multiform creature that bears within itself strange legacies of thought
and passion, and whose very flesh is tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead."
-- Oscar Wilde
According to Wikipedia, “Sociobiology is a field of scientific study which is based on the assumption that social behaviour has resulted from evolution and attempts to explain and examine social behaviour within that context.” So far so good. But I must confess to having very mixed feelings about this field of ‘scientific study’. One has to agree of course, that human behaviour must be partly influenced by our genetic make-up which, as Edward O Wilson says in his book, Human Nature, largely came of age during the hunter-gatherer stage of our evolution. After all, society exists in part to cater for bodily needs, and these are mostly determined by our genes. However, the real question for me would be how and in what mix this might express itself in our behaviour beyond what it might take to satisfy those needs. Was every aspect of our social life, set in stone as it were, during Paleolithic times? If so, then it seems to me to offer rather bleak prospects for the human race in the future if our first priority should be to adapt to the limits our evolution has imposed on us.
Personally, I am unable to accept the whole mechanistic premise of Sociobiology and the world view which it seems to support. Edward O Wilson makes no bones about his commitment to this mechanistic world-view, when he explains phenomena like culture and religion in terms of “the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology and also the mind as “an epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain”. To start with, only one side of evolution is actually mechanistic – and that is evolution via natural selection, which, as Keith Ansell Pierson suggested, “only prunes the phylogenetic tree; it doesn’t cause it grow.” It misses out a whole dimension of evolution, the creative dimension, suggested in the idea of 'random' mutations or the ideas behind Bergson’s Creative Evolution. The second statement is so controversial on purely philosophical grounds that it may take me a couple of paragraphs to refute it. After all, it is the kind of unsubstantiated philosophical tosh which people like Richard Dawkins constantly come up with.
What seems to me to be dubious about the contention that the mind is no more than an epiphenomenon of the brain is the fact that brains can be objectified, minds cannot – or at least the subjectivity which underlies minds. So the idea that the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain is a purely dogmatic one, founded on certain metaphysical notions regarding an undecidable relationship between matter and mind. The problem with the idea that the mind can be objectified was well stated in The Upanishads, which talks about the eye which sees but cannot see itself seeing. Brains may well help make whatever happens in minds happen, but, whereas brains are objectifiable, minds are not. The mind is a subjective phenomenon which might treat the brain as one of its objects but cannot treat itself as one of its objects. After all, the 'objectified mind' cannot be the same as the mind doing the objectifying. It is as different from itself (objectified) as the image in the mirror is different from the person standing before it. The idea therefore that the mind – or more properly speaking the subjectivity which underlies it – can be objectified is a very dubious one. However, brains can be objectified, studied as neurons, ganglions, synapses, as well as cerebrums, cerebellums, cortexes, and so on, and these can be related to various objectifiable cognitive functions and competencies, but how this gets to the subjective basis of minds themselves, is, I must confess, totally beyond me. There seems to me to be a deep unsurpassable chasm between the ideas of the subjective and the objective being employed here which is impossible to bridge in conceptual terms.
The obsession with objectivity is in my opinion the great hobgoblin of scientific enquiry. The implicit belief that what can be objectified - by some human subject, of course – has some kind of absolute value in itself beyond the whole subject-object nexus which cuts it off from ‘the real’ – i.e., what is really out there: Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself – is almost taken for granted by scientists. As someone put it to me recently, we live in a bubble and we cannot push outside the skin of that bubble to know the world as it actually is. We can only know things-in-themselves as they impinge on the bubble whose skin takes on their approximate outlines. This is another way of saying that we cannot move outside the subject-object nexus to grasp hold of things as they actually are in themselves. We can only see the face they present to us and construct the rest based on how intelligible we find it. We test it against our experience to see if it is consistent with everything else in our experience, but, as David Hume recognised, we cannot go beyond this to an actual world in itself. Once science moves beyond this purely empirical realm in order to make dogmatic statements as to what underlies it such as mind is an “epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain” it enters the realm of purely metaphysical speculation about the world as it is in itself, and it has no more remit for this than religion.
