E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology and the Marxist Response: A Critique of the Critics

By Sharan K. Garlapati
2021, Vol. 13 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

Abstract

Sociobiology is a sub-discipline of biology that aims to examine and explain social behavior in terms of evolution. It is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing from disciplines including psychology, ethology, anthropology, evolution, zoology, archaeology, and population genetics (Wilson 2000). While the term "sociobiology" appeared at least as early as the 1940s, the concept itself did not gain significant recognition until the publication of Dr. E. O. Wilson's, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. This book pulled together a vast body of zoology, ethology, and research from other disciplines related to Dr. Wilson's principal entomology, to birth a new concept demonstrating that the collective social behaviors of animals are influenced by their genes, which in turn are selected for by the environment. In the last chapter, he explicitly included our species Homo Sapiens. This new field quickly became the subject of controversy, and spirited attacks were levied on its founder. Sociobiology and its founder received an immense amount of criticism, especially from ideological Marxists—much of which has been unintellectual and non-academic in substance. Many geneticists who adhered to ideological Marxism and belonged to the 'Lewontinian' program believed that any study of the genetic background of human social behavior must inevitably lead to harmful social consequences—and levied a constant stream of critiques and attacks upon Dr. Wilson. It was genuinely concerning that the critics themselves were not motivated by academic interest, scholarship, collegiality, or intellectual honesty but by their socio-political inclinations.

E.O. Wilson defined Sociobiology as "the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization" (Wilson 2000). Dr. Wilson, who until then had specialized in social insects, published a seven-hundred-page book in 1975: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis investigates social behaviors such as mating, territorial conflicts, pack hunting, and the social societies of hive insects. In later chapters, he applied his theories of insect behavior to vertebrates. Sociobiological theorists argue that just as selection pressure led to animals evolving practical ways of interacting with their habitat, it has also led to the genetic evolution of advantageous social behaviors. Sociobiology is closely allied with evolutionary anthropology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology (Lumsden; Wilson 1982). In On Human Nature, Dr. Wilson speculated that evolved and inherited tendencies were responsible for hierarchical social organization and other interpersonal behaviors among humans. Dr. Wilson and his two most outspoken critics—the population geneticist Richard C. Lewontin and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould—actually all worked in various caves and annexes of the same building (Morison et al. 1976). Much of this debate, which gained international attention, played out in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, a dusty maze of buildings containing offices, laboratories, and exhibits of fossils, taxidermies, and other interesting artifacts. However, the sociobiology controversy would be misconstrued if it were seen as merely an in-house quarrel between Harvard professors. In their attacks on sociobiology, Lewontin and his supporters denied the proper application of evolutionary biology, delivered unusual attacks, failed to engage in bilateral discourse, applied unscientific ideology, employed unfair epistemological comparisons, and were intellectually dishonest. Indeed, there are many valid critiques to be made of sociobiology, as any field—but it has clearly been unfairly singled out and harshly critiqued by this 'Lewontinian' program.

Evolutionary Biology and its Application in the Study of Human Behavior

What bothered Dr. Wilson's critics the most was his plan to extend evolutionary theory into the realm of human social behavior, exploring "ostensibly cultural traits in the genetic history of Homo Sapiens" (Lewontin 1979). Critics, led by Dr. Richard Lewontin and Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, argued that traits such as aggressiveness, altruism, etc., could be explained more by the social environment than biology, citing Marx and other political theorists in their rebuttals (Levins; Lewontin 1985). Dr. Wilson and other Sociobiologists responded to this by pointing to the complex relationship between nature and nurture and arguing against making generalizations based on ideological preconceptions. The whole concept, his critics charged, was speculative, deterministic, misleading, and "menacingly reminiscent" of the most notorious political theories of the century, which argued the biological superiority and inferiority of particular human groups (Lewontin 1980). In fact, his critics believed that any study of the genetic background of human social behavior must inevitably lead to dire social consequences. Sociobiologists countered that their speculations are responsible ones and that the applications of their theory to human behaviors are logical and applied only for academic purposes (Wilson 1980). Dr. Wilson purported that some of the vitriol directed at Sociobiology occurred because the concept threatened well-established religious, humanistic, and political ideologies that had attributed human social behavior to uniquely human capabilities, such as freedom of choice, language, and altruism.

