Re: Zihlman and Sociobiology

Paul Gallagher (
27 Sep 1996 01:02:23 -0400

In <528s6f$> Susan <> writes:

>Essentially, 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.

Maybe one way to show up the difficulties in genetic models of culture is to
remember that each gene codes for a protein. If you say culture is in our
genes, the mystification of the concept of gene makes that statement look
sensible, but if you say, culture is in the proteins that our genes make,
then the statement might become a little more suspect.

So, all cultures that have ever existed at all stages in their history,
and all human behavior and the interactions among all humans, are being
studied in terms of the invariant properties of individual humans. And the
invariant properties of individual humans are being studied in terms of the
few thousand different proteins that their genes construct.

Another way to show the problem with the concept of "selfish genes" is
to look at truly selfish genes, such as oncogenes. A gene that leads to
cancer, that is, cells that reproduce at the expense of the individual
organism, is increasing the fitness of a particular cell lineage at the
cost of the organism's well-being, and possibly its fitness (that is,
reproductive success). But contrast this with the normal functioning of
most genes that seem to be merely tools for organisms to construct
themselves and their descendents. Some people like to emphasize that
organisms are just the genes' way to make other genes, but you could
equally well say, genes are just the organism's way of making themselves
and other organisms.