Re: human rights and the rituals of sociobiology

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Sat, 10 Dec 1994 18:04:38 -0500

After that post, you can accuse others of rhetoric? Wow...
On Sat, 10 Dec
1994, John Stevens wrote:

> Hi all. This'll be a quickie, I promise. But I just had to comment from the
> dreaded "humanisitic perspective" re the transformation of the "human rights"
> thread into a rah-rah session for sociobiology. A lot of what's been said has
> been interesting and insightful, and to be honest I've learned more about
> the tenets and dogma of sociobiology in the past week than I learned in an
> entire semester of "Evolution and Human Behavior," a course here that is an
> unapologetic (and undebatable) CCD class for sociobiology. But it struck me as
> odd that what seemed to be forming into a discussion of "culture and oppression"
> as Michelle Golden put it became a series of short lectures by Rob Quinlan and
> Lee Cronk on why socio-b is number one. Actually, lecture is not the best
> term; homily may be better. The most striking phrase in the entire debate is
> when Rob talked about being "converted" to sociobiological theory. Now, I am
> not arguing either for "paradigm lock" or for the inherent religiosity of
> subscribing to a particular theoretical perspective, but I am arguing that
> sociobiologists still fail to take into account that they, like all the rest
> of us, are positioned observers who in the end are purporting JUST ANOTHER
> THEORY. This does not mean I am advocating theory relativity; it is just a
> reminder that, despite the rhetoric of objective science that they use, that
> in significant ways they do not differ from the wonkiest postmodernist, and
> that their belief systems structure their perspective. Sociobiology is not
> the paradigm for how the world works; it does not get under the skin of all
> those icky debates on ideology or eliminate all those annoying "memes" that
> people seem so obsessed by (that in fact probably structure their lives AT
> LEAST as much as their need to propogate their genes). It is *a way* of
> making sense of the world. It can illuminate certain aspects of the human
> condition, but it cannot do everything, and it does not touch the big T Truth.
> As Mike Lieber so nicely put it, "specific cultural practices are manifesta-
> tions of underlying cultural premises on the one hand, connected to other
> cultural practices on the other, and part of a larger set of contesxts that incl
> ude the natural environment to which practices are adapted, the intergroup socia
> l context in which both social and natural adaptations are played out, and the
> larger economic-political orders that can and often do constrain the local-
> regional orders." Yeah, it's cybersystem stuff, and more orderly than my
> personal theoretical tastes, but its as good as Tylor's definition of what
> goes on! And that's my point: sociobiologists *seem* to think that they have
> unearthed some Rosicrucian revelation about the secret machinery of life, that
> there is something that's *really* going on under all that other stuff like
> social life, pleasure, hegemony, and all that, that we can peel all that stuff
> off and discover the primordial skeleton of existence. BZZZZZTTT!!! Wrong
> answer; thank you for playing.
> And they rarely question why there are such "knee-jerk" (i.e., reactions not
> couched in their paradigmatic jargon) reactions to biosocial approaches. I've
> thought about this a lot because I get chills when I hear people (with a glint
> in their eyes no less) speak dreamily about "inclusive fitness" and other
> concepts that reduce life to a biological contest, emphasis on reduce. We
> talked about art one day in my E&HB class and whether it was maladaptive or
> not; my instructor kept trying to make the case that artists did art to bag
> more babes. OK, I know a few arrowheads who do that, but that doesn't explain
> homosexual artists. I think a few sociobiologists have tried to address this
> obvious gap in their theorizing, but nothing they're written has satisfied me.
> What socio-b comes down to is some archetypal race destiny thang (as in the
> whole human race, although its interesting that so many racial determinists
> embrace socio-b) that we are always linearly striving for improvement. The
> obsession to determine the "ultimate causality" of something is a Holy Grail
> in socio-b, one that I think is unattainable.
> Pardon the above gap; a patron sat on my keyboard.
> Anyway, Luis Medina's call to be more critical is the soundest advice I've
> heard in this 'morphing discussion, and one which adherents to sociobiology
> need to keep in mind. The indignant defiensiveness with which they often
> respond to criticism should in itself be questioned: why are sociobiologists
> so afraid of questions? Why the continuing polarization between the
> "empiricism" of their approach and the shoddy "relativism" of ALL OTHER
> APPROACHES? Their attempts to problematize an objective "culture" is admirable,
> but to call culture "lint on a sweater" is a bit much, and it is that arro-
> gance that annoys people. The smug tone of true believers like Napoleon
> :I'm always right, godammit" Chagnon is part of the reason why folks curl
> their lips at socio-b. The facts of rhetoric cannot be explained away by
> objectifying biology.
> Yours in the spirit of healthy discourse,
> John Stevens
> University of Massachusetts at Boston