A Pattern of Unusual Attacks and Un-Academic Rebuttals

The attacks on Dr. Wilson have been on his scientific reputation, academic conscience, as well as on his nerves. In the past, he has been a physical as well as a verbal target of his opponents. For example, when he came forward to present Sociobiological theory at a meeting of the AAAS (a non-profit which promotes scientific outreach and collaboration), a band of activists dumped water over his head and accused him of all forms of bigotry, inclusive of racism and sexism (Lumsden; Wilson 1982). Such an attack based on a difference in worldview, or even ideology, on a fellow scientist was wrong, unintellectual, and illiberal. Wilson has insisted that there is no inherent rightist or leftist political slant to sociobiology. He said, in fact, that scientific interest in the discipline has spread even to the (officially socialist at the time) Soviet Union and to other parts of Eastern Europe—a point confirmed by other scholars (Morison et al. 1976). When human behavior is scrutinized for its biological constraints and tendencies, the entomologist argued, it is a scandal only in the perspectives of American Marxists. "Biologically determinist arguments all have a similar form,'' Dr. Wilson's colleague Richard Lewontin wrote in an attack on sociobiology, claiming that they all describe a particular model of society. ''It is not surprising,'' the geneticist wrote, ''that the model of society that turns out to be natural, just, and unchangeable bears a remarkable resemblance to the institutions of modern industrial Western society, since the ideologues who produce these models are themselves privileged members of just such societies" (Lewontin 1979). Lewontin is, in fact, a proclaimed Marxist, politically and philosophically, as well as a widely respected geneticist who had been studying how natural selection works on enzymes and proteins. He sprinkled his attacks on sociobiology with quotations from Engels and Marx, which was quite unusual for a natural scientist to do in an academic rebuttal.

Dr. Wilson, though no longer branded a fascist, is still assumed by some to be politically conservative. The man himself sees his opinions as politically liberal, egalitarian, and materialistic (Wilson 2004), yet he has undoubtedly attracted conservative supporters. He made clear, in his nineteen-eight-three book ''Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind'' and elsewhere that the first and loudest attacks of sociobiology came from "Science for the People," which he identified as ''an action group that promoted Marxism-Leninism in a manner specialized to subordinate science to the service of that ideology.'' Several biologists think Dr. Wilson's sociobiology would have suffered more consequential damage from the criticism if the critics had limited the scope of their attacks to the discipline's scientific and logical shortcomings, if the political objections had been omitted, or at least come from somewhere closer to the political center; but this was not the case. Dr. Wilson has directly suggested that Lewontin's political beliefs may have affected his scientific view of sociobiology (Wilson 2004). Robert Trivers has described Lewontin as "a man with great talents who often wasted them on foolishness, on preening and showing off, on shallow political thinking and useless philosophical rumination while limiting his genetic work by assumptions congenial to his politics" (Morison et al. 1976). Lewontin has at times identified himself as Marxist and asserted that his philosophical views had "bolstered" his scientific work (Levins; Lewontin 1985). This certainly puts his academic motives into question if he has admitted that his political biases directly affect his science.

One-sided Professional Discourse, and only Unilateral Collegiality

In writing Sociobiology: a New Synthesis, Dr. Wilson specifically used modern population biology, for he saw this as the theoretical underpinning of any claims about the evolution of social behavior. As a modern biologist, Wilson was especially interested in employing the mathematical formulas of population genetics, through which evolution by natural selection could be expressed as a change in the gene frequencies of traits (Lumsden; Wilson 1982). Lewontin, himself a population geneticist, had published an influential book of his own, criticizing most of the current claims made in his particular field. In this work, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, Lewontin spelled out the problems faced by his specialization because of specific new scientific findings and suggested that fundamental theoretical revisions would have to be made within that field for it to produce valid predictive statements. Lewontin's point, essentially, was those simple older formulas for calculating population genetics were incorrect because they did not consider recently detected complex interactions between individual genes. Still, erroneously, genes were treated as akin to separate beans within a bag (Lewontin 1980). In his later publications, Dr. Wilson did not ignore the criticisms raised by Lewontin. In fact, he had approvingly discussed Lewontin's points in Sociobiology: a New Synthesis.

