Sociobiology: Laying the Foundation For a Racist Synthesis

In 1969 the Harvard Educational Review published Arthur Jensen's revival of the doctrine of Black genetic inferiority, thereby initiating a new wave of academic racism. Jensen attacked efforts to improve Black education during the 1960s and called for segregated rote learning for Blacks: educational apartheid. By the next year, Daniel Moynihan was telling Life Magazine that "the winds of Jensen were gusting through the capital at gale force." Then in 1971 Richard Herrnstein extended the assertion of genetic inferiority to the entire working class in his Atlantic Monthly article.

Strong rebuttals quickly came forth from anti-racist faculty and students, who sensed that the Jensen-Herrnstein doctrines would soon be used to justify sweeping attacks on open admissions, affirmative action, and school integration, and drastic cutbacks in health care, education, and welfare spending. Thus, the Committee Against Racism (CAR) was formed in 1972. A multiracial organization, CAR recognized that this new wave of racism would first attack minorities but soon would hurt whites as well. CAR circulated a resolution condemning the new I.Q. theories as unscientific and racist. CAR defined as racist a doctrine which legitimates racial oppression and inequality, whether it blames the victim's race or class, "genes" or "culture." The resolution appeared, with over 1000 signatures of academics, in The New York Times on Oct. 28, 1973.

Jensen, Herrnstein, and 47 colleagues published a resolution in American Psychologist, July, 1972, comparing themselves to Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein, and attacking the "orthodox environmentalism" of their critics. They declared that "hereditary influences... in human abilities and behaviors... are very strong"; strongly encouraged "research into the biological hereditary bases of behavior"; and said they "deplore[d] the evasion of hereditary reasoning in current textbooks and the failure to give responsible weight to heredity in disciplines such as sociology, social psychology, social anthropology, psychological measurement, and many others."

Meanwhile, Princeton psychologist Leon Kamin, inspired by the vehemence of the opposition to Jensen and Herrnstein, thoroughly reexamined all the data and studies on which the hereditarians had based their I.Q. evaluations. He discovered that the lynchpin of the Jensen-Herrnstein argument, the studies of identical twins reared apart, was utterly worthless. Absence of appropriate controls meant that the correlations could just as easily be attributed to environmental as to hereditary influences. The only study of identical twins which claimed to have controlled for environmental factors, that of English psychologist Sir Cyril Burt, proved to be a classic scientific fraud. As early as 1973 Kamin pointed out that Burt's data had to be "cooked". (See L. Kamin: The Science and Politics of I.Q., 1974.) For example, in three articles, published over an eleven year period, with a 150 per cent increase in sample size, Burt reported a correlation in I.Q. scores among identical twins reared apart that remained constant to three decimal places (.771). While any student who reported what Science in 1976 called a "strange imperturbability" in results would be suspected of cheating, Burt was awarded the highest prize of the American Psychological Association.

Finally, on October 24, 1976, The London Times reported that Burt's two co-authors, who had been credited with administering the I.Q. tests, apparently never existed. All but Burt's most diehard defenders now had to acknowledge that the main "scientific" evidence for high heritability of I.Q. was worthless. The hereditarians have nevertheless continued and even stepped up their activities. In the recent Annual Review of Genetics (1976), a long article on "genetics of cognitive behavior" favorably reviews a segment of the large and growing literature on genetic bases of inequality, and repeatedly attacks Richard Lewontin for his sharp criticisms of the I.Q. studies.

The main new vehicle for continuing the hereditarians' campaign, however, has become Professor E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975 by Harvard University Press. Wilson seeks to establish sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." The Harvard University Press launched a massive advertising campaign for Sociobiology, and the book soon received enthusiastic reviews and widespread publicity in professional and popular media.

In response, the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People in Boston undertook a systematic critique of Wilson's book, publishing first a letter in The New York Review of Books and a longer article in BioScience. They described Sociobiology as "the latest attempt to reinvigorate" theories which in the past have "provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany."

The Sociobiology Study Group pointed out that Wilson offers no scientific evidence that human social behavior is biologically determined. He merely postulates the existence of all sorts of hypothetical genes: genes for entrepreneurship, creativity, altruism, spite, homosexuality, etc. He asserts that "human beings are absurdly easy to indoctrinate--they seek it," and then discusses whether genes for conformity are selected on an individual or group level.

The Sociobiology Study Group criticized Wilson's description of the "human biogram" or human nature. Wilson claims that competition, aggression, territoriality, xenophobia, warfare, and genocide are genetically based human universals.

The members of human societies sometimes cooperate closely in insectan fashion, but more frequently they compete for the limited resources allocated to their role sector. (p. 554)

Agression "certainly seems to be... adaptive," even though "overt aggresiveness is not a trait in all or even a majority of cultures."

Territoriality "is a general trait of hunter-gatherer societies," provided that territoriality is redefined along a scale that ranges from "open hostility" to "no territorial behavior at all."

Warfare and genocide are "nearly universal"; perhaps "some isolated cultures will escape the process for generations at a time, in effect reverting temporarily to what ethnographers classify as a pacific state."

In discussing "Reasoning in Sociobiology," Wilson asserts that "good theory is testable" and "falsifiable." However, The Sociobiology Study Group has shown that the above are examples of an "advocacy method" that "guarantees that no observation can contradict the theory."

The Sociobiology Study Group has also pointed out Wilson's explicit sexism. Wilson traces male dominance in modern human societies to the alleged universal division of labor between male and female humans in hunter-gatherer societies. He treats males as the active agents of evolutionary progress and females as "only DNA's way of making more DNA." Consequently, Wilson argues: