Fear Ignorance -- Not Sociobiology!1

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Spring, 1996), p. 9; 12-14.

( This article was written in response to a critical paper on sociobiology by Dr. Jacques J. Ruelland, a professor of the philosophy and history of science at the University of Montreal.)

KEY TERMS: sociobiology -- free will -- Social Darwinism -- Edward O. Wilson -- Julian Huxley -- socialization -- gene-culture co-evolution -- Richard Dawkins -- memes -- altruism -- homosexuality -- kin selection -- Stephen Jay Gould -- David Hume -- John Dewey -- Bertrand Russell

Dr. Ruelland is not alone in his fear and loathing of the study of human sociobiology. In fact, it is because the attitudes and misunderstandings he has expressed in his article and at the 1995 Humanist Association of Canada Conference are so widespread that I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to respond. I will attempt to summarize Dr. Ruelland's objections as concisely as possible, and then deal with them one by one. In the process, I hope to be able to present a relatively clear picture of the fledgling new discipline for those readers who, like myself, are interested in any scientific approach with the potential for shedding new light on our incredibly complex human nature.

According to Ruelland, those scientists operating within the sociobiological model are arrogant and obsessed with genetic determinism as a universal explanation of human nature -- particularly of aggressiveness, parental bonding, religiosity, sexual orientation and altruism. They deny the existence of free will. Their theory is fatally flawed from a philosophical standpoint because they seek to prove causes from effects. It is confused and derivative due to its historical roots in a mish-mash of nineteenth century evolutionary thinkers; and it is immoral in that it represents the modern equivalent of the Social Darwinism and eugenicism responsible for twentieth century fascism. "Off with their heads" I hear you cry at this point! But wait, please, until the defense rests.

To begin with, we require a simple definition of sociobiology, along with a cursory glance at its history. It emerged and coalesced as an organized discipline over the past several decades, as a result of new knowledge coming out of evolutionary science, population biology, genetics and ecology. In the words of Edward O. Wilson, whose book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis officially launched the study in 1975, "Sociobiology is neither a particular theory of behavior nor is it a politically defined doctrine of human nature. It is ... a systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior ... in organisms up to and including man."2 Clearly, it is the fact that sociobiology includes humankind as one of the species of animal produced by the continuous process of evolution that seems to have raised the hackles of many people -- Professor Ruelland included. If these scientists had not dared, by this inclusion, to imply that humans are as much a part of the natural "stuff" of the universe as are any other species, there would have been much less controversy over their work.

Ruelland's written criticism begins with a veiled suggestion that there must be some dark motive behind the very subtitle of Wilson's book. At the very least, he suggests, it is arrogant, for "the synthesis" implies that Julian Huxley's book making the same claim in its subtitle must have been in some way superseded by this new one. But of course! That is the way science works, and Huxley, were he alive today, would be the first to rejoice in that very supersedence! No scientist (and certainly not one as personally humble as Wilson) would ever imagine a reader assuming that he had meant anything other than the current synthesis. Science is, above all, tentative and conditional in its claims.

Ruelland tells us that Wilson "implies" human behavior can be completely understood from a genetic analysis, and that this is stated as a certainty in his second book, On Human Nature. He asks, "How is it possible?" After rereading both books with great care, I must ask, in turn, "How is it possible for anyone to so badly misinterpret such a precise and detailed exposition as that of Edward O. Wilson?" I think that most of his readers would agree with me when I say that, although I may not always agree with Wilson's ideas, I am never in the least doubt as to what those ideas are.

This is perhaps the place to explain what it is that Wilson is actually saying. First of all, neither he nor his fellow sociobiologists are claiming that either animal or human social behavior is attributable solely to genes. He is talking about the interrelationship of genetic and environmental factors in all aspects of evolution. Even in the case of relatively simple behaviors in relatively simple animals, he suggests, the process of learning plays an important role. In his first book he devotes an entire section to socialization -- providing one of the best definitions that I, as a sociologist who wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject, have ever encountered. He notes the difficulties involved in distinguishing maturation effects from those of learning, and the corresponding difficulties caused by the complexity and fragility of the social environment. He writes, "We are searching for the human biogram ... [including] to what extent the biogram represents an adaptation to modern cultural life and to what extent it is a phylogenetic vestige."3

Elsewhere Wilson and Lumsden explain their perspective as follows: "We believe that the secret of the mind's sudden emergence lies in the activation of a mechanism both obedient to physical laws and unique to the human species. Somehow the evolving species kindled a Promethean fire, a self-sustaining reaction that carried humanity beyond the previous limits of biology. This largely unknown evolutionary process we have called gene-culture coevolution: it is a complicated, fascinating interaction in which culture is generated and shaped by biological imperatives while biological traits are simultaneously altered by genetic evolution in response to cultural innovation." #4

