Biosocial Phobia

Rob Quinlan (C611417@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU)
Thu, 8 Dec 1994 18:09:40 CST

I really have better things to be doing, but since my theoretical stance
is under attack I'm taking the time for this public service message. The
following is a collection of cogent excerpts from Martin Daly and Margo
Wilson's Children as Homicide Victims in R. Gelles and J. Lancaster (eds.)
_Child Abuse and Neglect: Biosocial Dimensions_ 1987 NY: Aldine De Gruyter.


[stuff left out]

Only two coherent theoretical alternatives have been offered to explain why
organisms are adaptively constructed. There's the theory proposed by Darwin,
and there's the one preferred by Jerry Falwell et al. The creationist theory
has no empirical implications (whatever turns up must be God's will) and it is
not worth wasting our time on. Darwin's theory that evolution occurs as a
result of natural selection is demonstrably true in particular cases, logically
necessary in general, and is as close to certain knowledge as anything in scien
ce. (Not to deny that there are many details to work out.) If anyone has come
up with a third alternative, it has not been made generally known.

Some behavioral scentists seem to imagine that "learning" constitutes a third
explanation for adaptation, a sort of ontogenetic alternative to natural
selection. Evolutionary explanations of phenomena are suspiciously regarded
as "nativist" (not to mention sexist, racist, and thoroughly reactionary).
This naive view is so widespread that it sometimes hard to convince people that
one is even serious in maintaining that sociobiology carries no brief for
"nature" contra "nurture" (let alone that that your averag sociobiologist,
like your averag academic, tends to be rather left-wing!). Yet, to propose
"learning" as an alternative to an evolutionary explanation is categorical
nonsense, confusing the simultaneously valid questions of ontogenetic process
and natural selective history. Developmental mechanisms, including learning,
are *themselves* products of natural selection. Why are reinforcement
mechanisms organized in such a way as to produce adaptive out comes? The
only available answeres invokd either natural selection or divine intervention.
There is nothing in the conceptual framework of sociobiology that denigrates
learning (although many sociobiologists have paid it less attention than they
should). Neither does the discipline in any way require that the phenomena
under study be "innate" rather than "acquired" (if indeed this distinction has
any meaning), although sociobiologists have often been as confuesed as their cr
itics on this issue.

So what is sociobiology about? Gould and Lewontin's (1979) label, "an
adaptationist program," is apt (although intended as a slight). To be an
adaptationist is to look at species-characteristic attributes and to ask what
they are *for*--what is teh utility of this structure? This sounds danderously
teleological to the well-trained experimental psychologist, but the concept
of natural selection provides a rationale for the expectation that the properti
es of organisms have "purpose". Advances in medical science are absolutely
predicated on this point of view--you open up an organism and you discover some
thing new, the liver, let's say, and you wonder "what is it?" Which means
"what does it do?" Which means "what is it for?" Which is precisely the
right question to ask! Likewise in zoology: a narwhal's tusks may be for
fighting and they may be for digging mollusks, but we had better proceed on
the assumption that they have some function if we hope to generate some
testable hypotheses.

This adaptationist approach is not very controversial when applied to morpholog
y, but even there it has been attacked by Gould and Lewontin (1979). Their pet
example is the human chin, and it will suffice to illustrate their point. Our
chin is a peculiar structure among the primates, and one might indeed ask "what
is it for?" Gould and Lewontin assert that the chin has no purpose at all but
must be understood as an epiphenomenal byproduct of other functional (i.e.
naturally selected) changes in the growth patterns of facial bones. Whether
they are correct in this particular case, the general point is well taken:
sometimes one can certainly waste time and effort in seeking functional
significance of a trait that has none. . . . But what's the lesson? That
Harvey should not, after all, have wondered what the heart is for? There
are, in fact, ground rules for evaluating adaptaionist hypotheses and rejecting
them when they fail. Sociobiologists generally follow Williams (1966) in
arguing that the best criteria for evaluating proposed functions are "design"
criteria: the more detailed (and hence unlikely to arise by chance) is the "fi
t" between the attributes under study and their hypothesized function, the more
confidence we have in the hypothesis. . . .

[stuff left out] In recent years, there have been two "hot" approaches in
animal behavior, attracting most of teh bright young students and most of the
ink. The approaches are really the same: if you happen to be studying social
behavior, it is called "sociobiology," and if you happen to be studying
anything else, it is called "behavioral ecology." [This distinction is now
almost completely lost. Probably because people have such weird reactions to
the word "sociobiology"] ...Both proceed from the proposition that the behavio
ra control mechanisms of organisms are products of natural seleciton and ask:
given what we know about how selection works, what behavioral outcomes ought to
follow? Also characteristic of sociobiology/behavioral ecolgy is the assumptio
n that adaptive function must ultimately translate into reproductive success,
also known as "fitness." This idea seems particularly alien to non-biologists,
but iti is simple and essential. The idea is taht ther are immediate utilities
to the things that we organisms do -- staying fed, warm, and out of danger--
but these functions only have utility in an evolutionary sense insofar as they
ultimately contribute to reproduction. Mere survival is no criterion of
success; what selection favors is traits that contribute to the lon-term surviv
al of the trait-beare's genetic materials.

[bunch of nonessential stuff left out]

A popular, though inane, slogan among sociobiolgy's critics is "genetic determi
nsim." If "determinism" is a meaningful accusation at all, then it must be lev
eled at all scientific approaches to the study of behavior. As scientists, we
are committed to the belief that the phenomena we study have knowable causes...
. Those who accuse sociobiologists of "determinism" commonly go on to attribut
e causality to social and economic factors (which, ironically, are also the
favorite proximate causes invoked by sociobiologists), but they do not explain
what makes their own causal thories "nondeterministic."

The issue of the role of "genes" in sociobiology is more interesting and less
clear. Our view. . . is that sociobiology is in fact hardly more "genetic"
than any other specialty within the life sciences. Sociobiologists are fond
of talking about genes, but they are not particularly interested in how genes
act in development or indeed in anything else that goes on in your average
genetics department. The main role that the gene plays in sociobiological
theories is not that of causal agent, but that of a *currency*: Fitness is
measured, in principle, as success in genetic replication. A secondary role
that the gene plays is as a hypothetical entity in thought experiments: we imag
ine some simple genetical variation underlying the variation in a trait merely
in order to trace out how natural selection would be expect to operate upon
that trait. This means that some sociobiologists *are* interested in some
models of theoretical population genetics, but most sociobiological research
remains concerned with adaptationist question that are no more explicitly
genetic than the adaptationist questions of functional morphology.

. . .We would argue that the entire social scintific enterprise is concerned
withe the characterization of human nature. How could Darwin's more encompassi
ng theory of organismic nature--so heuristic in so many areas of the life
sciences, and unquestionably correct in its basics--how could it not be
relevant to the task? When you take an evolutionary theoretical view of the
organism, you assume that the elements of psyche must have adaptive function
as the elements of morphology do, and this suggests hypotheses about how
motivational systems might be organized. [a little bit left out]

[Sorry for the length of this posting. I hope that those who bother to
read this are a little less phobic about biosociology and perhaps a little
less ignorant too.]

Rob Quinlan