richley crapo (RCRAPO@WPO.HASS.USU.EDU)
Fri, 9 Dec 1994 11:28:47 -0700

Rob Quinlan is in an awful hurry to dichotomize:
"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." He then equates the first
approach with sociobiology, leaving the rest of us
lumped together with his straw man category which
he characterizes as "not worth wasting our time
on." Well, I'll agree that that may be so of Falwell's
creationism, but there are some of us out here on
anthro-l who are devout positivists and who even
think that natural selection is quite a useful concept
for analyzing many things who have not yet bought
into the Teleology of so much of the
sociobiological "explanations" currently available.
The last time I looked, there were a lot of
supporters of "Darwin" who did not specifically
style themselves sociogiologists.

After his implicit syllogism ("All nonsociobiologists
are creationists....), Quinlan does grudgingly admit
that "Some behavioral scientists seem to imagine
that 'learning' constitutes a third explanation for
adaptation..." but quickly dismisses such an
alternative as supported by a camp made up
apparantly of postmodernists, feminists, and
liberals (who hurl such epithets against
sociobiologists as "nativist"..."sexist, racist, and
thoroughly reactionary").

A "learning" or "nurture" perspective on human
adaptations is, Quinlan reveals to us "categorical
nonsense", since it confuses "the simultaneously
valid questions of ontogenetic process and natural
selective history. On the other hand, when those
who have converted to a sociobiological model fail
to investigate much of anything about learning,
Quinlan sees their failure to do so not as naievite,
or political, or a blindspot in the sociobiological
model (after all, those are ideas he associates
with the nonsociobiologically minded) but merely
because "many sociobiologists have failed paid it
less attention than they should"--a criticism that
allows him to ignore the blinders to the importance
of learning that sociobiology seems to foster in

Of course sociobiology has yeilded some very
useful insights, and certainly questions of
ontogenetic process and natural selective history
are "simultaneously valid questions." But this
doesn't justify our adopting a True Believer
mindset that denigrates every other approach as
"incoherent" or "categorical nonsense." I admire
Quinlan's skill with polemics. His choice of words
is as good as Newt ("Never say Democrat....
always say Liberal Democrat") Gengrich's. But I
would prefer a more reasoned discourse on the
subject (my own polemics in this posting to the
contrary notwithstanding!).

The major built-in limitations of the sociobiological
approach (this is not a slam, since all theoretical
perspectives have them) are the teleological
application of its reproductive imperative
("Humans a the genes means for reproducing
more genes." and the tendency to see *everything*
as adaptive) and a myopic vision of "nurture" that
discusses learning only in a somatic context.
Quinlin acknowledges the former problem in his
discussion of the human chin, but he himself
engages in the latter by only portraying learning in
terms such as "reinforcement mechanisms".

Yes, learning (in the bio-psychological context
prefered by sociobiologists) does involve
reinfocement mechanisms, themselves the product
of natural selection and other evolutionary
processes. And that is most likely the reason that
they are often adaptive in their effects. But Quinlan
overlooks the fact that learning processes also
sometimes yield maladaptive results (if they didn't,
he wouldn't have Jerry Falwell to kick around).
More importantly, learning and its outcomes can
be looked at in a extrasomatic context (dare I use
the word "culture"?), and doing so has yielded
some very useful insights into the human condition
that complement the blindspots in the
sociobiological literature.

Incidently, since Quinlan did consider Gould and
Lewontin's criticism of sociobiology in his posting,
I wonder: does Quinlan consider them to be
sociobiologists or creationists? (After all, those
are the "only two coherent theoretical alternatives."