Selected social and unsocial acts

Sense and Nonsense
November 29, 2002

Human behaviour is characterised by norms, such as the avoidance of incest, and by differences, epitomised by cultural diversity. Until E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975, biologists and biological anthropologists were working in concert to record and interpret patterns of human behaviour.

In his book's final chapter, Wilson argued that the social sciences were destined to be either sidelined or subsumed within the biological sciences. He seemed to many to be suggesting a level of genetic determinism that was incorrect, abhorrent or politically unacceptable. In the US, several of Wilson's Harvard University colleagues, notably Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, sided squarely with Science for the People, an essentially political movement that marshalled itself against Wilson's vision. The decades since have witnessed an explosion of rhetoric and scientific investigation into the analysis of human behaviour. Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown have now produced a splendidly informed historical and scientific analysis that concentrates on progress since 1975 (although the account of life before Wilson is also as good as I have read).

Laland and Brown, like any historians of science, need to categorise developments. They distinguish five not-quite-distinct schools of research: human sociobiology; gene-culture co-evolution; human behavioural ecology; evolutionary psychology; and mimetics. Four of those five schools were being developed at Harvard in the late 1970s.

Wilson, having spawned human sociobiology and seeking to address criticisms of his book's final chapter, had seen the need to develop a formal theory in which cultural transmission and genetic evolution co-evolved. He worked with Charles Lumsden on the first attempt at a comprehensive theory of gene-culture co-evolution, which resulted in their book, Genes, Mind and Culture (1981). Although several of the book's conclusions were incorrect, as pointed out by John Maynard Smith, the framework had real strengths. Human behavioural ecology - the examination of cultural norms and diversity - was the forte of many of Irven DeVore's students. Foremost among them was John Hartung, whose critical use of the human relations area files that recorded cultural diversity was innovative and marked a path for the future. Evolutionary psychology - the search for evolved psychological mechanisms that underpinned behavioural norms - was developed largely by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides: Tooby was DeVore's graduate student at the time and Cosmides was taking the Harvard undergraduate sociobiology course. Mimetics - the suggestion that a profitable approach to analysing culture was to imagine memes or ideas (Lumsden and Wilson called them "culturgens") that passed like viruses from one human mind to another - had been the brainchild of Richard Dawkins at Oxford University.

The seemingly diverse schools of thought among the Harvard students of the time nevertheless possessed academic and intellectual unity. Of course, the different approaches used different scientific methods. They also had the potential to weight alternative processes differently - a potential that has frequently been realised over the intervening years. Laland and Brown, to their credit, identify the differences and show how the various schools can and must be united within a single scientific framework. Using infanticide as a case study illuminated by each perspective, they make our scientific understanding of the phenomena involved more complete by running it through the different mills of scientific enterprise.

This is a remarkable book: succinct, informative and very sensible. It strips away the polemic to map a way forward, and it is worth reading by anybody interested in how best to analyse human behaviour. My misgiving is that the authors do not reference (and more important do not analyse) Wilson's recent book, Consilience , which makes the seemingly valid point that his original vision has proved to be correct.

Paul Harvey is head of zoology, University of Oxford .

Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour

Author - Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown
ISBN - 0 19 850884 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 369

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