Metaphor, Sociobiology, and Nature vs. Nurture:

The Biological Battle of the Century

Keli Whitnell

Ladies and Gentlemen! I am proud to present one of the biggest and longest-running biological battles of the century! Tonight we recap the surprising nature vs. nurture fight. The following pages will explain the highlights, but if you want to learn about this war in its entirety, you’ll find the blow-by-blow account available to the public in Connie Barlow’s collection, From Gaia to Selfish Genes, in a chapter entitled "Nature, Nurture, and Sociobiology."

What began this brawl of the biologists? Was it a woman? No. Was it a war? No. It was a metaphor. And the metaphor states that society is an organism. This metaphor believes that individuals in a society work together in order to function like an organism. But this isn’t the dispute—the real fight lies within the question, How is this organism organized? In other words, do we inherently possess the knowledge to function like an organism or are we taught this skill? Here come the returning champs now!

In the Blue Corner—The Returning Champs:

The Anti-Sociobiologists

Weighing in with a professor from Harvard, a chair of neurobiology from the Open University, and a chair of psychology from Northwestern University, the anti-sociobiologists defend the idea that genes and environment work together, much like a dance, in which the individual is taught social behavior. In an excerpt from their book, Not in Our Genes, theorists Richard Lewontin from Harvard, Steven Rose from the Open University, and Leon Kamin from Northeastern University propose, as the title suggests, that social behavior is not genetic. Rather, it is taught or influenced by an individual’s surrounding environment. In this nurture argument, supporters claim that the individual’s genetic material influences the environment, and vice versa, to result in a society that works collectively, resembling an organism: the individual is taught, in accordance with his/her inherent nature, how to play a role in society. However, anti-sociobiologists do not disregard genetic behavior; rather they state that nature and nurture converse in a dialogue where neither is overpowered. But here come the challengers now!

And In the Red Corner—The Underdogs:


Weighing in with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Science, and a 1986 National Magazine Award, the sociobiologists argue that social behavior is inherent and that complex behavior can be reduced to simple genetic, or physical, explanations. This is the nature argument. Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard professor who is the founder of sociobiology, as well as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Medal of Science, defines sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior in every kind of organism, including man" (163). According to Wilson, "what is new is the way facts and ideas are being extracted from their traditional matrix of psychology and ethnology . . . and reassembled in compliance with the principles of genetics" (163). But Wilson is not alone in this battle. Robert Wright, his ally, is "unusually well positioned to deal with the issue of sociobiology" (147)—he is contributing editor at Time, The New Republic, and Slate magazines. And my does he pack a mean punch!

Round 1:

The sociobiologists move in quickly with their own metaphor! I haven’t seen strategy like this since Dawkin’s Selfish Gene metaphor! Wright begins to pit metaphor against metaphor in this astonishing fight! And what is their metaphor? It is reductionism. Is this new? No! "Not a new metaphor by any means . . . [reductionism] is the image of a solid structure rising certainly into the air . . . a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are the social sciences. Below them is chemistry, and below it is physics" (158). But what does this pyramid mean? The sociobiologists believe that complex social behavior reduces to genetics and ultimately to simple physics. This includes complex behaviors such as art and the humanities (which form the tip of the pyramid), and asserts that they can be traced down through biology, then chemistry, and finally to their base in physics: reductionism implies that human impulses and inclinations, including everything from painting to violence, can be attributed to a person’s genome.

But wait—the anti-sociobiologists counter with a blow of their own! They don’t even bat an eyelash to this convincing and well-stated metaphor. Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin, in their book Not in Our Genes, comment on biological determinism. Before the nurturers respond to the sociobiologists, they first define biological determinism as the belief that "all human behavior—hence all human society—is governed by a chain of determinants that runs from the gene to the individual to the sum of the behaviors of all individuals" (180). This sounds like what the sociobiologists are saying—so where is this nurture argument going? Soon the stakes are clear: the anti-sociobiologists assert that "biological determinists are engaged in making political and moral statements about human society . . . [whereas we believe] that inequalities of wealth, power, and status are not ‘natural’ but socially imposed obstructions to the building of a society" (179-80). This definitely leaves a dent in the nature argument because now anti-sociobiologists are fighting theory with theory, hypothesis with hypothesis. But this fight is far from over! Who will prevail?

