Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and author, died on December 26 at the age of 92. It is beyond the scope of this letter to excavate in detail Wilson’s overall scientific methodology and contributions such as on the social behavior of ants and on bio-diversity, and their impact on society. Here I am briefly focusing on his most lasting and, unfortunately, profoundly negative contribution—the resurrection of “biodeterminism”1 as being a legitimate scientific field, through his promotion and popularization of the concept of “sociobiology.”
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was the name of Wilson’s 1975 book, where he first made the argument, drawing heavily on his research as an entomologist (a scientist who studies insects), that the source of human “social behavior,” how we relate and interact with others, our morality, the types of social organization we develop, as well as, to a great degree, our cognitive abilities, was overwhelmingly predetermined by our genes, the tiny biological units of DNA in all living species that carry the information that makes up the inherited traits passed on from one generation to the next. According to Wilson, this genetic determinism (determined, defined and constrained by our genes) holds true for humanity as a whole and specific genetic characteristics of social behavior could be isolated to specific groupings (i.e., women, Blacks, etc.)
To be blunt, Wilson essentially argued that humanity and our collective social potential as a species are limited by an immutable (or unchanging) human nature, embedded in and determined by our pre-existing genetic makeup. This is plain and simple scientific garbage—an example of bad science.
As Ardea Skybreak wrote in her 1985 review of NOT IN OUR GENES, Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, co-authored by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leo J. Kamin (perhaps the most comprehensive refutation of Wilson’s SOCIOBIOLOGY):
Sociobiology—which purports to derive the characteristics of complex social behaviors and social formations (including human societies) from the supposed properties of genes and from hare-brained speculations concerning the supposed adaptive value of different genetic configurations in the course of our species’ biological evolution—has become the most concentrated expression of the new biodeterminist offensive.
Sociobiology: An Example of Bad Science
Wilson employed what is known as “reductionism” to attempt to explain what Skybreak accurately describes as the “complex social behaviors and social formations” that characterize humanity. Again from Skybreak’s 1985 article:
Reductionism seeks to understand the properties of complex wholes solely in terms of the properties of their component parts, which are themselves analyzed in isolation from the larger process. Such analytical reductionism typically fails to recognize the emergence of wholly new properties of matter at the level of the more complex whole and, conversely, does not recognize that even the component parts of a whole can manifest properties stemming from interactions within the whole which they simply do not have in isolation.
This scientifically grounded understanding of the “emergence of wholly new properties…” is applicable overall to reality. In this instance, it takes into account not only the biological constraints that our genetic makeup places on us—but its more complex interaction with the rest of our biological functioning (at the level of organs, or the whole body), the physical environment around us, and much more fundamentally, the larger cultural and social context, including and especially the dominant ideas and the underlying mode of production of society in any given period.3 We are a product of this complex interacting mix, in any given period. This is also why there is no such thing as some unchanging “human nature.” What is considered “good” and “normal” “human nature” has transformed significantly over time and geography—think of slavery where it was considered normal to own another human being, periods when different races from the Third World or women were openly considered inferior, etc.
As Skybreak later notes:
In fact there is no validity to the notion that individual differences in what are termed abilities are determined by genes. For one thing all aspects of an individual reflect the constant interplay between its phenotype (i.e., the sum of the characteristics manifested by the individual, resulting from the interaction of its genes and its environment—the phenotype is not fixed, but in a constant state of change) and the external environment.4
From the outset, Wilson’s reductionist approach entirely ignored and downplayed these complex and dynamic interaction of different factors, reducing it to the gene, thereby both “fixing” human nature and its unchanging nature.
Skybreak goes on in the following statement (drawn from a longer section of the review that I have included at the end of this letter):
In fact what stands out in human evolution is the tremendous flexibility of individual humans who are typically capable of a wide range of behaviors in response to changing social circumstances; furthermore this flexibility and variability is qualitatively greater at the level of human society, which greatly amplifies individual human capabilities and whose organizing principles cannot be understood solely (or even mainly) as collections of individual properties and acts. Thus it is not our biology which stands in the way of the emancipation of humanity from outdated social relations.
Sociobiology—Harmful and Dangerous Tools of Oppression
Biodeterminism and its latest incarnation, sociobiology, are extremely harmful ideological modes of thought that penetrate deep into our society, through the media, popular culture and various institutions from the academy to the church. Beside the fact that it is simply bad science—standing in the way of determining the most correct understanding of reality, as it exists—Wilson’s sociobiology has become the scientific touchstone for harmful, wrong, pseudo-scientific arguments that have been used to justify all kinds of horrors and inequalities produced by the capitalist-imperialist system, in much the same way that religion has been used. The comparisons are instructive.
Religious obscurantists declare that the world is the way it is because “it is the plan of some supernatural being or a preordained ‘destiny’”—the way God intended. Even though many sociobiologists, including Wilson himself, claimed to be atheists (or “not religious”), their argument for how human society operates runs along much the same line. In the place of a “supreme being,” the gene is brought forward as the ultimate arbiter for why things are the way they are—the gene as God.
With this as a framework, scientific reality is inverted, and capitalism-imperialism is seen as but a “natural” extension of our “selfish selves”—and the “dog-eat-dog” nature of the system justified as flowing from an unchanging human nature.5
A Scientific Liberating Refutation—and the Way Forward
First, there is no scientific evidence to claim the existence of an immutable ”human nature” pre-determined by our genes. There is no “selfish gene” nor “altruistic gene.” In fact, scientific research continues to reveal exactly the opposite, reinforcing the point made by Marx that all human history embodies the continuous transformation of “human nature” in dialectical relationship to changes in human society.6
The second point is that there is a large body of scientific evidence, based on peer-reviewed studies and research, unequivocally debunking sociobiology as un-scientific garbage. In particular see the excerpt from Ardea Skybreak in the accompanying Box.
Instead of the junk science propagated by the organs and institutions of this system, filtering down to and echoed by the “person in the street,” what is sorely needed is the following:
So here, once more, I want to return to the question of "human nature"—specifically in relation to the advance to communism, which represents a transition not just beyond capitalism, and its remnants in socialist society, but in a larger sense a transition from a whole prior epoch of human history—including early communal society as well as different forms of class society—to an entirely new era in human existence. This new era, of communism, represents not some kind of "perfect state"—one in which, somehow, there are no contradictions, in human beings or in human society—but a whole new "plateau" upon which human beings will continue to interact, with each other and with the rest of nature, on a qualitatively, radically different basis from how such relations have found expression in the past. (Bob Avakian in Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon.)