Is Sociobiology Nuts?

The influence of Darwinism has long since penetrated into the popular consciousness, and spawned new pseudo-sciences, such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which attempt to explain every aspect of human nature as an outgrowth of a hypothesized ruthless struggle for existence. Popular Darwinism, and its pseudo-scientific offshoots, properly belong more in the realm of the history of ideas than the history of science.

The late Australian philosopher David Stove in a collection of essays entitled Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution, links popular Darwinism to other modern deterministic theories, such as Marxian economic determinism and Freudianism. There is apparently something appealing, he notes, about doctrines that absolve us of responsibility for our lives. These doctrines, Stove points out, tend to arise in periods of Enlightenment, and to serve the cause of liberation, in particular sexual liberation, and to undermine all traditional notions of morality.

Accordingly, evolutionary psychologists have of late turned their sights on religion itself. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, writing in Atlantic Monthly, provides a good example of the genre. Bloom cites experiments showing that even infants attribute agency and intention to animate objects. That ability is crucial to the development of social understanding. According to Bloom, the innate genetic tendency to attribute 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 “G-d-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 naturalistic argument.

Such “scientific” attacks on religion and morality have little to do with science. They derive rather from what Leon Wieseltier (no orthodox believer himself) terms “scientism.” Wieseltier defines scientism as “the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions,” and rightly terms one of the “dominant superstitions of our day.”

For Darwinian social scientists, the ubiquity of a phenomenon, such as religious belief, is proof of its 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 of the “G-d-gene” 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 equally guilty of finding evolution behind every social phenomenon. The “legendary curiosity [of evolutionary psychology],” writes Wieseltier, “somehow always discovers the same thing.”

Princeton “ethicist” Peter Singer and Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser recently provided readers of The Jerusalem Post with concrete evidence of how grossly overpriced an Ivy League education is, as well what a low bar of empirical support sociobiologists set for their theories.

Singer and Hauser seek to establish that moral beliefs are the products of evolution and that organized religion is pointless since all people, in any event, share certain moral intuitions bequeathed to them by evolution. How do they prove these propositions? Through the observation that over 90% of test subjects answer the same to three moral dilemmas posed by Singer and Hauser.

These moral dilemmas hardly tested the outer limits of moral reasoning. Examples: Must one save a drowning baby if one will get one’s pants wet as a result? May we kill someone to harvest his organs and save five others?

Moreover, the commonality of certain moral intuitions, as well as belief in a Higher Being, is precisely what Orthodox 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. 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.
Nor does comparing answers to moral dilemmas establish 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.

As with so many of their Darwinian peers, the purpose of Singer and Hauser’s evolutionary account is to free us from the shackles of traditional religious belief and our common moral intuitions. Singer’s particular bugaboo is the view that there is special sanctity to human life – a view, he once told The New York Times, soon to be consigned to the dustbin of history. For Singer, humans are merely differently evolved animals, possessing no souls, and with no superior claims to those of animals. Both are nothing more than bundles of various pleasures, and all pleasures are morally equal. Thus Singer finds nothing to condemn about bestiality, and writes that a newborn baby has less claim to life than a contented housecat. Indeed he would give every parent the right to decide whether he or she wished to keep a new baby or have it put to sleep.

Nowhere is it clearer that Darwinism is an alternate religion, or anti-religion, than in the work of the sociobiologists. For sociobiologists, all human development, like that of all other species, is the result of a ruthless struggle for existence. The iron law of existence is that genes seek to reproduce themselves, and compete with one another in this regard. In the words of the best known sociobiologist, Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, “An organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”

That picture of human existence, charges the philosopher David Stove, constitutes a massive slander against the human race, as well as a distortion of reality that is readily apparent to any five-year-old. The Darwinian account, for instance, flounders on widespread altruistic impulses that have always characterized human beings in all places and all times. Nor can it explain why some men act as heroes, even though by doing so they risk their own lives and therefore their capacity to reproduce, or why societies should idealize certain forms of altruism and heroism. How, from an evolutionary perspective, could such traits have developed or survived?

