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Liberals Confront Sociobiology.

"Darwin's Truth, Jefferson's Vision" by Melvin Konner, in The American Prospect (July-Aug. 1999), P.O. Box 383080, Cambridge, Mass. 02238.

From the moment sociobiology (a.k.a. evolutionary psychology) first reared its head in the 1970s in the work of Harvard University zoologist Edward O. Wilson and others, liberals have been aghast. Prominent biologists on the left, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, strongly rejected the idea that many patterns of human behavior have a basis in evolution, branding it unscientific and a reprehensible revival of 19th-century social Darwinism. The notion that much human behavior is genetically "hard-wired," immune to environmental influences, is unacceptable to many others. But liberals ought to calm down and learn to live with it, contends Konner, a professor of anthropology, psychiatry, and neurology at Emory University.

In recent decades, he notes, sociobiological theory has gained "almost universal acceptance...among researchers in natural history and animal behavior and among many psychologists and social scientists." The theory has not proved useful in all circumstances, he says, but without it, it would be hard to explain, for instance, the research finding that a child is at least 10 times more likely to be assaulted or killed if he or she lives in a household with an unrelated male - a finding that holds true regardless of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, or education, and in at least four countries. Children are much safer in households with men to whom they are genetically related.

"The implications of evolution are not . . . inherently conservative," Konner maintains. "They are, however, inherently materialist and fraught with conflict." This makes some liberals - those with a rosy view of human nature - uneasy. But it would not have bothered America's Founding Fathers, he says, who had the "gift to be able to take a Hobbesian view of human life without applying a Hobbesian solution." Scientific materialists with a realistic view of human nature, they nevertheless constructed a liberal order. "In questions of power," said Thomas Jefferson, "let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief, by the chains of the Constitution."

Though it must seem inadequate to liberals who believe that human nature "is inherently good, unselfish, and cooperative," the Constitution "has more or less worked for a couple of centuries," Konner notes. To "those of us who see human nature as the unpleasant product of too many cons of individual selection," that is a considerable achievement, he says. And this shows what may be "the enduring implication of Darwin's theory for liberal political philosophy: assume the worst and you can still get something workable." Precisely because human nature, as designed by evolution, cannot be relied upon to care for the old, the sick, and the very young in a market economy, the case for "programs and supports deliberately designed by a collective, humane, political will" to accomplish that is all the stronger.

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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Words:483
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