Bucked trend fizzes up

April 7, 1995

Speakers at a combined Royal Society/British Academy conference this week were fizzing with excitement. The conference was the Evolution of Social Behaviour Patterns in Primates and Man - and the speakers were delighted to be able to present their work to an interdisciplinary audience without a single delegate storming out of the room.

In the 1960s biologists such as E. O. Wilson claimed that evolutionary theory would be able to explain much of human culture and social behaviour. They made an aggressive takeover bid for disciplines such as social anthropology. As a result there was polarisation and many say the two sides are still moving in opposite directions.

The evolutionary biologists, meanwhile, have been slogging hard to produce data to support their ideas. They have many more facts on which to base their claims, culled from sources ranging from our improved knowledge about early man to research on primates. Many biologists have toned down their claims. Their ideas have become more sophisticated. They want to offer their biological wares to the social science community again and they also seem to want debate.

This week's meeting, an attempt to bring together the two sides, follows a similar, THES-sponsored conference two years ago. The presentations this week were impressive. There is for example some evidence emerging of a genetic component to acquiring language - slight as yet but the search is on for more (see back page). There is evidence from evolutionary psychologists of an instinctive grasp of a social contract; and there is the promise, again from psychology, of a general, quantitative theory of primate social systems.

These studies take the Darwinist approach into many areas of social science in ways which may be seen as threatening but also enlightening. At this week's meeting, there were no detectable over-inflated takeover claims being made by the scientists. Neither was it possible to detect the political and racist undercurrents which have provided another reason why the evolutionary biologists have been shunned this century and have been so cautious about their approach this time.

The organisers were excited: the event was "remarkable", said John Maynard Smith, the Royal Society's co-chairman; "immensely hopeful", said Robin Dunbar of Liverpool University who did much of the organising; "there's a flurry of interest", said Lord Runciman, the British Academy's co-chairman.

But the excitement and lack of ill-temper may have been because the conference was lacking one thing: among the mix of disciplines (such as biologists, linguists, archaeologists) there were in fact very few sociologists, anthropologists and economists - some of the disciplines central to the social sciences. The most optimistic estimate was that there were five social anthropologists in an audience of hundreds.

Social scientists would do well to swallow their prejudices and go and listen to the more quietly confident and more sophisticated arguments that evolutionary biologists are making today and the insights they are offering. Evolutionary biology is delivering results that cannot go away. Social scientists should open themselves up to critical assessment of evolutionary ideas. They will then be able either to defend themselves against them or fertilise their own work with them and contribute to the discussion. If they do not take part in a debate which must be civilised on both sides, they will indeed be risking a gradual erosion of their disciplines.

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