New Questions From the New Biology

Gene Splicing and Sociobiology: A dynamite combination

It is the contention of the relatively new field of sociobiology that much more than physical characteristics and mental abilities are genetically determined, at least in part, in humans. In contrast to the completely plastic personality visualized by Skinner and the behaviorists, many sociobiologists believe that such philosophical abstracts as altruism, aggression, and affection may be governed by one’s genetic makeup. Sociobiology as a discipline is thus the study of the genetic basis of social behavior.

At this point in time, sociobiology has been very successful in increasing the understanding of the behavior of social insects and, to a lesser extent, social behavior in higher organisms. Its applicability to human behavior, however, is still open to question. There is the understandable tendency to justify the importance of an infant discipline by making sweeping claims for its special insights, as has been done in several books by E.O. Wilson generalizing from the insect to the human. This is countered by others, such as Richard Lewontin and associates, who take particular pleasure in pointing out the often serious flaws in studies used by Wilson in making his generalizations. The Lewontin et al critique is written from a Marxist point of view, which has seriously weakened the effectiveness of their effort to oppose a sociobiological view of humanity, but does not affect their devastating analyses of key studies.

At this point in time, there is little or no hard evidence justifying the generalization of sociobiological concepts to humanity, so any conclusions about the genetic basis of human behavior would be very premature. Unfortunately, the concepts underlying sociobiology have been misinterpreted and misused by a few scientists and a number of lay people outside the field to justify their personal prejudices. These individuals, the intellectual and political descendents of the social darwinists, extreme eugenecists, and Burt-Shockley racists, believe that sociobiology provides a (pseudo)scientific foundation for making (unwarranted) distinctions between racial groups and even social strata within a particular society. Like these previous “sciences”, sociobiology (which in its implications is deterministic and reductionist) is used to rationalize the status quo. You do not have to be a Marxist to recognize the political and social implications of the misuse and/ or premature application of sociobiological ideas to humanity, nor to be concerned by the increasing popularity of this point of view.