Sociobiology isn’t Science

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Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, professor of psychology at Harvard and professor of bioethics at Princeton respectively, recently sought to prove in these pages that our sense of morality is the result of evolution, and has nothing to do with God (“Godless morality,” January 8 ). They succeeded instead only in confirming suspicions that much of evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology, as it is variously known) is pseudo-science and an Ivy League education is grossly overpriced.

Hauser and Singer’s arguments are part of a larger effort to employ evolutionary psychology to refute religious belief. The very ubiquity of belief in spiritual beings, souls, an afterlife, etc., it is argued, is ipso facto proof that these beliefs have their roots in human evolution. Hauser/Singer, for instance, posed three moral questions to people. Based on the uniformity of answers in over 90 percent of the cases, regardless of religiosity, they conclude that moral intuitions have nothing to do with religious belief but are generated by evolution.

Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Paul Bloom, a Yale professor of psychology and linguistics, cites experiments showing that even infants attribute agency and intention to animate objects. That ability is crucial to the development of social understanding. But, according to Bloom, the innate genetic tendency to see agency also causes human beings to find design in the universe where none exists.

Responding to Bloom’s article, one reader shared the brilliant explanation given by his college anthropology professor for the development of a “God-gene”: primitive people who buried their dead in order to prepare them for entry into an afterlife lived in more sanitary conditions and thus were favored by natural selection.

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett is a virtual compendium of this type of argument.

THE FIRST thing to note in response is that common moral intuitions, as well as a near ubiquitous belief in a power beyond oneself, are precisely what Torah Jews would predict. All mankind is obligated to observe seven Noachide laws, even in the absence of Divine revelation. That obligation assumes knowledge of these laws to be innate. And if God breathed into man a part of Himself, as it were, it is also natural that every human being would have some awareness of Him, no matter how obscure.

More telling is how little the “scientific” attacks on religion and morality have to do with science. They derive rather from what Leon Wieseltier, in his New York Times review of Dennett’s book, terms “scientism: the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions” – a view Wieseltier rightly terms one of the “dominant superstitions of our day.”

Note how little in the way of scientific proof the evolutionists and their allies require. The human genome project has not, as far as I know, uncovered a “God-gene” that would predict how likely one is to be religious.

The questions asked by Hauser and Singer, for instance, hardly test the outer limits of moral reasoning: Must one save a drowning baby if one will get one’s pants wet in the process? May we kill someone to harvest his organs and save five others?

Moreover, comparing answers to moral dilemmas hardly establishes that religious belief makes no difference in a person’s life. The true test of that proposition lies not in the area of values, which are merely professed, but in that of virtues, which must be laboriously attained. The litmus test would be how one behaves in situations in which one’s professed values run up against powerful desires.

Each of the proofs against the claims of religion is based on the a priori assumption that ubiquity is proof of evolutionary origins. As Dennett puts it: “Everything we value… we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons…”

That’s a philosophical position, not a scientific theory.

For those convinced of that position a story, any story, will do to establish the evolutionary advantage. The anthropology professor’s explanation is a good example. Starting with the claim that human beings are born with a tendency to see everywhere “agents with beliefs and desires,” Dennett constructs an entire speculative history of the development of religion. But as Wieseltier points out, all this is only “a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology,” that amounts, for all Dennett’s professed allegiance to experimentation and evidence, to merely “a pious account of his own atheistic longing.”

The evolutionists accuse believers, in Bloom’s words, of “over-read[ing] purpose into things.” But they are guilty of finding evolution behind every social phenomenon. The “legendary curiosity [of evolutionary psychology],” writes Wieseltier, “somehow always discovers the same thing.”

BELIEVERS ATTRIBUTE will and intention to an unseen Creator; sociobiologists attribute will not to beings but to individual genes or even gene pools. Confronted with altruistic behavior, such as animals that warn the larger herd of nearby predators, and thereby expose themselves to great danger, they posit an “altruism gene, ” which albeit dangerous for the bearer is advantageous for the common gene pool of the herd.

Darwinian evolution is not only the club with which Singer and Hauser attempt to disprove any connection between religion and morality. It is the basis for the superior morality which Singer hopes will supplant our allegedly evolved moral intuitions. Humans, like all animals, are, in Singer’s view, nothing more than the product of random evolution. We possess no special sanctity, no souls, and have no superior claims to animals. Humans and animals are both nothing more than bundles of various pleasures, and all pleasures are equal. Thus Singer appears to see nothing wrong with bestiality (though his treatment of consent remains murky).

A newborn baby has less claim to life than a contented house cat, according to Singer. And the scope of those whom this son of Auschwitz survivors would see subject to euthanasia is wide – not only Downs syndrome babies, but even those with hemophilia, if their death would result in the parents producing a more perfect baby.

So much for the higher morality of Singer’s brave new world. Evolutionary psychology, it turns out, is not only silly but dangerous.

First published in the Jerusalem Post, March 9, 2006

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11 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Moshe,

    We all have a yetzer hara of some sort, which can be related to inherited or environmental influences. What I object to includes:

    1. Determinism—-the illusion that the yetzer cannot be disobeyed

    2. Wishful thinking as science

    So we appear to agree.

