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Home arrow History arrow Life History Evolution and Sociology: The Biological Backstory of Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010

The Biology of Sociology: Pitting Ideology Against Elegance

Abstract Were explanatory, scientific explanations gauged by merit alone, the sixth chapter would hardly be necessary. In recognition of the realities of intellectual history, this chapter anticipates the resistance that may result from explaining Murray’s sociological data biologically and evolutionarily through life history theory. Objections are still raised against evolution, especially when applied to humans, and most especially when applied to human behavior. As such, life history theory, given that it is a sort of metatheory that aggregates and explains much of human behavioral variation, will likely encounter resistance in this application, as it has in others. Herein, some of that intellectual history is reviewed, while projected concerns are addressed.

Keywords Wilson • sociobiology • Rushton • yoked • parsimony

In 1925, decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species, and in the midst of The Modern Synthesis/ the American Civil Liberties Union recruited Thomas Scopes to challenge Tennessee law on the teaching of evolution. Reading the trial transcript is striking because of the religiosity that pervaded the judge and jury and for the divide, already yawning as a chasm, between the lay and scientific reception of evolution. The ideas of Darwin were gaining ground, but had not yet infiltrated the population at large. Most jurists had heard of evolution, some hadn’t. They all had © The Author(s) 2016

S.C. Hertler, Life History Evolution and Sociology, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48784-7_6

limited knowledge of evolution, which was gained through conversation with others nearly as ignorant, or newspaper accounts insufficiently objective. Another source of information was from the pulpit. The judge opened every day with prayer, and not just a few words, but an extended worshipful prayer. When Darrow was held in contempt of court for insulting words that truly needled the judge, the judge forgave him as a Christian, citing bible verses and using Christ as his model of forbearance. When Darrow, the secular and openly antagonistic defense attorney, objected to this, most were highly insulted. In part, it was the person of Darrow, contrasted with the pious renown of William Jennings Bryan, that stoked the trial into a moralistic contest between good and evil, old and new, secular and sacred. Darrow courted controversy in every respect; in his open agnosticism that amounted to atheism, in his defense of boy murders, and in his relations with women. These were among the reasons why Darrow had to insinuate himself into the defense team uninvited (Farrell 2012). Such was the resistance to evolutionary science and the secular humanists in 1920s America.

With a recent Pew Forum survey on religion and science finding that “64 percent of respondents support teaching creationism side by side with evolution in the science curriculum of public schools,”2 one should not underestimate the tenacity of this divide. This is especially true when evolution is applied to human behavior. One of the most earnest and earliest efforts to do just that came from Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson and his work Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which featured a final chapter directly broaching human nature. The chapter’s placement at the end of the work recalled the placement of the final sentence of Darwin’s Origin of Species wherein he addresses mankind.3 Judging from the chapter itself and what has been said of it by Wilson and his critics, it seems that he was unaware of the ire he was arousing. This ire, important to note, was not a public outcry of the lay community or the devoutly religious; rather it came from down the hall. Led by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, approximately 15 prestigious academics in and outside Harvard assembled against Wilson’s Sociobiology in what became known as the Sociobiology Study Group, an academic organization originated solely to nip Wilson’s sociobiological theory in the bud. Signed by all members of that group, a critique of Sociobiology amounting to a denunciation was issued to the New York Times as an open letter. Betrayed by its vehemence as much as by its unorthodox method of attack, the

Sociobiology Study Group testifies to the emotional resistance that can overwhelm rational discourse when evolutionarily explaining human behavior, even in recent times, and even among life scientists.

Several academics have then documented the larger resistance to sociobiological explanation in the years that followed Wilson’s publication, as it was alternately embraced and renounced. Davis (1986, p. 226) notes that censure and silencing of sciences investigating human biological behavior, such as behavioral genetics, become politicized, inviting differing forms of censure from both left and right, giving truth little room to maneuver. Similarly, Degler (1991) tracks the intense resistance that has been mounted in reaction to evolutionary applications to understanding differences between populations. Also, Alves, after reviewing Freud’s quote about the three insults to humanity,4 writes: “Today it is possible to add a fourth blow: that human beings are not only a product of their own environment, but a result of the interaction between culture and genes, which implies the existence of a human nature. This blow seems now to be the most wounding” (Alves 1999, p. 126). Rushton (1999, p. 209) most precisely analyzes the state of evolutionary acceptance, finding that resistance from some quarters did indeed recede, but was counterbalanced as follows:

