Darwin Vulgarized


A PARADOX: At a lecture last week billed as the "Evolution of Human Behavior," Irven Devore said little about homo sapiens until the last minutes of his talk. A newcomer to "sociobiology" would have been befuddled by pictures of elephants, apes and impalas appearing on the screen above Devore's head, an advertised lecture on human behavior sounded more like an interesting but insignificant discourse on zoology.

Only by glancing around and seeing 400 persons packed in a Science Center auditorium--with about 100 more watching nearby on video tape--could you be assured that, indeed, you were in the right place. Yes, the glib man at the lectern would eventually show some important connection between hyenas and humans, a connection meant to explain not just general behavioral imperatives such as the desire to servive, but also the psychological nuances that could account for complex social institutions and hierarchies.

Devore began his lecture by questioning the validity of viewing humans as unique creatures, far removed from their lesser cousins. Unfortunately, Devore said, human behavior has been subject to speculation and mythologizing, and this culture--as all others--has its own sophisms that attempt to explain the existing social arrangements and justify man's uniqueness. Devore said:

I'm going to have a lot to say about the chimpanzee tonight, and I can't help but adding that in the Congo basin there are a series of peoples who, in explaining the world as it is, uninhibited by Western theology and with a certain amount of candor, include the chimps as one form of humankind.

In fact, contrary to the idea that man is special, Devore said, even Huxley would be amazed at the findings of geneticists who, after having examined all the alleles that they can, have declared that man, chimpanzee and gorilla have fewer detectable genetic differences than horse and zebra.

HAVING MADE IT CLEAR that he stands far to one extreme of the perennial nature v. nurture controversy, Devore talked about studies on apes, seals, and ants. One group of ethologists, studying various primates in the Fifties (Devore and his baboons among them), came to a consensus when they put their data together in the early Sixties.

In all the social groups that we knew, the male primate was larger and dominant, and the group depended on the male's leadership and the males provided the continuity... The males had critical roles in the troop. We saw dominance hierarchies, and we saw that these hierarchies were the essence of social organization and made the group possible by keeping peace within the members of the group.

Devore did not mince words in discussing the implications of these studies. "There is a theoretical structure now," Devore said, "that makes sense out of these studies across an astonishing breadth of species." This theory, which has grown out of the last decade, makes no exceptions for human beings, Devore said. It has been brought tc an international audience by Harvard professor E.O. Wilson's book Sociobiology. It explains the behavior of all living creatures in terms of natural selection and competition of genes.

ALTHOUGH THESE controversial theories are interesting, Devore is simply out of his league. After spending years observing insects, baboons and elephant seals, Devore proceeded to make unverifiable conjectures about analogous behavior patterns in human beings. He and his fellow sociobiologists are seemingly unaware of existing disciplines which deal specifically with human behavior and social structures. Unless we want careful empirical analysis by experts to degenerate into a chaos of untested, untenable extrapolations, Devore and sociobiology should not be taken too seriously--not because it might tell us what we do not want to know, but because its methods are questionable at best. No sociologist would try to apply his social theories to a rabbit warren or a nest of squirrels; by the same token, someone who has spent his life studying insects or baboons should not try to explain human phenomena--which is qualitatively different--by causal theories based on the observed motivations of non-human creatures. This is a question of academic imperialism.

The question of biological determinism has not been ignored by sociologists--a fact Devore seemed not to realize. Many turn-of-the-century sociologists attributed a myriad of social phenomena to genetics, such as male dominance to cranium size. Many of these theories have been discarded as a result of an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting nurture over nature, but at least the method of investigation used by these now discredited sociologists was sound--that is, the scientists pondering the influence of biological determinism on human beings were indeed those scientists who actually studied human beings and societies.

Devore raised few philosophical questions during his lecture. The problem with sociobiology is not its inherent determinism, but its assertion that this determinism is genetic rather than cultural. Devore fails to understand that human beings are qualitatively unique organisms. Without being spiritualistic, psychology and sociology show that the amazing capacity of the human brain and the development of a consciousness have created an enormous chasm between humans and other species--a chasm Devore naively claims "has almost disappeared and is now a narrow cleft." One wonders how Devore can make such a statement when the human evidence for his theories is simply nonexistent. The sociobiologists offer no evidence meeting the most basic requirements of an experimental design that such traits as xenophobia, religion, and social dominance are in any way coded in the genes of a human being.

THIS VULGAR DARWINISM boils down to deeply conservative politics. It serves as a powerful force of legitimization for the elites of a hierarchical society that kind to those on top and harsh to those on the bottom. Devore's talk attracted a huge crowd of Harvard students--the new elites--many of whom gave Devore a standing ovation. And their applause is understandable. Devore offers the perfect panacea for guilt--"Don't worry about inequality; don't feel guilty; you're not responsible." Those students discerning enough to recognize the inequalities of our society may still find solace in the myth that inequality is inherent in the nature of things.