“The use and abuse of sociobiology: an anthropological critique of sociobiology” –Marshall Sahlins Marshall Sahlins wrote this short book in 1976 in response to E O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology’. Sahlins gives a brief critique of what he called ‘vulgar sociobiology’ which is a critique of simplistic notions of genes and evolutionary biology. The majority of the book is a critique of what he called ‘scientific sociobiology’ and which he basically reduced to ‘kin selection’ and what he sees as its failings. He says human kinship is culturally created and about shared interests, and is not literal blood dependent.
Sahlins believes that human groups make up some close blood kin, but also people who are non-relatives while there are normally people of closer blood kin than these in others groups. This is also the case for all other social mammals. The origins of this goes back before humans to the first social animals, when sexually maturing offspring of one sex or both sexes dispersed to find mates in other groups. Groups do not inbreed. It is this flow of individuals between groups that spreads genes throughout the species – and if this does not happen there is speciation.
A group that simply inbred would either degenerate or become a new species. Sahlins does not mention how other social animals also live in ‘mixed’ groups so it is not clear if he thinks it is a unique feature of humans or not. Marshall Sahlins critique of sociobiology seems to be focused towards Edward O. Wilson who is well known as a naturalist and animal behaviorist. In 1975 Wilson wrote “Sociobiology” in which he attempts to create a theory of social organization that would prove relevant to all social species, not limited to humans. Wilson is well suited for this as he was the leading world expert on ant societies.
Sociobiology, Wilson’s book, dealt almost completely with ant societies, but the final chapter broadened his view to the subject of human society. Wilson attempted to explain war, aggression, and other anti-social but typically human behavior in terms of primordial emotions and behaviors we share with other animals. The reaction from social scientists to Wilson’s suggestion that biology might have something to do with human behavior was extremely critical. Sahlins is no less critical of Wilson than the rest of the field, but in this nicely written, and insightful book, he tries to present a dispassionate critique rather than a direct attack.
He does so in the first three quarters of the book, and then rants on arguing that sociobiology is an ideological defense of capitalism. His final chapter is devoted largely to Hobbes and he says the Hobbesian vision of man is the origin myth of Western Capitalism. Sahlins said “Sociobiology contributes primarily to the final translation of natural selection into social exploitation. ” (p. 73) Many other social scholars shared this belief, because the early sociobiological model dealt with competition and conflict instead of cooperation and altruism.
Sahlins main argument seems to be that sociobiology treats human culture as more of a type of side-effect of human biological organization, making the social science break down to biology. “In place of a social constitution of meanings, sociobiology offers a biological determination of human interactions with a source primarily in the general evolutionary propensity of individual genotypes to maximize their reproductive success. ” Sahlins states that “biology is completely unable to specify the cultural properties of human behavior or their variation from one group to another. , while Wilson said “any Durkheimian notion of the independent existence and persistence of the social fact is a lapse into mysticism. Social organization is rather, and nothing more than, the behavioral outcome of the interaction of organisms having biologically fixed inclinations. ” Sahlins seems to clearly mean that in humans, biological issues are strictly subordinate to cultural issues. Sahlins proclaimed “I am making no more claim for culture relative to biology than biology would assert relative to physics and chemistry. ” (p. 63) As for natural selection Sahlins seems to misunderstand it as a totally random process.
He uses the example of salmon semelparity, single spawning followed by death, saying that the salmon could have easily evolved to survive and spawn for another year or more rather than reduce its digestive tract to make more room for eggs for a single spawning. But that’s where the ancestral physiology, the likelihood of surviving successive journeys upstream, the availability of food on these journeys and other factors would conspire to lead to semelparity working and being selected for. Sahlins ends with his critique of Hobbesian individualism and the Hobbesian vision of nature.
He says other cultures see themselves as descended from gods, yet in the Western world we have come to see ourselves as having risen from a barbaric primitive man. Sahlins thinks i t is only the top-down cultural perspective that provides us with the best knowledge for knowing ourselves. But how can we – ignore that we have evolved? Cultural determinism is not a better mechanism than that of genetic determinism. Sahlins said the most profound thing of all early on in the book “that in the void left in our understanding of ourselves by biology lays the whole of anthropology. ” Now we are left to seek the validity of this statement.