News from the front (and back) of evolutionary theory. Lots of bitching about Darwin.
This scientific initiative fucking THRILLS me.
“Logic of Life is an initiative that unifies world-leading quantitative research in the life and life-inspired sciences in Switzerland with a bold aim: To identify the rules of life that drive emergence and self-organization at all biological scales, such as the appearance of variation, the formation of spatial patterns, the division of labor, and the creation of robustness. This will address one of the biggest missing links in our current understanding of life, namely how scales are connected. Knowing these rules will revolutionize the translation of biological findings into products, services, and treatments that benefit our society”. https://www.logicoflife.ch/
Hal Whitehead, Kevin N. Laland, Luke Rendell, Rose Thorogood & Andrew Whiten Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 2405 (2019)
Culture (behaviour based on socially transmitted information) is present in diverse animal species, yet how it interacts with genetic evolution remains largely unexplored. Here, we review the evidence for gene-culture coevolution in animals, especially birds, cetaceans and primates. We describe how culture can relax or intensify selection under different circumstances, create new selection pressures by changing ecology or behaviour, and favour adaptations, including in other species. Finally, we illustrate how, through culturally mediated migration and assortative mating, culture can shape population genetic structure and diversity. This evidence suggests strongly that animal culture plays an important evolutionary role, and we encourage explicit analyses of gene-culture coevolution in nature.
July 1st is 161 years since Darwin’s “Natural Selection” theory was accepted by the Linnean society of scientists as the correct explanation and Evolution became Darwinian Evolution.
I find most people think Darwin was a lovely and rather enlightened man, and that his theory rose to prominence on merit alone.
Those people can’t complete a dichotomous key test between asses and elbows, scientifically speaking. If you’ve never read my stuff before, you might worry I’m a closet creationist. Nope.
Another example of life experience heredity via an unknown process.
Excerpts from Scientific American
A stressed-out and traumatized father can leave scars in his children. New research suggests this happens because sperm “learn” paternal experiences via a mysterious mode of intercellular communication…
The findings are “novel and of very high impact, especially when we consider the impact of military service or other work environments that can confer high stress,” says Robert Rissman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved with the research. “I think it would be important to better understand the specificity of the effect and how different types of stressors or strength of stressors can modulate this system.”
Every organism has a survival strategy. Survival strategies are species and subspecies templates for living. They describe a specialized role within an ecological niche. Their roles are defined by exploiting a particular angle on making a living and by the adaptations of their bodies toward this goal. The amazing anteater for example makes a living…anyone? Anyone? Correct, eating ants. And has adapted in an amusingly specialized way with powerful claws for ripping into nests and long sticky tongue.
That is a deep, deep commitment to eating ants. But not really any deeper a commitment than most other species: The overall species strategy is a highly specialized job with a body increasingly adapted as a tool to do that job.
But not us. We are constantly looking for new angles to play and new ways to play them. In pursuit of that goal we may vary our focus, lifestyle, and ecological niche. But except for phenotypic variations based on local weather our bodies don’t adapt. We don’t specialize via our bodies, we specialize via technology: A spear is a 7 foot long claw that can fly. Well sewn clothing is a thick warm pelt, opening our way toward the ice caps. Horses turn us into ten foot tall monsters moving at the speed of antelopes. Farming is a “Game of Life” survival cheat code the levels us up. Sufficient change in technology equals a virtual shift of species with an altered template for life.
Our technology transforms us personally and as social animals. The rules for hunter gatherers are not the rules for farming villages. We reorganize ourselves in a bottom up that unpacks itself through the individual daily actions of each human playing the new game. Pyramids and kings pop into being from the right tools and population sizes. Each shift redefines the group size that we consider to be: Us. Ourselves. Are we 50 people, a thousand people, a million people? Ask the tools, they make the rules.
When the human community becomes large enough and complex enough it becomes a virtual ecosystem unto itself. The specialized work of individuals mirrors the variety of organisms in a wild ecosystem. Enough complexity makes a self sustaining virtual ecology. AT least until the robots throw us all out of work.
