Darwinism evolved

National | A tongue-in-cheek look at how a new "scientific" discipline-sociobiology-attempts to explain it all

Issue: "Smoking guns," March 6, 1999

If she actually were to run and to win that New York Senate seat next year, Hillary Clinton might just be looking to monkey around with more than just Medicare and Social Security. She's a true believer in sociobiology, a trendy new discipline that apes science and attempts to find an evolutionary reason for every aspect of human behavior. What's wrong with the world, sociobiologists contend, isn't sin or Satan. It's the Demonic Male (no, not her husband specifically-that refers to, rather, all of us, every human being unlucky enough to have a Y chromosome). But more on Demonic Males later. Mrs. Clinton's candidacy gives us a good chance to examine sociobiology; but what is it? According to any manual on sociobiology (and my favorite so far is Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works), the mostly male crowd at Dallas's Tipperary Inn reacted appropriately when the 19-year-old waitress took the stage to sing. They forgot their drinks and in some cases (apparently) their dates. Why? Sociobiologists say it's all about reproduction. "Teenage women have larger eyes, fuller and redder lips, smoother, moister, tighter skin" among other things, writes Mr. Pinker, "all long recognized ingredients of pulchritude." One balding-but-ponytailed computer programmer, out with his wife and some friends on this cold Saturday night, seemed fascinated, especially when Rosemary added the hip movements to her rendition of the song. Naturally, says Mr. Pinker. "At puberty, a girl's hips become wider because her pelvis grows and fat is deposited on her hips, a reserve of calories available to supply the body during pregnancy." The programmer's wife, a twentysomething, heavy-set woman, looks bored; she runs her hands through her short hair, fiddles with her makeup for a few moments. (That's another thing in Rosemary's favor: "Luxuriant hair is always pleasing," Mr. Pinker explains, "possibly because it shows not only current health but a record of health in the years before. Malnutrition and disease weaken the hair as it grows from the scalp, leaving a fragile spot in the shaft. Long hair implies a long history of good health.") The nearly geriatric Irish band behind Rosemary didn't seem resentful, though they got nothing like this amount of attention when they did "Gilgarry Mountains" by themselves. And Rosemary's singing-well, forget about Rosemary's singing; the men in the room probably weren't paying attention to the song. They were looking for signs of prior childbearing. "Aging lengthens a woman's facial bones," explains Mr. Pinker, "and so do pregnancies. Therefore, a small-jawed, light-boned face is a clue to reproductive virtues." And yet, at the end of the evening, the programmer and his wife walked out arm in arm; Rosemary was left to clean up after the Irish musicians. Granted, our field work is simplistic, but the point is valid: Sociobiologists are missing something. Sociobiology-a phrenology for the new millennium-is everywhere these days. Feminists are throwing around words like "alpha male" to excuse Bill Clinton, and the new pseudo-science is being marshaled to make war on mommy guilt. But it's not biology-in fact it's not even science-and it's not elevating the debate. Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard professor (and ant specialist), is generally credited with crystallizing the ideas of the new discipline in his 1975 book, Sociobiology. His definition of it is deceptively simple: A person is a gene's way of making another gene. In other words, every trait and every behavior have a Darwinian cause. There is an evolutionary explanation for everything, from monogamy and adultery to war and friendship. As Mr. Wilson writes in another one of his books, Consilience, "Sociobiology ... offers a key link in the attempt to explain the biological foundation of human nature." And here is where the comparison to phrenology is particularly apt. Phrenology (the study of bumps on a person's head ) was what happened when 19th-century "social scientists" looked too hard for a "biological foundation of human behavior." Sociobiology is merely following in its footsteps. It is a way of looking at the world through Darwinian spectacles. "If the theory of natural selection is true," writes journalist Robert Wright in his 1994 book, The Moral Animal, "then essentially everything about the human mind should be intelligible in these [evolutionary] terms. The basic ways we feel about each other, the basic kinds of things we think about each other and say to each other, are with us today by virtue of their past contribution to genetic fitness." Everything? Yes. Adultery, for example. Most primates are polygamous, he notes, and that's particularly true of the most powerful ("alpha") males. It's not realistic to expect us to be very different from our simian cousins. Here is Mr. Wright commenting on President Clinton's scandals: "To a biologist, that is why men pursue power to start with: because it will lead to sex.... It's easy for men like me to sit around and demand more self-restraint on the part of the president. But we're not the ones with nubile young things fawning on us." Nubile young things? Can he say that? Sexist as that might sound, don't expect many feminists to argue; some have become infatuated with sociobiology. Erica Jong, for example, said last year that "we've forgotten that the alpha male of the tribe gets the youngest, most nubile females, with or without foreplay. It's like that with chimps, gibbons, and even presidents of the United States." And as Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons reminds us, Mr. Clinton is "the alpha male of the United States of America … a certain number of women are going to act batty around him." Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Mariner Books) is one reason feminists have warmly embraced (or should we say knocked on the head and dragged home?) the new discipline. This book, by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham and science writer Dale Peterson, is one of Hillary Clinton's favorites. Seriously. "Hillary Clinton raved about a book she was reading called Demonic Males," reported New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on April 1, 1998. "About how naughtiness is wired into males of all species. She joked about how, when you read the book, it was surprising that men ever behaved themselves at all." Mrs. Clinton's comments about the book to Ms. Dowd were made before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The book deserves a closer look because of its influence on contemporary feminism and, potentially, even public policy. "Where does human violence come from, and why?" the book asks. "In any case, the general principle that behavior evolves to serve selfish ends has been widely accepted; and the idea that humans might have been favored by natural selection to hate and kill their enemies has become entirely, if tragically, reasonable." And so the authors find the roots of our violence: in apes behaving badly. Chimpanzees, they show, murder their own kind. "Chimpanzees and humans share other evils: political murders, beatings and rape ... rape is an ordinary act among orangutans.... And there's other violence to be found in the lives of apes. Male gorillas kill infants so often that the threat of violent death shapes the very core of their society." It all comes down to male bonding (that's another sociobiological term that has become mainstream). In species that have significant male bonding (alliances between related males), you have violence. "Battering in animals occurs in species where females have few allies, or where males have bonds with each other." And "this helps explain why humans are cursed with demonic males." But there is hope! It is found in a species of ape called the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. The bonobo society is a feminist utopia. "Among bonobos there are no reports of males forcing copulations, battering adult females, or killing infants ... the sexes are codominant.... It is a tale of vanquished demonism." Why are the bonobos so different? It starts in infancy. "Bonobo sons are almost inseparable from their mothers." (So are Southerners and, in particular, Elvis, but let's stick to science.) The data suggests "that female power is the secret to male gentleness among bonobos." And so is, well-there's no discreet way of saying this-lesbianism. Bonobos are also a species known for odd relationships between female members. Adolescent females, the book reports, often find an older female to pair up with. They sit near each other; they groom each other. "It looks like they're falling in love." The writers make it sound like a semester at Smith College: "With the development of that friendship, her integration into the new community has begun. It will be exciting to learn more about what happens to allow an adolescent to widen her network of support." Eventually, they become very intimate; the Mongandu word for it is hoka-hoka. The only reason I mention it here is its outworking in foreign policy. Chimpanzees make war upon other tribes or groups of chimps. Bloody battles ensue when groups of foraging chimps encounter one another. But not bonobos. The authors describe a scene in the jungle (sorry, rainforest): One afternoon, when two tribes met, they sat down near each other in a clearing, and looked at each other. "It was a standoff, with the two parties separated by a sort of demilitarized zone," the authors report. "And then, after thirty minutes of this strange truce, a P-group female crossed the neutral ground and had hoka-hoka with a female from the other community." Which suggests an entirely new paradigm for the United Nations. What are the policy lessons for humans? "Unfortunately, there appears something special about foreign policy in the hands of males," the authors intone. "Among humans and chimpanzees, at least, male coalitionary groups often go beyond defense (typical of monkey matriarchies) to include unprovoked aggression, which suggests our own intercommunity conflicts might be less terrible if they were conducted on behalf of women's, rather than men's, interests." Even on a smaller scale, "women everywhere have much of the same potential as bonobo females to change the system.... Bonobos have shown us the trap can be broken through female alliances." It's important to recognize the flawed, dangerous thinking behind sociobiology. It lacks an empirical basis. It is merely theory built upon theory built upon theory. Some of the more sober minds in the scientific community point this out. John Maddox, the former editor of the science journal Nature, criticizes the discipline in his new book, What Remains to be Discovered (Free Press). Mr. Maddox says the "purpose is laudable enough"; that is, trying to understand why animals and people behave the way they do. He condemns it in some of the harshest terms a real scientist can utter: "Plausibility rather than proof seems to have become the touchstone of what constitutes an explanation.... But the speculations of evolutionary psychology are so manifestly lacking in empirical foundation that they trivialize the reputation of science." (The rest of Mr. Maddox's book, by the way, is a grand assessment of what we know about the physical universe, and what questions remain unanswered. He warns against the heady arrogance of men like the aforementioned Mr. Wilson, who predict the imminent discovery of "the theory of everything," and he points out that 100 years ago, we thought we knew nearly everything about the atom-and then came quantum physics.) There is some truth to be mined from sociobiology: Packs of young men can act like packs of wolves; men are more likely to stray from marriage vows than women are. But at every turn, the inadequacy of sociobiology becomes apparent. Animals don't make marriage vows. And anthropology is not absolution. Alpha male or no, a husband should not and does not have to cheat on his wife. Of late, sociobiology is dragged in to explain away all sorts of bad behavior. A disturbing example of this is in the bestselling book The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press). If your kids are rotten, she contends, it's not your fault. "Do parents have any important long-term effects on the development of their child's personality? No." That's pretty straightforward. Mrs. Harris's proof, however, is less so. She looks to sociobiology (and some carefully selected and edited studies) to back up her claims. Evolution, she says, has made us pack animals. And natural selection, not nurturing parents, is what forms a child's personality. Just look at chimps, she says. "Socially, chimpanzees are a lot like us," she writes. "They have our faults along with our virtues. Like humans, they divide the world into 'us' and 'them.'" And parents, to children, are not an "us." Mrs. Harris relies heavily on something that looks deceptively like common sense: "The fact is that children cannot learn how to behave by imitating their parents, because most of the things they see their parents doing-making messes, bossing other people around, driving cars, lighting matches, coming and going as they please, and lots of other things that look like fun to people who are not allowed to do them-are prohibited." The truth is, she contends, that kids are "socialized" by other kids. Goodbye, mommy guilt! Ready to wash that man right out of your hair? No need to worry about the effect on your kids: "Sorry, Dan [Quayle], but there is no evidence that it makes any difference." As for those pesky statistics that show kids whose parents are divorced are more likely to have behavioral and eventually marital problems themselves, well, those are misleading: "The finding that conflict-prone parents tend to have troublesome kids may be due to the genes they share rather than the home they share." What's more, you know all those kids who secretly fear that they were why Daddy left? They may be right! "There might even be a child-to-parent effect: a difficult kid can put a real strain on a marriage." Still, there's a bit of truth in The Nurture Assumption-just enough to make its central thesis plausible. For example, Mrs. Harris (who is not a university-based academic, by the way, and that's a point in her favor) says that kids who live in bad neighborhoods are more likely to get into trouble. It has nothing to do with their income level or race; it has to do with having no-good friends. My mother was right. So, of course, is the Bible: "Do not be misled: 'Bad company corrupts good character'" (1 Corinthians 15:33). "Anything that takes [children] away from their delinquent peers has a good chance of succeeding," she writes. "British studies have shown that when delinquent London boys move out of the city, their delinquency rates decline-even if they move with their families." And here is the madness of Mrs. Harris's method: She uses that fact to show that parents don't matter. What that fact could be saying, instead, is that parental involvement-in this case shown by parents who are concerned enough about their child to move away from a bad neighborhood-is crucial to a child's development. It would be insulting and speculative to accuse these authors of writing these books to excuse bad behavior. For the record, Mrs. Harris says we should love our parents and our children, and not just because we're genetically programmed to. Nevertheless, excusing bad behavior is exactly what this loopy pseudo-science is being employed to do. "Powerful male politicians may face temptations that most of their constituents do not," Mr. Pinker wrote in The New Yorker recently. "Anyone who has what it takes to rise to the top of a profession-say, getting elected president-is likely to be a risk-taker, a strategist, and a moral utilitarian." It's not his fault! "We lust because our ancestors' lust helped pass their lustful genes on to us," evolutionist Richard Dawkins adds. In fact, our hairy alleged ancestors would have "responded to Clinton's predicament having to defend himself against a charge of consorting with several women with open-mouthed incredulity." Why else does a man become a great chieftain?

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