Evolutionary psychology and anti-Semitism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jan 25 19:57:40 MST 2000


>From "Who's the Fittest Evolutionary Thinker of Them All?" in Lingua Franca


BY James Schwartz

. . .a brilliant essayist and lecturer, [Stephen Jay] Gould is the most
popular science writer in America, which is remarkable because he engages
serious ideas and draws from a rich store of knowledge of literature and
history. In addition to half a dozen books, Gould has published nine
collections of the essays he's been writing for Natural History over the
last twenty-five years. He thinks of himself as a scientist in the
tradition of Galileo, who was unusual in his time for writing in Italian,
the language of the people, rather than Latin, which was then the norm for
serious scientific discourse. He is still troubled by the fact that his
friend the late astronomer Carl Sagan was denied entrance to the National
Academy of Sciences. "Scientists will say, 'he was a popular writer but
also a good scientist,'" Gould complains. "The but has to be changed to an

Gould himself has been the object of a fair amount of sniping over the
quality of his science. His theory of punctuated equilibrium--the idea that
sudden rapid changes in evolutionary history are followed by long periods
of relative stability--has a limited following among his colleagues. Gould
proposed his theory--sometimes called jerky evolution--as an alternative to
the classical theory of slow, continuous evolution. A Gould antagonist,
Richard Dawkins, the English evolutionary biologist responsible for the
term "selfish gene," has been known to refer to the theory of punctuated
evolution as "evolution by jerks." In his most recent book, Unweaving the
Rainbow(1998), Dawkins characterizes Gould as a guy who's been "seduced by
bad poetry."

Whereas Gould prefers to see human behavior as a complex and unpredictable
interaction of culture, and a highly pliable set of genetic potentials,
EPists have little patience with such a wishy-washy notion. They prefer to
break down human psychology into a set of "complex adaptations," specific
traits exquisitely suited to perform their functions, in the often repeated
mantra. To EPists, it is a given that everything complicated and
interesting about animals, and humans in particular--ranging from the way
we find mates, to the working of the eye, to the ability to detect cheaters
in social interactions--is the result of the long, slow, incremental
process of Darwinian natural selection.

"You can't have a parent without an eye and an offspring with one," Pinker
explains to me. "It's all gradual and Darwinian." We are sitting at the
dining room table in his newly renovated condo a few blocks north of
Harvard Square. The apartment, like Pinker's understated dark dress shirt
and black jeans, is up-to-the-minute and impeccable. Every counter and
surface is shiny and clear; there's not a stray magazine or envelope in
sight. It's the kind of home that makes you suspect that there must be a
back room where all the mess is stored.

The eye is the classic example of a complex adaptation. As Pinker explains
it, an animal picks up a random mutation for a clearer lens, which makes it
better able to avoid predators and find mates than animals with less clear
lenses. This individual will give rise to offspring with better eyes, and
over the course of generations, animals with clearer lenses will take over
the population. At some point down the line, one of these animals may
acquire another random mutation, this time for a rounder eyeball, which
enables the eye better to focus images. In this way, mutation by mutation,
over hundreds of generations, the multiple components of a complex function
are acquired.

For Gould, it is Pinker's insistence on natural selection as the only valid
scientific explanation for the origin of complex animal behaviors that is
so galling. Although Gould acknowledges the importance of natural
selection, he believes that the EPists have failed to appreciate other
principles of evolutionary change such as random genetic drift,
catastrophic events, and the constraints of basic laws of form.
Furthermore, he contends, by identifying a genetic origin for many complex
human behaviors, the EPists would have us believe that human behaviors are
far more entrenched and immutable than they really are. Whereas Pinker
argues that all of our complex mental functioning has been crafted over
thousands of generations by natural selection to achieve a particular end,
Gould believes that human attributes as basic as language may be accidental.

It was a British graduate student named Bill Hamilton who in the early
1960s had the insight that leads directly to Pinker's view of the human
mind. Believing he'd forfeited his chance for a Ph.D. from London
University by pursuing his heretical approach to the study of altruism,
Hamilton sat for hours in train stations and public gardens to relieve the
loneliness of his student rooms. While he sat, he mulled over a startling
new idea, which he later named the theory of inclusive fitness.

