Is man’s behavior to be understood and accepted in terms of the selfish genes?

At the 1978 meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a group of protesters from the International Committee Against Racism marched into the final session of the seminar “Beyond Nature—Nurture.” They were shouting slogans against racism, sexism, fascism, and other social inequities. Believing Edward O. Wilson of Harvard was using science to maintain the social status quo, they doused him with a bucket of water, crying, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

What had angered these people was the relatively new science, sociobiology, of which Wilson is a principle proponent through his monumental book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975. According to the New York Times, Wilson has claimed that sociobiology is a well-established discipline of biology and has been for 25 years. The general public, however, and even most scientists, have not been aware of its growing influence until the last few years. Consistently applied, its principles can promote different moral standards for different situations. They view hypocrisy and deception (if undetected) as beneficial. And they can encourage abortions, euthanasia, and killing of malformed infant children. Apparently, according to Wilson, they might even lead to “worship” of the human brain.

Wilson defines sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” By “biological basis” he refers specifically to genetics and ultimately to evolutionary theory. Sociobiology is the application of evolutionary theory not only to animals, but also to human social behavior.

Many view sociobiology as a return to nineteenth-century social Darwinism. It maintained the superiority of certain races and classes of people by utilizing the Darwinian principles of “struggle for survival” and “survival of the fittest.”

Until recently, social Darwinism has enjoyed little more than historical interest. It was the belief that Wilson was promoting a new type of social Darwinism, aimed at preserving the status quo and making social institutions like racism legitimate, that led to the demonstration against him.

Much of the current debate over sociobiology concerns the roles played by heredity and environment in shaping man’s behavior. According to evolutionary theory, these are the only two forces that have any effect upon determining who man is and how he behaves. More often than not, these two factors are seen as interacting in some combination.

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Those who stress the biological factor (heredity) are often referred to as biological determinists. In 1851 Herbert Spencer said that starvation and poverty were nature’s way of cleansing society of the unfit. In 1940 the German writer Konrad Lorenz used his theories to call for eliminating certain parts of society deemed “undesirable.” The environmentalists, on the other hand, of whom an extremist would be B. F. Skinner, see human beings as extremely malleable. We need only determine the kind of society we desire and then create an environment that will foster it. This view contrasts sharply with sociobiology.

Each side in the debate is apparently reacting to what it sees as the possible loss of personal freedoms under the other’s system. Each seems to have discerned some of the other’s weaknesses. Environmentalists fear a conscience-numbing stamp of approval on the status quo and a deteriorating motive for social change. However, Wilson (though claiming not to be a strict biological determinist), is apparently wary of the concept of the infinitely malleable human being since it might be used to justify any social or economic system in vogue.

We can grasp the workings of sociobiology by understanding three concepts. First, human social patterns are said to be shaped by evolutionary processes acting on genes. Put another way, our genetic make-up influences our behavior, and that behavior is subject to natural selection just as physical characteristics may be.

Second, we must grasp what sociobiologist Robert Wallace, in his 1979 book, The Genesis Factor, calls the “Reproductive Imperative.” This “imperative” states that the ultimate goal of any organism, including the human organism, is to reproduce as many offspring as possible. Within the evolutionary system, the species simply strives to avoid extinction. It accomplishes this only through survival and reproduction.

The third concept is that, within evolutionary time, the individual is meaningless. This is because species, not individuals, evolve. The individual reproduces and dies, but its genes persist into the next generation. Therefore the genes, or DNA, become the unknowing driving force of the reproductive imperative. Biologists once said that a chicken is simply an egg’s way of making another egg. Wilson has modernized this, saying, “The organism is simply DNA’s way of making more DNA.” The organism exists for the sole purpose of making more DNA.

To clarify this, Wallace takes great pains to explain why parents love their children. They are simply the “genetic repositories” of the parents into the next generation. Love for children insures proper development of these genetic repositories so that they can later reproduce. In short, parents love their children because love produces effective reproducers. Through natural selection, “love your children” has become universal in humans because it works. It is an effective means for making more DNA.

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Sociobiological concepts regarding man are startling and fascinating. Some sociobiologists have been extremely bold, predicting that eventually political science, law, economics, psychology, psychiatry, and anthropology will all be branches of sociobiology.

When its theory is applied to man, we discern a thin line between truth and error. In the last chapter of his book, Sociobiology, Wilson lays before us his view of man: who he is, why he is, and where he is going—or more precisely, where man will need to go in the future. Wilson begins by recognizing that man is anatomically unique in respect to the rest of the animal kingdom, yet he has no doubts that man’s behavior is to be understood in terms of the selfish genes. (The sociobiologist views all behavior as ultimately selfish.)

