Welcome to the list.
You ask what motivates sociobiologists. In addition to possible
ideological or monetary motives, there is the simple notion that one
can achieve scientific success with a new paradigm (Kuhn) or research
program (Lakatos) or system of 'alliances" (Latour) that provides a
framework for making many quasi-testable claims. The simplicity of the
"hunter-gatherers on the African savanna" scenario is well suited to
draw in followers with its seeming clarity and obviousness, and the goal
of any scientist (as such) is to draw in followers.
To defeat sociobiology, i would guess, requires not merely refuting
their claims, but demonstrating the existence of another research
program that can yield more promising results coherently and thus can
attract adherents. Presumably this would be a theory of cultural change
Also, you mention the brain plasticity argument, citing Pinker. I
haven't read that particular work by Pinker, but it seems to me that a
number of theorists of the brain, such as Gerald Edelman, emphasize
brain plasticity in a way that probably excludes some sociobiological
Good luck with your work.
Michael H. Goldhaber
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Samuel Waite wrote:
> Hello everyone. I'm new to the list.
> I'm working on an article intended to introduce young
> progressive activists to the history of (to varying
> degrees) biological determinist ideologies (especially
> in the U.S.), including sociobiology, evolutionary
> psychology, and racist and sexist science. The SftP
> archives have been of great use to me in this task.
> I'd now like to ask for some input from list
> The history of scientific racism, eugenics, etc. in
> the earlier part of the last century has been gone
> over in many other places before. I'm more concerned
> with such movements from around the 1960s to the
> The sociobiology wars, as I've come to understand
> them, could, I think, be summarized as lines from a
> E. O. Wilson: Because genes make the brain, and the
> brain is the mind, then our basic desires, emotions,
> etc., and by extension, our society, are shaped by
> evolutionary forces. Thus, women are predisposed to
> be congnitively and behaviorally different from ne in
> a manner different from men; and so feminism is
> hopeless. Further, humans may be inherently racist,
> aggressive, etc.; and the welfare state may have a
> deleterious effect.
> Gould, Lewontin, etc.: Your pronouncements are overly
> informed by the dominant ideology. In this way,
> they're dangerous in the same way that racist
> pseudoscience is dangerous. Further, they'd
> scientificially dubious: what about spandrels and
> neutral traits? Further, you seem ignorant of
> history, ethnography, and archaeology. And besides,
> you misunderstand the relationship between genotype
> and phenotype.
> Wilson, Dawkins, Barash, etc.: You're Communists!
> It's an oversimplification, of course. But it's much
> closer to the truth, I think, than the mythical
> history of the wars we usually hear: Wilson declares
> the sacred Truth of Objective Science, and lefty
> scientists respond with strawman arguments.
> The following are some of the arguments I've
> encountered against sociobiology. As I'm no
> scientist, I'd appreciate it if someone could tell me
> if I misunderstand any of them. I'll also raise some
> of the objections put forth by sociobiology's
> proponents, where applicable (to which I'd appreciate
> some responses):
> 1. Problems of interpretation and methodology.
> Scientific observations, hypotheses, experiments, and
> conclusions are frequently products are colored by
> personal bias and the dominant ideology. One
> objection made to this point is that opponents of
> sociobiology also have their (left-wing) biases.
> 2. Just-so stories. This one's pretty
> self-explanatory. Of course, one objection that could
> be made is that it's easy to evade by labeling
> something just as well backed up as any
> paleontological or archeological theory or hypothesis
> a just-so story.
> 3. Spandrels. Some traits are not adaptations, but
> byproducts of adaptations -- the human chin, for
> example. An organ as complex as the human brain could
> have many spandrels, thus allowing for maladaptive
> 4. Some traits are not adaptations developed to fit
> the environment of past foraging societies, but in
> fact are leftovers from forms from even longer ago.
> 5. The inadequacy of kin selection as an explatory
> principle (argued by Sahlins).
> 6. The (at least partial) autonomy of the cultural vis
> a vis the biological (also argued by Sahlins).
> 7. The misunderstanding of the relationship between
> genotype and phenotype.
> And more recently:
> 8. Gene shortage. The human genome contains only
> about 30,000 genes, far less than the 100,000+ that
> was previously predicted. These aren't nearly enough
> to account for all the varieties of human behavior.
> Paul Ehrlich has been the foremost proponent of this
> argument (indeed, I can't find anyone else who makes
> it). It's been addressed in Pinker's book and in the
> Evolutionary Psychology FAQ. I lack the scientific
> knowledge to address the validity of these arguments.
> 9. Neural plasticity. Again, I don't really know
> enough to address this one. I haven't seen this
> argument outside of Pinker's book.
> Anyone have anything to add?
> I'd also like to ask: if the sociobiologists are
> wrong, what do you think motivates them to continue
> making such grandiose claims about human nature?
> Money? Politics? Sincere belief?
> Finally, some questions about race. That "race" as it
> is traditionally defined is not really a useful
> category is, I think, beyond dispute. That said,
> there are certainly difference between populations.
> But the question arises: if 85 percent of human
> variation can be found in any local population, what
> about the other 15 percent? Assuming the human genome
> contains 30,000 genes, and humans generally are 99.4
> percent the same, that leaves around 300 genes that
> are found in different proportions in different
> populations. It's been said that physical apperance
> only accounts for about a dozen genes -- so what about
> the other 288? Couldn't they account for cognitive
> and/or behavioral differences? (Please note that I
> don't actually buy this argument. I'm just looking
> for a counter-argument.)
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