Kitcher (philosophy, U. Minn.) has demonstrated previous skills and spleen in putting down creationism (Abusing Science)....


VAULTING AMBITION: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature

Kitcher (philosophy, U. Minn.) has demonstrated previous skills and spleen in putting down creationism (Abusing Science). Here he takes on the whole sociobiology camp in a demolition derby that is not likely to be exceeded in breadth and depth any time soon. To be fair to progenitors, Kitcher distinguishes ""pop sociobiology"" (Ardrey, Morris, Tiger, Fox) from the canon as set fourth by Wilson, et al. He quotes the more scholarly proponents when they are appropriately constrained in making implications and he gives credit to discrete studies of mammalian behavior or to descriptive ethnography, concerning kinship systems or cultural practices. Where he draws the line is in the assumptions and presumptions that take ""narrow"" sociobiology to broad generalizations--the ""vaulting ambition"" that would have genes ruling the human roost. His method is to attack each of the main tenets of s-b theory working from example. A study of a Yanomamo Indian ax fight purports to show that people line up behind the two main antagonists on the basis of genetic relatedness. (This is in keeping with the ""inclusive fitness"" theory of William Hamilton, which even Kitcher accepts as explaining self-sacrifice: the idea is that you enhance the reproductive chances of relatives who share your genes.) However, he cleverly blows the argument sky-high by showing that in the given instance the opponents were also related. So it goes with the other chief examples (incest taboos, female infanticide, primogeniture) favored by the sociobiologists: Kitcher artfully introduces confounding variables: he states the implicit and arbitrary suppositions of the sociobiologists, their anthropomorphic language and other sins that defeat their attempts to elevate sociobiology as the true science of human nature. Kitcher compliments Wilson for trying to answer early critics with the recent gene-culture co-evolution theory. But again, this is only his preparation for attack on the grounds of the status of the term ""culturgen""--the word coined to describe that which individuals choose, a concept covering attitudes, cultural behaviors, etc. Again, the artful philosopher constructs scenarios in which theory falls short and the latest version of sociobiology reveals its reductionist roots. Inevitably, Wilson, Lumsden, et al. succumb to the thesis that genes are the leash that constrains human behavior and that we violate their dicta only at high cost. In short, perhaps Kitcher should borrow a leaf from the enemy camp and write a shorter, popular version of this scholarly volume--thereby increasing the reproductive fitness of the arguments. In any case, this is a first-rate assault that will surely evoke a counterattack.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1985

ISBN: 0262610493

Page Count: -

Publisher: MIT Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985