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Thursday, May 03, 2018

Sociobiology in the 1970s


There could not have been a worse time than the mid-1970s for the inauguration of human sociobiology. The Vietnam War, the most hated conflict in American history, was mercifully coming to an end. Also, victory seemed in sight in the battle for civil rights, although still far from secured. American democracy, in its cumbersome and noisy fashion, was again proving its mettle. The negative side of this tumult, however, was the opportunity it offered extremism. The fashionable mood in academia was revolutionary left. Elite universities invented political correctness, enforced by peer pressures and the threat of student protest. Marxism and socialism in this ambience were all right. Communist revolutions were all right. The regimes of China and the Soviet Union were, at least in ideology, all right. Centrism was scorned outside the dean’s office. Political conservatives, stewing inwardly, for the most part dared not speak up. Radical left professors and visiting activists, the heroes on campus, repeated this litany: The Establishment has failed us, the Establishment blocks progress, the Establishment is the enemy. Power to the people it was—but with an American twist. Because ordinary working people remained dismayingly conservative throughout this sandbox revolution, the new proletariat in the class struggle had to be the students. And, unable to picture their futures as stockbrokers, bureaucrats, and college administrators, many of the students complied.

In academia’s now necktie-free zone, race was a radioactive issue, deadly to any who touched it without extreme caution. Talk of the inheritance of IQ and human behavior were punishable offenses. Anyone who dared mention these subjects in any manner other than formulaic condemnation was at risk of being called a racist. Indictment as a racist in the eyes of the community, even if wholly false, would have been cause for banishment from academe. But that almost never occurred because the faculty were smart and timorous enough to stay entirely away from the subjects, at least in public. Even private conversations were cautious and muted...

Sociobiology, therefore, was widely seen not as an intellectual resource, as I had hoped, but as a threat to the blank-slate worldview. Worse, within a small but outspoken segment of the intellectual elite, it was considered a threat to Marxist ideology. In rejecting sociobiology, these critics managed to redefine the word in a wholly new and misleading way. In the popular media, it came to mean the theory that human behavior is determined by genes, or at least strongly influenced by them, as opposed to learning. Of course, that proposition is nowadays seen to be correct, and there was already plenty of evidence to support it in the 1970s. But regardless of the evidence, that is not what sociobiology meant originally or is understood to mean by scientists today. Sociobiology is a scientific discipline, the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in organisms, including humans. As an ensemble of working theories, it even encompasses the possibility of a blank-slate brain, recognizing that in order to flatten out innate predispositions to achieve such a brain would require a great deal of evolution involving a large number of genes. In other words, the theory of a blank slate is at base an intensely sociobiological idea, albeit wrong"

-- On Nature / EO Wilson
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