Sociobiology – February 2006

Question: I have been enamored but not a serious student of process thought for some time. I appreciate its appeal to greater complexity and integration of life and acceptance of scientific discovery. I wonder how you might reflect upon the growing social acceptance of evolutionary psychology (otherwise known as sociobiology) and the prospect of a more genetically determined existence?

Publication Month: February 2006

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Process thought supports sociobiology in finding continuities between other living things and human beings. Human beings are fully part of nature. The forces that operate in other parts of nature operate in us too. Pointing this out is a valid and valuable contribution to human self-understanding.

Indeed, it is a needed development. The academy has been schizophrenic ever since Darwin. On the one hand, the great majority of academics steadfastly affirms evolution and accepts whatever theory is currently dominant in the departments of biology. On the other hand, almost all the work in humanities and the social sciences proceeds on the basis of the dualism established by Descartes and confirmed on different grounds by Kant. Sociobiology works to overcome that dualism.

Nevertheless, there is an enormous problem. The view of nature established in the context of Cartesian dualism has continued to shape the theories and formulations of scientists even when they reject the separateness from nature of the human mind. This view depicts all things as ultimately constituted of matter in motion. In short, it is radically reductionistic, explaining rich and complex phenomena in terms of simpler, mechanical principles. As long as this view of nature constitutes the “scientific” worldview, the display of human beings as part of nature has appalling implications and practical consequences. Dualism is bad, but this reductionism is worse still.

Sociobiologists seem, at least for the most part, to share this “scientific” worldview. I place “scientific” in quotes, since from the point of view of process thought, this is not the worldview most congruent with the empirical evidence to which scientists appeal. It is certainly not congruent with the human experience that sociobiologists rightly show is part of nature. It has inhibited clear thinking about quantum events as well. In short, it is in fact not good science. It is metaphysics, and it is bad metaphysics. The humanities cannot be carried on in its context, and its application to the social sciences and to psychology is damaging.

This double relation to the sciences in their current state is characteristic of process thought over a wide range. It encourages unfettered inquiry into the whole range of phenomena, animate and inanimate. It requires us to take all empirical findings seriously and to develop theories that are supported by them and can be tested and refined through further empirical findings. It urges efforts to develop coherent theoretical relationships both within and among the various fields of science, including the scientific study of human beings and their experience. Insofar as this is what scientists do, process thought gives them complete and enthusiastic support.

But it also recognizes, sadly, that this is not what scientists always do. They frequently shape the interpretation of evidence to fit a pre-established metaphysics. They sometimes reject evidence that does not fit that metaphysics. In some cases they become so attached to the theories into which they have been socialized that they suppress alternative views despite evidence in their favor. And they are often not concerned about harmonizing their theories with theories developed in other fields.

Let me hasten to say that scientists are, if anything, less guilty of these failures than other people. They are positively influenced by the ideals of science. But I fear that there has been an erosion of these ideals, so that the situation has grown worse. There is too little acknowledgment that so much of what is said in the name of “science” is actually based on a materialistic metaphysics that is hardly defensible today.

Let me make this point in quite explicitly “process” terms. There are many phenomena that are in extreme tension with materialistic metaphysics. The very idea of “matter” on the basis of which it was developed no longer has any real place in physics. It has no empirical basis, and it is philosophically indefensible.

On the other hand, I know of no phenomena that cannot be interpreted in terms of a metaphysics of events. The idea of “event” is inescapable in physics. It can be defended philosophically. The resistance of the scientific community in general to recasting its theories on the basis of this different metaphysics is not based on science in any ideal sense.

How would such recasting affect sociobiology? I think the questioner senses the close connection between sociobiology as now presented to the world and reductionism. My judgment is that there is nothing in the actual evidence to support this reductionistic interpretation. To develop accounts of factors that influence events is always helpful. To claim that any one such factor determines everything is always wrong.

From a process point of view many factors enter into every event. Some of these can be traced to genes, and the similarity of our genetic constitution to that of other living species is incontrovertible. To point this out and give examples helps us to understand both ourselves and other species. On the other hand, the genetic constitution of different species differs, so that the similarity of behavior and subjective experience is limited genetically. And with minor exceptions, each individual has genetic differences from others. Hence, genes contribute both to our similarities with one another and with other species and to our differences.

Nevertheless, some similarities and difference can be traced to cultural factors that are not genetically determined. Sociobiology should highlight these as well. Culture that is not genetically determined can be found in other animals as well. But, of course, culture plays a much larger role with human beings than it seems to play in any other species.

Obviously, it would be absurd to try to trace all cultural differences to genes. Cultures change without genetic changes. If a girl born of Chinese parents is adopted as an infant by American parents, its Chinese genes will have little influence on its cultural practices.

Sociobiology may even show that different cultures have developed solutions to their collective challenges that resemble those of different animal species. This is certainly interesting and suggestive of kinship, but it does not support genetic reductionism. Because of genetic differences, human beings are far more malleable than any other species of which we know. It was not genetic differences that led some to adapt to a tropical environment and others to adapt to an arctic one. But that there are behavioral and psychological commonalities between those humans who adapt to an arctic context and other species that are so adapted would be interesting to show.

With human beings individual differences, both genetic and environmental, are also of great importance. This distinguishes us from other species only in degree. Sociobiology can show that the denial of physical affection for infants has similar consequences with humans as with some other species. No doubt many other individual differences among humans have analogies among the members of other species. But when we focus on individuals, another factor enters the picture.

Everything I have said thus far, while critical of genetic reductionism, does not exclude subtler forms of determinism. I have emphasized that every event has numerous influences, so that many dimensions of explanation are appropriate and illuminating. I am convinced that a full analysis of human behavior can point out many parallels with that of other species, some of which are genetically determined and some of which are not. Culture plays a far larger role in the explanation of human behavior than that of members of other species. But all of this is an account of how present experience and action is caused by the world out of which it arises.

When we are examining ourselves, however, we cannot rest with this level of explanation, however important it may be. I cannot believe that my writing just as I am now writing was already settled by the way the world was billions of years ago. Contingent factors play a large role. Also, I hold others responsible for some of what they do, and I also hold myself responsible. I believe that my thinking is informed by the effort to attain truth and not simply by the joint influences of genes and culture. I cannot prove that all of us who believe that responsibility is real are not deluded, but I see no empirical evidence countering the view that we bear some responsibility for what we do and become. To believe otherwise would be practically disastrous and theoretically self-contradictory, since the act of “believing” itself contains an element of responsibility.

Process thinkers, therefore, affirm that “decision” is also a factor in the determination of what happens. There is extensive determination by the past, and there is final determination in each event. We welcome all clarification of what is inevitable and where there is still contingency in the present and the future. We welcome such clarification all the more when it takes seriously our close kinship with other animal species. Hence we welcome sociobiology.

But we do not welcome the reductionistic and deterministic metaphysics that too often informs the way sociobiologists, like many other scientists, present their interesting and valuable data. We hope for the day when real science can be extricated from the stranglehold of a bad metaphysics.