Dr. Wilson explicitly stated that he decided to go ahead and use existing formulas provisionally while he waited for better ones to be developed; this was because, for Dr. Wilson, population biology was just a means to his larger goal. Wilson saw nothing wrong with making do with what existed, but Lewontin focused on the fact that he used "outdated formulas" in many of his criticisms (Lewontin 1980). Although significant, the usefulness of population genetic formulas as provisional tools would have been a rather strange issue to form a basis for a serious controversy. After all, Wilson and Lewontin were not in disagreement about the theoretical correctness of Lewontin's criticism anyway. It is only when matters are put in the context of the larger agendas of these two scientists that it becomes clear that the decision of Wilson's to publish Sociobiology: The New Synthesis came effectively to undermine those of Lewontin. The Wilson continued to conduct himself in a collegial manner, accepting criticisms and feedback concerning the formulas, Lewontin failed to respond with any honest intellectual discourse. For him, Marxism is both a philosophical and sociopolitical program. Thus, Lewontin is concerned with correct epistemology, methodology, and ontology (which fits ideologically with Marxism); this is because, for him, incorrect approaches prevent us from finding out the underlying "truth" about the world. Thus, reductionism is, in principle, a wrongheaded foundation for science (even though he admits that it has seemingly led to steady progress in most of the natural sciences). This is why Lewontin is interested in developing a more complex Marxist dialectical approach to science, which would capture accurately— those interaction phenomena that reductionist methodology cannot cope with (Morison et al. 1976). Perhaps his model would even be so complex as to make its criticisms rare because of how few could actually understand it. Nevertheless, it is certainly not difficult to see why Dr. Wilson's explicit choice of a reductionist approach in sociobiology on many accounts was absolute anathema to Lewontin's meta-scientific convictions in general, but even more so because Wilson chose to include human society. By invoking assumptions about human nature and society, he addressed the socio-political dimension of Lewontin's Marxism as well, adding more fuel to his ideological fire.

Marxist Typological Thinking, Ideology, and the use of Group Averages in Science

But just how did sociobiology then find itself into American Marxists' anti-racist agenda in a broader sense? Wilson prides himself on being a liberal thinker—the sort of person who naturally falls around the center politically. There is no overt racism in any of his publications concerning sociobiology. It is difficult to see how Wilson, by stressing population genetics, based expressly on individual variation, could be construed as a racist who emphasized group differences. This is especially the case, considering Wilson directly quotes Lewontin's anti-racism paper dealing with blood group data, adding: "There is no a priori reason for supposing that this sample of genes possesses a distribution much different from those of other, less accessible systems affecting behavior" (Wilson 2000). Lewontin instead drew a connection by association. What he said in Sociobiology: Another Biological Determinism was the following: "Sociobiology is not a racist doctrine, but any genetic determinism can and does feed other kinds, including the belief that some races are superior to others." For Lewontin, this was enough of a reason to oppose sociobiology in its entirety. Starting with the New York Review of Books, a stream of articles and addresses, with and without co-thinkers, Lewontin anathematized the Wilsonian program.

A common Marxist scientific position is opposition to typological thinking and group averages in science and the resistance to racism in society. What they do not accept, because of ideological commitments, is the necessary counterpart to this view: the stress on individual genetic differences. Any significant influence of the genes would be wrong within or without the group and therefore had to be discounted as an important causal factor (Morison et al. 1976). No doubt, one reason for this was precisely the ease with which the "innocent layman" and academics alike might still be caught in typological thinking or feel free to apply individual differences to group differences—an epistemological error with broad social implications. Ironically, therefore, apart from Wilson, the prime targets of Marxist attacks as a critic have been precisely such scientists who have explicitly voiced leftist-style beliefs about the social value of identifying individual genetically based talent (Morison et al. 1976). But for many Marxists, typological thinking has to do with more than race differences: it applies to any assertion about inherent differences between human groups, be these based on race, sex, class, or ethnicity. Thus, the fight against typological thinking has been expanded into a battle against "biological determinism" in general.

According to Marxists, the pronouncements by American academics about inherent differences between groups have always served to uphold the social status quo. Thus, the fight against typological thinking in general means not only an attack on research explicitly intended to establish an innate basis for group differences but also an attack on any research on differences in innate ability between individuals because of the ease with which such differences might be correlated with some social category, like race, sex, ethnic group or class, and thereby be used as grounds for discriminatory social practices in the service of social power holders (Lumsden; Wilson 1982). Therefore, while Dr. Wilson's sociobiological program, for it to be amenable to the formulas of population genetics, was dependent exactly on a postulated available genetic variation in human behavioral traits, it was precisely this feature of the program that Marxists guided by Lewontin to combat racism and "biological determinism," would have to oppose. And while Wilson's scientific-cum-moral agenda motivated him to accept the existing research in human behavioral genetics at face value, a Marxist's critical agenda made him dismiss most of the research in this field as not meeting their minimum scientific standards.

