Re: Is sociobiology dubious?

Mon, 6 May 1996 09:33:12 -0400

> OK I'll bite. Does anyone else find sociobiology dubious? I wonder why
> nobody reads Shapiro? I ask is this sociobiology stuff thought up or
> "theorized" in the same manner that Elaine Morgan did when she wrote
> her books? In other words is sociobiology actually based on legitimate
> research or is it just a bunch of "cool thoughts?" Any qualified
> physical/biological anthropologists care to comment on any of this.
> I don't know enough about it to make a serious judgement, but I have my
> doubts.

I have been actively pursuing this question for several years. I was at Harvard
when the book came out, so I was exposed to a mostly positive reaction. I wasn't
entirely convinced and got away from it for the next 20 years. Now my interest
is up and I have been reading the literature again, surprised to find it running
incognito as evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology. Here is my take:

The evolutionary theory behind sociobiology is powerful. It answers a lot of
neat questions and makes predictions. The application of it to humans runs, in
my opinion, from excellent to absurd, and few individuals are publicly trying to
figure out which is which. I see two major problems in the field.

First, the question of mechanisms of behavior -- identifying the proximate
determinants of behavior and liking them with selectable traits -- is poorly
understood and often swept under the rug. Even though lip service is given to
the notion that human behavior is flexible, writers operate from the position
that decisions made with a flexible mind are just as determined as the
most-hard-wired reflexes and flexibility is just noise in the statistics. If
behavior is indeed flexible, then the proximate objectives may obscure and
completely replace evolutionary values in the time scale in which all our
studies must be performed. Let me illustrate with an example: For a number of
reasons, I would argue that human reproduction in modern society is driven by
rational pursuit of sexual pleasure and not by reproductive success. In the
past, they coincided, so sensory gratification was an appropriate evolutionary
mechanism. Now they don't, and it is inappropriate to interpret much of
sexual/reproductive behavior in evolutionary terms.

Second, most proponents of sociobiology assume a priori that behaviors under
investigation are adaptive. Experimentation and evidence are used to evaluate
how the behaviors are adaptive, not whether they are. The null hypothesis that
behaviors are not adaptive (e.g., that sexual attractions relate to immediate
gratification rather than to evolutionary success) is not addressed.

Let me repeat, sociobiology is powerful. The baby should not be thrown out with
the bathwater, but we need a better filter on the faucet.
In case anyone is still reading this: Is sociobiology the grand synthesis? I
believe that too much of behavior, expecially culture itself, is not best
explained by evolutionary principles. Sociobiology helps us to understand broad
outlines, but it is not sufficient to explain human culture and should not
replace other avenues. I think a grand synthesis of anthropology is a terrible
idea because the diversity of approaches within and across the four fields is
the greatest strength of anthropology.