Ruelland's next charge is that sociobiologists would have us believe that human social behavior is not the result of individual "free will". My response to this is that no credible sociobiologist ever claimed to have discovered evidence that definitively disproves the existence of a sovereign "will", installed in some mysterious way in individuals by a "spiritual" source untouched by the effects of evolutionary and personal history. But most scientists (whether natural or social) would question the possibility of such a phenomenon, given what we already know about the biological limitations and environmental conditioning affecting the human valuing process. Ironically, Wilson himself has more difficulty giving up this notion than do many modern humanists. Like Ruelland, he seems to yearn to retain the concept of free will in some form. But, to his credit, he explains it in naturalistic terms. While reminding us that any real understanding of human decision making must await further progress in neurobiology, he offers the following tentative hypothesis: "An organism can be guided in its actions by a feedback loop: a sequence of messages from the sense organs to the brain schemata back to the sense organs and on around again until the schemata 'satisfy' themselves that the correct action has been completed. The mind could be a republic of such schemata, programmed to compete among themselves for control of the decision centers, individually waxing and waning in power in response to the relative urgency of the physiological needs of the body being signaled to the conscious mind, then the brain stem and midbrain. 'Will' might be the outcome of the competition, requiring the action of neither a 'little man' nor any external agent."#5

Some process such as the above is what Wilson and Lumsden appear to mean when they say things like "So there is a kind of genetic destiny, one that nevertheless steered mankind away from a proven fate and toward the creation of free will."#6 and (when discussing the power of culture in altering the nature and direction of biological evolution) "... free will appears to be in charge."#7

Ruelland is particularly incensed by the sociobiologists' suggestion that an understanding of human biology is crucial for determining a better future for humanity. The reason for his unhappiness with this is not clear to me. Isn't knowledge always better than ignorance? He then goes on to accuse Richard Dawkins (a world-renowned evolutionary theorist and humanist at Oxford University) of claiming that man is simply the vehicle for his genes. What Dawkins actually said is that the individual serves as the vehicle whose adaptation (and thus survival sufficiently long to reproduce) determines the content of the gene pool of the species -- just as the individual is also the carrier and creator of the ideas, values, customs and norms of the culture, or what he called "memes". But there is nothing demeaning to the human spirit in this crucial role in the glorious joint streams of biological and cultural evolution!

Ruelland refers (apparently with distaste) to sociobiological hypotheses concerning possible innate sources of aggression, maternal bonding, sexual preference, religion and altruism. It is true that these -- along with a propensity to dichotomize one's fellows into "us" and "them" -- are the subjects on which most of the research has focused, and already many studies have been reported and replicated and a few extremely tentative conclusions arrived at. So far, the findings indicate that there is indeed some genetic basis for aggressiveness in males, although clearly this can be overridden by environmental conditioning, and -- perhaps more important -- the particular form the behaviors take will be culturally determined. Maternal and sexual bonding seem to a considerable degree shaped by innate urges. A number of studies claim to have found that the human propensity for ritual (often referred to sloppily as religiosity) has genetic roots and a beneficial social function. As for altruism and homosexuality, they are such complex behaviors and the evidence is so inconclusive that I will once more defer to Wilson for a summary of his conclusions on these matters.

Wilson suggests that there are two kinds of altruism: "hard-wired" or genetically determined, and the "soft-wired" or reciprocal variety which is environmentally shaped (although built upon innate propensities). The former is explained by the theory of kin selection, and is manifested not only in pair bonding and parent-child bonding, but in the self-sacrificing behavior of siblings, whose genes are carried on by the children of the brothers or sisters whom they protect, even though they do not themselves reproduce. According to him, "This form of natural selection ... can cause a spread of altruistic behavior toward close kin other than offspring ... In human beings and a few of the most intelligent monkeys and apes, the circle of altruism is broadened by reciprocal altruism. In this soft-core form of giving, the act is performed with the expectation that the beneficiary will repay in kind at some future date."#8 He has also written that 'the form and intensity of altruistic acts are to large extent culturally determined. Human social evolution is obviously more cultural than genetic. The point is that the underlying emotion, powerfully manifested in virtually all human societies, is what is considered to evolve through the genes."#9

Wilson notes the irony involved in the fact that it is this underlying, "unselfish" emotion that is responsible for the nepotism and tribalism which are at the root of so many of the wars throughout history, while the "selfish" reciprocal and learned form of altruism is what we need to promote if we are to build a better future. He is understandably concerned, as well, by the persistence of the "us/them" dichotomizing tendencies responsible for generating racism. Nonetheless he expresses hope that the genetically based selfishness of humans will eventually ensure the prevalence of a culturally induced awareness of the individual's long-term self-interest in peaceful cooperation.

On the subject of sexual preference, I want to respond to a charge made by Ruelland in his talk at the Guelph conference, even though he did not repeat it in his article. He said that the sociobiologists claim that homosexual genes are "inferior", and that is why they are programmed not to reproduce. This statement is so utterly unfounded and so potentially harmful in the present social milieu that I feel that it must not be allowed to go unchallenged. The fact is that it is only the sociobiologists who have offered a hypothesis about how a homosexual orientation might possibly be transmitted in the genes. Other evolutionary scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, have merely commented that it would be contrary to all that we know, because it would be difficult to imagine how homosexuality could have contributed to survival of the species. Wilson, on the other hand, offers two ways in which a genetic basis for homosexuality could nonetheless be the case.

