The Sociobiological Conceit
the Darwinian paradigm gained ground throughout the life sciences
in the century after the publication of The
Origin of Species, some crucial topics remained beyond its
explanatory scope. One especially vexing problem for Darwinians
was the frequency of apparently altruistic behavior among living
beings. In Darwin's theory of organic evolution, there is no room
for the persistence of any behavior that does not promote the advancement
of the genetic line of the organism exhibiting it. If, for example,
dolphins often seem to act to rescue drowning humans by pushing
them to shore, then there must be some way in which their behavior
promotes the survival of the dolphins themselves. That dolphins
might simply have sympathy for the plight of the humans is an impermissible
hypothesis within Darwinism.
behavior, especially, was a puzzle. People join celibate religious
orders, donate to charity, become martyrs, risk their lives in daring
rescues of people they have never met, die for some cause in a bloody
revolution, and so on. How could the primary Darwinian postulate,
that all biological phenomena can be explained in terms of mutation
and natural selection, be reconciled with such behavior?
in the 1960s, Darwinists began to formulate solutions to the problem
of altruism. The approach they generally adopted attempted to demonstrate
that every apparent example of altruism was either self-serving
in some way or was simply an isolated pathology. For example, sacrificing
to defend one's homeland was interpreted as an adaptation that promoted
the survival of one's offspring or close relatives, and therefore
advanced the cause of one's genes, even if not one's own life.
there were still many examples of human behavior that could not
easily be attributed to such factors, for example, Mother Teresa
ministering to the poor of Calcutta, who were not genetically close
to her. Darwinists sought for further explanations. Suggestions
included the survival benefits of reciprocal "altruism"
(scratch my back and I'll scratch yours), the possibility of enhanced
sexual status through acts of bravery and sacrifice, and the manipulation
of one creature's genuinely adaptive mechanism by another creature,
in order to further the second creature's ends. Examples of the
last case include things like warblers being "tricked"
into raising the young of cowbirds (Schloss, p. 245).
sociobiological consensus arose, which viewed any notion a person
might have that he "really" was acting morally or altruistically
as an illusion. Darwinists often came to see morality as simply
a trick played on humans by natural selection. It was a way of duping
humans into acting so as to promote the survival of their genes.
For example, Edward Wilson, one of the founders of sociobiology,
says "[m]orality has no other demonstrable function" than
keeping "the human genetic material intact" (quoted by
Schloss, p. 246). In a similar vein, Robert Wright contends, "What
is in our genes' best interests seems 'right.' … Moral guidance
is a euphemism" (quoted by Schloss, p. 248).
first thing I wish to note about the sociobiological viewpoint is
that if sociobiologists are sincere in their beliefs, then they
are, by their own reckoning, enemies of human survival. If morality
is indeed "a collective illusion of the human race, fashioned
and maintained by natural selection in order to promote individual
reproduction" (Ruse, quoted by Schloss, p. 248), then exposing
that illusion could only be destructive to our species. Per the
sociobiologists' own view, any belief that there are moral principles
to which humans ought to adhere could only have become widespread
because it conferred survival value to the genes of those who held
it. Therefore, debunking such a belief must threaten human existence
itself. If sociobiologists think they have discovered a fact that
destructive, shouldn't they, for the sake of humanity, hide their
discovery, rather than, at every chance they get, advertise it?
I do not think sociobiologists are really threatening the human
race by forwarding their ideas, because their thinking is flawed
in even more fundamental ways, so that, rather than exposing an
illusion, they are actually spouting nonsense. First of all, if
natural selection requires certain modes of behavior from humans,
why should any sort of "illusion" be involved in eliciting
that behavior? Why didn't humans simply evolve so that such modes
of behavior were automatic for them? The idea that humans must experience
"a collective illusion" in order to behave in genetically
beneficial ways implies that there is some common feature of humanity,
the very feature that necessitates the "morality illusion,"
that does not promote genetic survival. But, per Darwinian theory,
how could such a common feature have survived?
the most decisive argument against this sort of theorizing is its
self-contradictory nature. After all, if moral ideas are simply
an "illusion" fostered on us by our genes then so are
all of our other ideas including the ideas of sociobiology!
rather than putting forward their theories as something "true,"
as the way things really are once we see through our silly moral
illusions, sociobiologists would have to admit that their own theories
are simply a product of their genes. Far from being a "scientific"
reality derived from looking at "evidence," sociobiological
theories must be some sort of "display," much like the
male peacock opening its tail. Sociobiological theories must increase
the reproductive success of sociobiologists perhaps their
brand of "hard-nosed realism" goes over well with young
academics at cocktail parties, or something of the sort.
Oakeshott has called ideas like the "sociobiological explanation"
of morality "categorically absurd" (p. 38). As he points
a geneticist tells us that 'all social behaviour and historical
events are the inescapable consequences of the genetic individuality
of the persons concerned' we have no difficulty in recognizing this
theorem as a brilliant illumination of the writings of Aristotle,
the fall of Constantinople, the deliberation in the House of Commons
on Home Rule for Ireland and the death of Barbarossa; but this brilliance
is, perhaps, somewhat dimmed when it becomes clear that he can have
nothing more revealing to say about his science of genetics than
that it also is all done by genes, and that this theorem is itself
his genes speaking" (p. 15).
M. (1975) On
Human Conduct, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
J.P. (1998) "Evolutionary Accounts of Altruism & the
Problem of Goodness by Design," in Dembski, W.A. (ed.) Mere
Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design, InterVarsity
Press: Downers Grove, Illinois, 236261.
2003 Gene Callahan
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives