Printer Friendly

The Moral Animal.

By Robert Wright. Pantheon. 467 pp. $27.50.

Schizomogenesis is the order of our degraded epoch. In recent years, modem evolutionary biology, like American income distribution, has diverged into obscene highs and lows. Reputable studies in primatology, genetics and developmental biology have revealed the exquisitely contingent nature of much biological and social development in our own and other species. At the same time, narrow biological determinism--a kind of genetic fundamentalism related to nineteenth-century imperialist racism--has had a surprising persistence in both popular and academic settings.

Robert Wright, a science writer and senior editor at The New Republic, has foraged through popular sociobiology to fashion what he calls "the new Darwinian paradigm." which might be aptly subtitled "Men who run with the apes." Social dominance, criminality and male infidelity are explained by Wright as byproducts of Darwinian evolution; they are in our genes.

Some of these evolved human traits, Wright readily concedes, are unsuitable in a modern social context and must be overcome through exercises of moral will. Here is Wright's difference from old-fashioned social Darwinists: His is a kinder, gentler version that says that if we confront the degree to which we are beastly, we can rise above our evolutionary imperatives. Admitting the travesties of the past (perversions of Darwinism by eugenicists and Nazis), Wright maintains that evolutionary biology need not lead to reactionary political agendas but can be used to support enlightened social policy.

As an evolutionary biologist, I agree with Wright's contention that biology has much to contribute to our understanding of what it is to be a human primate. The problem with The Moral Animal is not Wright's politics, which I suspect are fairly close to my own, but his ignorance of modern biological and cultural studies, and his misreading of a sophisticated discourse in evolutionary biology that has made the reductionist models of narrow sociobiology embarrassingly out-of-date.

Some historical context is helpful here. The 1975 publication of Sociobiology by Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson was a signal event for students of animal behavior in numerous disciplines. Wilson made two major assertions in Sociobiology: that all important social behaviors are genetically controlled and that natural selection of the genome is caused by a set of specific adaptive mechanisms (kin selection) that produce behaviors maximizing an organism's ability to contribute the greatest number of genes to the next generation.

The theory of kin selection is based on the concept that the fitness of an organism has two components: fitness gained through the replication of its own genetic material by reproduction and inclusive fitness gained from the replication of copies of its own genes carried in others as a result of its actions. Thus genes are viewed as being selected because they contribute to their own perpetuation, regardless of the organism of which they are a part. Sociobiology promised a grand synthesis of behavioral studies showing similarities in social strategies from ants to Aztecs: attempts to insure that one hits the genetic jackpot by getting as many of one's own genes into the future pool as possible.

One problem with sociobiology's central premise is that environmental cues potentiate different genes in the same organism. An ant larva may become a worker or a queen, depending on nutrition, temperature and other variables. A male rodent may exhibit typical maternal nurturance behaviors when exposed to certain stimuli in his social environment. In the vastly more complex human world, the distribution of hypertension in urban populations relates to, among other things, the frequency with which vehicles with sirens pass on city streets. The timing of reproductive events from menarche to menopause in women varies cross-culturally with diet, nutrition, subsistence systems and exercise. Lactation interval, the period between birth and the return of fertility in a woman, is controlled in many societies through cultural mechanisms. And these examples only scratch the surface of the elegant relationships between organisms and their developmental environments.

Human gendered behaviors have been a central theme in the sociobiological literature, and Wright makes much of the presumably different reproductive strategies of human females and males. According to Wright, because males ejaculate so many millions of sperm over the life cycle, whereas primate females ovulate far fewer eggs over a lifetime (and in addition must invest heavily in the nurturance of dependent offspring), it pays men to inseminate as many women as possible. Women do better by choosing their inseminators with great care and even cunning, since they have fewer shots at the genetic jackpot.

