A note on “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology”

A note on “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology” February 4, 2020


Kenya, savanna
An acacia tree in the Kenyan savanna    (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


I published this column in the Provo Daily Herald back in March 2001, but I remain skeptical still today of theories that purport to explain everything on the basis of scientific reductionism:


Of the three thinkers who have most influenced the modern world – Darwin, Freud, and Marx – only Darwin has entered the twenty-first century with his reputation more or less intact.  Indeed, an ambitious new movement claims to have explained all the patterns of human behavior, from religion and morality all the way to child-rearing practices and shopping behavior, on the basis of Darwinian natural selection.

Sociobiology, as it was first known, burst onto the scene roughly twenty-five years ago, with the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s On Human Nature.  Now, in slightly modified form, it tends to go under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”  The movement traces human behavioral patterns, and the cultural and social patterns that arise from them, back to the African savanna, where, it says, human nature took its final evolutionary form roughly 100,000-600,000 years ago.  That African setting, as one writer puts it, serves as something of a “Garden of Eden for materialists – unimaginably remote, cloaked in mystery.”  Long, long ago, in a far-away place.  It can even be used to explain a passion for golf:  The typical golf course, dotted with small ponds and groves of trees, a rolling, grassy landscape, appeals to the memory of our ancient homeland that is somehow imprinted upon our genes.

Ironically, although every prominent exponent of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology is an outspoken atheist, critics of the movement ridicule it as a kind of religious faith.  (These critics are usually themselves atheistic naturalists, who intend the label to be devastating.)  “We have finally figured out,” says a leading member of the movement, “where we come from, why we’re here, and who we are.”  This truly does sound like a religious claim, and, in fact, sociobiology seems to offer the same kind of comprehensive explanation of everything that has traditionally been the province of theological systems.

Of course, if Darwinian natural selection is a true principle, and if matter and randomness are all that really exists, Darwinism should indeed be able to explain absolutely everything in the biological world as well as in the social and psychological realms that (since there is nothing else) must derive from it.

But there are problems.  For one thing, sociobiology seems to rest, in many cases, upon blatantly circular reasoning.  Human behavior today seems to derive from that ancient African savanna.  And how do we know about the behavioral patterns of our ancient African ancestors?  By studying contemporary human behavior.  (When possible, by studying the behavior of modern tribes of hunter-gatherers.)  But how do we know that modern behavior derives from that of the ancient savanna?  Because it matches precisely the model of ancient African behavior that we have built up on the basis of . . . the modern data.

Moreover, sociobiology seems entirely too flexible.  It can explain anything, but in a way that seems both too glib and beyond scientific testing.  Humans crave salty and fatty foods, for example.  But this clearly seems to be maladaptive and unhealthy behavior.  Shouldn’t the Darwinian process have “selected out” such cravings, on the basis of the fact the people who eat too much fat and salt die earlier?  No, says one sociobiologist.  Our taste buds, he asserts, were engineered for the Old Stone Age, when salty and fatty foods were presumably difficult to obtain.  The pleasure we derived from them motivated us to work harder, and was therefore an incentive to survival.  Some mothers kill their children.  Why?  Because, in the African savanna, doing so sometimes aided the survival of the group.  Other mothers die for their children.  Why?  Because, in the African savanna, doing so was in the interests of the group.

As one critic of the movement has noted, “evolutionary psychologists can’t seem to decide whether theirs is an inductive or deductive science – whether, that is, they are shaping a theory about the past to account for a contemporary fact, or whether they’re asserting that what we know of the past will reveal something about contemporary behavior.  In practice, sociobiology moves in both directions, forward or back, depending on what’s required to sustain the reductionist premise.  Natural selection must be shown to be the root cause (and often the proximate cause) of whatever tendencies human behavior exhibits.”

Still, sociobiology seems unable to offer a convincing explanation for such evolutionarily useless things as music, poetry, sculpture, or acts of kindness offered to genetically unrelated strangers.  It doesn’t account for Mother Teresa or Maximilian Kolbe.  Worst of all, in making the “selfish gene” the driving force not only of biology, but of all psychological and social life, it destroys our sense of being individuals.  If the sociobiologists are right, we turn out to be mere colonies of genes that use us for their ends.  Our sense of being persons, of having purposes and agency, is pure illusion.  Our concepts of law and moral responsibility rest upon genetically programmed deceptions.

If sociobiology does, in fact, represent a kind of religious vision, it is a profoundly anti-human one.

(A very insightful but accessible discussion of sociobiology is Andrew Ferguson’s review of six books on the subject, “Evolutionary Biology and Its True Believers,” in The Weekly Standard [19 March 2001]: 31-39, which inspired this column.)



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