The anti-sociobiologists will not stop! After criticizing the sociobiologists they begin to advance their own theories! Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin state that "properties of individual human beings do not exist in isolation but arise as a consequence of social life" (186). This argument rages on! The anti-sociobiologists directly refute reductionism with the idea that "the interaction of these units in the construction of the wholes generates complexities that result in products qualitatively different from the component parts" (186). The anti-sociobiologists are stating that the complex whole being is drastically different from the beginning elements! This is the exact opposite of what the sociobiologists are claiming!

Holy cow! The sociobiologists are swinging back with mountains of evidence from the animal kingdom! In "The Premier Social Insects," Robert Wright shows how ants (seemingly) instinctively work together in order to better the entire colony. Army ants possess the ability "to constitute societies of such complexity, size, and relentless efficiency . . . [through] discipline, a sense of mission, and, collectively, a cohesion, that few human troops retain" (149). Wright continues to provide evidence about the habits of ants that support the sociobiologists’ claim, thus substantiating the argument that the ant society works as an organism. He emphasizes how the ant colonies "look like a single body" (149), and he even states "that the ant colony is a kind of organism, a ‘superorganism’" (150). This mountain of evidence is extensive and strong but will it hold up to the opponents’ harsh counter attacks? This is quite convincing, but the anti-sociobiologists do not even stutter before their rebuttal. But before they can open their mouths, there’s the bell!

Round 2:

The sociobiologists again come out swinging with the theory of kin selection. Wright defines the theory of kin selection as the idea that "the gene, not the individual, is the unit of natural selection, and the interests of the gene and the interests of the individual don’t always coincide" (155). How else to explain why an individual will sacrifice itself for the good of its relatives? However, this definition contains the warning that "genes are not clairvoyant, and they are not puppet masters that govern behavior on a day-to-day basis. Their main influence on behavior comes through their construction of the brain" (155). Now the sociobiologists are claiming that genes influence altruistic behavior, not determine it. The crowd is going wild! They had assumed that the nature argument insists that genes determine behavior!

But the anti-sociobiologists follow with a sucker punch. They virtually discredit these biological determinists by exclaiming that "the combination of direct selection, kin selection, and reciprocal altruism provides the sociobiologist with a battery of speculative possibilities that guarantees an explanation for every observation" (182). The anti-sociobiologists suggest that sociobiology is based on speculation and, furthermore, that these unsubstantiated assumptions ensure that all data will conform to them! Are they implying that the sociobiologists alter their findings? But Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin aren’t done yet! They claim that this argument "was the basis for the German racial and eugenic laws that began with the sterilization of the mentally and morally undesirable and ended in Auschwitz" (182). They are relentless as they exclaim that the extreme abuse of biological determinism exemplifies this theory’s gravest consequences. Wow—what a statement! What an amazing fight!

But the sociobiologists aren’t beaten yet! E.O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology himself, has taken over this mud-slinging match! He begins to discredit the anti-sociobiologists’ argument by changing his own theory. He states that "what the genes prescribe is not necessarily a particular behavior but the capacity to develop certain behaviors . . . in various specified environments. It is the evolution of this pattern which sociobiology attempts to analyze" (171). Now sociobiologists are stating that our genes simply give an individual the capacity to possess a certain trait, not actually determining them. Wilson just won’t quit!

