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might be of interest--a biologist on sociobiology

by Alan Spector

23 October 2000 00:22 UTC

A biologist friend of mine sent me this. I thought it might be of interest to WSN and PSN. My apologies for those of you who will get this twice....  First are her short comments, and then the article:
This is a great article in which Jonathan Marks, my favorite molecular anthropologist, shreds a notorious book of pop sociobiology. For non-biologist, the word "homologous" means "related by evolutionary descent" (e.g., a human hand and a bird's wing) as opposed to "analogous" (similar but not related by descent, as a bird's wing and an insect's wing). I had to transcribe this because I couldnt manage to download it electronically, so I apologize for typos I may have introduced).

Jonathan Marks in Human Biology Feb.99 issue, pp. 143-146
review  of Demonic Males; Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson

Evolution  is in perpetual need of rescue from those who profess to be its strongest supporters. And those of us who have dedicated ourselves to teaching evolution to the next  generation need all the help we can get. This book will not make our jobs any easier.
   Demonic Males is a titillating and simplistic account of our origins, with just enough grounding in modern discoveries to be taken seriously, in the long lineage that subsumes Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, Ignatius Donelly, Immanuel Velikovsky, and Erich von Daniken.
The book's thesis is that our familiar social world is the product of eons of biological evolutionary forces and not an ephemeral construction of social history. In particular, it is natural for men to fight to the death as individuals and as groups and for women to dig it, which perpetuates the fighting. And this is "written in the molecular chemistry of DNA" (p. 198), Wrangham and Peterson assert, despite the minimal evidence for such demonic male competition inferable from our bodies and teeth (p. 178). I, for one, would love to see those Southern blots.
But the imaginative chemistry is nothing compared to the imaginative ethnology. The Yanomamo are blithely compared to the Gombe chimpanzees and are represented as pristine warriors outside of history
unfortunately without the benefit of the scholarly insights of such anthropologists as Brian Ferguson. Margaret Mead gets predictably  bashed, as if hers were the only evidence  ever  marshaled for the influence of culture on behavior  and Derek Freeman were a reliable and fair critic,
   If there was an award for the most ink spilled in simplistic interpretation of an ethological factoid, it would have to go to the bizarre killings of the Kahama  chimpanzee community by the Kasekala males at Gombe in the 1970's. Demonic Males says it is paradigmatic for chimpanzee behavior and of a piece with organized human violence. Wrangham and Peterson would have us believe that this episode of chimp "warfare" throws more light on Gaugamela, Actium, Agincourt, Balaklava, Vicksburg, Ypres, Nagasaki, and Sharpeville than on Dogs Playing Poker. One, however, searches vainly for the evidence that it is actually anything more than an imaginative projection of highly specific cultural ideas and motives onto nonhumans (as if that would be the first time human cultural values had ever been projected onto chimps!)
    Chimpanzees not only kill each other like humans do, but also "share other evils: political murders, beatings, and rape" (p. 131). Apparently, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is needed to investigate the Gombe situation, perhaps with Kanzi the bonobo as interpreter.  And naturally, rape is reduced to a reproductive tactic by "analogy" (p. 140) to orangutans. Of course, the distinction between analogy and homology is crucial here, and it is exceedingly unclear in Demonic Males just what the relationship between the behavioral and mental phenomena imputed to the apes is to those of humans. If the phenomena were indeed homologous, that would at least reflect the contribution of Darwin to modern science. Otherwise, we're left with the symbolic analogical associations of Aesop's Fables, a parody of evolutionary anthropology, as if Darwin had never been born.
"Wars," Wrangham and Peterson assert as an example, "tend to be rooted in competition for status." But status for whom? The grunts? The generals? The sociopolitical entities they represent? Wrangham and Peterson continue that "we could well substitute for Sparta and Athens the names of two male chimpanzees" (p. 192). But a chimpanzee is certainly not homologous to a polis. Neither "Sparta" nor  "the Tutsi" nor "the Axis" was descended from a common ancestor with chimpanzees; they're not even  fundamentally biological entities. Sparta may have been arguably "like" a chimpanzee, but that would be no more than a literary association. Sparta was a constructed social entity, the product of a specifically human symbolic social history. In other words, Demonic Males argues by recourse to a metaphoric non-Darwinian biology that begins by pretending we're not human.
        It sure takes nerve to call that science.
       The classic tropes of hyperscientific quackery are all here: This is "evolutionary" (so to contest it is to be a creationist); it's all rooted in the latest finds from high-tech genetics (yeah, so was the Final Solution); and it even manages to recruit that objective, well-traveled "biologist from Mars"(p. 178), if only there were biologists on Mars and they were as dopey as the worst of them on Earth.
