From a reader

Human Beings Are Not “Ants”—E.O. Wilson and the Junk Science of Sociobiology

Updated

This letter has been slightly edited by the author in the interests of clarity.

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.”

E. O. Wilson with a model of an ant

 

In SOCIOBIOLOGY: The New Synthesis, E.O. Wilson argued that social behaviors for all living species have been disproportionately shaped by natural selection and are passed on through our genes and the genetic evolution of “advantageous” social behavior was an effort to preserve one’s genes from generation to generation. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, this bio-determinist view is an example of “junk” science.   

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

Sociobiology is an extreme example of what Skybreak identifies as “bad science”2one that has had a terrible impact far beyond the halls of academia.

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

Cover of book by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

 

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. More "junk" science.  According to some bio-determinists, not only are humans’ social behavior supposed to be predetermined by our genes but our genes are naturally “selfish." It is a small leap from this to arguing that the capitalist-imperialist system is the “natural order” of our “selfish gene”.   

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.

It should come as no surprise that, despite being thoroughly scientifically debunked,7 the ruling class and its acolytes in academia and the media have promoted sociobiology to the high heaven.

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.)

Diverse group of women

 

According to Wilsons’ Sociobiology, the genetic differences between men and women were so great as “to cause a substantial division of labor in even the most free and egalitarian of future societies.... Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science” (Wilson 1978).   

The publication of E.O. Wilson’s SOCIOBIOLOGY, The New Synthesis, generated a broad and powerful response from a generation of young scientists. The most comprehensive refutation came with the publication of NOT IN OUR GENES, Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, co-authored by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leo J. Kamin in 1985. I have drawn heavily from Ardea Skybreak’s review of that book and I am including an extensive excerpt of the review where the specific features of “biodeterminism” are detailed and refuted by the authors.

From "Not In Our Genes and the Waging of the Ideological Counteroffensive" by Ardea Skybreak:

…I do agree strongly with the authors’ emphasis that biodeterminist theories originated, and continue to be fueled, in relation to a specific social function which is to justify the status quo and discourage social disorder and disruptions. This is made especially clear by the shared features of all biodeterminist theories which the authors distill as follows:

First, it is asserted that the inequalities in society are a direct and ineluctable consequence of the differences in intrinsic merit and ability among individuals.... Second, while liberal ideology has followed a cultural determinism emphasizing circumstance and education, biological determinism locates such processes and failures of the will and character as coded, in large part, in an individual’s genes; merit and ability will be passed from generation to generation within families. Finally, it is claimed that the presence of such biological differences between individuals of necessity leads to the creation of hierarchical societies because it is part of biologically determined human nature to form hierarchies of status, wealth, and power. All three elements are necessary for a complete justification of present social arrangements. (p. 68)

Much of Not in Our Genes is concerned with a point-by-point refutation of these three claims, which have no scientific validity. An important argument of bourgeois determinism is that social inequalities “are both fair and inevitable because they are natural” (p. 70), supposedly stemming from differences in biologically determined abilities of individuals. The argument is made that “life is like a foot race. In the bad old days the aristocrats got a head start (or were declared winners by fiat), but now everyone starts together so that the best win—best being determined biologically” (p. 68). If you don’t succeed, it’s because you just don’t have what it takes. But in fact there is no causal connection between intrinsic individual abilities and capacities and an individual’s position in society (e.g., the number of doctors is not determined by the number of people capable of becoming doctors, but by larger economic considerations). There is no biological basis for Jensen’s statement that “we have to face it, the assortment of persons into occupational roles simply is not ‘fair’ in any absolute sense. The best we can hope for is that true merit, given equality of opportunity, acts as a basis for the natural assorting power” (cited on p. 69); nor for E.O. Wilson’s statement that differences between men and women are likely to be sufficiently grounded in genes “to cause a substantial division of labor in even the most free and egalitarian of future societies.... Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science” (Wilson 1978).