Much of the debate over sociobiology reviews the nature versus nurture controversy, nature referring to biology (heredity) and nurture to environment (culture). Acknowledging the seemingly endless variety of human social organizations, Wilson insists that the underlying basis for culture is genetic. Different cultures arise simply as different genetic strategies to achieve the same basic survival goals, which are already genetically determined.

In Sociobiology Wilson makes special note of two practices, which he sees as deep-rooted in every culture, and therefore assumes may have a genetic base: “Deception and hypocrisy are neither absolute evils that virtuous men suppress to a minimum level nor residual animal traits waiting to be erased by further social evolution. They are very human devices for conducting the complex daily business of social life.… Complete honesty on all sides is not the answer.”

Because a person is out to promote his own genetic survival, it is to his advantage to get ahead by whatever means. The one who cheats “gets ahead.” The final standard of success then rests on whether he gets caught. If he does, those who were deceived will likely seek retribution and suddenly the cost may be greater than the benefit. However, if he remains undetected, the benefit is unaffected and that person has “done well.” It follows, then, that sociobiology views not our acts themselves, but their consequences, as what really matters. Consequences become only the focus of ethical value judgment; the act means virtually nothing.

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In discussing the evolution of ethics, Wilson boldly suggests that the time has come to remove the field of ethics temporarily from the hands of philosophers and “biologicize” it. He refuses to use any absolute to guide moral decisions and blames such thinking for what he calls complex, intractable moral dilemmas.

To determine behavior and assess value, we will need moral standards for various sex and age groups as well as for whole populations, Wilson claims. He reasons that we should not subject people of different ages, sexes, and environments to the same code of ethics, because they are experiencing different situations (actually, “different selective pressures”).

The effect of a system of differing moral standards becomes evident when we consider certain medical practices such as abortion and euthanasia. For example, in Wilson’s futuristic scenario, humans will undoubtedly overpopulate the earth. When levels were low and environmental conditions good, sociobiology says the most profitable strategy was to reproduce in large numbers so that as many of one’s genes as possible were placed into the next generation. However, when population levels are high and food as well as other resources are scarce, a person had best not multiply himself too much and risk the loss of all his offspring. He is judged better off producing only the few offspring that he can adequately care for. So in an age of scarcity, those parents are sociobiologically preferred who have fewer but healthier children for whom they can provide. If parents do not need or want a pregnancy for economic, social, or genetic reasons, abortion becomes justified on the simple basis of cost-benefit analysis. A sociobiological analysis aims to keep the human population free of those who do not contribute, and the gene pool as free of genetic frailties as possible.

In the future the principles of sociobiology may well promote euthanasia. Those elderly adults past reproductive age and no longer able to contribute to the survival of family or society will have little biological value. Therefore, why spend valuable time and energy keeping them alive? That such a prospect can be legitimately drawn from sociobiological theory calls to mind the biological remedies to human problems in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. To sociobiology, perhaps Hitler’s ideas were only 40 years ahead of their time, although some of his methods may seem a bit crude.

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It should come as no surprise that Wilson sees religions as human institutions that exist merely to further the fitness of its practitioners. For example, a member of a religious group benefits from his strong bond with other members of the group. He and all the other members perceive that the developing bond promotes cooperation, and such cooperation helps each to benefit personally (a mutual back-scratching arrangement). Indeed, strong human bonds almost guarantee a certain amount of cooperation and mutual advancement.

Since Wilson believes that the tendency toward religion is genetically based, he admits in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, On Human Nature (1978), that belief in a personal, moral God will not disappear. Instead, we should offer a new “mythology” in its place—scientific materialism, with the “evolutionary epic” at its core. Since every epic needs a hero, Wilson suggests the most complex evolutionary achievement he knows: the human brain. He also says the evolutionary epic can be adjusted until it comes as close to truth as the human mind is constructed to know truth.

If we inspect this closely, however, we are faced with a conundrum. According to Wilson’s view of evolution, the mind is simply a product of brain activity, the result of interaction between neurons and chemicals. How then can the brain, which he says is a construct of evolutionary processes functioning only to promote survival, be expected to recognize truth? C. S. Lewis, in Miracles, a Preliminary Study, has cited J. B. S. Haldane’s view on this very issue: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” The brain should be expected only to perceive the world around it in such a way as to further the survival of the species. Whether or not this perception is true is totally irrelevant from an evolutionary vantage point.

Sociobiology is the latest example of a periodic revival of the evolutionary religious vision. It views the whole of reality through an evolutionary lens. It degrades man; it degrades all things. Nonhuman things are anthropomorphized. Wilson does a disservice to biology by imparting to it human characteristics it does not have and cannot achieve. He would also have us believe our attributes should be “biologicized.” With all the arrogance of humanism concerning the prospect of a planned future society, Wilson essentially joins the vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Skinner’s Walden Two.

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In On Human Nature Wilson sees mankind mapping out its own evolutionary course through eugenics (selective mating), genetic engineering (altering the molecular structure of the genes), and cloning (producing exact replicas of certain people). Man’s destiny is simply to gain knowledge, knowledge that will enable him to control his further evolution by producing a complete understanding of the human organism right down to the level of the neuron and gene. No doubt those who will assume supervision of this evolutionary process are the sociobiologists or others who supposedly have a fuller understanding of the biological issues involved.

Critics are legion. Some rightly accuse sociobiologists of resting their case on hypothetical genes—ones whose existence has not yet been verified. Others have hit hard at the methodologies and political motivations of sociobiologists. However, there are deeper, more serious issues. To approach the effect of heredity and environment on human nature from either angle exclusively, or from some combination of the two, is to reduce people to mere material that can be manipulated. Can we explain the whole person simply by reducing him to an interaction of heredity and environment? Or are we overlooking something?

Men and women can be conditioned by both their genetic constitution and the environment they inhabit. But this is not the sum total of what makes us human. Heredity and environment do not determine all that we are since man is man because God created male and female in his image. Our Creator has endowed us with a uniqueness that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. To reduce our kind to mere molecules is to strip away our humanness; reductionism in any form removes the proper sense of identity. When we are viewed as having a purely mechanistic origin, we become dwarfed by the vastness of a meaningless universe; the basis for our significance is undermined. Faced with this dilemma, we find our initiative sapped, and lose all sense of responsibility and guilt.

Within a sociobiological system, the person possesses little value in evolutionary time. He is only a vehicle transmitting genetic information, and his only real value is in continuing the species. Wilson himself elaborates on this in On Human Nature: “If human kind evolved by Darwinian natural selection,” he says, “genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species.” Wilson interestingly calls this an unappealing proposition. He reasons that if this form of naturalism is true, it leaves the human species devoid of purpose. The human species, then, or any species for that matter, lacks guidance or goal beyond its own biological nature. There is no place to go.

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The error within sociobiology lies in neither the data it presents nor the biological influences on social behavior it assumes. Rather, it errs in the evolutionary and philosophical grid through which it interprets its data. We agree, for instance, that deception and hypocrisy are a part of our present nature. In a fallen state our first concern is for ourselves. However, to herald this portion of human nature as something we should accept and almost encourage is a travesty. Should we rear our children to believe that cheating or lying is acceptable as long as they can get away with it? Scripture rejects such behavior. Further, Scripture requires that in all we do we should seek to do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8).

Wilson considers religion a paradox since “so much of its substance is demonstrably false, yet it remains a driving force in all societies.” Here again, he misses the point. It remains true that much of the substance of most religions is false. But religion’s persistence is not an evolutionary paradox. Rather, it points to our most basic need. Within us is a void only God can fill; we constantly search to fill that void. This answers the paradox. Our efforts to find God have gone awry in the past as they still do today, but our need for a relationship to our Creator has always been there and will remain until fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

Sociobiology follows logically from the naturalism of an evolutionary world view. This view presupposes either that God does not exist, or at least that he has no concern for the material world. The universe and all life found within it have evolved from random interaction of matter and energy over vast reaches of time. Consequently, in the human realm, no absolutes exist to guide moral decisions. Such a view denies our spiritual nature, and therefore reduces each of us to a meaningless blob in evolutionary time. Our only purpose, then, is to be an effective vehicle for the reproduction of a master molecule, DNA, by which we are enslaved. With such a world view, our search for meaning and hope can only end in despair, or we must opt for one of the many brands of irrational “hope” offered today.

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The despair inherent in the sociobiological world view should lead us as Christians to examine our own hope. Scripture presents a universe created by God, peopled by men and women made in his image, and offered hope in the person of Jesus Christ. In contrast to sociobiology’s view that we are enslaved by a master molecule and our environment, the biblical world view assures us that in spite of our limitations we are free to love God and our neighbor, and free to be with Him forever. Sociobiology says that we are meaningless vehicles for carrying genetic material; Scripture declares that we are persons of enormous value to our Creator, and temples of the Holy Spirit. Although we live as finite earthen vessels in this life, we carry a precious treasure within as we wait for the return of our Savior. Then we will live in glorious new bodies forever with him.

Along with this hope, we also have a responsibility to tear down strongholds raised against the knowledge of God. Surely the naturalistic philosophy of secular sociobiology is such a stronghold, so we must take strong exception to it.

At the same time, however, we have a great deal to learn about genetic factors affecting animal and human social behavior. To know what to support and what to oppose, Christians involved in the social and biological sciences must be effective students of sociobiology. The popularity of sociobiology has gone unnoticed for too long already. We need precise and careful study as well as a watchful eye if we are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

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