Making a monkey of the left

March 17, 2000

E. O. Wilson was branded sexist and racist, but his science is now considered mainstream. Tim Cornwell reports on the 25th anniversary of Sociobiology, the book that launched a discipline

In the last chapter of his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Edward O. Wilson compares Moses's instructions after the conquest of the Midianites to the aggression of male langur monkeys. "Now kill every dependant, and kill every woman who has had intercourse with a man, but spare for yourselves every woman among them who has not had intercourse." In Bosnia, this would be considered a war crime. In Wilson's book, it is an aside in his examination of the evolutionary roots of animal and - more controversially - human behaviour.

Sociobiology was first published in 1975. This month it is reissued in a 25th anniversary paperback edition. The book draws on existing research to posit a biological basis for human altruism, ethnic strife and sexual roles. In the charged ideological atmosphere of the 1970s, the work was attacked by the academic left for mentioning the unmentionable - inherited behaviour - and as laying the ground for racism and sexism.

Twenty-five years later, sociobiology - popularised now as evolutionary psychology - is in trouble again. Two US professors have made headlines by arguing that rape is "a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage". Separately, a columnist in the web magazine Slate has demanded to know why academics in the field have not challenged a California professor offering evolutionary theories for anti-Semitism.

For the analysis offered in Sociobiology, Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer prizewinner and a professor at Harvard, was doused with water at an academic conference. His work also won him the National Medal of Science from Jimmy Carter. But he gives a wide berth to the latest eruptions in the field. His advice: when waxing speculative about the causes of rape or genocide, stick to baboons. "I would say that any time you move this research towards major moral reasoning, concerning major moral problems, you are in turbulent water," he says.

Wilson has other pursuits on his mind these days. "Most of my time now is diverted to biodiversity issues, global conservation. It's kind of hard to be controversial in that area." He has not read A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Craig Palmer of the University of Colorado and Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico. He is not familiar with the work of Kevin MacDonald, a California State University professor listed as a witness in the on-going "Holocaust trial" between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt. MacDonald is a member of the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society, the leading academic society in the field that Wilson helped found, and he has devoted three books to the theory that Judaism is a 2,000-year-old "group evolutionary strategy" to spread Jewish genes.

"Like any subject, it's easy to take things too far," Wilson says. "Some people who identify themselves as evolutionary psychologists are having a fine time writing popular books that some might regard as pretty speculative.

"If we are talking about infanticide or killing among baboons, it's OK to speculate freely about what it all means because people don't care about baboons. To say let's take a biological look at rape and the Holocaust, then you are beginning to push buttons and immediately you are stirring passions. They should be cautious."

As far as Wilson is concerned, the argument for sociobiology has been won. As a field virtually created by his book, it has been powerfully bolstered by neuroscience and genetics. Particular genes are now linked to personality and propensities, from shyness and aggressiveness to obsessive compulsive disorder and colour blindness.

"That was not the case 25 years ago, and the critics tried awfully hard to knock the props out of sociobiology," he says. At the time, the nature-nurture debate was running heavily in favour of nurture, and Wilson's views on heredity were like a red rag to a leftist bull.

But his views were simplified by his critics, Wilson asserts. No serious scholar, he writes in a preface to the 25th anniversary edition, "would think that human behaviour is controlled the way animal instinct is, without the intervention of culture. In the interactionist view held by virtually all who study the subject, genomics biases mental development but cannot abolish culture. To suggest that I held such views, and it was suggested frequently, was to erect a straw man - to fabricate false testimony for rhetorical purposes.

"Who were the critics, and why were they so offended?" he continues. "Their ranks included intellectuals who disliked the ideaI that human nature could have any genetic basis at all. They championed the opposing view, that the developing human brain is a tabula rasa."

The "social function" of sociobiology, it was argued then, was to hinder the creation of a just society by preserving the interests of the dominant class, gender and race. But "the argument for a political test of scientific knowledge lost its strength with the collapse of world socialism and the end of the cold war," Wilson writes. "To my knowledge it has not been heard since." Except, he jokes, in English departments.

The first 26 chapters of Sociobiology are an encyclopedic review of insect and animal behaviour. It is the 29 pages of chapter , the last, that extended the argument to Homo sapiens and a controversy he did not seek. "Perhaps I should have stopped at chimpanzees," Wilson observed in his memoir, Naturalist. "Many biologists wish I had.

"My argument ran essentially as follows. Human beings inherit a propensity to acquire behaviour and social structures, a propensity that is shared by enough people to be called human nature. The defining traits include division of labour between the sexes, bonding between parents and children, heightened altruism towards closest kind, incest avoidance, other forms of ethical behaviour, suspicion of strangers, tribalism, dominance orders within groups, male dominance overall, and territorial aggression over limited resources."

It was notable that Wilson confined his observations mostly to early man or remote tribes, rather than modern Americans. There is no reference to rape in the book, and the only mention of sexual aggression covers the harems of male hamadryas baboons. But Wilson did note that in most human societies, "women and children remain in the residential area while the men forage for game or its symbolic equivalent in the form of barter and money."

Ullica Segerstrale, associate professor of sociology at Illinois Institute of Technology, has followed the sociobiology controversy since her student days at Harvard. Her book, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond, is published this month. "Wilson was taken to task for making remarks that people have considered sexist, racist and so on," she says. "The climate has changed now, so that one can say certain things without being shot down. Morally, Wilson won the sociobiology debate in the sense that he was not the person, the political monster, he was construed as."

Sociobiology, Harvard University Press, Pounds 18.50. Defenders of the Truth, Oxford University Press, Pounds 18.99.

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