The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) has been dedicated to the goal of building bridges between religion and science: Its members seek ways of retaining the valuable functions of religion but in terms that build on, rather than conflict with, the growing body of scientific knowledge about the nature of the world. Among recent developments in science Edward O. Wilsons Sociobiology is especially pertinent to this goal. In the last chapter of this book Wilson extrapolates from the range of patterns of social behavior across the animal kingdom to human social behavior, and he predicts that the growth of this biological approach will revolutionize the social sciences and the humanities. He then expands this theme in a smaller, more speculative book, On Human Nature.
These books have had a large impact, at least in the United States, on the literary world and on social critics, as well as on scientists. Wilson has forced a large audience to think about the importance of genetic factors in human behavior, and he has deliberately stimulated controversy by boldly stating many propositions that challenge the traditional wisdom. Early on much of the criticism was tendentious and emotional, arising from ideologists who saw a threat to their dogmas and from social scientists who saw a threat to their territories. But that has largely passed: One can now criticize Wilsons provocative conclusions and predictions legitimately, without fear that one is abetting those neo-Lysenkoists who oppose any application of genetics to problems involving human behavior. Responsible criticism has now emerged in a large number of symposia and publications.
It is obvious that genes contribute to differences in human behavior. But because we cannot define their role with precision, and we cannot modify them as readily as we can modify the environment, an extreme environmentalism has long prevailed in the social sciences and in liberal circles.¹ In the last few years, however, Edward O. Wilsons Sociobiology has stimulated a broad renewal of interest in the role of genes in human affairs.²
Like Origin of Species, this book defines a new field, of wide social as well as scientific interest, by synthesizing a large accumulation of scientific information. Unlike Charles Darwin, however, Wilson is the product of an age that has become very conscious of the impact of science on society, and he speculates about the future social implications of his field in considerable detail. Indeed, in On Human Nature, he presents these implications with some zeal, not simply as an inevitable by-product of advances in sociobiology but as part of the justification for regarding it as a major discipline.³
Wilson argues that if we wish to acquire a deep understanding of human social behavior we should not rely only on the intuitive insights of the humanities and on the phenomenological observations of the social sciences; we must also look into past evolutionary origins and into present genetic determinants. I agree. However, I would like to discuss a major difference: Wilson, with the comparative approach of a naturalist, concentrates almost exclusively on the universal characteristics of each species, while I would emphasize the implications of our genetic diversity for several of the issues that he discusses. …
¹ This environmentalism is also an overreaction to the naive hopes, early in this century. for rapid contributions of genetics to the social sciences. This history is well reviewed, from the point of view of a sociologist seeking a balance, by M. Bressler, Genetics, ed. D. C. Glass (New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1968), pp. 178-210.
² Edward Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).
³ Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).
Bernard D. Davis is professor of bacterial physiology, Harvard Medical School, 25 Shattuck Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02115.
Sociobiology and Religion: Conciliation or Confrontation? by Alexander J. Morin
It was the Sabbath, and the people of the village had gathered in the synagogue for the evening service just as they had always done in nineteenth-century Poland. …
Suddenly the doors of the temple were thrown open and a man rushed down the center aisle. He was coatless, hatless, wearing the rough clothes of a workman. His face was flushed, his hair was wild, his eyes were blazing. He turned to the congregation and shouted: …
Week after week, year after year, you waste your lives chasing the hopeless dreams of the dead past, worshipping a thing that does not exist, when you could be out in the great world, learning the ways of nature, unlocking the secrets of the universe, and using what you learn to build a world of peace and plenty. If I am wrong, may your supposed God in his supposed heaven tell me so!
And as he said these words, there came a great roar of thunder. The roof of the temple split open, lightning filled the sky, and the voice of God was heard, saying: You know, hes absolutely right!
This story is an example of familiar Jewish irony, expressing the tension of a people suspended between two worlds—in this case, between the world of traditional religion and the world of utilitarian science. The subject of this conference and the existence of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science itself reflect a similar tension, expressed from two directions. On the one hand we have the tension of religious believers seeking to accommodate within their traditional value system the powerful understandings derived from science. On the other hand we have the tension of scientists who are scientific materialists in their work and at the same time are heirs to the power of traditional religious beliefs, seeking somehow to reconcile the two. And we have the special case of Edward O. Wilson, the progenitor of the new scientific discipline of sociobiology, who seems to be trying to transfer the power of religious belief to scientific materialism itself. …
Alexander J. Morin is director of the Division of Intergovernmental and Public Service Science and Technology of the National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C. 20550. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The author is grateful for the constructive comments of Bernard D. Davis, Loren Graham, and Jerre Levy and regret and regrets that he has not always been able to follow their sound advice in the preparation of this paper.
The Aeolian Harp: Sociobiology and Human Judgment by J. W. Bowker
At the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science conference I was asked to contribute a paper on the day which was given the general heading Sources of Value in Contemporary Society. As a result this paper is somewhat tangential to the main issues raised by sociobiology as I see them, although I believe they are important issues in their own right. It is hard to disagree with what, as a program, sociobiology proposes. Sociobiology is defined by Edward O. Wilson as the scientific study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all kinds of organisms, including man, and its purpose is to develop general laws of the evolution and biology of social behavior, which might then be extended in a disinterested manner to the study of human beings.¹
That can scarcely be regarded as controversial, except that the notion of general law is not a simple one. But with that exception this represents a program which is about as obvious and lacking in controversy as a program to teach the Pope the virtues of celibacy. The controversy begins over the actual execution of the program and over the issue of whether the program can in fact be executed with such sufficient comprehensiveness that it is entitled to be called the new synthesis. Where its handling of religion and theology is concerned, sociobiology is certainly open to the charge that it can only explain religion if it rejects what religion says about itself.² Those much more important issues were not a part of my brief, but they are clearly so fundamental that they certainly deserve much closer examination.³ …
¹ Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 222; David P. Barash, Sociobiology and Behavior (Oxford: Elsevier, 1978), p. xiii. Cf. Wilson in Barash, p. xiii, which has systematic for scientific. In Wilsons Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 4, the definition omits in all kinds of organisms. The definition in Michael S. Gregory, Anita Silvers, and Diane Hutch, eds., Sociobiology and Human Nature (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1978), p. 2; adds including sexual parental behavior, in all kinds of organisms. … None of the variations affect the substance of the definition. However, the more descriptive definition at the beginning of On Human Nature makes much more explicit the claim that societies have biological properties, a much more controversial claim: Sociobiology … is a more explicit hybrid discipline [than ethology] that incorporates knowledge from ethology …,etiology …, and genetics in order to derive general principles concerning the biological properties of entire societies (p. 16).
² A comment made by Daniel R. DeNicola at the Twenty-sixth Summer Conference (Evolution, Human Nature, and Values) of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, Star Island, New Hampshire, July 28-August 4, 1979. See his paper from that conference, Sociobiology and Religion: A Discussion of the Issues, in the next issue of Zygon.
³ I hope to include such an examination in a forthcoming book on the religious exploration of life.
J. W. Bowker is professor of religious studies, Furness College, University of Lancaster, Lancaster LA1 4YL, England.
The Human Mystery by John C. Eccles, reviewed by Henry Margenau