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Attempts by sociobiologists to trace human behavior to a genetic basis is due to a fundamental misdirection of their research, Marvin Harris, a cultural anthropologist at Columbia University, said in a lecture at MIT yesterday.
Frequently citing Edward O. Wilson, professor of Zoology, in a lecture titled "The Fallacy of Human Sociobiology," Harris said that sociobiologists should instead seek an explanation of why man's culture is so much more complex than that of any animal.
He said trying to find a genetic basis for war or other human social behavior is similar to finding one for teeth-brushing. Genetics determine that man has teeth, but the brushing of teeth, like war, is a learned response.
Harris said sociocultural explanations are more satisfactory than sociobiological theories explaining human behavior because the former can account for both rapid and slow changes in culture, while the latter can account only for slow change, if it is valid at all.
Sociobiologists must show, as all scholars must, that the theories they offer are better than existing theories, even if sociobiologists pretend to be unaware of these theories, he said.
During his hour talk, Harris wavered between speaking on sociobiology in general and criticizing Wilson's "Sociobiology," which was published last year.
He often mentioned Wilson, but did not explicitly mention the book until, in response to a question, he said that Wilson's extension in the book of his sociobiological conclusions about animals to humans was a "very regrettable error."
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