cannot be changed, and, if "ought" implies
: "can," that moral critiques of existing social relations are misguided.

First, this "suggestion" is put there by people seeking for whatever
reason to dismiss the science, not the scientists themselves. Second,
at least the people I read (Sarah Hrdy, Jared Diamond, Marvin Harris,
etc) are strongly opposed to this "naturalistic fallacy" which confuses
an evolved situation with the "correct" one (which they know well does
not exist).

All of these writers are opposed to the status quo, by the way. Most of
their critics (especially of Harris) are unaware of it, which shows they
often do not read what he actually says.

: 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).

No, it is explicit in the misrepresentations of Wilson's writings by
others. See the chapters on Wilson in _Three Scientists and their Gods_
by Robert Wright, for more on the process by which Wilson's naivete
concerning his critics delivered him more or less into their hands.

Sorry, so far all I see is caricature.

Mach's gut!
Bruce Scott Congratulations to Ghada Shouaa,
Max-Planck-Institut fuer Plasmaphysik Olympic heptathlon champion!