Wright assures us that empirical studies of primate behaviors and cross-cultural observations in human societies support these assertions. This is far from true. An increasingly rich empirical literature is available on the behavior of primates in the wild. In many species, females seek sexual contact with males and sometimes with other females. Comparative psychologist Frank Beach, whose research on sexual behavior in animals laid the template for decades of study in this area, pointed out the proactive nature of female sexuality in many mammalian species. Beach was one of my teachers at Berkeley during a period in which I observed the social behavior of Indian gray langur monkeys. A sexually aroused adult female would sometimes back a male langur up against the highest branches, into which he retreated while she thrust herself at him, shaking her head back and forth in a display called "shaking and presenting." This kind of behavior is by no means unusual in the sex lives of primates.

Wright's ignorance of ethnographic data is equally troubling. He states that human males adhere to an evolution-produced fantasy he calls the "Madonna-whore complex":

Can anyone find a single culture in

which women with unrestrained sexual

appetites aren't viewed as more aberrant

than comparably libidinous men?

If not, isn't it an astonishing coincidence

that all peoples have independently

arrived at roughly the same cultural

destination, with no genetic encouragement?

Or is it the case that this

universal cultural element was present

half a million years or more ago, before

the species began splitting up?

But the "Madonna-whore complex" is far from a cross-cultural universal. Here again, Wright hasn't even the most elementary knowledge of the vast literature on the history and anthropology of sexuality, for instance, historian Thomas Laqueur's limning of fluctuating concepts of male and female sexuality in Making Sex, and anthropologists Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern's cross-cultural text Nature, Culture, and Gender These and other important studies show the immense amount of variation historically and cross-culturally in what is associated with womanhood and manhood.

Some of the same fundamental problems of ignored data, twisted teleologies and naive evolutionary reductionism pervade J. Philippe Rushton's Race, Evolution and Behavior. His comments on inherent race differences are structurally similar to Wright's on gender differences; he uses bits and pieces of sociobiological theory to assert evolved, genetically produced variations in intelligence, sexuality, criminality and family stability among whites, blacks and Asians. Like Wright, he is confused about basic concepts in modern biological and cultural anthropology.

For instance, in his analysis of presumed class differences in various genetic endowments he writes:

Sociobiological theorizing leads to the

expectation that terrestrial primates such

as Homo sapiens will form themselves

into dominance hierarchies with those

at the top exhibiting higher levels of

whatever traits make for success in that

culture and in turn get a greater than

equal share of whatever scarce resources

are available. In hunting societies those

at the top will be the best hunters; in

warrior societies those at the top will be

the best warriors, and so on.... Socioeconomic

status correlates substantially

with most of the variables psychologists

are interested in, including intelligence,

health, sexuality, crime, aggression,

family structure, and social attitudes.

This is quite a mouthful, but like Wright, Rushton is not conversant with modern primatology. The behavioral attributes of social dominance are varied among primates; dominance itself is important in some species and relatively less so in others, and status may fluctuate seasonally or over the life cycle. Once we enter the realm of human societies, this glib comparison between nonhumans and humans becomes even more problematic. The modern ethnographic record is full of examples of the immense variation cross-culturally in attributes of social status, as every introductory student knows.

But it is Rushton's configuring of sociobiological theory and "data" around the issue of race that will continue to receive the most attention. Behavioral biologists have noted a number of distinct reproductive complexes in sexually reproducing animals. R-strategists are those with shorter life spans, more young and less intense parental investment in caring for the young. K-strategists, on the other hand, tend to have longer life spans and fewer young, whom they nurture more intensely. These are differences that have emerged over the long histories of distinct and separate species.

According to Rushton, people of African origin have evolved "r-selected reproductive strategies" like those of some of the lower primates. At the other end of the scale are Asians, whom he characterizes as "K-selected" types. It should come as no surprise that Rushton believes the "K-selected" Asians to be inherently more intelligent on average than "r-selected" blacks. In between are Europeans.

A key factor in the evolution of the genetic and behavioral differences among animal species is evolutionary separation of a magnitude great enough to make interspecific reproduction impossible. Rushton is aware of this fact and stops short of declaring human races separate species, preferring instead to refer to races as subspecies. From an evolutionary perspective it is folly to suggest that the different reproductive strategies that he suggests for modern human groups could exist in the absence of speciation, the separation into distinct species. Nothing in the study of evolution supports this conclusion about human race; indeed, modern genetic data indicate the extreme genetic closeness of all living humans.

