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Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

The Nature-Nurture Square Dance

In which our reviewer claims that sociobiology is here to stay

Michael Ruse

"Love of Shopping" Is Not a Gene: Problems with Darwinian Psychology

Anne Innis Dagg

Black Rose Books

256 pages, hardcover and softcover

ISBN: 1551642573

In 1975, the world’s leading authority on ants decided to break out and go for the big time. Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson had already had 20 years of stunning success as an evolutionary biologist. He had worked on ants from all over the world; he had been the coauthor with ecologist Robert MacArthur of a hypothesis about island biogeography that is still the lynchpin of our studies about the flows of organisms in and out of restricted areas; and he had just finished major studies on the nature and functions of pheromones, methods of chemical communication particularly important for insects. Now, however, he wanted to do something rather different. He wanted to bring together and establish explicitly a whole new area of study, the evolution of social behaviour. And so he produced a grand overview: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

The idea was not that new. In 1859, the English naturalist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, announcing to the world his theory of evolution through natural selection. Darwin argued that more organisms are being born than can possibly survive and reproduce, that there is a consequent “struggle for existence,” and that those that do succeed (the “fitter”) will be different from those that do not. These differences will be the crucial factors in success, and hence there will be a constant “selecting” of one kind of feature over another. This will lead over time to full-blown evolution. Moreover, the evolution will be in the direction of organic adaptation— features such as the eye, the hand and the mouth—that enable the winners to succeed.

Darwin realized fully that adaptations were not just physical features. They had to include behaviour also. There is little point in having teeth and jaw muscles if they are never going to be used for chewing food. Moreover, in a sense, behaviour is the controlling factor in the struggle for existence. It’s all very well having the physique and beauty of a Greek god, but unless you put it to some end, fighting competitors or attracting mates, it goes for naught. Indeed, it has been said that evolution is guided by the four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing and sexual intercourse.

But Darwin also saw that behaviour is more subtle than simply feeding and fighting and so forth. Often in life, a cake shared is better than a cake fought over. If you fight, you might get all of the cake, but you might get none—a third party might pinch it while you are fighting—and you might get hurt, even if you do win. So Darwin realized that natural selection would promote social behaviour, and in the Origin he spent much time looking at exemplars such as the hymenoptera (the ants, the bees and the wasps) that are noted for their cooperation.

From the viewpoint of a biologist, the trouble with behaviour is that it is very hard to study. You can catch your fish or your mammal, kill it and put it in formaldehyde, and then take it back to the lab to study its physical adaptations many months or years later. Behaviour does not last like this. And it is often nigh impossible to spot in the wild, and difficult to simulate in captivity. So although Darwin’s theory took off, behaviour— including social behaviou —lagged. It was not until the 1960s that things started to change, fuelled partly by a whole set of new theoretical models about social behaviour (developed largely by a young English biologist named William Hamilton) and partly by people such as Jane Goodall, who were starting long-term, extensive studies of animal behaviour in nature.

By the mid 1970s, the time was ripe. Picking a name that had drifted in and out of focus for many years, Wilson christened the whole field “sociobiology.” He covered the theory and then, in an absolutely stupendous act of scholarship, he surveyed the animal world from alpha to omega. Of course, he had the insects at his fingertips— literally and metaphorically—but Wilson looked at the lot, from slime moulds through lower vertebrates, up to mammals and then to the great apes. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is a big book in every sense of the term—more than 700 large pages, double columned.

Finally, at the end, Wilson devoted 30 pages to a discussion of Homo sapiens. Why do we have sexual divisions, with males doing one set of things and females doing another set, with males being more aggressive and females more choosy? Because males and females have different sexual strategies—one male can impregnate many females (but he might end up with none), whereas any fertile female can have a certain limited number of offspring, but she is bound to bring them up herself. So biologically, it pays a male to keep trying, whereas it pays a female to be very, very careful. Why do we have religion? Because humans need ways of bonding—of getting over their natural inclinations to selfishness— and religion promotes group cohesiveness. What about ethics? Much the same thing. Natural selection tends to promote self-interest, something that can backfire when you live in a group. If I don’t help you when you need it, you won’t help me when I need it. So ethics gives us a necessary inclination to work with others and to offer help.

