Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sociobiology

Back a while now, I think it was late in 2005, Smithsonian published brief profiles of “35 Who Made a Difference.” The magazine, celebrating its 35th anniversary, decided to honor “innovators.” One of the editors’ choices was Edward O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology. His is the scientific doctrine which gives genes predominance over their carriers; thus the egg is greater than the chick; indeed the chick is the egg’s tool. Richard Dawkins made this subject even more controversial in 1976 by publishing a book with a catchier title, The Selfish Gene. While we were still in Virginia and Brigitte still going to school, I bought Wilson’s book for her in “a cloud of unknowing” as it were. The book is monstrous, oversized, evidently aimed at the coffee-table market: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. But while its cover lives up to the coffee-table promise, the contents stray far from English; the book is boring, its message dismal. In the last section of the last chapter, Wilson concludes that in the next century, namely this one, humanity will have evolved to a form no longer recognizably human. He ends by saying: “But we still have a hundred years.” He doesn’t mean a hundred years to fix things. No. The genes will have the last word—and they will have their way. He simply means that we still have a hundred years to experience what it feels like to be human. He envisions a completely planned society, “the creation of which seems inevitable in the coming century.” “In this,” he says, “the ultimate genetic sense, social control would rob man of his humanity.” The book was published in 1975.

On gloomier days we might agree with Edward O. Wilson; we need but look around to see monuments to his predictions…

Sociobiology, curiously, illustrates what fundamentalist religion is all about. It is a kind of passionate reasoning from partially true premises; in both cases the premises are found in holy books; in both cases there is a prophet; for Wilson the prophet is Darwin, for the fundamentalists he is St. Paul. The factual basis on which the structure is erected is never really questioned, indeed may not be questioned.

Wilson starts his book by saying:

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. The biologist…realizes that self-knowledge is constrained by emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system…These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions—hate, love, guilt, fear, and others—that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection… Self-existence, or the suicide that terminates it, is not the central question of philosophy. The hypothalamic-limbic complex automatically denies such logical reduction by countering it with feelings of guilt and altruism…. In a Darwinist sense the organism does not live for itself…. Each organism…is a unique, accidental subset of all genes constituting the species…

[T]he organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA. More to the point, the hypothalamus and limbic system are engineered to perpetuate DNA.

This extract from a much longer paragraph sums up the fundamental problem of sociobiology, indeed the problem of any system which posits an unconscious and emergent causation of mind. It was Archimedes who said, concerning leverage: “Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth.” We’ve improved that by saying: “Give me a fixed point outside the earth…” A fixed point, and outside the system, is absolutely essential for any kind of genuine knowledge. If my thinking is governed by the subtle string-pulls of a vast power beyond me (whether I’m aware of it or not) my thinking is essentially worthless. So is my science: it’s simply whatever DNA wants me to think.

I cannot lift myself by my own bootstraps. I cannot see my eyes without a mirror. Reality demands a fundamental dualism—a fixed point outside. Without that, no genuine knowledge can exist—only a system of reactions. Wilson thus transfers genuine consciousness to the DNA—but in orthodox Darwinian manner he clings to all of the machinery: it all happened by accident and natural selection. As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

Sociobiology is well known primarily because it tackled one of the basic problem in Darwinian theory—altruism. It shouldn’t be there beyond, perhaps, the narrow sphere of a brief mother-child relationship. Wilson explains altruism as the transcending wisdom of DNA guiding us by the “hidden hand” of hypothalamic/limbic influence so to behave that a more diverse gene pool will survive.

If you leave a lot out, if you do not think rigorously enough, anything can be explained by natural selection.

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