Cultural Variation as a strategy
Every human group that can define as “US” creates culture. That culture expresses local traits with one unique voice. Varieties of approaches to mating, religious dogma, openness to outsiders, etc. equals a real time experiment in how successful these traits are as a human survival strategy. The values for these different traits emerge from the tension force within the community. Authoritarianism is a strategy, so is liberal democracy, so is theocracy. Winning could mean stability or expansion. I call this expansionist trait “Virality”. One culture may make it’s people happy and healthy but virally dominant cultures can take them over.
(That’s draft one. As usual, if you found this intriguing check back once in awhile. I do update and re-write.)
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms.
(“So Bob, what line of work are you in?” “I frighten mice, like my Father and Grandfather before me..”)
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear.
This is the classic cited example of Epigenetics or Soft Inheritance. The traumatic experience memory is passed along not by DNA, but by methylation changes on the DNA. It’s the DNA equivalent of working memory between generations.
In the old synthetic theory, without soft inheritance:
Two squirrels are living at the same time, in the way, way back when. Along comes a saber-tooth cat. Both squirrels run but the faster one survives and the slower one doesn’t.
Ergo->Faster squirrel genes move one step forward and thanks for playing, slower squirrel genes!
And now, with epigenetics:
Same time, way, way back when. Two squirrels again, different scenario. One squirrel has a close encounter with the saber-tooth cat and gets away, badly shaken but alive. The other squirrel was obliviously examining his nuts in a tree nearby. He never saw the cat, and he is unaffected. Squirrel number 1 has babies and they are born with a fear of cats or at least an extra sensitivity to “something moved!” Squirrel number 1 has enhanced his reproductive status by communicating a mission-critical message to the next generation and the one after. They are literally BORN with more “street smarts” than squirrel number 2’s offspring.
What does it mean if a creature inherits some of the important EXPERIENCES of at least two generations of its ancestors and possibly more? This breakthrough model is fascinating because it describes a form of parental teaching of life lessons to the young in species that can’t archive data or tell stories. Instead, they attach a little chemical post-it note to their genes saying “Beware of Cat”.
If asked “how could the genes know “Cat”? I’d answer “The same way they knew about cherry blossoms.” It’s staggering to think of the sophisticated mechanisms involved and questions rise like mountains in the near distance. Actually, it’s one question, repeated.
1. Something terrifying happens and a sort of snapshot of the event is taken within the organism. How?
2. Which captures details of the experience. How?
3. Ranking some as meaningful. How?
4. And retaining them. How?
5. Ultimately initiating a process that hands this information off to the sex cells for the next generation. How?
6. This new generation “knows” this life lesson as if they’d lived it themselves. But How?
We have now reached the “Talking out of my ass” section.
The thing that gives me shivers (of excitement) is the list of things that must take place for this to work.
- There’s got to be a threshold of some kind. How intense does the experience need to be to “make the cut”?
- There must be a mechanism that takes these “Must know” memories out from all the other memories and decides to engrave them on gametes.
- There must be some crazy-ass coding that allows methylation changes on DNA to communicate details like the smell of cherry blossoms. That would be a highly specific molecule banging into the olfactory brain possibly for the first time ever, and setting off the fire alarm…through code.
- Also, the code is obviously not a complete memory falsifying the experience of the animal receiving it, but close enough that when the real world and this knowledge construct line up, it causes an autonomic emergency deja vu.
I think the “Camera” that could take that memory snapshot is perception/working-memory and the developing chemicals would be concentrations of fight or flight stress hormones that “develop and burn-in” the image. It could also be triggered by something less obvious, like the moment of relief at reaching safety, with the adrenaline fading and your little squirrel heart going like mad. That could prompt a rewind and transcription of the last minute of memory. Who the hell knows?
2, 3 & 4. I imagine the salient details are the Bold and Italic sensations of that experience, the ones that loom and glow in memory as you look back on it, momentarily experienced again. Long term memory is the most economical way to retain this information and would occur naturally. Perhaps mentally reliving the event (including within dreams) a critical number of times prioritizes passing it forward.
5. I got nothing.
It seems certain to me that many classic human knee-jerk fears like spiders, toadstools and snakes are among our deeply reinforced examples of this process. And that brings up some issues closer to home. Presumably, every human baby is born with some of these “presets”. It seems like the nearly global ones must become default elements of our standard inheritance. Is there some process that triggers the elevation of a methylation memory to DNA proper? Is there some tipping point of reinforcement that causes that? Like if PARENT has a trauma experience coded and CHILD does too, (as their own direct experience, not passively) would the two copies being present in CHILD pass on the message to GRANDCHILD with more urgency? For example, could two doubly reinforced people merging their four copies at the moment of conception cause a crossover to DNA inheritance? That question is kind of rhetorical, I’m just shaking my head at the amazing possibilities of this system.
Other random questions:
- Could that kind of double reinforcement play a part in paralyzing phobias?
- How long does it take from trauma to rewritten gametes? If the survivor conceived the next day would the information be ready?
- Men replenish sperm at a rate that shows tremendous optimism, and a woman’s eggs are more or less archived, or at least they travel like a slow and stately parade in comparison to sperm. Does this mean these memories are sex-linked?
- Since our gametes are so different would there have to be separate mechanisms to do the encoding? Do eggs get these “critical updates”?
- Are there equivalent positive messages about life success, not just skin-of-our-teeth escapes? It makes some sense to me that success heuristics belong in the system too, but would be harder for us to demonstrate experimentally. Perhaps that’s more of a learn by observation thing. Animal parents can demonstrate life skills but can’t demonstrate how to avoid a monster attack.
- Can these messages be annotated in the trip from say, a grandparent to a grandchild?
- Could separate, different messages from different parents ever blend and synthesize into something unique?
- Is there a decay time for these messages? Do they fade across generations if not reinforced? Is there a mechanism protecting normal healthy species behavior from being dangerously rewritten or overridden by these alerts?
In summary, we are talking about an evolutionary mechanism which fills a couple of the gaping holes in Darwinian theory.
A Tautology for a Theory: “Survival of the fittest” is a fugue idea, chasing its tail. The fittest can only be described by their survival. The Darwinian mechanism is really about the elimination of gene-pool competitors leaving “the fittest” still standing and reproducing. Kinky!
Time: There is no mechanism for the fittest to develop their adaptive advantage except endless friggin’ time and lucky mutations. Evolution has happened much faster in reality than jives with Darwin’s crawlingly slow “change through random accident and mutation” story. Instantly this makes much more sense than calling upon eternity to explain your mechanism.
Random Changes: Random mutations have been studied constantly since the theory launched. In an experiment replicated many times, random mutations have been generated in thousands of generations of fruit flies in the lab by radiation. Not a single lucky mutation resulted. No change in that population resulted.
Galapagos finches have fitness-enhancing beaks but no practical way to acquire them. Deprived of support from randomness and eternity, Darwin is an empty lab coat. We have reached a happy upgrade to our thinking.
Evolution is sophisticated, multilayered and complex. It stacks the deck in any way it can. It behaves at the very least, as if strategic. We are arriving at theories that mirror the subtlety of reality. We are finally getting better at this.
Drones aren’t irrelevant in bee society they just aren’t really the kind of people you want to be seen with.
Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid. Queens and workers develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid.
Virtually all organisms are diploid, an original genetic mix based on sexual reproduction with a mix of genes from mom (xx) and dad (xy). The only males in a beehive are the drones and they do not participate in gathering nectar and other bee jobs, they are there purely to inseminate the queen (queen being a strange word for ovary, apparently) and drones are the offspring of unfertilized eggs.