Although his particular explanations may have been new, in looking at humans I should say that Wilson was following the pattern of every evolutionist back to (and beyond) Darwin. Twelve years after publishing the Origin, Darwin penned The Descent of Man, in which he argued firmly that human nature is rooted in its evolutionary past. Darwin took up sex, religion and ethics, too, and, following him, every evolutionist did the same. Just before Wilson, the North American evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky given over a whole book to human evolution— Mankind Evolving—arguing that natural selection had been an important (although by no means exclusive) causal factor in our origin. So, to a large extent, Wilson’s work was a case of old wine in new bottles.

Initially, Wilson’s book went down very well, but then the attacks began. For ten years he was called just about everything, and the critics did not stop at words. At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he had a bucket of water poured over his head, to cries of “Professor Wilson, you are all wet.” The critics went after every part of Wilson’s work— and since it was a synthesis, implicitly or explicitly they were going after the work of everyone in the field. It was judged unfalsifiable and then (somewhat inconsistently) false. It was called sloppy and dishonest. It was labelled as rightwing ideology in scientific clothing. And much more.

The obvious reasons for the criticism were that the critics were justified, and that the science was not very good. But this explanation does not really satisfy. Being “not very good” has never stopped anything. Phrenology—the science of brain bumps—flourished for well over a century, and it never attracted the kind of hostility that was directed toward Wilson. In any case, a lot of the science surveyed in Sociobiology was very good indeed. People such as Jane Goodall were and still are rightly well known and admired because of their empirical studies. The same is even more true of the theory.

It was the notion of animal behaviour in humans that upset folk. If you explain sexual behaviour—for instance, why most human societies have been polygynous (some men with multiple wives, some men with none)—in terms of biology rather than right and wrong and lust and original sin, you can expect denunciation from the pulpit. Social scientists also have a vested interest in seeing us as special. They have no desire to be pushed out of their jobs and replaced by biologists. I should say that their worries were not without justification. Wilson and his colleagues showed massive insensitivity to the insecurities of sociologists and others, and did have grand plans for expansion.

Some of the opposition might not have been expected, for it came from evolutionary biologists— indeed, two of the most vocal critics (the geneticist Richard Lewontin and the paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould) were actually colleagues of Wilson in the same department at Harvard University. Why were they so upset? It is tempting to give a sociobiological explanation, in terms of competition among alpha males. No one becomes a full professor at Harvard unless brutal in competition and unwilling to see anyone else share the limelight.

I suspect that there is some truth in this, but more readily significant was that this was a time when (thanks to Vietnam and other factors) professors tended to be highly politicized, and Wilson’s critics were people of the left. Gould came from a Marxist background and Lewontin was a new convert with the enthusiasm of St. Paul. These people saw in sociobiology a resurgence of theories of nature over nurture, which as followers of Marx they felt obliged to oppose. Putting nature first would justify all that was wrong with society, and leave us with the conclusion that nothing could be done to right society’s wrongs—capitalism, sexism, racism and more.

Another factor in play was that Wilson’s critics—many of whom were Jewish—saw in human sociobiology a resurgence of the genetically deterministic ideas of National Socialism, and for this reason felt that they had to oppose it with everything in their power. Before it be objected that this could never have been the reason, read Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, in which he links sociobiology with Nazi racism. I was a good friend of Gould (who died two years ago) and talked to him about this matter several times, and he admitted openly that, although he did not think Wilson himself even a crypto-Nazi, he saw any biological approach to humankind as the thin end of a very big and unpleasant wedge.

The critics had some good points. Certainly judged by today’s standards, Wilson and his cothinkers often did show surprising insensitivity to people and their attitudes. Not just in their contempt for social scientists, but also in their analyses of human nature. They did assume automatically that (to take some examples) men will by nature be better in places of business than will women, that racial differences matter, and that (despite ethics and cooperation) a reasonably high level of aggression is the way that things will always be. Having said that, the sociobiologists were never crude racists or sexists—the beliefs ofLarry Summers, the president of Harvard, that girls might not be up to maths, did not come from reading Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

So, where are we today, three decades later? Sociobiology as such is no longer controversial. The study of animal social behaviour from an evolutionary perspective is old hat, and done successfully in every biology department on every campus. Human sociobiology is more cautious. It tends to hide itself away a bit, in physical anthropology for instance. And it calls itself by innocuous names—human behavioral ecology or evolutionary psychology. But it goes on, and by and large is pretty successful. Take, for instance, the recently discovered “hobbit” on an island in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis lived about 20,000 years ago (or more recently) and was one metre tall, with a small brain but with incredibly advanced abilities including tool use. Anyone who argued that we should not try to understand this being in terms of natural selection and social behaviour would be thought to be nuts. The most obvious question is about its size, and the most obvious answer is that size is an adaptive feature and that H. floresiensis simply follows a well-established rule that isolated island forms are often pygmy-like, because of lack of resources and lack of competitors. Good reasons to be small and no good reasons to be big.