The traditional Darwinian answer is that such traits as altruism are but an illusion, or a modern veneer of civilization imposed upon our real natures. That answer, however, fails to explain how that veneer could have come about in the first place; how could the first appeal to higher moral values have ever found an author or an audience. Stove offers perhaps the most compelling reason for rejecting the views of those who deny the very existence of human altruism: “I am not a lunatic.”

In 1964, biologist W.D. Hamilton first expounded a theory explaining how much of what appears to us as altruism is merely genes’ clever way of assuring the propagation of their particular gene pool via relatives that share that gene pool. The preeminent modern defender of Darwin, Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins, popularized this theory in The Selfish Gene.

Among the predictions Hamilton made is the following: “We expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half brothers, or eight first-cousins,” because those choices result in a greater dissemination of a particular gene pool. To which Stove responds: “Was an expectation more obviously false than this one ever held (let alone published) by any human being?” Throughout human history, men have willingly sacrificed themselves for those bearing no relationship to them, just as others have refused to do so for more than two brothers.

Here is a supposedly scientific theory bearing no relationship to any empirical reality ever observed. Stove offers a number of further common sense objections that only serve to highlight this point further. Parents commonly show more regard for their children than their children for them, despite the fact that they share the same amount of common genes. Similarly parents act more altruistically towards their offspring than siblings to one another, even though in each pair there is an overlap of half the genetic material. If Hamilton’s theory were true, we should expect to find incest widespread. In fact, it is taboo in almost every known human society. Finally, the whole theory is predicated on the dubious proposition that animals, or their genes, can tell a sibling from a cousin, and a cousin from other members of the same species.

Sociobiology, Stove demonstrates, is a religion, and genes are its gods. In traditional religion, human beings exist for the greater glory of G-d; in sociobiology, human beings and all other living things exist for the benefit of their genes. “We are . . . robot-vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” writes Dawkins.

Like G-d, Dawkins’ genes are purposeful agents, far smarter than man. He describes the process how a certain cuckoo parasitically lays its eggs in the nest of the reed warbler, where the cuckoo young get more food by virtue of their wider mouths and brighter crests, as one in which the cuckoo genes have tricked the reed warbler. Thus, for Dawkins, genes are capable of conceiving a strategy no man could have thought of and of putting into motion the complicated engineering necessary to execute that strategy. In one passage, Dawkins even describes genes as immortal: “[Genes] leap from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends . . . The genes are the immortals . . . .”

Writing in 1979, Professor R.D. Alexander made the bald assertion: “. . . we are programmed to use all our effort, and in fact to use our lives, in production.” And yet it is obvious to any child that most of what men do has nothing to do with reproduction, and never more so than at the present when large parts of the civilized world are becoming rapidly depopulated.

Confronted with these obvious facts about human nature and behavior, sociobiologists respond by ascribing them to “errors of heredity.” As Stove tartly observes, “Because their theory of man is badly wrong, they say that man is badly wrong: that he incorporates many and grievous biological errors.” But the one thing a scientific theory may never do, Stove observes, is “reprehend the facts.” It may observe them, or predict new facts to be discovered, but not criticize those before it.

The only question that remains is how could so many highly intelligent men – at least intelligent enough to write books – could say so many patently false and stupid things. Rabbi Dessler would have known the answer.

*This article is excerpted from a longer article on Scientific Objectivity in the current issue of The Jewish Observer. The relevant quote from Rav Dessler can be found at pp. 367-68 of my biography of him published by ArtScroll.

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9 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Tzvee, opposition to intermarriage doesn’t protect the gene pool unless:

    1. You don’t accept converts.

    and

    2. You require both patrilineal and matrilineal descend.

    Neither of these holds true for Judaism.

  2. Seth Gordon says:

    tzvee: In order to make a sociobiological argument that Jewish opposition to intermarriage has some basis in our genes, you would have to establish that in the environment in which we evolved, a subgroup of humans with an intermarriage taboo would leave behind more descendants than a group without.

    If you’re trying to prove this about Jews in particular, rather than humans in general, then you would need to establish that the advantage of not intermarrying is so large that it would take only a few hundred generations, rather than thousands, for the intermarrying subgroup to die out.

    And even if you could establish that, that doesn’t necessarily prove that there’s a “gene for not-intermarrying” that Jews are passing along from one generation to the next (which suddenly lost most of its potency in America around 1950 or so). Philip Kitcher’s Vaulting Ambition explains, in exhaustive detail, how large the jump from “X seems to increase an organism’s fitness” to “there must be a gene for X” is.

