Thursday, February 5, 2009

Group Identity, Protest Groups


Far from being a license to behave like animals, sociobiology may give us a keener awareness of how easily our instincts can be manipulated, thus giving us more incentive to exercise self-control.

George C. Williams, with the Department of Ecology and Evolution at SUNY Stony Brook, was instrumental in refining theories about parental investment in offspring, but he’s wary about looking to nature for advice. He says natural selection is an “evil” process, and that we must be on guard against its selfish, biasing effects. “There’s terminology that evokes certain kinds of emotions,” says Williams. “In Henry V, the king calls his troops a ‘band of brothers.’ This idea that these guys standing next to me, all ready to shoot arrows at those horrible Frenchmen, these are my brothers and it’s my duty to keep them from getting shot at by the French, obviously creates a kind of paternal view of the king as the leader of the whole group. This kind of familial relationship…well, you don’t have to be a sociobiologist to understand this. It comes naturally to people. Feminists talk about ’sisterhood’ nowadays.”

It is easier to evoke a gut loyalty to family or tribe, even a pseudo-family or pseudo-tribe, than to something more abstract like a complex conception of justice. “Sociobiology,” he adds, “doesn’t provide a set of values that should be pursued. You have to decide what your values are, and then maybe sociobiology will tell you what tactics are likely to be effective in pursuing those values.” Sociobiology would also seem to suggest we be at least as wary of appeals to nationalism or race-purity as to left-wing calls for “solidarity.”


Nonetheless, in 1997, anti-racist protesters at liberal Brown University, convinced that sociobiology encourages racist thinking, proudly likened themselves to the 70s anti-sociobiology activists. That prompted Kenneth Miller, a Brown biology professor, to defend sociobiology and free speech in the school newspaper. He recalled how lectures by the eminent entomologist and founding sociobiologist E.O. Wilson in the 70s “were met with frank attempts by activists to intimidate the scientist, his audience, or his hosts into calling the events off.” Miller questioned how long free speech at Brown would survive if activists still admire such tactics.

Sociobiologists may be able to explain even the outrage of the leftists in evolutionary terms, though. Richard Alexander, from the Museum of Zoology at the University of Michigan, says we are designed to be a bit self-righteous. Since we have a mix of selfish and altruistic instincts, and since the people around us do too, we “gain not only from making ourselves appear more moral (altruistic) than we really are, but as well from being moralistic about others who are playing in the same game.” In the ongoing tit-for-tat game, it behooves us to appear more altruistic than the next guy.

Alexander argues that this subtle link between altruism and self-interest/kin-interest is what has confused philosophers for so long about the nature of humans’ moral sense. “It’s partly the inevitable and unending conflict inherent in all of this that keeps us from establishing definitive answers to those questions philosophers have engaged futilely for so long. The futility is partly that they and everyone else tried to do it while ignorant of evolution.”

P.S. By the way, my favorite example of someone trying to deny his group identity this week is Jay Carney, former Time Washington bureau chief, telling the New York Times that his new job is not evidence that he may have had political biases as a journalist. Sure, he’s Biden’s communications director now (at a time when many journalists have taken jobs with the new administration), but he says “I don’t see this as a partisan job at all,” in part because Biden values “bipartisanship.” Keep that standard in mind the next time a journalist tells you with a straight face that the media is “objective.”


Mitch Golden said...

I know that this is your own blog and all, but Todd… The Month of Darwin has strayed pretty far from Darwin. Media criticism seems like quite a stretch.

Sociobiology is not one of the best uses of Darwin either. Though I am very far from an expert, I find most of sociobiology unlikely not because I find the political ramifications unpleasant (which, as I said in a previous comment, is not a way to evaluate a scientific theory anyway) but because it mostly strikes me as unscientific claptrap – as in, it is often not even a theory and doesn’t make falsifiable predictions.

The way it usually works is that some putative advantage of a behavior is posited, and, post facto, the existence of the behavior is “explained”. I have a quite good friend who is an economist who does this sort of thing for a living and we have some fun arguments about it.

As an example, take the so-called “gay uncles” theory, which purports to explain the existence of homosexuality by asserting that there is an advantage to a baby to having a gay uncle. Supposedly, having a gay relative will increase the baby’s chance of survival.

Do we even know the cause of homosexuality, and is it genetic? Quantitatively, does this putative survival advantage to my nephew outweigh the obvious, strong reproductive disadvantage to me of my being gay? Even if it is possible, how can we establish if the “gay uncles” hypothesis is actually true?

No answers are generally forthcoming to these obvious questions, and that’s why it is kind of difficult to take these things too seriously.

Todd Seavey said...

Excellent points, which I will revisit, in all seriousness, in a _fabulous_ entry closer to Oscar time.