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Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature : by Philip Kitcher (MIT: $25; 447 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Robert Trivers | Trivers is the author of "Social Evolution" (1985, Benjamin/Cummings) and professor of biology at UC Santa Cruz. and

Philip Kitcher, a bright young British philosopher of science at the University of Minnesota, has written a new book that seeks to thwart an entire discipline. At least where humans are concerned, Kitcher tries to show that the new work in evolutionary biology called "sociobiology" has nothing of value to say and so many misleading and dangerous connotations that it is best restricted to the non-human world.

Sociobiology is the study of the evolution of social interactions within species, and in the last 20 years it has made enormous progress in understanding the principles that underlie social evolution in all species. We now understand clearly that natural selection works on individuals (not groups or species), favoring the individual who leaves the most surviving offspring. We understand, in outline at least, how evolution works with regard to relations among relatives, between the two sexes, and between reciprocal individuals (such as friends) regarding deception, self-deception and much more. One would have thought that scientific progress on such fundamental social issues would inevitably have important implications for our view of ourselves.

Kitcher will have none of it. He grants that natural selection works by accumulating traits that give their bearers high inclusive fitness; that is, high genetic representation in the next generation. He agrees that this process has apparently gone on for nearly 4 billion years here on Earth. Regarding other species, he grants that one useful inference to draw is that this process has by now molded creatures who will act so as to attempt to maximize their inclusive fitness.

Reaching humans, however, he suddenly draws back and says, in effect: Wait! We've gone entirely far enough in this line of reasoning, for down this path lie political and behavioral implications that could "stifle the aspirations of millions." Evaluating human sociobiology, Kitcher adopts special, more rigorous standards and finds the new discipline worse than useless. Its central assumption--that humans, like all other organisms, maximize their own inclusive fitness--he finds "profoundly misguided." Even were this notion true, he believes we should not study it but should study instead only the underlying mechanisms of life.

Kitcher has taken care to master much of the work that he criticizes. His discussion is often sharp and sophisticated, perhaps the most impressive attack on sociobiology to date. "Vaulting Ambition" is crowded with technical sections describing detailed models for selection acting on social traits. And yet Kitcher's mastery often seems limited to details and technicalities, as if he wished the central notions of sociobiology to die by neglect rather than counterargument.

He nails one sociobiologist for a careless argument relating kinship theory to human racism, but he neglects William Hamilton's more careful argument which lines up with a growing body of evidence on kinship recognition and preferential treatment of the genetically similar in both animals and humans. As he prefers peripheral theorists, so also he prefers the periphery of theories. He lavishes an entire chapter on Edmund Wilson's system for thinking about gene-culture co-evolution, a system of nomenclature and logic that, to say the least, has not been widely adopted.

In Kitcher's hands, biology is dry and academic. The sights and sounds, the pheromones, the beautiful complexity of ontogeny all disappear from sight, and biology emerges as just another arid, hopelessly flawed system for thinking about the complexities of human existence. Biology may in fact not be of much use in thinking about the complexities of human experience, but it is very useful in thinking about such basics of life as reproduction. Who else should teach us about reproduction: philosophers, social scientists, icon-mongers and holy-write thumpers? Why not biologists?

The proper evaluation of biology, as of any intellectual system, is a cost/benefit analysis; in the case of sociobiology, the costs and benefits of an evolutionary analysis as compared with some other available system of analysis. But Kitcher offers us only a cost analysis and does so without reference to alternatives. That is, he assiduously collects partial errors, possible errors and alleged errors and imagines dire consequences from each. Nowhere does he consider benefits.

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