Vaulting ambition: sociobiology and the quest for human nature.

Vaulting ambition: sociobiology and the quest for human nature. – book reviews

Leon J. Kamin

There are not many books that really deserve to be called “definitive”–but anybody who has been waiting for a definitive critique of the burgeoning field of sociobiology need wait no longer. Philip Kitcher, a biologically oriented philosopher of science at the University of Minnesota, has written a brilliant, detailed and powerful analysis of the work of Edward O. Wilson and of Wilson’s sociobiological predecessors, colleagues and followers. Though Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature (MIT Press, $25) necessarily deals with some of the quantitative and mathematical claims of sociobiological theory, the details are conveniently set apart from the main text in a series of technical discussions. The major points of the book are all spelled out clearly, and often entertainingly, in plain prose.

While Kitcher is fully aware of the political and ideological purposes served by the claims of human sociobiology, and is quick to reject them, this is by no means the focus of his work. His voice is gentler than that of many earlier critics, and more concerned with the details–and even the minutiae–of sociobiological claims. This makes it possible for Kitcher to salvage what is or may be useful in the work of individual animal sociobiologists, without sparing the cant, pretentiousness and just plain errors that abound in sociobiological speculations applied to humankind. Readers of Kitcher’s judicious book will gain understanding of and respect for the ingenious ideas of W. D. Hamilton (the theory of kin selection) and J. Maynard Smith (evolutionarily stable strategies), and they will encounter strong arguments for the usefulness of such ideas in understanding the evolution of some animal behaviors. They will also see that, in Kitcher’s language, the “ladder” with which Wilson attempts to move from studies of animals to pronouncements about human nature is “rotten at every rung. . . . Wilson might have brought to his study of human behavior the same care and rigor that he has lavished on ants. But he did not.” These strong and damning conclusions are buttressed by a wealth of painstakingly accumulated details–biological, mathematical and philosophical. The usual gentleness of Kitcher’s tone, and the patient openmindedness of his scholarship, lend force to his final judgment.

Wilson’s “pop sociobiology,” as Kitcher documents, depends upon the claim that certain forms of behavior–territoriality, for example, or indoctrinability–at some point in human evolutionary history maximized the reproductive success of individuals exhibiting them. Proponents claim furthermore that such forms of behavior became universal in the human species by the operation of Darwinian natural selection, and are thus adaptations coded into the human genotype. Finally, it is argued, such selected adaptations will be impossible, or at best very difficult, to change or to eliminate by changes in the social environment. But Kitcher’s carefully reasoned critique demonstrates that not a single one of these core claims of pop sociobiology stands up to critical scrutiny. The sociobiological ladder truly is “rotten at every rung.”

The limits of even Kitcher’s patience seem to have been sorely tried by Charles J. Lumsden and Wilson’s 1981 book, Genes, Mind, and Culture. Kitcher, who deals at serious length with the mathematical claims of sociobiology, writes of the Lumsden and Wilson work: “Complex mathematics is employed to cover up very simple–often simplistic–ideas . . . by applying symbolism of mind-numbing obscurity to the solution of unimportant problems.” In a rare but pardonable speculation about motives, Kitcher suggests that “it is as if the authors had declared, . . . ‘If they decry sociobiology as science, we shall present it in a form that will silence all objections. Mathematics is the mark of good science, and we will give them mathematics. Indeed, we will give them more mathematics than they ever could ask for. We will give them more mathematics than they could ever use. We will give them more mathematics than they could ever understand.'” It is a major contribution of Kitcher’s book that his detailed discussion of the Lumsden and Wilson work makes it possible for everyone to appreciate the poverty of the thought that underlies their mathematicizing. More generally, we need to be reminded that mathematics can be abused, as well as gloriously used, in scientific endeavors.

Kitcher’s skills at philosophical analysis, freely employed throughout the book, are particularly evident in an illuminating final chapter on human freedom and ethics. His evaluation of sociobiology’s contribution to the resolution of these recurring and difficult questions is succinct, and just: “Perhaps what philosophy needs is an injection of scientific knowledge and rigorous method. So the pop sociobiologists go to work. Give them a wet Sunday afternoon and they will unriddle humanity.” If Kitcher’s own reflections cannot be said to have solved the eternal dilemnas, they at least make startlingly clear the shallow absurdity of pop sociobiology’s repeated claim to provide a scientific foundation for ethics.

There is no excuse for anybody claiming to be interested in the understanding of human social behavior not to read this book, and it is tempting to believe that pop sociobiology can never recover from Kitcher’s masterful demolition job. Indeed, if scholarly criteria were all that is involved in the evaluation and reception of scientific theories, it could not. But clearly, much more is involved. How could so fatally flawed a work as Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis be launched by the scholarly Harvard University Press in 1975 with full-page advertisements, author-publisher cocktail parties and television and radio talk-show interviews? Why should a presumably technical work on evolutionary theory be discussed in magazines like House and Garden, Readers Digest and People? Here the social and ideological functions of sociobiology–not its scientific merit–seem paramount. By restating age-old claims that human nature is fixed and unchangeable, and that efforts to ameliorate social woes by changing the social environment are doomed to fail, sociobiology gives aid and comfort to supporters of the status quo. While work like Kitcher’s may be a necessary condition for loosening the grip of pop sociobiology on so many academic minds, a lessened commitment to the status quo, in academia and in society at large, may be equally necessary. And that, unfortunately, cannot be brought about by books alone.

COPYRIGHT 1985 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group