  3. tzvee says:

    Isn’t our vehement opposition to intermarriage a valid support for some of the claims of s-b? Aren’t we in effect defending the genes of our tribe by opposing marrying out?

  4. Seth Gordon says:

    This page from the Royal Institute of Philosophy Web Site has links to some articles on sociobiology, including some by Stove. I particularly liked Simon Blackburn’s essay showing how it is possible to believe in mainstream evolutionary theory without following such “ultra-Darwinists” as Dawkins, and Mary Midgley’s critique of how Dawkins misleads his audience by how he uses words like “selfish”.

    (Blackburn’s essay, by the way, has a response to Stove’s critique of Hamilton.)

  5. David N. Friedman says:

    It is surely revealing that those who carry water for Darwinian naturalism inevitably become kooky in their analysis. This proves that beginning assumptions are crucial in any intellectual exercise.

    Not only are evolutionary advantages not in evidence regarding many if not most human traits, the entire game of “Darwin in action” is very slim in the natural world at large.

    The elites who push this trash do so because it is the logical extension of their worldview and if they ever stopped to consider how poor their evidence sounds, they might start examining their beginning postulates.

    The fact that there will be no re-examination is ample proof that their work is not scientific, rather, it is “religious” in nature.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    How can we blame these esteemed professors if their genes made them write what they did? And if their professional accomplishments can be attributed to their professor-genes, should society pay them more than the average guy?

  7. Shlomo Zalman Jessel says:

    I once saw a book on anomalous psychology which explored things like dowsing, deja vu experiences, and faith healing. It said that people have a seemingly built-in tendency to attach spiritual meaning to things. I heard from Rav Mordecai Becher that Pachad Yitchak says the same thing. We have an intuitive sense that there is more to the world than just its material aspects.

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I comment on some points in your article? I used italics for your points, and regular for my comments.

    Responding to Bloom’s article, one reader shared the brilliant explanation given by his college anthropology professor for the development of a “G-d-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.

    Primitive people who buried the parts of animals they couldn’t eat instead of leaving them close to their homes would affect their sanitation even more. Yet few religions believe in the immortality of chicken souls.

    For Darwinian social scientists, the ubiquity of a phenomenon, such as religious belief, is proof of its evolutionary origins. As Dennett puts it: “Everything we value… we value for reasons. Lying behind, and distinct from, our reasons are evolutionary reasons…”

    If you believe that we were designed by G-d to survive in pretty terrible conditions (which our ancestors endured, and still exist in many parts of the world), you would also expect many things we value to be beneficial to survival.

    Singer and Hauser seek to establish that moral beliefs are the products of evolution and that organized religion is pointless since all people, in any event, share certain moral intuitions bequeathed to them by evolution. How do they prove these propositions? Through the observation that over 90% of test subjects answer the same to three moral dilemmas posed by Singer and Hauser.

    These moral dilemmas hardly tested the outer limits of moral reasoning. Examples: Must one save a drowning baby if one will get one’s pants wet as a result? May we kill someone to harvest his organs and save five others?

    Stupid experiment unless they chose people from widely varying cultures. It’s fairly obvious the moral opinions about such things as slavery and sexual morality did vary through history.

    Parents commonly show more regard for their children than their children for them, despite the fact that they share the same amount of common genes. Similarly parents act more altruistically towards their offspring than siblings to one another, even though in each pair there is an overlap of half the genetic material.

    A younger person will have more time to propagate his/her genes. Therefore, it makes more sense for parents to be alturistic to their children than for siblings to be alturistic towards one another, and more sense for them to be alturistic towards one another than towards their parents.

    The only question that remains is how could so many highly intelligent men – at least intelligent enough to write books – could say so many patently false and stupid things. Rabbi Dessler would have known the answer.

    You can find plenty of very intelligent men who supported Avodah Zarah. Thomas Aquinos, Aristotle, etc. Same thing…

  1. June 25, 2006

    Strive for purpose…

    So, then, do we live just to spawn? Of course not. Jonathan Rosenblum writes:

    Nowhere is it clearer that Darwin……