The Use of Unfair Epistemological Comparisons

One of the chief criticisms of sociobiology has been that it is not testable or is deliberately unfalsifiable. Wilson rejects the accusation that the sociobiology of genes, mind, and culture is non-testable: he has, thus, gone ahead with his program, answered his critics, and created explicit, testable mathematical models for his claims (Wilson 1980). More specifically, he has coped with the criticism of the mysterious "multiplier effect," which had been under suspicion ever since the critics' first letter in the New York Review of Books. A common feature of some negative reviews was that they regarded it as an error to use a particularistic view of mind and culture. But none of the initial reviews dealt seriously with the mathematics involved, even though the book's central claims were derived only from its mathematical models. If this was indeed the case, then criticism of other aspects of the book could be seen as reactions having to do with more extraneous things, such as e.g., a particular critic's personal taste or beliefs. The problem was that no one seemed willing to deal with the mathematics in detail necessary to either substantiate or refute the authors' claims. One must not assume simply that the reviewers are set against any attempt at putting human sociobiology on a firm basis. Indeed, it is essential in this context that Dr. Maynard Smith considers human sociobiology entirely legitimate. In an interview, he said that the anthropologist Dr. Mildred Dickeman especially had convinced him about the applicability of sociobiological models to humans (Morison et al. 1976). Furthermore, the reviewers take a strong public stance against other critics like Lewontin: "Ridicule is not an alternative to criticism." And as to criticisms that the book's models are reductionist, they retort: "It is not obviously true that an atomistic analysis of society is doomed to failure." Finally, Maynard Smith, while a friend of Lewontin's, has systematically been defending Wilson's work against political accusations (Morison et al., 1976). These men are great examples of intellectually honest scientists who can fairly and honestly critique others' ideas, in contrast to some scientists of the Lewontinian program.

Similarly, Sociobiological theories are dismissed out of hand as bad biology because genes do not act in isolation from their environment. After all, development is a multi-leveled affair because mammalian behaviors result from interactions between experience and learning and biological mechanisms. Human actions originate from socialization mechanisms that ultimately involve the mind and so forth. Ignorance or denial of such facts is incorrectly attributed to Sociobiologists by their critics (Morison et al. 1976). To the extent that such facts involve proximate mechanisms of human behavior and given that these mechanisms do not exist within the scope of sociobiology, such facts are irrelevant to the success of sociobiology. Only evolutionarily significant human social variation comes under its scope (Wilson 2). Those who fail to appreciate the methodological independence of proximate and ultimate studies, Lewontin and Gould are not among them, misinterpret sociobiology as another genetic determinism. Genetic determinism has historically been a view about development in individuals, not evolution in populations. This much is evident from the central dichotomies used to express the issue: genes versus environment, innate versus learned, nature versus nurture. Like other biologists, Sociobiologists embrace the epigenetic view of development but have no particular ax to grind concerning the precise nature of these relations. Their talk of "genes for behavior B," where B is a specific social behavior, does not imply a one: one mapping of genes onto behaviors or even of the degree of genetic control (Lumsden; Wilson 1982). They are talking not about development, but about evolution, not about individuals, but evolution, not about individuals, but populations.

Though he has often been labeled a human biological determinist by his critics, Dr. Wilson has never contended that all or even most human social behavior is genetically determined. He stated in rough terms, that ''what we are talking about is that I see maybe ten percent of human behavior as genetic and ninety percent environmental. Lewontin would see it as zero percent genetic and all environmental" (Wilson 2004). But even ten percent has always seemed arbitrarily high to sociobiology's critics, and evidently, it still is. In critiques, Wilson himself was presented as a genetic determinist and ideologue supporting the status quo because of his interest in establishing the central traits of a genetically controlled human nature. The hostile tone of the some were evident: Wilson's attempt to include the human species as a legitimate object of analysis in terms of the concepts of the newly developed discipline sociobiology was linked to former "biological determinist" theories which had lent themselves to abuse for political reasons, including Hitler's genocide (Lumsden; Wilson 1982). Predictably, Wilson responded that the letter's co-signers had utterly distorted the content of his message and that their accusations were all false.