  2. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘If you want to see how entrenched “scientism” , as opposed to legitimate scientific research, is in academia and elsewhere’

    I can’t speak for all of academia, but as an academic scientist I have not personally run into this.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “I was just pointing out a flaw in the article written by R’ Rosenblum”

    not understanding something HaRav Rosenblum says doesn’t make it a flaw

  4. Moshe says:

    Bob Miller:
    I don’t see why you question me as to my beliefs – I was just pointing out a flaw in the article written by R’ Rosenblum, not stating my beliefs. I am not the person to judge the authenticity and veracity of the claims of the scientist – I am just pointing out that there are scientists who believe that they have found a God gene – even though R’ Rosenblum seemed to imply that he knows of no such research.

    Regardless, I do not see why having “God genes” dictates what one must believe – it is more of an influence to a specific belief, not that the belief is set in stone (or genetics). I see no reason to have problems with the fact (if the scientific claims of a God gene are true) that God gives some people a more difficult task in believing in Him, while others have an easier time dealing with that issue and have other issues to deal with.

    Now let me pose a question to you:
    Do you believe that the sexual orientation of an individual is dictated to a degree by genetics and that different people can have different tendencies when searching for partners? If so, how do you explain that the Torah takes human free will (except maybe for Pharaoh at times) to be a given?

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    If you want to see how entrenched “scientism” , as opposed to legitimate scientific research, is in academia and elsewhere, look at the NY Times Book Review letters to the editor section from last week (the week following the review by Wielteiser). The tone was quite hostile and treated Wielteiser with zero respect for his point of view.

  6. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    The idea that religion is an evolutionary adaptation is not necessarily contradictory to our beliefs. Just as migratory birds– and penguins– inspire us with their single minded zeal and sacrifice to survive and reproduce, nature’s conspiracy to inculcate religion should inspire us to appreciate that our Creator arranged nature in a way that would help us to recognize Him. I don’t know whether all things that rise must converge, but the fact that natural forces may contribute to the spiritual enlightenment of mankind certainly inspires me.

  7. Seth Gordon says:

    Philip Kitcher, a philosophy professor at the University of Minnesota, has written a superb book that explains why “pop sociobiology” is bad science. Kitcher doesn’t dispute the general theory of evolution–indeed, he has another book subtitled “The Case Against Creationism”–but he argues that the headline-grabbing claims about sociobiology (or “evolutionary psychology”, as they call it these days) abuse the scientific method. You can’t just say “well, I can imagine how this behavior that is very common today would have given our remote ancestors an evolutionary advantage, therefore it must be in the genes”.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    As for Moshe’s comment and links above, the conclusions drawn from the research are a lot shakier and more tentative than the investigator and news media let on. That’s in the context of science.

    But we should also consider the possibility of “mind over matter”, that is, the effect of thought on brain function and chemistry, and not only the reverse. Thought is not simply the expression of some existing chemical/physical state in the brain. Any analysis that neglects soul-brain interactions will not reveal the whole truth. Science, which, by necessity, focuses only on the natural world, can only give us some of the big picture.

    Does Moshe believe that his own opinions are dictated, as opposed to influenced, by natural causes? If so, how does he explain that the Torah takes human free will (except maybe for Pharaoh at times) to be a given?

  9. Earl E. Appleby, Jr. says:

    As you aptly observe, “They succeeded instead only in confirming suspicions that much of evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology, as it is variously known) is pseudo-science and an Ivy League education is grossly overpriced.”

    Or as my father used to say of their ilk, “they are educated beyond their intelligence.

    As a first-time visitor, I look forward to visiting often.

    Earl E. Appleby, Jr.
    Director, Citizens United Resisting Euthanasia (CURE)
    Berkeley Springs, WV 25411

  10. Bob Miller says:

    This methodology has great potential. For example:

    Scholarship is whatever can attract grants and get published. Those who have the Grant-gene are predisposed to achieve great success as scholars. The failure to detect the Grant-gene is just a detail. Seemingly, there are people such as the cited authors, including the Jewish ones, who have inherited the Grant-gene but not the God-gene. This needs further in-depth study.

    Also, those who believe in evolution must have the Evolution-gene. But one must ask how evolution in all this time would have “allowed” so many nonbelievers in evolution to survive to this day. Possibly, belief in evolution has no survival value, except for professors.

  11. Moshe says:

    JR writes: “Note how little in the way of scientific proof the evolutionists and their allies require. The human genome project has not, as far as I know, uncovered a “God-gene” that would predict how likely one is to be religious.”

    Type “God gene” into Google and see what you get:
    http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,1101041025-725072,00.html

    http://washingtontimes.com/world/20041114-111404-8087r.htm
    …..
    An American molecular geneticist has concluded after comparing more than 2,000 DNA samples that a person’s capacity to believe in God is linked to brain chemicals.
    His findings have been criticized by leading clerics, who challenge the existence of a “God gene” and say the research undermines a fundamental tenet of faith — that spiritual enlightenment is achieved through divine transformation rather than the brain’s electrical impulses.

    So it seems that the scientists you aim to disagree with have yet another disagreement with you: they do believe in a God gene.

    Am I missing your point?