Re: Zihlman and Sociobiology

Gerold Firl (
26 Sep 1996 20:23:51 GMT

In article <528s6f$>, Susan <> writes:

|> 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.

For some systems, reductionism works very well. For example, the
properties of a gas can be derived from a consideration of the
properties of the constituent molecules.

In other systems, reductionism doesn't work so well. william
Poundstone, in _the recursive universe_, uses the computer-based game
of life as an example of emergant behavior which could not be predicted
on the basis of the rules of the game. Reductionism is not a crime, or
a dirty word; it's just a tool which is sometimes very useful, at other
times not.

In the case of biological organisms, reductionism has proven very
useful. We know that many important physical characteristics are
controlled by a single gene, or a small number of genes working in
concert. This is reductionism: sickle cell anemia is caused by a gene.
Other characteristics act more like emergant phenomena, probably
because they are the result of the mutual influence of many genes. This
makes a reductionist analysis less useful, at least in terms of trying
to reconstruct the exact pathway of influence from gene to organism,
but does not invalidate the fundamental fact that we are built by our

|> Much of sociobiology
|> seems to reduce complex organisms (in particular regarding birds and
|> mammals) to simple gene carriers.

No, complex gene carriers. Our genes have constructed very complex
organisms, because it has been found that a more complex organism has a
better chance of surviving and propagating its genes.

|> 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.

"Decisions" is the wrong word. Genes don't make decisions, because they
don't have minds; they're just sequences of base-pairs on a dna
molecule. However, they do dictate many facets of the organism, since
they determine how the organism is constructed. Natural selection can
produce the appearance of conscious design, but the process is blind.

|> 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.

"discounting"? Nah. Apples and oranges, fish and bicycles. different

|> 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?

Yes, it is an explanation, because it predates the cultural systems
which teach generosity and "blood is thicker than water". You were
taught to be generous and to show solidarity with family because many
millions of years of prior biological evolution have produced generous,
altruistic animals. Like us.

|> 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.

Red herring.

|> 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.

Flat out wrong. Darwin himself, way back when, noted the importance of
sexual selection on the part of females to account for sexual
dimorphism. Every competant biologist since then should be aware of how
female choice has shaped evolution. It's basic.

|> 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.

"Reductionistic"? You use that like a general epithet.

Many species use rape (or "sexual coercion" if you prefer) as a viable
strategy. Why would anyone believe that human sexual coercion is
somehow different from sexual coercion in other species? Because we
have laws against it? In human history, those laws are very recent. To
look for the origins of human instinct, we need to consider our entire
evolutionary past, not just the last few centuries or millenia.

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