Re: Zihlman and Sociobiology

Bryant (
24 Sep 1996 11:27:50 -0600

In article <528s6f$>, Susan <> wrote:
>Essentailly, her complaint is about reductionism. Much of sociobiology
>seems to reduce complex organisms (in particular regarding birds and
>mammals) to simple gene carriers. Genes becomes the primary actors,
>reproduce. Rather than individuals or populations, which evolutionary
>theory would generally assign the role of actor, genes themselves are
>often depicted as though they make decisions.

Actually, I think it's the environment we depict as making decisions, via
selection. Also, I disagree with the implied viability of group
selectionism in this statement, but I may be misreading it.

>Social behavior is similarly treated, being reduced essentially to
>reproduction. All behavior would seem to be geared to reproducing the
>species, discounting the experience and learning that all mammals, at
>least, undergo throughout their lifetimes.

There is a recognized flaw in early sociobiological thinking (the
"Sociobiological Fallacy") which treats organisms as generalized
fitness-strivers. There's no evidence for this. Rather, modern
sociobiology presents the evolved behavior-generating (neurological)
architecture of an organism as a collection of 'modules' designed by
selection for specific tasks.

So, chasing orgasms in the age of condoms and abortion is not fitness
striving, but it is a behavior which afforded differential reproductive
success to our male ancestors. But the neurological modules (some are
quite well studied, such as the hippocampus' role in spatial memory in
birds and mammals) indeed have genetic components.

>It confuses the idea of outcome with the idea of "real"
>reasons-- if I am altruistic, is the "explanation" that I am maximizing
>my kin fitness or the fact that I was taught to be generous as a child?
>The former may be an outcome, but is it an explanation?

A sociobiologist would probably say that you have altruistic instincts
because, during human evolution, these afforded individuals with
increased inclusive fitness. That is an explanation on the ultimate or
"why" level of analysis, yes. You seem to have a personal preference for
proximate or "how" explanations, which are just as valid. However,
understanding *why* various social or ecological cues invoke different
responses in different species seems, to me, to require some evolutionary

>Zihlman also notes the sloppy use of anthropomorphic language, such as
>"harem", "rape", "cuckoldry", etc., which has already been raised in
>discussions here.

I think Ed Wilson's the most guilty party in this regard. The
Thornhills' use of the term "rape" was preceeded by an explicit
biological definition of just what they meant by it.

>However, she also makes the interesting point that the
>use of this particular language is not so much accidental as it is
>indicative of the way some researchers actually attribute meaning to what
>they are seeing in non-human animal behavior.

This is interesting. Could you tell us more?

Fausto-Sterling makes similar charges, but fails to provide actual
evidence for this view. In fact, she just quotes Ed Wilson, who said
something to the effect that animal studies are exciting heuristic tools
which might generate interesting research with humans. In retrospect, we
see that he was correct.

>She also has a long discussion about why it is that sociobiologists so
>often assume that reproduction is a male behavior, while females are
>essentially passive.

That was long a bias of biologists in general. It was, in fact,
sociobiologists who hypothesized and subsequently presented evidence for
active female choice before, during, and after copulation.

Some problems have arisen from the use of the term "coy" to describe this
active female sexuality. Females can afford to be more discriminating
about mate choice, because they are in greater demand than are individual
males. They are, reproductively, a limiting resource, whereas males
rarely are. *Where* males are the limiting resource, you see a reversal
in courtship roles (e.g., pipefish).

> While noting the idea of female choice, there is
>still an assumption that if males mate, then males reproduce, discounting
>the possibility that female action may have an impact.

This may have been a valid critique at some point in the past, but as
I've pointed out above, it no longer is.

This is getting long; I'll followup on the rest later.
Thanks for the review.