Rushton displays a great deal of naivete about other aspects of the evolutionary history of our species, for example in his claim that when modern humans migrated out of Africa into colder climates in Asia and Europe, there was selection for greater intelligence and reduced sexuality, among a number of other characteristics. But the fundamental human adaptations, including large cerebral cortices, complex manipulations of the environment, the ability to produce and comprehend language and other symbolic communications, all evolved in tropical settings before the major dispersal of populations.

Demography and the study of reproductive patterns among the world's peoples reveal important trends, but you will not read about them in this book. Asian and African hunter-gatherers typically have cultural mechanisms that insure fairly long spacing between births. Sedentary horticulturalists, whether in Asia, Africa or the Americas, tend to have more interpersonal violence than hunter-gatherers regardless of race. Subsistence systems, social arrangements, reproductive and other behaviors vary cross-culturally within geographical populations, not between them. The modern literature of cultural anthropology is widely available to the interested scholar or layperson, and it highlights many of the absurdities of Rushton's assertions about differences in birth-spacing, temperament and intelligence between races.

Once stripped of its bogus evolutionary biology, Rushton's database seems to rest on a variety of observations of his own and others about presumed racial differences: Africans and their descendants have larger genitalia and are more sexually active than are other races and at a younger age. Africans have less emotional control and therefore greater criminality, and they have less stable family structures. Africans and their descendants have children younger and their life spans are shorter. Their greater sexuality makes them more vulnerable to AIDS worldwide, and so on. Africans are to Asians as mouse lemurs to apes. Europeans are to Africans and Asians as monkeys are to mouse lemurs and apes. Africans have better rhythm.

Rushton's book drags the whole dusty display of nineteenth-century race libels down from the colonial ethnographic museum shelf. If they weren't so dangerous they would be quaint: the effects of stagnant air in the tropics, erotic exotics with rhythm.... More than a decade ago Stephen Jay Gould exposed the invalid databases of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century racial theorists through a scrupulous articulation of their flawed biology and statistics. It is clear that these ideas still compel many in our society, regardless of the collapsed edifice upon which they are constructed. It is an index of how far right the country has gone in recent years that The New York Times's own reviewer gave this racist trash an accolade.

Pat Shipman's The Evolution of Racism sketches the long and unsavory history of the evolutionary approach to examining racial differences. Shipman, a paleoanthropologist at Johns Hopkins, contends that until we are willing to confront and put behind us the racist scientism of the past, we will not be able to pursue unbiased evolutionary approaches to the study of human variation, including variation among the races.

Shipman has training in biology and is sophisticated in her understanding of evolutionary processes. Her interesting and useful treatment of this subject is unfortunately marred by her naivete about the complex relationship between political and social ideologies and scientific constructs. Like Wright and Rushton she believes that the twentieth-century movement in science away from studies of racial variation was motivated by the political squeamishness of academic liberals committed to politically correct agendas. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Shipman recounts a significant moment in the formation of physical anthropology as a modern discipline, a conference in 1950 at Cold Spring Harbor Biological Laboratory organized by Sherwood Washburn and Theodosius Dobzhansky. At the conference, Dobzhansky and Washburn broke from the political and social agendas of the past, and urged that typological studies of race be abandoned. But Dobzhansky and Washburn were, respectively, a geneticist and a functional anatomist, both committed to the central role of biology in human life. it was the bad biology in the old studies of race that offended them most, and they sought to fashion a dispassionate--not a politically correct--evolutionary science.

Wright and Rushton provide vivid examples of why so many social scientists deny the usefulness of evolutionary biology. This is a great pity, for a sophisticated and robust biology, one that elucidates the complex interactions between organisms and their developmental environments, has much to offer social theory. As long as books such as these misrepresent evolutionary biology, however, most responsible scholars will avoid the subject and the public will continue to be fed--and to accept--a racist science.
COPYRIGHT 1994 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sperling, Susan
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 28, 1994
Words:2384
Previous Article:Afternoon at Griffin's.
Next Article:Race, Evolution and Behavior.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters