Science for the People?
The following letter first ran in The Crimson on November 19, 1979.
As critics of sociobiology who have warned about the political consequences of this theory, we feel that these developments can neither be ignored nor minimized. We, and others, have pointed out that the pernicious social conclusions of the theory are based on a faculty methodology and a misuse of the scientific evidence. American sociobiologists cannot dismiss the European political applications of their work as distortions of a sound scientific doctrine. Rather, these applications are the logical extension of a theory whose very assumptions reflect the political perspective of the sociologists.
We urge everyone, and especially students and researchers in fields such as anthropology, biology, psychology, and sociology, to examine carefully the appearance of sociobiological ideas in their disciplines. It is not merely a matter of exposing the lack of scientific foundation for these theories. The recent events in Europe show us that it is not that great a leap from quasi-scientific theories in academia to their political application.
An exposition of the political basis of sociobiology, as well as its role in current political reality, will be given by our group on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 8 p.m. in the Geology Lecture Hall. This forum, entitled "Biology as a Social Weapon," will also deal with the close parallels between sociology and previous historical attempts to "naturalize" social inequality. Joseph Alper '63 Jonathan Beckwith '57 Edward Egelman
The recent letter (November 19 and public presentation by Science for the People (SFTP) is the latest manifestation of their continuing campaign to illegitimize sociobiology by portraying it as a transparent attempt to justify social inequality and genocidal social practices as the inevitable consequence of genetic differences among groups. Characterizing sociobiology as revenant "Nazi Social Biology" represents a new level of invective in their polemics, and while the hyperbolic nature of their claims interferes with their widespread acceptance, nevertheless damage has been done in the creation of a lingering impression that there is a modest measure of truth to their accusation. Unfortunately, this has been abetted by sensationalistic treatments of the field by the media, and the lurid bandwagon effect of the intellectual fashion which rides on the back of this very genuine and profound scientific revolution.
Science for the People cites the recent exploitation of sociobiology by certain neo-fascist groups in Europe as validation for their claims and substantiation of their predictions about the nature and dangers of sociobiology. This is reminiscent of nothing so much as the recent case of the New England seer who foretold the burning of a factory and then went and set the fire. This seems a different category of prophecy than that people usually evince pride in. The use of sociobiology by the European New Right is the direct result of and responsibility of Science for the People and others who have misrepresented this diverse and complex field. Science for the People has used every sort of distortion and misrepresentation to make what is in fact an arbitrary and manufactured connection between sociobiology and reactionary political idology appear to be a logical and necessary one, and then has widely publicized such fabrications. It is little wonder that these neo-fascist groups, who share with SFTP the willingness to subordinate accuracy to ideological and polemical convenience, would accept the gift of a specious link to scientific legitimization so defly delivered to them by SFTP. A group that practiced what SFTP professes would have acted so as to isolate neo-fascist groups from any source of legitimization, rather than to fabricate non-existent links. Their behavior makes sense if one infers that their purpose is to slander sociobiology rather than to combat fascism. In this, they have met with some success. But if sociobiology is a social weapon, it is those in SFTP who have made it so.
Surely the heart of racism is to attribute to groups characteristics that may occasionally, if at all, be present in a few individual members of the group. People who purport to be especially sensitive to the suffering caused by prejudice should be careful how they characterize any group of people. To orchestrate a widespread media campaign designed to represent hundreds of people as racist, sexist Nazis working in the tradition of those who would "engineer consent to genocide" indicates a moralistic opportunism rather than any appreciation of what the opposition to racism truly concerns. Surely the propositions SFTP holds about the class bias of sociobiologists are hypotheses about the real world to be tested like any others. For those who speak so glibly, if only occasionally intelligibly, about falsifiability, they seem curiously unwilling to subject their beliefs to empirical tests. The field I know is a normal academic cross-section, containing the variously brilliant, troubled, foolish, generous, devoted, opportunistic, self-righteous, insecure, hypocritical, self-examining, bigoted, humane, confused, courageous, narrow, fiery, and kind. The field is in a creative ferment, and the meaning which its workers find in it is as various as their own backgrounds, imaginations, and moral visions make it. There are Marxist sociobiologists, as well as feminist, religious, liberal, anarchist, and conservative sociobiologists. Certainly, in the fullness of time it is not impossible for sociobiology to produce a Nazi. But the belief that sociobiology of necessity supports fascist social causes is the child of SFTP, and they no less than we must live with its consequences.
The number of distortions about sociobiology that have gained wide currency have become too numerous to catalog, but three clarifications which must be made are:
1) Sociobiological theory and research deals almost exclusively with the evolved system of adaptations a species shares in common. Contrary to the curiously parallel assertions of SFTP and the neo-fascist groups, explaining behavioral differences between individuals or groups by attributing them to genetic differences between individuals or groups ferences between individuals or groups is not any central element of the paradigm-- most would agree that it is not an element at all. The fields that address such questions are genetics, and the moribund "trait" psychology. Since the paradigm deals with the adaptations of species, it cannot logically be made to justify social inequality as being based on innate genetic differences.
2) The evolutionary analysis of behavior is neutral with respect to the nature/nurture issue. More precisely, the genetic and developmental programming which is responsible for a given behavior can either be closed to or susceptible to environmental modification. This depends on the species and behavior under discussion. The complexity of the theoretical and empirical issues involved leads understandably to a wide spectrum of opinion within the field on certain questions, especially human behavior. Therefore, to assert that sociobiologists believe behavior is "genetic" and hence ineradicable or unmodifiable is an unscientific and unethical misrepresentation which plays into the hands of those who SFTP claims to fear most.
3) As far as human behavior is concerned, to characterize the debate as biological determinism is a dangerous and specious rhetorical ploy. Learning has an evolved genetic basis with organized and discoverable characteristics leading to adaptation. Behavior can be, with no paradox, simultaneously the result of cultural and evolutionary forces, in equally meaningful but very different senses. Evolution shapes the nature of the developmental programming which guides learning, and socialization is the process by which the panhuman learning system adapts the individual to her or his cultural surroundings.
In short, the representation of sociobiology as the naively nativistic hypothesis that human behavior is the result of noncultural, ineradicable, fixed genetic expressions which vary massively between humans is a gross and malicious misrepresentation which is wrong on all counts.
The fact that Science for the People has acted as it has is persuasive to many that there is at least an element of truth in their accusations. As there is no truth to them, what motivates SFTP? Their own ideology places emphasis on class interest--or, more simply, greed--as an explanation for why people behave as they do. But as we all know, but due to personal transgression are hesitant to say, there are are many other kinds of greed which we, especially in academic communities, are involved in: the greed for attention, the greed for self-righteousness, the greed to appeal brilliant, the greed to appear morally sensitive, the greed for fame, the greed for power--all the varieties of emotional greed that pollute, distort, and twist the psyches of intelligent women and men, moving them to acts which they, in clear heart, would not have done. It is this mental slavery that prevents so many gifted people in all parts of the world from producing what could so vastly enrich humanity.
The confrontational nature of recent history has developed in some individuals on the left (and the right) an appetite for self-righteous hatred and self-dramatizing "unmaskings." In these individuals, the urge to feed this appetite has grown stronger than the impulse to honestly scrutinize the object of the attack to see if it is warranted. Sociobiology has a few faint and superficial resemblances to "Social Darwinism," as far as I can tell, limited to the use of the term "Darwinism." Every other aspect is profoundly different. They bear the same relationship to each other as phrenology does to neuroanatomy. Anyone of candid intellect would have, on the basis of a few moments of investigation, satisfied himself of the difference and moved on to more pressing areas of moral inquiry. To individuals with a profound need for moralistic posturing--or simply irritated with the pretensions that all intellectual fashions acquire--the temptation to distort is too great to resist or to admit. To this must be added the observation that Marxism has always had an instinctive distrust of anything involving--however peripherally-- genetics, as the tragic history of Lysenkoism and the Stalinist murder of geneticists attest to.
Lastly, one marvels at Science for the People's heroic incomprehension of their own vulnerability when they speak of the ideological legitimization of genocidal action. Every source of prestige (including Darwin), from religion to science to social science, has been used to legitimize genocide, powerseeking, and exploitation. Applying their own standards to themselves, one would find them ideological participants in the Soviet Gulag, the Cambodian holocaust, and China's system of "re-education."
When one looks into the eyes of those who have lived through Dachau and Auschwitz, the Gulag and the Cambodian holocaust, Vietnam in the 1960's and Vietnam in the late 1970's, the terror in Kampala and the tanks in Prague, they bear witness to the same human reality. The barbed wire in South Africa, Brazil Russia and Chile, Berlin and China is the shadow of the barbed wire that is stretched through our minds. The seed of that darkness is everywhere, and our hope lies in the fragile unfolding of our knowledge of the common roots of human suffering. We cannot afford to forego the illumination of those sources which may lie in the distant past of human evolution.
John Tooby is a graduate student in biological anthropology in the Department of Anthropology.