And there is certainly no basis for believing that the rulers in contemporary society rule because they are biologically superior and better equipped to rule and therefore more resistant to being overthrown, as suggested in this amazing statement by Richard Herrnstein of Harvard: “The privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolution had a fair chance of success. By removing artificial barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, by definition, have greater capacity than the lower” (cited on p. 69).

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. It is this dynamic interplay which brings to the fore (or suppresses) the endless variety of individual human behaviors. The individual is not in a vacuum but in a social context from its earliest inception. The authors of Not in Our Genes therefore stress that one cannot treat “the individual as ontologically prior to the social,” and yet this is exactly what the biodeterminists consistently do (more on this later). In fact all that is known today of the mechanisms of population genetics and biological evolutionary change argues against the existence of specific genes coding for complex social behaviors, whether expressed at the level of individuals or in society more broadly. Finally, there is no such thing as a rigidly predetermined, biologically based human nature, a collection of fixed individual and social traits which lead inevitably to particular forms of social organization and especially to various types of hierarchies. 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.

_______________

FOOTNOTES:

1. Biological determinism (biodeterminism) is the theory that an individual's characteristics and behavior are determined exclusively by biological factors. In addition, environmental, social, and cultural factors do not play a role in shaping an individual, according to the theory. Sociobiology is the theory that biodeterminism can be applied to human society as a whole. [back]

2. In the interview SCIENCE AND REVOLUTION, On the Importance of Science and the Application of Science to Society, The New Synthesis of Communism and the Leadership of Bob Avakian, Skybreak speaks to this:

Another reason people are sometimes turned off by science is because there has been bad science. There will always be “science” that’s misused and misapplied, you know, but it’s bad science, OK? For instance, take examples about the way sometimes in the course of history science has been used to promote the idea that some races are inferior to other races, are mentally inferior, or something like that. Well, that’s junk science. In fact you can use rigorous scientific methods to prove that that was all bad science. It’s not just “morally” bad—it is that, but it is also scientifically bad—it’s completely false and you can use good science to prove that.

[back]

3. As Bob Avakian, author of the new communism, states in Hope For Humanity On A Scientific Basis; Breaking with Individualism, Parasitism and American Chauvinism:

… as I have emphasized in a number of works (including Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy, as well as Breakthroughs), individuals always exist within a social context—within a society (that is, a social organization of people) whose foundation is the economic relations (or the relations of production) and the corresponding social relations that set the basic terms of how society functions and what will be the dominant political processes, structures and institutions, and the prevailing ideas and culture. All this shapes how people—groupings of people as well as individuals—interact with each other and how, “spontaneously,” they think about things. Contrary to the much propagated notions about “human nature”—and, in particular, supposedly “unchanging and unchangeable human nature”—there is no such thing as unchanging human nature. Rather, as Marx emphasized (in The Poverty of Philosophy), all of human history embodies the continuous transformation of “human nature” as human society is changed, especially through revolutions which fundamentally transform the system of economic relations, the corresponding social relations, and the political and ideological superstructure (the political processes, structures and institutions and the corresponding ideas and culture).

[back]

4. Not in Our Genes and the Waging of the Ideological Counteroffensive by Ardea Skybreak, REVOLUTION magazine, Winter/Spring 1985. [back]

5. Sociobiologists have promoted the totally false idea of a “selfish gene”—that there must be a gene that can be used to explain the inequalities that characterize the capitalist-imperialist world. This gene must transmit characteristics that give individuals (or groups of individuals) the abilities necessary to succeed in exploiting and dominating others and, the gene is “rewarded” by the fact that those individuals are more likely to reproduce—passing that gene along to future generations.  THE SELFISH GENE by Richard Dawkins is one example. This, along with other sociobiologist theories is simply garbage as the accompanying sidebar from Ardea Skybreak exposes. [back]

6. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Foreign Languages Press Peking, Third Edition, 1977). [back]

7. Most comprehensively in NOT IN OUR GENES, Biology, Ideology and Human Nature co-authored by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leo J. Kamin. [back]

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