Our Growing Timeline
The scholars and texts we've examined so far (and, in parentheses,
figures and texts that we have not studied but who are important
to the history of ideas we have discussed; or who are considered
in other instances of this class) include:
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), The Meditations (1641).
(Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his work
Origin of the Species (1859).)
(Karl Marx (1818-1883).)
William James (1842-1910), "What is an Emotion?" (1884) and "Talks
to Teachers" (1899).
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Civilization and its Discontents
(Jean Piaget (1896-1980).)
(Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).)
B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), Walden II (1948).
(E. O. Wilson (1929), Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975).)
John Alcock (????), The Triumph of Sociobiology (2003).
I'll share some guiding questions about The Triumph of
Sociobiology on some of the first few chapters that we are
reading, to get us started. While reading, try to answer these. I'll
sprinkle in some thoughts and suggestions.
First, some terminology:
Introduction and Chapter 1
- Fitness: success in propogating for the individual.
- Fitness benefit is all and only an increase in the
likelihood of viable offspring for that individual. (We do
not assume in modern biology that fitness benefit includes
benefits to a group or species.)
- Traits are selected if they provided a fitness
benefit for an ancestor with that trait.
- Adaptationism is the view that all or most traits
- Altruism: during our discussion here, we
will use the term "altruism" to mean benefit to another's
fitness at the cost of one's own fitness.
- Hamilton Kin-Selection: the idea that we get a
fitness benefit from helping our kin, relative to how closely
we are related. Thus, helping my genetic brother is a move
that can ensure that half my genes get to propogate (or, more
accurately, the gene that might underlie a trait to motivate
me to help my sibling is 50% likely to exist also in my
sibling; so helping my sibling can help get that gene copied).
Such action is therefore a partial fitness benefit. For this
reason, helping kin is not (fully) altruistic (in our sense of
altruism used here). This concept is important, is used
throughout Alcock's book, and Alcock assumes you know it. A
biologist named Hamilton proposed this is a classic paper, and
it is widely accepted in biology and especially sociobiology.
- An Evolutionary Stable Strategy is a strategy that
is resistant to being invaded by and overwhelmed by
- Take a careful look at the objections to sociobiology listed on
page 5. Alcock will aim in this book to explain sociobiology but also
to defend it against these objections. Know them, so that you know
why he's making the points he does while explaining sociobiology.
- How does Wilson define sociobiology?
- In contrast, what does Alcock say is the defining question of
- Is sociobiology primarily about explaining human behavior?
- What is evolutionary psychology?
- What are proximate and ultimate explanations?
- I'm sorry to say I think Alcock uses these terms -- or, at least,
uses "proximate" -- ambiguously. Sometimes, it seems to mean, how
the organism is acting now in some context; or perhaps, what kind of
benefit or even just consequence might this behavior have in its
immediate environment? Thus, a proximate study of the hawk wasp is
concerned with studying its territoriality. In other places, he uses
"proximate" to mean concerned with the mechanisms involved. Alas, I
think then we have two meanings:
- Proximate1: description of the
immediate effects of a behavior. (E.g., the hawk wasp
defends its territory in such and such a way.)
- Proximate2: description of the causal
structures within the organism that explain its
proximate1 behaviors. (E.g., the hawk wasp
defends its territory in such and such a way because
it has such and such a neural structure.)
- Ultimate: hypothesis regarding the fitness
benefit of a behavior for the ancestors of an
organism. This assumes that the behavior, as
described in a proximate1 way, is
inherited, and is inherited because it provided a
fitness benefit. This hypothesis provides a form of
explanation that is what characterizes sociobiology.
- What is "fitness" (in sociobiology)?
- What is Bickerton's concern about terminology like "adultery"?
What is Alcock's response?
- (I believe that Alcock misses -- or, worse, hides -- the
deeper issue: can one use a term like "adultery" without
carrying the strong connotations that we have for its use in
our culture? If not, why use such words? Alcock's response
circa page 26 is flippant, if not downright cheap. Scientists
invent terminology constantly to avoid misleading
connotations. Here, he undermines this long-standing
tradition with the lame response that we shouldn't have to
invent new terminology, and should talk about unfaithful birds
or adulterous flies. As if we should still be calling Jupiter
a "star" or sulfur an "earth element.")
- Very important: does evolution result in behaviors (or structures)
that are selected because they benefit the species?
- What kind of (apparent) behaviors are surprising to
- Is your dog a parasite?
- What is biological, or genetic, determinism?
- What difference with genetic determinanism is being
expressed in the claim that "genes are essential for the
development of behavior [but] they cannot 'determine' it
single-handedly" (page 43). Can you explain this sentence
to a lay person?
- (Alcock's response to free will libertarians is a cheap
shot: what I'm predisposed to believe is irrelevant to the
- What does Alcock claim has been shown about the
correlation (if any) between relatedness and IQ?
- Is IQ a reliable (e.g., consistent, objective) measure?
- Is it a problem that we cannot link many kinds of
behavior in an organism to some specific genes? What
does Alcock say? What do you think? What do you make
of the dishevelled mice example?
- What, according to Alcock, is Gould's criticism of
- Does Alcock's account square with the NYRB review we
linked for you?
- What is a "just-so" story?
- Is the ease of generating a just-so story a problem
for sociobiology? Why or why not?
Some of the criticisms or concerns leveled at evolutionary
I'll mention four. The first three have been raised before
frequently, and are addressed by Alcock. The last is my way of
phrasing a slightly different form of criticism.
Alcock does a good job, in my opinion (you're welcome to disagree) of
at least addressing the first three criticisms. Regarding the first,
however, there may be a matter of degree here. It could be that good
evolutionary psychology method is possible, but also that some (many?)
evolutionary psychologists are lazy and make up just so stories.
Anecdotes would suggest that this sometimes happens.
- E.P. relies upon just so stories. These are
easy to fabricate and not falsifiable.
- E.P. assumes genetic determinism.
- E.P. defenders have never identified a gene for a behavior.
- E.P. defenders often confuse normative issues with factual ones.
Alcock addresses the claim that e.p. justifies bad behavior that is
selected. He rightly points out that justification is different than
description and causation. I do think that he lets e.p. off too
easily, however. Most people find it hard not to confuse normative
and descriptive issues. (We discussed this when we saw Skinner claim
it was easy to identify the good life.) As a case in point, Wilson in
his book Sociobiology claims that ethics should become a branch
of biology. This shows a complete failure by Wilson to understand the
difference between norms (shoulds) and descriptions (is's). Without
a clear method to keep these matters straight, e.p. will often fall
into such muddles.
A recommendation: you should consider reading Ernst Mayer's fine
introduction to evolutionary theory, What Evolution Is (it's in
Penfield at QH366.2 .M3933 2001) or better yet Dawkins's The Selfish
Gene (in Penfield at QH437 .D38 1989 and also available as an ebook