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Sociobiology: Laying the Foundation For a Racist Synthesis

By Miriam D. Rosenthal

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:

My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and egalitarian of future societies. Thus, even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science. (New York Times, 10/12/75)

CAR agrees with the Sociobiology Study Group that "Wilson joins the long parade of biological determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems." CAR has further declared, however, that Sociobiology is dangerously racist. Although Wilson has nothing explicitly to say about race in his book, consider for a moment what a sociobiological analysis would be like:

(1) In Boston a violently racist organization, ROAR, fights integration of schools and neighborhoods and organizes vigilante groups of "marshals" in the tradition of the Ku Klux Klan.

(2) From the 1950s to the 1970s the U.S. waged an unjust war in Indochina, killing over one million Indochinese and over 50,000 Americans.

(3) South Africa's U.S.-backed white minority ruthlessly enforces a system of apartheid, in which Blacks are confined to 13 per cent of the land, segregated, and exploited as cheap labor.

(4) The Nazis committed genocide against the Jews, attempted the territorial conquest of Europe, and launched a war in which 100 million people died.

Was the recent racist violence in Boston caused by genes for territoriality and xenophobia? Or is it the result of an organized hate campaign by self-serving Boston and national politicians? Is the history of the KKK and its resurgence on a California marine base an expression of these same genes?

Wilson asserts that in warfare "the spread of genes has always been of paramount importance." Did the U.S. wage war in Indochina in order to spread American genes? Did millions of Americans support the war at first because of "genes for conformity" or because it took time for the anti-war movement to expose the government's lies?

Is South African apartheid an expression of genes for competition, aggression and territoriality? Does Harvard choose to hold stock in companies which invest in South Africa in order to enhance its "reproductive fitness" or to increase its endowment?

Wilson asserts that "the summed Darwinian fitness of the tribe" is "the ultimate if unrecognized beneficiary of warfare" and speaks of "the true biological joy of warfare."

The Nazis attempted to indoctrinate Germans into precisely this view of territoriality and warfare. One leading Nazi biologist wrote:

... The task of biology teaching... can be fulfilled by an orientation toward the concept of the biotic community... The student must be led to the conception that Germany is his living space to which he is linked by the bond of blood...When this insight is applied to the human biotic community, when the future German racial comrade feels himself to be a link in the German biotic community, and when he is imbued with the idea of the blood relationship of all Germans, then class differences and class hatred cannot take acute forms, as was often the case in the past due to a misunderstanding of the actual bond which unites all estates together. (Paul Brohmer, "Biologie Unterricht and Volkische Erziehung," in Nazi Culture, edited by George L. Mosse, 1968, pp. 86-87.)

The explanations which Wilson's Sociobiology provides for racism, fascism, and war are unscientific at best and dangerous at worst. The inhuman acts carried out by racists in Germany, South Africa, and the U.S. have been answered by heroic anti-racist and anti-fascist resistance. Where there were Nazis, there were partisans; where there is apartheid, there is massive rebellion, where there has been the Klan, ROAR, and the war in Indochina there has been the civil rights movement, CAR, and the anti-war movement.

Sociobiology, by encouraging biological and genetic explanations for racism, war and genocide, exonerates and protects the groups and individuals who have carried out and benefited from these monstrous orimes. Proclaiming fascist-like behavior as part of the "human biogram," it can only regard anti-fascist behavior as an "exception" which confirms a universal human nature. What an insult to tens of millions of people!

Unlike the more narrowly focused doctrines of Jensen and Herrnstein, Wilson's Sociobiology serves a much broader function of promoting biological and hereditary thinking throughout the academic world. For example, Allan Mazur, reviewing Sociobiology in the American Journal of Sociology, frankly states: "Wilson, with his brilliant scholarly reputation and Harvard credentials, has both the visibility and credibility to legitimate the biological approach to sociology. For me that is his major contribution."

Sociobiology is also being aggressively promoted in such disciplines as anthropology (Wilson calls for an anthropological genetics), economics and psychology. A slick film, titled "Sociobiology: Doing What Comes Naturally," featuring interviews with Wilson and Harvard professors Devore and Trivers, both strong supporters of Sociobiology, is being widely shown to college and high school students.

Sociobiology threatens to revive in new forms an ideology which occupied a prominent position in U.S. colleges and universities from the betrayal of Reconstruction after the Civil War until World War II. Social Darwinism justified the class and racist inequalities of U.S. society as products of natural selection. During the period of vigorously expanding capitalism, Social Darwinism was invoked to justify the government's laissez-faire policy toward the robber barons. With the growth of a militant, immigrant-led working class movement, however, Social Darwinism was modified into an interventionist ideology of immigration restriction, eugenics, imperialism and anti-communism.

By the '20s and '30s, as German universities were becoming indoctrination centers for Nazism, many U.S. universities were teaching upper class youth about their own "superior genes." Throughout this period, Harvard frequently played a vanguard role in promoting this ideology.

Harvard President Eliot, immediately after his appointment in 1869, invited John Fiske to deliver a series of special lectures to promote Spencer's Social Darwinism. Just before World War I, Eliot, then president emeritus, helped found the eugenics-promoting Race Betterment Foundation as a member of its central committee.

Eliot's successor, President Lowell, imposed quotas for Jewish students at Harvard in the early 1920s. In 1927, he served on a special three-man panel which made the final determination that Sacco and Vanzetti be executed. In 1936, at Harvard's Tercentenary celebration, a group of Harvard alumni circulated a pamphlet showing how the arguments Lowell used in justifying Sacco and Vanzetti's executions were similar to those being used to promote fascist movements in Europe.

In recent years thousands of Harvard students and many faculty and staff have taken stands against Harvard's involvement with war and racism. They opposed ROTC programs and other forms of Harvard complicity with the war in Indochina. They opposed racist admissions, hiring and curriculum policies. The revival and spread of doctrines which can be used to encourage racism and preparation for war is potentially more dangerous than the issues which produced the conflicts of the 1960s.

Most Americans will not support government policies and actions which promote racism and war, unless much of the anti-racist and anti-war sentiment of the 1960s is undone through the influence of a new wave of academic and popular reactionary ideologies. By trying to counter the growing influence of sociobiology and similar doctrines in various academic disciplines, we not only preserve scientific integrity but our hopes for a future free of racism and war.

[Miriam D. Rosenthal, a research fellow in Nutrition at the School of Public Health, is a member of the Sociobiology Study Group. She is also active in the Committee Against Racism '[CAR], whose views are represented in this article.]

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