Zihlman and Sociobiology

Susan (rgq101@uriacc.uri.edu)
24 Sep 1996 14:45:35 GMT

Some time ago, I cited an article by Adrienne Zihlman as a reference to
critiques about sociobiology. Bryant invited me to note what I thought
was interesting about this particular article. For one thig, it had a
number of other references that anyone interested in this topic might
want to follow up on. But she also had several interesting points to
make, which raise a number of things I find annoying about some of the
more simplistic sociobiological interpretations.

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,
rather that the organisms themselves. Thus organisms are helpless in the
face of genes which, sometimes seemingly by themselves, are seeking to
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.

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. This seems particularly
problematic for humans, who are capable of explaining their motivations
for behavior. 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?

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

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. 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. To use the
controversial example discussed before here, there is the assumption that
a woman who is raped and becomes pregnant will automatically carry the
child to term, thus making this an effective male reproductive strategy.
But if the rape is seen as a violent social act, and the woman
encouraged to abort the child (something which is typically supported by
laws which except abortion in the case of rape or incest), then it is a
lousy strategy. So considering rape as simply a male reproductive
strategy, outside of its social context and discounting possible female
responses, is reductionistic.

Interestingly, Zihlman discusses the difficulties of determining
paternity in other kinds of primate groups in the field. There is the
assumption that observers are witnessing all matings, even though both
males and females have been observed "sneaking" away from the main group
to mate, outside the view of dominant males. Statistically, it does seem
logical that the male who mates the most is most likely to father
offspring. But she cites two studies, based on DNA studies of primates
in the field, that seem to show that the number and duration of mating
does not correlate with the number of infants a male sires. I haven't
looked at these, but of this is a correct description of them, they do
rather contradict the assumption that is usually made!

This is my summary of what she says, with a few of my own examples thrown
in. All errors is interpretation will be blamed on a faulty computer
hook-up! (Just kidding).




"Some mornings, it's just not worth chewing through the leather straps."
-- Emo Phillips