Having got all that off my chest concerning the epistemological status of science (from a philosophical perspective), it only remains for me to talk about the subject at hand, namely Sociobiology, which, according to Wilson attempts to explain human society today in terms of the hypertrophication (abnormal enlargement) of attributes which emerged during the hunter-gatherer phase of our evolution. Thus, for example, nationalism is viewed as a modern hypertrophication of the solidarity required by hunter-gatherer bands during the Paleolithic stage of human evolution, which required in-group and out-group forms of identity to survive. I don’t deny that there is some influence here from our early evolution in how this is shaped and in the kind of emotional investment people might have in some form of national identity, but one cannot help wondering what other possible influences – e.g., economic, political, social, environmental, (non-genetic) psychological and psycho-analytical – are at work as well. Personally, I can only see it in terms of one of many variables in a larger equation, not as a constant, as Wilson obviously does. The question is this: are there these one to one correspondences between genes and the behavioural manifestations which they supposedly give rise to, or do these things act more in combination with other things to give them the shape they finally acquire. In short, should we privilege genes, or simply treat them as part of a whole cocktail of factors.
Not only that, but the neuroscientist, Steven Rose has argued somewhere that new neural connections emerge only when something new is learnt and in response to what has been learnt. It wouldn’t make sense to say that the emergence of new neural connections is itself the cause of something new being learnt. The brain seems to be constantly forming in response to things which happen in the mind, rather than the other way round. It is as if the brain simply exists to ‘back up’ the mind’s own acquisition of information in the way the memory banks of a computer do. (Of course, it’s a lot more complicated.) The mind is active in this relationship and the brain is passive, just as we are the active partners in our relationship with our computers. Like the computer, the ‘hardware’ of the brain may only be there for the convenience of the mind. And if this is true, what happens to the whole Sociobiological premise that we are determined by our genes or ‘”physiologically programmed” to behave as we do. Borrowing our language now from Deleuze, who had quite a handle on these questions I think, the active synthesis of our mental activity depends very much on the passive synthesis of its neuronal back-up systems to retain what it has learnt beyond the moment of learning it. After all, if we keep forgetting things through brain-malfunctioning we can’t be said to have learnt them. Nevertheless, the distinction between active minds and passive brains and the highly intricate relationship that must exist between these two phenomena, should still be retained in contradistinction to the idea of the mind being nothing but an “epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain”.
What this means is that the brain is constantly changing in response to the mental activity it supports. It also means that this mental activity, while it obviously needs the brain and the information it stores to function successfully, may itself not be a product of brain-activity at all except in how brain-activity supports or is essential to a mind's realising its own aims. Of course, it is absolutely dependent on the brain and can’t do without it, but that does not make it an ‘epiphenomenon of the neural machinery of the brain”. It should follow from this that it has a lot more freedom in relation to brain-structures than Wilson says, and therefore in relation its ‘physiological programming’. It is constrained by it, and the inertial legacy it leaves, but it is still active in relation to it and, being active, can creatively reshape it – as for instance can happen to someone undergoing psychoanalysis. For deeper philosophical or metaphysical answers to the mind-body conundrum at the heart of this debate - one that goes beyond Cartesian dualism, for instance - we should consider the question of whether or not ‘mind’ has this relationship with ‘matter’ at the more fundamental subatomic level, and how this affects the emergence of atoms, molecules, and organisms as (self-) organised entities. However, that is not a question we can deal with right at the moment.
I would not necessarily say that there is an ideological agenda behind Socio-biology. But it does lend itself rather well to such an agenda. From a narrow scientific point of view, there is no harm in it. Socio-biology, for instance, has interesting things to say about all sorts of issues in relation to how religion and altruism might have been beneficial to us through our evolution. It is very interesting also on the subject of homosexuality and how useful it might have been to the extended families of early hunter-gatherer bands to have had non-procreative members whose genes got passed on by brothers, sisters, cousins and so on. The basic human genetic unit seems to be the kinship-group rather than the nuclear family, and the kinship-group can support non-procreative members and also transmit their genes. Social insects like bees, whose workers are non-procreative, display a more extreme variation of this phenomenon. In many ways, the insights of Socio-biology are very interesting indeed, but I do reject the mechanistic paradigm it seems to represent, which I think can easily lend itself to right-wing ideological agendas. Wilson himself takes certain sideswipes at Marx and Bakunin because he believes that, from a socio-biological perspective, they are naïve on the question of human nature. But he does this not in a genuinely critical way, but simply by treating them as straw-men, as well as by appeal to the authority of his own discipline and the dogmatic conclusions he has reached as a result.
So mixed feelings in the end. From the narrow perspective of science observing its own epistemological limits, the thumb might go up, but from a wider philosophical perspective, it leaves a hell of a lot to be desired.