THE WHISPERINGS WITHIN by David Barash

THE WHISPERINGS WITHIN

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Sociobiology seems to be undergoing its own evolution currently with a rash of books popularizing the field by anthropologists (see Symons, below), ethologists, and other behavioral scientists out to proselytize. The present work, begun when the author was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, is in some ways the boldest and most ambitious. Barasb condenses much of the animal and anthropological data on the major areas of behavior for which sociobiology claims strong genetic roots: human sexuality differences, parenthood, altruism, aggression, war. He extends the argument to include discussions of mind, relations between biology and culture, and, in a final chapter, attempts to answer critics. The effort on the whole seems calculated to show the reproductive fitness of sociobiology itself: its superior flexibility, explanatory power, and potential for annexing more territory--the philosophy of Kant, for example, or the reasons for the development of conscience, the unconscious, and love. (Assuming, that is, adherence to the formula that such-and-such a belief or feeling insures that ""fitness-enhancing investments will be made in appropriate individuals such as one's mate, parents, children, other relatives, and friends."") Thus sociobiology is the ultimate reductionism which can explain nearly everything. To be sure, Barash admits conjectures and uncertainties, but for the most part he is buoyed along in effusive arguments which amount to a reification of the gene. The ""selfish"" gene described by English zoologist Richard Dawkins has become the central driving force in natural selection, leading Barash (and others) to endless metaphors and game-theory statements: genes--the whisperings within--are constantly engaged in ""maximizing"" strategies to ensure their survival. Evolution is a game played against future payoffs in terms of one's own genes perpetuated in viable offspring. This kind of thinking probably accounts for the apologies often present in Barash's text, statements that sociobiology shows us aspects of ourselves we may not like to see, but which nevertheless exist. It leads him to say that ""It may be no coincidence that a society in which the average degree of relatedness is low and in which altruism is predicted to be low and competition high, is the bastion of world capitalism."" Is it any wonder that sociobiologists who deny the political overtones of their work, constantly invite political critics? And when the reductionism is amplified by anthropomorphizing (""child abuse"" in bluebirds, worker bee ""kamikazes,"" ""prostitution"" in hummingbirds), even the sympathetic reader will be outraged. Otherwise--intriguing.

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 1979
Publisher: Harper & Row