   The reconstruction of prehistory is the most interesting part of the book. It is doggedly deterministic, which makes it a particularly amusing origin  myth. Astronomical events led to major climate changes (p. 228), which isolated the ancestors of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. Bonobos snacked on what the gorillas would have eaten if the gorillas had been there, which permitted them instead to form female coalitions, which squashed male  violence. Chimpanzees, however, being sympatric with gorillas, had to rely on other foods and couldn't form the female coalitions that kept the males in check. And somewhere else the fruit trees were succumbing to dryness "and thereby made humans"(p. 228). Yes, you really are what you eat.
Lacking much of a sense of history or scientific responsibility, Demonic Males finally manages to revisit many of the classic corruptions of human science of the last century.
You want racism? The book's very  cover  compares a gorilla to an African human from an old and embarrassing drawing by Schultz. Were the authors oblivious to the connotations? Or did they just not care? Unfortunately, Wrangham's writing is vested with authority
he's a Harvard professorand with authority comes responsibility. To compare an African human on the cover  of a book about violence, given the social history of scientific racism (Schultz's original drawing dates from the 1920's) is a stunning act of thoughtlessness. As far as I'm concerned, it is entirely irresponsible and inexcusable from anyone with pretensions to modern scholarly standards.
   You want social Darwinism? "The chimpanzee-human system looks clear. The downtrodden of the earth can rail against the imperialism of the temporarily dominant , but imperialist expansionism is nevertheless a broad and persistent tendency of our demonic male species" (pp. 236-237). In other words, vast inequalities of wealth  and social power are natural, and we are simply obliged to live with it
a rather self-serving inference coming from a professor at an institution whose endowment is larger than the GNP of most of the nations of Africa.
       You want eugenics? "with some concerted worldwide action we could probably get measurable results within a few generations
[to] breed a kinder, gentler man" (p.239). Oh, sure, they tell us it wouldn't work because women actually prefer "male demonism" so it wouldn't be fair to them. But is that really the problem? Or is it that we just can't trust demonic professors with the reproductive rights of the populace, because  they tend to have too much education and too little wisdom
because the last time we did, they helped to enact legislation to sterilize just that part of society that was least able to protect themselves? Remember Buck v. Bell?
      What we need is the extension of rights, not moronic males with little understanding of genetics or evolution glibly suggesting ways to control and curtail the reproductive rights of other, more vulnerable people. That's the difficulty with human breeding programs, and some deeper bioethical reflection by Wrangham and Peterson would have been welcome.
        Perhaps the most striking indicator of the superficiality and poverty  of scholarship reflected in Demonic Males is that Wrangham and Peterson set up their book by invoking the same discredited argument that Jared Diamond used (The Third Chimpanzee), namely, that the Sibley -Ahlquist DNA hybridization has shown humans and chimpanzees to be closest relatives, which makes them the sole, most credible model for the origin of human social behavior. But it is well known that Sibley and Ahlquist subjected their data to unreported illegitimate operations, which determined their highly publicized result and which implies that the paper was reviewed and published under false pretenses. Without these alterations, Wrangham and Peterson themselves admitted "it is virtually certain that Sibley and Ahlquist would have concluded that Homo, Pan, and Gorilla form a trichotomy. [ J. Molec. Evol. 30:225 (1990). ] A self-proclaimed "replication " of the results was easily seen to be entirely inconsistent with the first study and itself egregiously misrepresentative [ Am. J. Phys. Anthropol. 85:207 (1991)]. Anyone with the merest inclination to examine the literature critically can see that the only place for that work is alongside Piltdown Man and the Tasaday and that most of the genetic  data simply fail to link chimpanzee and humanrather an insecure peg on which to hang this book's central premise, to be sure.
        Let us give the final thought to Thomas Huxley, who was asked to review  an audacious work of pseudoscience a century and a half ago. "Time was," he wrote, "that when a book had been shown to be a mass of pretentious nonsense, it quietly sunk into its proper limbo. But these days appear, unhappily, to have gone by.We grudge no man either the glory or the profit to be obtained form charlataineriebut a book may, like a weed, acquire an importance by neglect, which  it could have attained  in no other mode."
        We can't afford professionally to neglect Demonic Males, but it would be somewhat reassuring to learn it is just a put-on, and that Wrangham and Peterson really do know better.


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