Re: Biosocial Phobia

Fri, 9 Dec 1994 12:02:36 -0500

Having read Mike Lieber's post on sociobiology and Rob Quinlan's reply, I would
like to suggest that they are arguing past one another and both are mostly
right. I have become increasingly interested in and critical of human
sociobiology in recent years. As I see it, the theory (e.g., what Quinlan
summarized) is reasonably sound, so that any abstract discussion in a debate has
to go to the sociobiologists. It is the application that is weak, and someone
really interested in interpreting human behavior has valid grounds for

To blend two issues that Lieber and Quinlan brought up: Is a "learning model" a
valid alternative to natural selection in explaining human behavioral
adaptations, such as infanticide for the purpose of population limitation?

Assume, for the sake of argument: Population X practices infanticide and that
infanticide regulates population in an environment of limited resources. Let us
examine three possible solutions.

1 (radical sociobiology straw man) There is a gene that promotes infanticide.
Population X has been under selection pressure so that the frequency of an
infanticidal allele is present in high frequency relative to some other
populations. Thus infanticide is an evolved and adaptive behavior. (And just
because the reasoning process is teleological does not mean its conclusion is

2 (non-biological straw man) Infanticide is the product of traditional cultural
belief systems and practices and cannot be understood outside of that cultural
context. However, that culture has developed though rational thought, learning,
collective decisions, and intergenerational transmission of ideas with
infanticide as one of its expression. There is no biological difference between
population X and its neighbors, but the resulting culture represents a
non-evolved adaptation. (Non-evolved, meaning not biologically selected for.)

3 (rational middle ground) We must understand the human capacity for rational
thought, learning, and cultural transmission as a major genetic adaptation of
our species. There may be no gene for infanticide. The CAPACITY for infanticide,
not the behavior itself, is evolved and adaptive.

Explanation 3 is compatible with sociobiological theory, but one does not need
to understand or use the jargon of sociobiology to produce explanations of
specific behaviors. Nor does this model explain specific behaviors. In short, I
find that sociobiology is a useful way of viewing the human world, but it can
rarely be applied convincingly to specifics. Unfortunately, in order to make it
clear that they are doing real sociobiology, sociobiologists too often fall into
a rhetoric that sounds like the first straw man even if, when pushed, they would
fall back to the middle ground. I think it is this extreme rhetoric that
undermines the respect for human sociobiology in the social sciences and that
causes many to disavow it.