Although Darwinians emerged victorious in their nineteenth-century battles against biblical theology in academia and educated opinion, subsequently they lost this ground to liberal egalitarians, Marxists, cultural-relativists, and literary deconstructionists

Also as detailed by Rushton, life history evolution itself is charged with controversy, not from its inception, but more precisely dating to its application to humans. The reflections of J. P. Rushton are surely of value in tracking this vein of intellectual history, as he was the man most responsible for applying the biology of life history evolution to human behavioral variation (Rushton 1999). First he speaks of reactions in prestigious journals; these were often editorials with a decidedly condemnatory tone, such as that published in Nature. Condemnations then extended to popular mediums, such as Time Magazine and Rolling Stone, wherein a categorically negative tone was taken. It is therefore evident that evolutionary explanation of humans retains a marked degree of controversy, controversy which becomes outsized when applied specifically to human behavior.

As such, the biological backstory of Coming Apart, like life history evolutionary explanation of psychological and sociological data generally, cannot be productively discussed outside of this context. Wishing it in a vacuum, and hoping it is taken only on its explanatory merits, is unrealistic. The acceptance and impact of this work on the psychologists and sociologists that most care about the data it explains biologically is best advanced alongside a philosophy of science. It is in this spirit that a previously cited (Hertler 2015c) segment of Dumont’s History of Personality Psychology (2010) has relevance here for its treatment of the intellectual and emotional motivations for resisting biological explanations. Though speaking specifically of the biology of personality, the logic applies equally well to life history, not least because personality is in some part a function of life history. Dumont wrote generally of fears of biological determinism, and then, in Kuhnsian5 fashion, described the following four factors, as condensed in Hertler (2015c):

(1) there is the momentum of tradition; momentum by which personality psychologists are still much more comfortable with social scientific data as opposed to natural scientific data; (2) many of the scientific methods and technologies that are used to support nature oriented explanations of personality are newly developed, as are the data that they obtain; (3) under the influence of funding, policy and the inclination to clinically treat, psychological research, and the theories that derive from it, are often skewed towards emphasizing controllability; (4) finally, “fluid environmental explanations of personality,” as opposed to “fixed biological ones,” are consistent with individualism, choice, self-creation and other highly prized Western values.

Again, this commentary on personality applies to the reception of life history evolution as an explanatory paradigm by psychologists describing intrapersonal variables, and sociologists describing interpersonal variables. In battling these four conservative strongholds, one might singly appeal to the principle of parsimony. Parsimony is indeed what Murray is calling for on page 299 of Coming Apart, in the passage previously quoted in the introduction of this work. He senses the possibility of an underlying relationship between father absence and juvenile crime, or between child abuse and divorce, for example. Not only does Murray himself call for parsimonious explanation, he looks for it from the biological sciences. Truly, life history evolutionary explanations of psychological and sociological data are elegantly parsimonious in their ability to yoke cognitive variables like encephalization, intelligence, and executive control, to personality variables like conscientiousness, risk assumption, and time orientation, which are in turn ultimately yoked to biological variables like gestation length, timing of tooth eruption, and age of first birth. Life history evolution extends its power and parsimony further by reducing variation in this yoked complex largely to a finite number of testable variables dominated by mortality regime. This is irresistible. Compelling. Inevitable.


  • 1. The modern synthesis refers to the marriage of evolution and genetics, which was delayed by Darwin’s apparent ignorance of Gregor Mendel’s work on pea plants. Through the efforts of J. B. S. Haldane and Ronald Fisher Darwin’s evolutionary theory was integrated with Mendel’s genetic insights to produce a more rigorous biology of population change that was conceptually, as well as mechanistically, understood.
  • 2. As reported in the Virtual Mentor Ethics Journal of the American Medical Association December 2005, Volume 7, Number 12 Op-Ed Citizen MD by Paul Costello
  • 3. “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

Darwin, C. (1964). On the origin of species: a facsimile. Harvard University Press.

4. “Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.”

Good Reads. (June 30, 2016). Sigmund Freud Quotes: http://www. to-endure

5. Kuhnsian refers to T. Kuhn, a philosopher of science, some would say a postmodern deconstructionist for sentiments expressed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Whatever he is labeled, Kuhn challenged the objectivity of science, exposing not only intuitions and value judgments inherent in the persons of scientists but salutatory changes and community assumptions inherent in the process of science.

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