Sociobiology

Can biology help to clarify matters concerning human nature? Does our biological nature provide a basis for understanding? Of particular relevance in this area is sociobiology, which was defined by E.O.Wilson, its founder, as the 'the scientific study of the biological basis of all forms of social behaviour in all kinds of organisms, including man' (1978:222). Based on neo-Darwinian insights about the way genes can be selected and passed on in the course of evolution, it has at times made grandiose claims about the genetic basis of human behaviour. Some are plausible, unless one adopts the extreme thesis that there are no innate tendencies in human beings, and that all our characteristics are the result of environmental influence. Genes encouraging youthful suicide are unlikely to be passed on because those concerned will not live long enough to reproduce. Anything which encourages survival and ensures reproductive success is likely to be under strong genetic influence. For instance, parental care for offspring is likely to be an ingrained tendency in most species.

Sociobiology can offer many insights into the origins of animal behaviour, although it must always be on its guard against supposing that every piece of behaviour must be tailored to the quest for evolutionary advantage. Matters become more controversial when sociobiology turns its attention to the explanation of specifically human behaviour. Human sociobiology can only be an important discipline if it makes the same assumptions about the intimate link between genes and behaviour in the case of humans as it did with birds, animals and even insects. Because the individual is the vehicle of the genes, sociobiology also tends to concentrate on the individual as the source of explanation. In this respect it allies itself with the individualism and egoism of writers like Hobbes. As a result, altruism becomes a major problem. Sociobiology can explain why we care for those who are genetically related to us, and it can explain what it terms 'reciprocal altruism', whereby helpful behaviour to others provokes benefits in return. Genuine altruism, according to which I help others with no hope of any benefit, becomes very problematic to this way of thinking. Anyone who incurs costs without corresponding benefits is going to be at an evolutionary disadvantage compared with those who pursue the interests of themselves or their relatives in a single-minded way.

Wilson even aims to explain religious belief in evolutionary terms. He says that if 'the brain evolved by natural selection, even the capacities to select particular aesthetic judgements and religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanistic process' (1978:2). Religious belief must, therefore, have a biological function which explains its origin and role in human nature. Besides the term 'mechanistic', others such as 'materialist', 'determinist' and reductionist' are also appropriate. When human sociobiology takes this form, it must be the avowed opponent of theology, and in Wilson's eyes it is. His aim is to account for the origin of all religious beliefs by, as he puts it, 'the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structure of the brain' (1978:192).

Sociobiology, at least in some forms, has been the apparent enemy of reason itself. It has looked for explanations in terms of genetic fitness. It starts with the individual, as a basis for its methodology, and accepts no important distinction between humans and animals, however much lip-service it might pay to the relevance of 'mind' or 'culture'. Yet once the importance of human reason and its products is stressed, the scope of human sociobiology is much reduced. It is of course relevant to note that sociobiology is itself the outcome of human reasoning.

Sociobiology has sparked off furious debates about the respective relevance of the social and the natural sciences. Social scientists and sociobiologists argue about which strings really work the human puppet. Christian theology must surely resist this vision of human nature. It must deny that we are merely the vehicles of genes struggling for survival, just as it must refuse to accept that humans are wholly shaped by the society into which they are born. Even accepting that biology and society should not be seen in isolation from each other does not meet the problem. Real though biological and social influences may be, they cannot tell the whole story. The very existence of the human and natural sciences is a sign of the continuing human quest for truth, and an example of the possibilities for human reason as it ranges widely and freely. Whatever the special characteristics of chimpanzees, they cannot possess a science of chimpanzee nature. They do not have the ability to reflect about themselves or their place in the universe. However they may happen to behave, they do not have a conscious morality or anything approaching a religious attitude to life.

The arguments of the materialist and the stringent demands of a strict biological reductionism are themselves evidence of human rationality. Sociobiology claims that religion is mere illusion, but that it is biologically advantageous. E.O.Wilson appears in no doubt of its falsity. Yet in so far as sociobiology tries to undermine religious belief, it is on its own understanding trying to reduce the biological fitness of those it convinces. Why should sociobiologists persist? The simplest explanation is surely that they are using their reason to try to uncover truth. They are attempting to transcend the constraints of biology and society in order to discover what is the case. Since they are still at the stage of sketching a research programme, and are far from having any empirical proof for much of what they claim, their activity is not so very different from that of the theologians they wish to undermine.

The existence of sociobiology as a discipline, like that of science in general, shows that the human mind can rise above the real influences swaying us. Altruism has proved a challenge, because the occurrence of deliberate selfless acts itself bears witness to the ability of humans to rise above the level of animal behaviour. Whatever accounts may be given of clever apes and faithful dogs, there does seem to be a significant divide between humans and nonhumans. This is far from being a licence for humans to exploit animals. Indeed we are in a position to know better than to do so. In the end, however, the major dispute between theology and a discipline such as sociobiology must be over this. Whatever truth there may be in neo-Darwinian theories of evolution, we should not confuse questions about the origin of human beings with issues about present human and animal nature. It seems undeniable that we do possess an animal inheritance. Arguments, however, upholding and perhaps exhibiting the possibility of human rationality, point to an important truth. However important animals may be in Creation, and however much we should care for their interests, human beings cannot be classified as merely another animal species. Indeed, the very fact that we can agonize over moral issues about how animals should be treated itself demonstrates a major difference between ourselves and them.

Sociobiology, ethology and allied disciplines apply Darwinian principles to current science. As a piece of scientific methodology, it may be fruitful to see how much human behaviour can be understood by treating it like animal behaviour. Many facets of human nature can be uncovered in this way. For example, there are powerful genetic penalties resulting from incest, and it would be surprising to find this practised with impunity. People who dislike snakes are perhaps less at risk from poisonous varieties than those who like stroking them. The former will survive and the latter are less likely to. Genes discouraging such behaviour are more likely to be passed on. The holders of genes for liking snakes, assuming such a specific desire had been encouraged as a result of genetic mutation, would not be likely to live long enough to transmit their genes to future generations. Examples like this can be multiplied, some perhaps controversial, others less so.

Some of our characteristics, starting with such features as eye colour, are under genetic control. The issue is how many. There are striking continuities between animals and humans. The emphasis in sociobiology on the importance of self-interested behaviour for the survival of an organism does highlight a crucial facet of human nature. We do seem more naturally inclined to pursue our own interests than those of other people. We are more inclined to favour relatives and close family than those who are totally unrelated to us. We are often only willing to help others in the expectation of favours in return. All this is summed up in the sociobiological notions of inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism.

Opposition to this kind of account can take more than one form. Some will point to society as the major formative influence and deny the relevance of biology to detailed social behaviour. Another possibility, however, is to accept the truth of neo-Darwinian accounts of human nature up to a point, but to insist that they give only a partial picture. The influence and mediation of social factors will be important, but also crucial is the human capacity to reason and to accept moral responsibility. Whereas sociobiology depends for its presentation on a disinterested search for truth, it often seems to be reducing everything to physical factors. It is as if the replication of genes not only provides limits for what is possible for human nature, but also tries to explain everything that humans think. However we describe the situation, humans transcend the capabilities and powers of animals. Aristotle made rationality the mark of the human. Modern thinkers, such as Wittgenstein, also stress the centrality of language, though this is better seen as an instrument of rational thought rather than its master. Thought without language may be possible.

It is often felt that the removal of any distinction, except one of degree, between humans and animals, fails to do justice to the traditional view that we are all made in the image of God. It may also result in a failure to explain the significance of the union of the human and the divine in the Incarnation. It is alleged that there is in human nature a potential to share in something higher than itself, which animals do not possess. The divine Logos is then within human reach, and this may suggest that there is a sharp break between what humans and animals are meant to be in the providence of God. Any intellectual discipline which insists on treating humans as merely another animal species challenges this kind of theological understanding of human nature. Whether it is the only possible form of Christian understanding is another matter. Some may fear that too sharp a divide between humans and animals would only serve (and perhaps has served) to encourage the ruthless exploitation by humans of the animal kingdom, which is also, it is pointed out, composed of God's creatures.

The claims of sociobiology and allied disciplines are further complicated by the ambiguity that reference to human nature often exhibits. Not all of such nature is uniformly desirable. A simple example is that there could well be a natural disgust felt by many at the sight of blood. This might be biologically useful, but it is important that people, particularly doctors and nurses, should be willing to overcome it if they are to help others. There is a considerable emphasis in sociobiology, as we have seen, on the selfish aspects of human nature. There are, however, two separate questions. Are they really part of our nature? If so should we, and can we, do anything about it? What is natural may not be good. The traditional opposition between reason and desire may point to an important fact about us. Our basic drives and biological instincts are not always good guides. As we have already seen, not all desires are bad, just as not all human reasoning is good. It is too simple to see human nature as involving a battle between the animal and distinctively human parts of our nature. Animals are not as capable of such deliberate evil and cruelty as humans. Nevertheless our inbuilt tendencies to selfishness need themselves to be restrained. As Bishop Butler pointed out in the eighteenth century, the problem is often that we are endowed not with too much self-love but not enough. It is often not in our own long-term interests to indulge whatever passion may for the moment overwhelm us. The selfish passion can be remarkably imprudent, because short-term interest is preferred to long-term. We must, too, consider other people's interests as well as our own.

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