Today, Hamilton is a tall, white-haired man of sixty-three, a Royal Society
professor at Oxford widely considered the most influential evolutionary
thinker since Darwin. "I had the feeling that I might be a crank," recalls
Hamilton of his student days. He describes three experiences that
influenced his thinking. As a schoolboy, he recognized that he felt a
greater sense of obligation to his brothers and sister than to his school
friends. Also, his mother kept bees, and he'd seen how the sister worker
bees often sacrificed their lives for the good of the colony. Lastly, he
had been deeply dissatisfied with the lectures on evolution he received as
an undergraduate at Cambridge University, where it seemed to him that his
professors did not give Darwin's mechanism of natural selection its proper

Hamilton realized he could explain the puzzling phenomenon of sister bees
sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive by shifting the perspective
from the survival of an animal's offspring to the dissemination of its
genes. Thanks to a peculiar system of sex assignment, a female bee shares
more genes with her sisters than with her direct descendants. If the goal
is to make the greatest number of copies of her genes, a female bee is
better off helping her mother make more sisters than she is producing her
own offspring. In 1964, Hamilton pointed this out in a seminal two-part
paper titled "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior." More generally,
his gene's-eye point of view made it clear that the traditional Darwinian
concern with an organism's investment in its children was too limited.
Post-Hamilton, sacrifice for siblings and more distant relatives as well as
one's own children made sense. In 1976, Dawkins popularized this idea in an
enormously influential book, The Selfish Gene.

But if it hadn't been for the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, Hamilton's
theory would very likely never have come to Dawkins's attention. Wilson
seized on the idea and prodded his reluctant peers to recognize its
significance. At sixty-nine, Wilson still has the lean, angular build of a
marathon runner. Though he has an almost courtly conversational style and
retains the aura of a southern gentleman, he has a relentlessly driven,
competitive nature that has resulted in an extraordinarily productive
career. There are many folktales surrounding Wilson that illustrate one or
another of the qualities that have made him successful, including the story
of his reaction to Hamilton's 1964 paper. In one widely circulated version,
Wilson is sent a copy of the paper to review, skims it, and, believing it
to be the ravings of another manic graduate student, tosses it in the
trash. Hours later, in the middle of the night, he realizes he's made a
terrible mistake, bolts out of bed, and rushes back to the lab to retrieve
the paper before the janitors empty the trash.

"That's a great story," Wilson laughs, "but it's not true." The truth, he
insists, is that he read the paper on a long train ride from Boston to
Miami (he's a reluctant flier). Hamilton's idea struck him as improbable
and too simple, and it didn't seem to lend itself to broad applications.
But when Wilson couldn't find a logical flaw in the paper, he grew angry.
He, not Hamilton, was the world authority on social insects, and certainly
no one else was going to explain the behavior of insect societies. Yet the
more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that the theory was
fundamentally correct. By the time he reached Miami, he was a convert. "I
would never throw out an article like that," he explains. "At the very
worst, I'd file it for future reference."

With Hamilton's ideas in mind, Wilson went on to formulate the basic tenets
of sociobiology. In 1975, he published a beautifully illustrated overview
of his theory titled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. If he had confined
himself to animals other than ourselves, as he'd originally intended, his
life would have been more peaceful. But in a characteristically ambitious
finale, he tacked on a chapter extending his theory to humans. Our species
is genetically programmed to be warlike and territorial, he wrote, and
males will typically dominate females in human social hierarchies. He
hypothesized the existence of genes for spitefulness and homosexuality,
genes for conformity that make humans easy to indoctrinate, and genes that
make us favor kin and be wary of strangers. In a section on hunter-gatherer
societies, Wilson cataloged the behavior patterns of various members. He
found that, just as in ant colonies, different members of the groups played
different roles. There were individuals of higher status, leaders and
outstanding specialists, for example, who generally established themselves
by their mid-thirties. These elites, he wrote, do more than their share of
work and dominate the group's sluggish, unproductive members. . .

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/

More information about the Marxism mailing list