As an example of sociobiological work on us humans today, consider the outstanding studies of McMaster psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson. They have looked at homicide and come up with fascinating results, for instance, about the extent to which one finds family violence results from step-parenting. You might think that this was obvious, but it was apparently not obvious to social workers and family agencies. Until Daly and Wilson went looking, no one collected these sorts of statistics at all.

Enter Anne Innis Dagg, with her new book “Love of Shopping” Is Not a Gene: Problems with Darwinian Psychology. I confess that opening this book was rather like watching one of those Michael J. Fox movies, where you are suddenly transported back in time to the days of your parents’ youth. I fully expected to see guys in bellbottom trousers and girls told not to wear pants on campus. (I kid you not. That was the rule at McMaster when I immigrated to Canada four decades ago.) Dagg, who teaches at the University of Waterloo, loathes and detests attempts to relate human beings to their evolutionary backgrounds. (For all that, her book is “dedicated to the memory of Charles Darwin…a true scientist who documented his theory with verifiable facts.” Has she ever heard of The Descent of Man?)

Reading Dagg is like a night out at the fun fair. She sets up all of the old targets and then knocks them all down. Aggression? Don’t kid yourselves. It is really not part of human nature. Most of us would rather sit around having a cold beer than beat the shit out of someone else. (I thought that Hockey Night in Canada was supposed to satisfy both of those desires simultaneously, but that of course was in the old days when one used to have Hockey Night in Canada.) Men dominant over women? Not in most societies, including Canada until the Jesuits turned up and spoiled everything with their customs from Europe. Men get turned on by women’s body parts or even photos of them? Not at Waterloo, apparently. Even trying to get undergraduates to participate in studies about sexual interests and attractiveness is flawed from the start, maintains Dagg, because the students generally have not yet had any kids. Gosh! And there was me thinking that the whole idea of sex was to get people to have kids, not just to get us old farts off to a good night’s sleep.

I confess I despair at stuff like this. Go back a moment to the topic of male dominance. It is a basic premise of all Darwinian biology that if one sex is being used entirely to the ends of the other sex, things are bound to break down. Selection will favour going with the powerfulsex—better that one’s children be on the winning side—until, before long, the powerful sex will lose out because there will be few or no available mates. Everybody will be on the winning side, but there will be nothing to win—at which point, the power moves to the other sex. Males cannot possibly be dominant without any qualifications. Such a consequence flatly contradicts Darwinian selection.

The true point is that, as we all know—especially Ed Wilson, who had a strong Christian upbringing—dominance is a very ambiguous word indeed. Take the classic case of so-called patriarchy, the Patriarchs themselves. At one level, you could not imagine a more explicit case of male power than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But remember what happens. Sarah, who has first put her handmaiden in Abraham’s way, has her own son, and suddenly will tolerate no nonsense about Hagar and her son, Ishmael. Out they go, whatever the old man may think. And Rebekah tricks Isaac into giving his blessing to her favourite, Jacob. And so the story goes on. Jacob’s favourite, Joseph, gets (apparently) done in by the kids from other mothers, and only gets his own back when he emigrates and makes goodin a new country.

The Patriarchs are about as dominant as I am when my wife and kids want Hawaiian pizza and I want pepperoni and mushrooms. Or more precisely, the Patriarchs—analogous to many male in most or every society—are dominant, but this does not mean that they always have total power and behave like Vito Corleone in The Godfather. The force and control of adult males are balanced— moderated, attenuated, circumscribed, supported in exchange for favours, and otherwise drained and made neutral (or neutered)—by the skills and abilities of others, especially adult women. And these others, especially adult women, have their say and their control and their benefits. (You never thought that the female editor of this review was letting me have a totally free hand in my writing, did you?)

What worries me is that the old slurs are being cast and these are used to support calls for action of the wrong kind or inaction about the right kind. At a general level, we learn that people who take seriously the idea that biology had a hand in making human nature have a right-wing bias, whether they know it or not. Frankly, this seems to me in fact or theory to be unlikely.My experience of people like Wilson (including myself) is that most of us have left-wing (although not Marxist) sympathies. We are comfortable with the socialism of the British Fabians, and would in Canada generally vote for the New Democratic Party (except when we are voting strategically to keep the Tories out). Right-wing today, especially in the United States, is associated either with libertarians (such as Barry Goldwater) or with evangelical Christianity (such as George W. Bush). Sociobiologists are not libertarian because they take social relations as fundamental, and most Darwinians today are very uncomfortable with any kind of religion, let alone evangelical Christianity.

At a specific level, we learn from Dagg that human sociobiology (or Darwinian psychology as she calls it) demeans people with minority sexual orientations and behaviour, notably homosexuals. Dagg implies that there is something wrong about Darwinians and the way that they focus on homosexuality at all, and suggests that when they do they come up with biological answers that are the rationale for all kinds of horrible social solutions. Not that others are much better either. Freudians are misogynists, and far better not to raise or discuss the topic at all. “Whether homosexuality is related more to genetics or to environment, to nature or nurture, remains unknown and unimportant.”

To respond: Darwinism puts a premium on reproduction. For Darwinians, therefore, to wonder why (in both animal and human worlds) we have homosexual behaviour and inclinations is simply a matter of normal science. If you have a theory, you have good reasons to wonder about the apparent exceptions. As a scientist, you are obligated to see if indeed homosexuality is linked with reduced reproduction—unsurprisingly, studies (including those done by the Kinsey Institute) suggest that there is a link—and, given a connection, to ask for causal reasons that fit with the general theory. In itself, there are no moral connotations to suggesting that there might be pertinent genes as opposed to suggesting that there might be pertinent environments.

In fact, Dagg goes against herself on this point, for, having labelled Darwinian psychology rightwing, she quotes figures suggesting that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to ascribe biology over culture (Democrats 66 percent to 34 percent; Republicans 39 percent to 61 percent). And while I have no particular desire to defend Freud and his fellows, I would point out that it was in major part because of him and his theories that we changed in the last century from thinking homosexuality a sin, first as being a sickness (something that Freud himself denied), and then simply as an alternative way of being and living. Perhaps it is misogynist to suggest that homosexuality is brought about by dominant mothers, but how does it alter the equation when it is suggested that absent or hostile fathers have an equal role to play in the etiology?

The point is that things are never quite as simple as Dagg suggests. More than this, her attitudes— although cloaked in an aura of moral outrage at her opposition—are in many respects downright wrong. Canada may be a little more enlightened on gays and their rights, but I live in Florida. Already this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal against a Floridian law that bars homosexual couples from adopting children. This from a state that has 8,000 kids living in foster homes, waiting for adoption. How dare anyone—how dare any intelligent person—say we should not look into causes of sexual orientation?

Perhaps people are gay because of parental behaviour. Frankly, I very much doubt it. Perhaps people are gay because of their biology. This may be true. But, for goodness’ sake, even though some people will undoubtedly call for elimination of possible gay genes—although since these people are invariably against screening and selective abortion, it will be interesting to see their convolutions—let us continue to look at the causal issues. Research into the causes of homosexuality might eventually help remove a vile law like the one in Florida. At least it will not help to keep it on the books. It was prejudice and superstition that put it there in the first place.

The time has come to get over the battles of the 1970s, and in this age when the human genome has been sequenced and we know so much more about our basic biology, we should turn to work fruitfully at all levels—biological and cultural—to try to understand human nature. For those who have not yet read it, might I suggest, as an alternative to “Love of Shopping” Is Not a Gene, a book by the English science writer Matt Ridley. His Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human is more informative and better written. And you will come away impressed with the significance of biology for the understanding of human nature.

Michael Ruse, a refugee from compulsory retirement laws, now living and working in Florida, was for 35 years a professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph. He has written many books on the history and philosophy of Darwinian evolutionary theory. With Socrates, he believes that good food and drink are highly conducive to deep philosophical thought.

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