There are, it must be said, legitimate scientific reasons to be cautious about embracing sociobiology too readily. For one thing, we should avoid the temptation to concoct “just so” stories about each and every human trait as if it had significant survival value.
Genes (somewhat like traditions) get passed along in bundles, called alleles, that may mix the useful and the useless. Some genetic traits of no great value may be lucky enough to be “along for the ride” on an allele containing other, far more useful traits. If people pay a lot of attention to hair, does that mean shiny hair was always an important sexual signal, indicating good health, as some sociobiologists have hypothesized? Or is it simply an inconsequential trait that happens to correlate with more useful but less glamorous ones, such as skin that’s less likely to develop infections? Some traits might even be counter-productive but lucky enough to be along for the ride with highly useful ones — or simply too embedded in the system of our biology to weed out in a handful of generations (does anyone think that the vestigial ticking timebomb called an appendix is maximally efficient?).
It’s an imperfect world, full of imperfect creatures and inefficient behavior patterns. But start looking at the world as the result of ongoing weeding-out processes, with the best available option in an array of imperfect ones tending to win out, and it all begins to make a lot more sense.
E-mail isn’t perfect, but it was a more effective solution than fax machines, so e-mail spreads and faxes wane. Taboos against women in the workplace sidelined half the workforce, so those taboos — which made somewhat more sense when there was far more work to be done in the home (making clothes from scratch, etc.) — erode. Communist central planning can’t get the job done, so it crumbles. Proto-humans were smarter hunters or quicker reproducers than the other apes, so, for all their faults, they proliferated and left descendants who rule the world — and who sometimes show a terrible ingratitude toward the processes that got them here, even denying that those processes exist. Forgetting the past isn’t a very wise or conservative thing to do.
Here’s a suggestion for a (grand-fusionist) truce: the left admits that Darwinian thinking vindicates much of what the right is saying about human nature, tradition, and market processes. In return, the right shows that it knows when to embrace Progress and gives Darwin some long-overdue respect.
Tomorrow, though: some comic relief in the form of birthday boy Leslie Nielsen and the archetype of the monkey butler.