Duplicity and Intellectual Dishonesty Among the Critics

Critics have often stated that many of Dr. Wilson's claims about human nature do not arise from objective observation (either of universals in human behavior or generalities throughout animal societies) but a speculative reconstruction of human prehistory (Lewontin 1979). This reconstruction includes the familiar themes of territoriality, big-game hunting with females at home minding the kids and gathering vegetables "many of the peculiar details of human sexual behavior and domestic life flow easily from this basic division of labor" (Wilson 2000), and a particular emphasis on warfare between bands and the salutary advantages of genocide. But these arguments had arisen before and had, in fact, been strongly supported both based on historical and anthropological studies. The entire fields of History and Anthropology deal with the so-called "speculative reconstruction of human prehistory." It is unfair to single out Sociobiologists for doing so, and critique them for not knowing every detail of the past. Academics piece together all that is known into the corpus of human knowledge, and fields of study such as sociobiology use it as its basis.

Sociobiology has been unfairly characterized as being a "brand-new field: which has arisen out of nowhere" (Lewontin 1979). In fact, its ideas have not been spontaneously generated; It derives directly from behavioral ethology and behavioral psychology. Behavioral ethology is a science that uses evolutionary theory and especially adaptationist methods to try to understand animal behavior; this does not substantiate the claim that Sociobiologists are genetic determinists. For example, Wilson believes that there may be particular genes "for" behavioral traits, including indoctrinationality, altruism, warfare, and habitat construction, and that these genes are subject to evolutionary forces in the traditional sense. Indeed, they argue that claiming that traits have an evolutionary origin requires that there must be genes which code "for" them; Wilson's apparent acceptance that traits may often have a vital cultural component was said to be an error, because if this is the case, then evolutionary theory tells us nothing about the origin of such traits (Morison et al. 1976). Gould similarly claimed that Sociobiologists do not realize that genes only produce traits with a contribution from the environment.

Conclusion

In all, the criticisms of sociobiology and Dr. Wilson were intensely personal, dishearteningly dogmatic, and insufferably self-righteous in a tone that was a profoundly disturbing surprise. Indeed, the basic thesis that certain aspects of nature simply should not be investigated because of the possibility of unfortunate social consequences had not been seen in the west since Bruno was executed for his interest in the heliocentric theory. Though Dr. Wilson and two of his most outspoken critics—the population geneticist Richard C. Lewontin and his associate, Stephen Jay Gould—all worked in various caves and annexes of the same building, the sociobiology controversy would undoubtedly be misunderstood if it were seen as merely "an in-house quarrel between Harvard professors." It was genuinely concerning that the critics themselves were not motivated by academic interest, scholarship, collegiality, or intellectual honesty but by their socio-political inclinations. Many geneticists of this 'Lewontinian' program who adhered to ideological Marxism truly believed that any study of the genetic background of human social behavior must inevitably lead to harmful social consequences. Yet sociobiology is not, as critics reference, and popular press often describe it, a hypothesis about the genetic determination of human behavior. The Marxist rebuttals from the 'Lewontinian' program appear quite vain when contrasted with intellectually honest ones published by Dr. Smith and Dr. Dickeman. A well-established scientific discipline, sociobiology is the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior. Lewontin and his supporters denied the proper application of evolutionary biology, delivered unusual attacks, failed to engage in bilateral discourse, applied unscientific ideology, employed unfair epistemological comparisons, and were intellectually dishonest in their attacks on sociobiology. Indeed, there are many valid critiques to be made of sociobiology, as any field—but it has been unfairly singled out and harshly critiqued by the ideologically Marxist 'Lewontinian' program—much of which has been unfair and invalid. Though bygones are bygones, let this be a reminder to those that bring their personal views into the realm of science that history does not look kindly upon poor scholarship.


References

Lewontin R. C. (1979). Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program. Behavioral Science, 24(1), 5–14. https://doi.org/10.1002/bs.3830240103

Lewontin R. C. (1980). Sociobiology: Another Biological Determinism. International Journal of Health Services: planning, administration, evaluation, 10(3), 347–363. https://doi.org/10.2190/7826-DPXC-KA90-3MPR

Lumsden, C. J., & Wilson, E. O. (1982). Précis of Genes, Mind, and Culture. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5(1), 1–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/0166-4328(82)90086-9

Morison, R., Davis, B., & Miller, L. (1976). Sociobiology: The Debate Continues. The Hastings Center Report, 6(5), 18-50. doi:10.2307/3561253

Wilson, E. O. (2000). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvjnrttd

Wilson, E. O. (1980). The Ethical Implications of Human Sociobiology. The Hastings Center Report, 10(6), 27-29. doi:10.2307/3560296

Wilson, E. O. (2004).On Human Nature, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Harvard University Press.

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