One is that homosexual genes may possess superior fitness in heterozygous condition. "The simplest way genes producing such a condition can be maintained in evolution is if they are superior in the heterozygous state, that is, if heterozygotes survive into maturity better, produce more offspring, or both."#10 The second (and related) hypothesis is based on the theory of kin selection. "The homosexual members of primitive societies may have functioned as helpers ... assisting close relatives."#11 Wilson himself suggests the strong possibility that "homosexuality is normal in a biological sense, that it is a distinctive beneficial behavior that evolved as an important element in human social organization. Homosexuals may be the genetic carriers of some of mankind's rare altruistic impulses."#12

Ruelland repeats the old argument from philosophical dualism that a cause cannot be proven by its effects. This reveals a profound misunderstanding of modern science. Scientists do not expect to reveal the logical "proofs" of truth claims. Ever since Hume, most of them have understood that the logic of empirical inquiry is radically different from the deductive logic of Aristotle. While the latter has its role in the devising of internally consistent guiding theories, the test of scientific knowledge lies entirely in the disciplined, publicly communicable observation of the effects of deliberate alterations of conditions. All that humans can ever experience is the effects or consequences of existing events. To say that we can't derive a degree of workable and reliable knowledge through such experience is to say that we can never have confidence that any particular opinion about reality is better than any other. This reminds me of John Dewey's challenge to Bertrand Russell while the latter was still in his dualist phase. If the only way humans can experience causal relations among events is by experiencing their effects, he said, but if we can never come to know causes through their effects, then how, pray, are we to know them?

Scientists didn't get to the moon by sitting back and demanding logical proofs that the enterprise would work. In science we hypothesize causal explanations and test the reliability of these by checking the propositions that they yield against experience, according to a pre-established, controlled process. Of course what the experienced effects tell us may not be true for all time, but it is the best that we fallible humans can hope for.

Ruelland expresses scorn at the fact that sociobiology may have evolved from the most enduring ideas of the great evolutionary social thinkers of previous centuries. This is a weakness? I also don't understand how Ruelland derived his strange idea about two sets of genes housed within the human species. It certainly didn't come from any credible sociobiologist. It reveals such a profound misunderstanding of modern genetics and evolutionary science that the mind boggles. I will include this along with the charges of Social Darwinism and Fascist forms of eugenics as simply not worthy of further comment.

The chorus of calumny aimed at the human sociobiologists during the past twenty years is curiously similar to that experienced by Darwin over a century ago. This time there have been two major sources: (1) Marxist-oriented academics who hold as sacred the notion that human nature is infinitely malleable and totally open to environmental influence; and (2) scholars in the humanities and certain of the anti-science social "sciences" who cling to philosophical dualism and accordingly reject any suggestion that the scientific process is applicable to all aspects of nature -- humankind included. A third group adding fuel to the fire consists of "pop" sociobiologists, with little scholarly background in either biology or the social sciences, who have climbed enthusiastically onto the bandwagon of a wholesale genetic determinism -- either reporting on or turning out studies that are badly flawed both conceptually and methodologically. There are also those who mistakenly focus on the group rather than the individual as the vehicle of evolution. With friends like these, sociobiology doesn't need enemies.

But the two sets of critics mentioned above are indeed enemies. The dualists have usually confined themselves to a scholarly, although outdated, attack on the philosophical premises of sociobiology. The activities of the Marxist-oriented group, however, have been a disgrace to the academic community. Marx would have disowned them. He was one of the early strong supporters of Darwin. His own groundbreaking recognition of the shaping power of culture did not exclude biological limits but, rather, came as a much-needed counter-balance to the prevailing supernaturalist determinism of the time.

From the beginning, the first group of critics employed ad hominem attacks and misrepresentations of the ideas put forward by the legitimate sociobiologists. For the vast majority of the public who had never encountered the primary sources, this caricature of the new discipline replaced the original works of the founders. The perversion was so successful that Right-wingers (especially in France) actually adopted what they thought was sociobiology, and began using the term to justify their racist diatribes. Countless others then took up arms against this grossly repellant fictional creature, and the battle grew apace. This is very likely the source of many of Ruelland's strange misconceptions. It is my hope that the counter evidence presented here will convince him to read again those thought-provoking books by Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins to which he has referred throughout his paper.



  1. Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Spring, 1996), p. 9; 12-14.
  2. Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson, Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p.23.
  3. Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), p.575.
  4. Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson (1983), p.19.
  5. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), p.76.
  6. Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson (1983), p.55.
  7. Ibid., p.120.
  8. Ibid, p.31.
  9. Edward O. Wilson (1978), p. 153.
  10. ---------------------- (1975), p.555.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Edward O. Wilson (1978), p.143.