So drones are haploid, containing no recombination of the previous generation, it is basically a flying gamete and all its sperm are identical. All those identical sperm have only source of genetic information, the unfertilized egg it hatched from. A drone is basically a clever workaround for an egg to make sperm that makes more eggs. But to bees it’s critical that there is as little genetic drift as possible. As a result, the sister bees who do all the work are more closely related than ordinary sisters, instead of sharing 50 % of genes they share 75 %. More reinforcement for the idea that a hive is a quasi individual. And get this (pulling from wikipedia below) …
Because the male bee technically has only a mother, and no father, it’s genealogical tree is rather interesting. In the first generation there is one member (the male). One generation back there is also one member (the mother). Two generations back there are two members (the mother and father of the mother). Three generations back there are three members. Four back there are five members. That is, the numbers in each generation going back are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, … —the Fibonacci Sequence.
Ex. 20:5 – “I,(…) am a jealous God, punishing the children for the father’s sin, to the third and fourth generations …”
(As usual, I am publishing a rough draft to force myself to keep writing.) The first two links are scientific papers and the third is a popular article from Discover magazine. They are all quite readable though and worth a look. If you search epigenetics in this blog you’ll find a number of related articles.
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. (“So Bob, what do you do for a living?” “I frighten mice.”)
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear. Now further studies are not only confirming these results but showing that deprivation and stress alters inheritance multi-generationally. It affects both physiology and neurology.
The evidence is in. Pain and suffering flows across time. Cruelty keeps jumping forward like a skipped stone. We don’t know authoritatively how many generations forward these effects can travel but 3 and 4 generations are documented using an animal model. And rather than just imagining separate generations of inherited fear, and the many influences on the phenotype of those people, imagine how many poor choices their inheritance initiated. Imagine the effects flowing into the places they live in and their families and friends. Consider the implications for large communities who have suffered trauma almost collectively. In some places and times that could mean whole generations where virtually everyone is bent and twisted by the suffering of their parents and grandparents. How often will behavior born of trauma result in fresh trauma to another?
There is nothing parents love more than their children, and every parent I think has some fears of passing along something bad to their children. Our new knowledge means that anyone suffering a serious trauma, or having survived desperate, stressful times, can be certain that some effects will be passed to their children from the moment of conception.
It makes an act of profound cruelty almost unimaginably important and scales up the guilt accordingly. In the form of random violent crimes for example the effects are stark enough: One innocent victim becomes how many? 3? 6? Don’t forget the 3rd generation…perhaps 18 people? And the 4th generation as well; let’s say 35 people affected by that injury. They don’t even know, they can’t know who they might have been instead, because that crime made them what they are. They might be more fearful, or angry, or just less hopeful than the hypothetical person without the trauma. We don’t know, but it’s safe to say they are bent AWAY from their strength and happiness.
- Soldiers returning with PTSD
- Black America
- Poor America
- Syrian survivors
When a child grows up shaped by a parent with trauma and then lives in poverty and anxiety, we have lost a citizen 20 years in the future. And we’ve lost their offspring 40 years in the future. Epigenetics makes a simple, compelling case for the auto-perpetuation of misery and poverty and violence. It makes a case that democracy builds failure into its future by doing too little to alleviate it. A starving, fearful child is a crime against the future and her community and in a sense, the whole world but we are awfully good at feeling peaceful about that crime.
20% of American children grow up in poverty. It’s certain that many of them are second and third generation poverty. Poverty is Hydrochloric acid for optimism and aspiration. How is this not a self perpetuating sinkhole of damaged and downgraded people?
“Those people are just like that.” is the kind of statement you might hear people say related to race or culture or class. The poor have been viewed forever as inherently flawed, undeserving and unfit. But scientifically it’s probably not so. It’s probably more accurate to say people can be that way when they and their parents have been ground into emotional hamburger and left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There’s a chance that we are living out a dystopian science fiction story where in all cultures, regardless of race, a whole class of people, less happy, strong and confident is being bred through societal neglect. Any limitations to the number of generations the damage is “paid forward” is irrelevant because the suffering of each new generation is likely enough to paint over the hopes of foreseeable future. Big social programs have been deemed failures when they didn’t produce results in “Political time” but perhaps bringing generational trauma to an end is the work of a couple of generations and therefore almost impossible to convince taxpayers to support. And perhaps our famously cheap and nasty social programs wouldn’t soften the blow enough anyway.
