Harris and sociobiology

Wed, 2 Mar 1994 20:39:44 -0400

Nice to see D.Y.'s review of Harris (1979). Harris's "demolition" of
"sociobiology" represents one of the areas of misunderstanding -- if
not just plain prejudice -- about which O'Brien has been complaining
on another thread. Those interested in the topic may look up my own
demolition of Harris's confusion about "sociobiology" (J. Barkow 1989.
Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture.
Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press.)

Now that the shameless self-promotion is done with, it might interest
anthro-l readers to learn that Harris himself, in work done since the
1979 book, could be considered something of a "sociobiologist." He
has adopted optimal foraging theory, a main-stay of animal ecology, a
branch of evolutionary ecology and a field thoroughly compatible with
"sociobiology." (See Harris, Marvin, and Eric B. Ross, eds. 1987. Food
and Evolution. Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits. Philadelphia:
Temple University Press. GN 407 F65 1987.)

I put "sociobiology" in quotation marks because the term is used with
decreasing frequency, in the anthropological and psychological
literature. In biology, the term tends to be synonymous with modern
evolutionary biology but, in the social and behavioral sciences, it
has so many negative connotations that it tends to be dropped. Those
applying evolutionary biology to human behavior nowadays often
use two terms: either evolutionary psychology, or behavioral ecology.
The first group (which includes me) argues that human psychology
evolved as adaptations to Pleistocene conditions, is highly complex,
underlies "cultural capacity," and today may often lead to
genetically maladaptive behavior; the second group, the behavioral
ecologists, is likely to apply
optimal foraging theory and other derivatives of evolutionary biology
to human societies and cultures. So, back in 1979, a rather confused Harris was
condemning an approach in a sense ancestral to one he himself would
later adopt.

To make up for the self-promotion, here are some references to that
"behavioral ecology" school:

Cronk, L.
1991 Human behavioral ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology

Hawkes, K., and J. O'Connell
1992 On optimal foraging models and subsistence transitions.
Current Anthropology 33:63-66.

Krebs, J. R., and N. B. Davies
1991 Behavioural Ecology. 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific.

Smith, Eric Alden, and Bruce Winterhalder (editors)
1992 Evolutionary Ecology and Human Behavior. Hawthorne, New York:
Aldine de Gruyer.

Standen, V., and R. A. Foley
1989 Comparative Socioecology. The behavioural ecology of Humans
and other Mammals. Special Publication Number 8 of the British Ecological
Society ed. Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Boston, Melbourne: Blackwell Scientific

Jerry Barkow