Round 3:

In an attempt to shake off Round 2’s harsh accusations, Wilson explains altruism and provides evidence to substantiate his argument. He lists examples of the altruistic gene from the animal world, where "certain small birds . . . warn others of the approach of a hawk. They crouch low and emit a distinctive thin, reedy whistle . . . to whistle at all seems as the very least unselfish; the caller would be wiser not to betray its presence" (165). Or take the case of chimpanzees, considered human beings’ closest relative. After "the hunters have dismembered the prey and are feasting, other chimps approach to beg for morsels . . . often, [the hunters] permit the other animal to chew directly on the meat or to pull off small pieces" (165). Wilson continues to provide evidence that different animal societies work in the same manner to better the group, rather than the individual. Yet Wilson continually states that altruism is a gene. This argument continues with evidence that prairie dogs "endanger themselves by conspicuously barking to warn fellow dogs of an approaching coyote or hawk" (154). This evidence is impressive and makes the sociobiologists’ altruistic gene theory appear to be true. This could be damaging to their opponents’ defense.

But once again the anti-sociobiologists come out swinging! Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin simply ask, what about humans? "Another misconception," they assert, "is that the criticism of biological determinism applies only to its conclusions about human societies, while that it says about nonhuman animals is more or less valid" (180). What a blow to sociobiologists’ theory! But it doesn’t stop there! In another staggering blow to their opponents, the anti-sociobiologists insist that "what biological determinism has to say about human society is more wrong than what it says about other aspects of biology because its simplifications and misstatements are the more gross" (180). Ouch! The anti-sociobiologists are going for the kill with that last statement!

Yet the sociobiologists simply turn back to their champion, E.O. Wilson, who answers that "in sociobiology, there is a heavy emphasis on the comparison of societies of different kinds of animals and of man, not so much to draw analogies . . . but to devise and test theories about the underlying hereditary basis of social behavior" (164). This appears to refute the anti-sociobiologists’ rebuttal, as Wilson drives his point home: "human social evolution is obviously more cultural than genetic" (167). Wow—it sounds like the father of sociobiology is stepping down! Or is he? For Wilson presses on: "this sociobiological hypothesis does not account for differences between societies, but it could explain why human beings differ from other mammals" (167). The sociobiologists are standing their ground all right!

Now it’s time for a little post-fight review:

Concerning the Underdogs

While we wait for the decision, let’s turn to the ring historian, who would like to discuss the competitors in the sociobiologist corner.

"Well, Keli, as a sports historian it is my job to study the competitors and their background on both teams. Yet I believe I have found evidence that could change the outcome of this fight! The leading sociobiologists are using material that is outdated! The arguments by E.O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, remain some of his best, yet they are already over twenty years old (163). Although two decades may not seem like a long time, consider that in the last twenty years there have been few noted findings in sociobiology. Another detail to consider is that Robert Wright, a respected sociobiologist, ‘once specialized in science writing’ (147) and currently ‘is a senior editor at The New Republic, which offers readers incisive social and political commentary’ (148). So is Wright really a scientist? If he is a writer, it is probably safe to assume he has extensive knowledge of and proficiency in rhetoric, whether for the sake of science or politics. Is it scandal on behalf of the sociobiologists? That is for the audience and the commentators to decide!"

Errr, thanks, ring historian. All points to consider as the time to decide a winner approaches. But the public cannot be fooled!

And the Winner Is:

In this humble commentator’s opinion—it’s a draw. I remain skeptical towards both positions. Both the sociobiologists and the anti-sociobiologists make arguments that sound convincing but as far as hard, scientific evidence, both are lacking. For example, the sociobiologists cannot prove that altruism is a gene, yet the anti-sociobiologists cannot prove otherwise. Thus, the both the sociobiologists and the anti-sociobiologists attempt to answer how an organism is organized with theory—and neither have produced a hypothesis that is agreed upon by a consensus. Yet both positions assume that the metaphor that society is an organism is a commonly accepted idea. Robert Wright reflects my skepticism perfectly when he warns, "this blurring of the line between society and organism is a delicate matter" (150). It appears that, at least for the time being, both sides are going to have to agree to disagree.

Work Cited

Barlow, Connie, ed. From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Writings in the Life Sciences.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT University Press, 1991.