The question as to how far biological factors, or more specifically genes, influence our human behaviour and consequently social phenomena, for example the foundation of a family, is fascinating for science and public; especially since the discovery of the human genes. Nevertheless, there are still great controversies between social scientists and adherents of sociobiology concerning the central question; if it is culture and self-consciousness respectively, or genes that dominate human social behaviour.
Even though Max Weber already recognized that our biological heredity may have an impact on social phenomena, he did not regard biology as sufficiently developed enough to be really helpful for sociology. (Kaye, 1986) It was in 1975 when Edward O. Wilson’s book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” became the trigger for new public discussions about how far, if at all, concepts of biological evolution could be relevant for explaining social behaviour in human societies. The term “sociobiology” constitutes a concept which can be described as a synthesis of neo-Darwinism (“survival of the fittest” combined with Mendel’s laws of heredity) and ethology (the study of behaviour). (Gregory, 1979)
The problem with Wilson’s work was that, although he focused mainly on animal societies, he claimed that his findings were valid for human beings as well. (Wilson, 1979 in Gregory et al.; Wallace and Wolf, 2006) The reactions of social scientists and the scientific media reached from “deep scepticism” (Goldsmith, 1991: Preface) and “stiff resistance” (Wilson, 1979: 2) to “generally favourable and sympathetic” (Kaye, 1986).
In this essay I will first have a look at the general assumptions and arguments of sociobiologists and how they want to intertwine biological and sociological explanations of human behaviour and social structures. After that I will discuss the manifold criticisms which were made by opponents of the sociobiological approach and compare some of them directly with responses of sociobiologists. To get a general idea of the possible contributions sociobiology can make to social science in explaining human beings’ social behaviour biologically, I will describe some research areas of the perspective. I am also going to show that altruism is phenomenon which causes explanatory difficulties. In the conclusion at the end of the essay the possible contributions of sociobiology to social science and the explanation of human behaviour should be considered.
Sociobiologists’ assumptions and arguments
Edward O. Wilson, a zoologist, defines sociobiology as follows: “Sociobiology is defined as the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior (sic) […] in all kinds of organisms, including humans.” (Wilson, 1979: 2) It was the addition “including humans” that caused great controversies between social scientists, especially sociologists, and scientists with a biological and evolutionary background. However, it has to be mentioned that not all sociobiologists approve the application of their science to the field of human behaviour. (Kaye, 1986) Moreover, also the advocates of a human sociobiology are by no means a homogenous group. While, for example, the name and work of the ethologist Richard Dawkins is closely connected with the criticism of biological or genetic determinism, the biologist Timothy H. Goldsmith is a representative of the larger group of sociobiologists who do not deny the influence of the environment on human behaviour.
Although Goldsmith believes that genes, as the results of natural selection during the evolutionary process, are determining factors for human behaviour, he also does not underestimate the impact of the (social and natural) environment: “Today it is recognized that behavioral (sic) phenotypes are the result of the interplay between internal (genetic) and external (experiential or environmental) factors.” (Goldsmith, 1991: 73; see also Barash, 1978: 23) Nevertheless, Goldsmith particularly emphasizes the impact of early environmental experiences on our behaviour and holds that there are critical or sensitive periods in the early development stages where the behaviour, enclosed in the genes, needs to be “activated” by events from the outside. (Goldsmith, 1991)
Although I think that experiences during our later life may change our behavioural patterns as well, I agree with Goldsmith in reference to the importance of early experiences. There is no doubt that a lack of social contact in the first years of one’s life leads to a deficient development of skills like language ability or adequate behaviour in a social group. If, for example, a human child is isolated from social contact very early in its life, it would probably not learn a human language or social behaviour even though it has the genetic predisposition for it. A good example for this is the “legend” of “Kaspar Hauser”, who presumably spent his first years as a child in a basement, isolated from almost every human contact. When he was set free as a young man, he still was able to learn a language and social behaviour but to a lesser degree than his contemporaries.
Furthermore, Goldsmith and most other sociobiologists argue that genes do not determine human behaviour directly but rather stipulate a framework with a limited range for possible behaviours. (Goldsmith, 1991: 110; Wallace & Wolf, 2006: 398; Gregory, 1979: 285) This assumption gave rise to the criticism of biological determinism, which is often applied to sociobiology by its critics and will be discussed later in this essay. Thus, sociobiologists treat genes as evolutionary products which build the starting point for possible human behaviour. The term Wilson gave this plasticity of social behaviour was “behavioral (sic) scaling” (Wilson, 1980: 272). I would claim that probably the most important genes which limit our range of behaviour are the sex genes X and Y. These two genes determine the hormone production of an individual and with it the individual’s phenotype. The varying kinds and amounts of hormones can result in potentially different behaviour. Rossi, surprisingly a sociologist, argues that behavioural differences between the sexes should not be treated by sociologists as only determined by culture. She points out that for men a high correlation between testosterone levels and aggression could be proved. (Rossi, 1984 cited in Wallace & Wolf, 2006: 413)
Another critical point in the discussion between sociologists and sociobiologists is the position and origin of culture. In reference to the direct influence of genes on our social behaviour, Gregory states that “the intervening variable between gene and behavior (sic) is culture” (Gregory, 1979: 285). The problem sociobiologists have with culture is that, while social behaviour is known as common in other species as well, culture is a unique phenomenon of the human species. Therefore sociobiology has problems with explaining the nature of culture because no comparisons can be made with animals; on the other hand sociobiology has to give explanations for the origin of culture because otherwise it could not claim to be a universal discipline any longer. (Gregory, 1979: 286)
This is the reason why sociobiologists are so anxious to define culture as genetically predisposed. Van den Berghe, for instance, says that sociobiologists are aware of human culture and its importance. What makes culture so important is that it enables human beings to adapt very quickly and successfully to changes in their environment. Nevertheless he argues that all our cultural patterns are related to our biology because they are the outcomes of a process of biological evolution. (van den Berghe, 1979) If I apprehend this right, he understands the “social transmission of learned behavior (sic)” (van den Berghe, 1979: 42) as part of the evolutionary process; a claim that does not seem logical and understandable to me. A more persuasive argumentation is made by Fox (1970 in Wallace & Wolf, 2006: 400).