Yet the knowledge places responsibility on our shoulders once we know.
By Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
This is a very well written and succinct paper on various kind of inheritance that challenge the Darwinian “Modern Synthesis” model. If you are a Biology nerd you might enjoy it, otherwise it’s here for me to cite certain parts of without directing people to other websites whose link addresses may change.
The address directly below is the paper via website and the link below that is to a PDF hosted here.
My map of this territory assumes that social Darwinism and the eugenics movement are an expression of the cultural conservatism that I’ve described in my various “Tension force” articles. These same views while not acceptable in “mixed company” (wow, what a phrase) inform the thinking of most powerful members of the right wing. These are also the beliefs that most classic left-wingers assume are shared by people with a sociobiological perspective . They are wrong though, this view is not scientific, it is very much an expression of conservative beliefs. Further explanation will follow explaining why the right wing is already arguing against the implications of epigenetic influences. However, people on the left also need to expand their thinking. If you stick with me through my next article on epigenetics I think you’ll see that a species behavior perspective can be a STRONGER position for reform. Hang in, OK?
This article is by Robert C. Bannister, B.A., M.A., Ph. D. Professor of History, Swarthmore College. I will insert a few pertinent Hugh comments between sections and identify them as mine. Otherwise, these words are his. -HM
Social Darwinism, a term coined in the late 19th century to describe the idea that humans, like animals and plants, compete in a struggle for existence in which natural selection results in “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists base their beliefs on theories of evolution developed by British naturalist Charles Darwin. Some social Darwinists argue that governments should not interfere with human competition by attempting to regulate the economy or cure social ills such as poverty. Instead, they advocate a laissez-faire political and economic system that favors competition and self-interest in social and business affairs. Social Darwinists typically deny that they advocate a “law of the jungle.” But most propose arguments that justify imbalances of power between individuals, races, and nations because they consider some people more fit to survive than others.
The term social Darwinist is applied loosely to anyone who interprets human society primarily in terms of biology, struggle, competition, or natural law (a philosophy based on what are considered the permanent characteristics of human nature). Social Darwinism characterizes a variety of past and present social policies and theories, from attempts to reduce the power of government to theories exploring the biological causes of human behavior. Many people believe that the concept of social Darwinism explains the philosophical rationalization behind racism, imperialism, and capitalism. The term has negative implications for most people because they consider it a rejection of compassion and social responsibility.
I. Darwin was very influenced by Thomas Malthus who wrote that the poor would always breed right up to society’s ability to provide for them and then loads of them would die (and live) miserably until the numbers balanced out. Therefore Malthus thought society shouldn’t do even as much as it was already doing to alleviate suffering , which wasn’t much of anything. He saw it as cruel to give the poor any ideas that things would be ok if they kept on as they were. This is where the phrase “Cruel to be kind” arises. Picture some plump, wealthy victorian saying it as he discourages his wife from putting out leftovers for the poor. We have these same forces in politics today. Senator Paul Ryan is described as a budget conservative but he’s really just in favor of zero help for the poor. Ryan’s politics are more informed by his favorite writer, Ayn Rand than by any “Judeo/Christian values”. Ayn Rand’s collected works are basically social Darwinism in the form of dense philosophical potboilers. -HM
Social Darwinism originated in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Darwin did not address human evolution in his most famous study, On the Origin of Species (1859), which focused on the evolution of plants and animals. He applied his theories of natural selection specifically to people in The Descent of Man (1871), a work that critics interpreted as justifying cruel social policies at home and imperialism abroad. The Englishman most associated with early social Darwinism, however, was sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the outcome of competition between social groups. In Social Statics (1850) and other works, Spencer argued that through competition social evolution would automatically produce prosperity and personal liberty unparalleled in human history.
In the United States, Spencer gained considerable support among intellectuals and some businessmen, including steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie, who served as Spencer’s host during his visit to the United States in 1883. The most prominent American social Darwinist of the 1880s was William Graham Sumner, who on several occasions told audiences that there was no alternative to the “survival of the fittest” theory. Critics of social Darwinism seized on these comments to argue that Sumner advocated a “dog-eat-dog” philosophy of human behavior that justified oppressive social policies. Some later historians have argued that Sumner’s critics took his statements out of context and misrepresented his views.
II. At its origin, social Darwinism had the powerful aura of a scientific proof around it. Science was doing wonders and now science says that WE are the fittest. It’s just not right to mess around with the natural order. Social Darwinists and their current equivalents always like to suggest that they are down to earth realists just facing truths that mushier heads can’t face. Of course Darwinian theory “proved” nothing all, much less that charity is a wasted effort.
We know that Darwin was an aristocrat and in fact saw life through this lens: IE That the rich and powerful have triumphed over the poor through natural superiority. That this is the right and proper way of life. He was a bit reticent about doing away with all kindness to the unfortunate but he mumbled here and there in his writings about having to give up the sentimental approach one day. Of course this philosophy is a perfect display of the “I Deserve This” rationalization that people do when things start to go well for them. See neuromechanical cruelty specifically “Money on the mind” for more. -HM
Studies of heredity contributed another variety of social Darwinism in the late 19th century. In Hereditary Genius (1869), Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist and Darwin’s cousin, argued that biological inheritance is far more important than environment in determining character and intelligence. This theory, known as hereditarianism, met considerable resistance, especially in the United States. Sociologists and biologists who criticized hereditarianism believed that changes in the environment could produce physical changes in the individual that would be passed on to future generations, a theory proposed by French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the early 19th century. After 1890, hereditarianism gained increasing support, due in part to the work of German biologist August Weismann. Weismann re emphasized the role of natural selection by arguing that a person’s characteristics are determined genetically at conception.
III. Galton was the one who coined the term “eugenics” and believed in it utterly. -HM
IV. The Struggle School
Toward the end of the 19th century, another strain of social Darwinism was developed by supporters of the struggle school of sociology. English journalist Walter Bagehot expressed the fundamental ideas of the struggle school in Physics and Politics (1872), a book that describes the historical evolution of social groups into nations. Bagehot argued that these nations evolved principally by succeeding in conflicts with other groups. For many political scientists, sociologists, and military strategists, this strain of social Darwinism justified overseas expansion by nations (imperialism) during the 1890s. In the United States, historian John Fiske and naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan drew from the principles of social Darwinism to advocate foreign expansion and the creation of a strong military.
IV. It’s horrible and haunting to see the foreshadowing that hinted at the world wars straight ahead. It’s also clear that the theory here is being used to simply rationalize the beliefs of those who wanted military adventures. Nobody was more of a social Darwinist than Hitler. If he had one ultimate belief it was in universal struggle and winner take all. -HM
V. Reform Darwinism
After 1890, social reformers used Darwinism to advocate a stronger role for government and the introduction of various social policies. This movement became known as reform Darwinism. Reform Darwinists argued that human beings need new ideas and institutions as they adapt to changing conditions. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reasoned that the Constitution of the United States should be reinterpreted in light of changing circumstances in American society.
Some reformers used the principles of evolution to justify sexist and racist ideas that undercut their professed belief in equality. For example, the most extreme type of reform Darwinism was eugenics, a term coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 from the Greek word eügenáv, meaning well-born. Eugenicists claimed that particular racial or social groups–usually wealthy Anglo-Saxons–were “naturally” superior to other groups. They proposed to control human heredity by passing laws that forbid marriage between races or that restrict breeding for various social “misfits” such as criminals or the mentally ill.
1. We can see the broad cross pollination of ideas here as some progressive thinkers also saw a way to frame their point in evolutionary terms.
2. We also notice of course, the terrifying confidence of some people concerning what parts of the human garden needed trimming. -HM
VI. Social Darwinism in the 20th Century
Although social Darwinism was highly influential at the beginning of the 20th century, it rapidly lost popularity and support after World War I (1914-1918). During the 1920s and 1930s many political observers blamed it for contributing to German militarism and the rise of Nazism (see National Socialism). During this same period, advances in anthropology also discredited social Darwinism. German American anthropologist Franz Boas and American anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict showed that human culture sets people apart from animals. By shifting the emphasis away from biology and onto culture, these anthropologists undermined social Darwinism’s biological foundations. Eugenics was discredited by a better understanding of genetics and eventually disgraced by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s use of eugenic arguments to create a “master race.” During World War II (1939-1945), the Nazis killed several million Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and members of other groups, believing them inferior to an idealized Aryan race.
Social theories based on biology gained renewed support after 1953, when American biologist James Watson and British biologist Francis Crick successfully described the structure of the DNA molecule, the building block of all life. During the 1960s anthropologists interested in the influence of DNA on human behavior produced studies of the biological basis of aggression, territoriality, mate selection, and other behavior common to people and animals. Books on this theme, such as Desmond Morris’s Naked Ape (1967) and Lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups (1969), became best-sellers. In the early 1970s American psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein revived the social Darwinist argument that intelligence is mostly determined by biology rather than by environmental influences.
During the 1960s, British biologist W. D. Hamilton and American biologist Robert L. Trivers produced separate studies showing that the self-sacrificing behavior of some members of a group serves the genetic well-being of the group as a whole. American biologist Edward O. Wilson drew on these theories in Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (1975), where he argued that genetics exerts a greater influence on human behavior than scientists had previously believed. Wilson claimed that human behavior cannot be understood without taking both biology and culture into account. Wilson’s views became the foundations of a new science–sociobiology–and were later popularized in such studies as Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976). Wilson’s critics have alleged that sociobiology is simply another version of social Darwinism. They claim that it downplays the role of culture in human societies and justifies poverty and warfare in the name of natural selection. Such criticism has led to a decline in the influence of sociobiology and other forms of social Darwinism.
VI. There are several weird takeaways from this.
First, Darwin’s theory was a blend of a scientific observation and his own personal beliefs. It was shaped by his position of privilege. Second, that it was popularly accepted by the rich and powerful because it supported what they already believed, that success was self-justifying. Third that everyone who EVER used the theory to explain or justify a political philosophy did so on very little justification, simply borrowing the credibility of science and wrapping it for transparently selfish reasons around whatever they were selling.
As a separate point, notice that the author of this article, Robert Bannister, dismisses sociobiology explicitly as a form of social Darwinism. His writing here reminds me of a dog turning around in circles before lying down. “Wilson’s critics” unnamed and unquestioned, carry the day by alleging it, and we’re done and home by 4.
A couple of problems: E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, was a carefully researched work by a renowned Harvard ethologist and it said almost nothing about human beings, let alone excusing war and poverty. The book (and Wilson himself) were found to contain a strain of deadly ideas by expert witch-finders, and suppressed. His opponents called themselves a study group but limited their study to a bit of reflexive kicking. They momentarily observed something 300 yards off, resembling a duck and decided without observation of any walking or talking like a duck, that it must be a duck.
Also, Wilson was and is a scientist, seriously exploring a theory with malice toward none. Not a single other example of social Darwinism can be described that way. The idea that we must have a kind of “faith based” research where nothing offends the political officer is possibly the only MORE demented road for humanity to take.
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political scientist, surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals need to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society, claiming that leaders should know what human needs were in order to build a better society.
If you are still here, thanks. I will do my best to justify your patience in followup articles.