IT'S THE BIOLOGY, STUPID: The Policy Implications of Sociobiology

Friday, June 1, 2001

Behavioral scientists have begun to argue that the findings of evolutionary science should have legal, political, and moral consequences. If behaviors such as procreation, aggression, or homosexuality are determined more by our biology than by our free will, then it is foolish, these scientists argue, to ignore that evidence. Does evolutionary science have any place in public policy? How useful is the knowledge of our biological evolution in determining the values of our legal, social, and political system?

Recorded on Friday, June 1, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, are little boys naturally brattier than little girls? And how should the answer to that question affect public policy?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by The John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Evolutionary Science and Public Policy. Three quarters of a century ago, evolutionary science became a matter of public concern as never before. The year was 1925 and the Scopes Trial, also known as the Monkey Trial, riveted the nation's attention. Two eminent lawyers, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were pitted against each other in a case challenging Tennessee's statute against the teaching of evolution in the classroom. More of a carnival than a legal proceeding, the case was ultimately dismissed, but not before undermining the movement to keep the teaching of evolution out of America's classrooms.

Today, evolutionary science is once again a matter of public concern. Homosexuality, aggression, the differences between boys and girls and men and women. If all these have biological bases, many scientists believe, than public policy including the law itself, ought to take those bases into account. In short, what is the proper place of evolutionary science in our public policy?

With us today, three eminent scientists: Paul Ehrlich is a professor of biological studies at Stanford University. His most recent book is entitled, Human Natures. Lionel Tiger is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University. His most recent book is entitled, The Decline of Males. Jeffrey Schloss is chair of the biology department at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. His book is entitled, Altruism and Altruistic Love.

Title: It's All Happening at the Zoo

Peter Robinson: Doctor Lionel Tiger, I quote you. Quote, "It's clear that Marxists, Maoists and other utopians have been more or less unable to fundamentally renovate human nature, and there is now firm ground for the suspicion that we might be able to create a kind of biologically based bill of behavioral rights, which would unite scientific knowledge with moral judgment." A behavioral bill of rights, explain yourself.

Lionel Tiger: We assume that infants have a right to parental care. We assume that elderly people have a right to not be beaten around. We have a--we have a standard of nutrition for food. There's no reason why we couldn't also have one for behavior. For example, we have--we could easily say that children should have the opportunity to be in a park, to move around. We could make, furthermore, a comment to the effect that, unlike people in solitary confinement, all humans should have an opportunity for discourse with other humans. We could make a very basic rudimentary bill of--biological bill of rights, not fancy but nonetheless a starting point for looking at our behavior as a good zookeeper would, which is to create good conditions in the zoo for the animals.

Peter Robinson: Now a follow-up question, then I want to go to Paul and Jeff. How much of a re-writing of our current code of moral judgment and--and--and the body of law that rests on it, are you proposing? That is to say, are you suggesting a modest increment that would sit next to the body of law we already have, which is based on divine law, cer--notions of conscience, the wisdom of the ages, or do you want to throw all of that out, and replace it with moral judgments based exclusively on the findings of --of science?

Lionel Tiger: Well, of course, not exclusively. I think that the--the whole sign of--of human intellectual glory is addition rather than subtraction. And what we can do is take a whole new set of--of findings, perceptions, insights, and--and add them to what we have, and inform people making legal judgments, for example, about how the brain works.

Peter Robinson: You like that idea, behavioral bill of rights?

Jeffrey Schloss: Behavioral, but not necessarily a biological bill of rights. I--I--I listened to the list that Lionel gave, and it struck me that there wasn't anything on that list of--that wouldn't have been there two thousand years ago, and all biological does is give the imprimatur of science to something that I think we all know anyway.

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: …already been crystallized.

Jeffrey Schloss: Right.

Peter Robinson: …and you said the common sense, cultural…

Jeffrey Schloss: Now the one exception I would say, in one area is, and you mentioned this in your book actually. E. O. Wilson's work in biophilia, well--well there's some novel--

Peter Robinson: Biophilia is?

Jeffrey Schloss: The law of, in fact, the human need for--for, appreciation of bio--biotic environments. And I--I think that our sensitivity to those issues have--have become eroded.

Peter Robinson: Those issues are?

Jeffrey Schloss: That--that human beings need a--an intact, ecol--and a beautiful ecology in which to live.

Paul Ehrlich: And we may be more comfortable in green rooms than in purple rooms.

Lionel Tiger: Well we are. When--when…

Paul Ehrlich: Then so, I mean thi--this--I mean I--I--I…

Peter Robinson: Okay, so what you're saying now, I mean, if--if I try to relate that to the list of issues of the day that you read about in the New York Times, this is a scientific bases for environmental concerns. Is that a fair statement?

Lionel Tiger: Yes.

Jeffrey Schloss: In terms of the necessity for human flourishing, not just in terms of the goods and services that nature provides, but the--the psychic sustenance that it provides.

Peter Robinson: Gotcha. Paul?

Paul Ehrlich: Well, very interesting idea. We have no idea whether actually we were sele--selected for that, but I suspect we were. It's again, it depends on--you have relatively few genes. Selection is a very difficult process. It's very hard to do just one thing. But a--mo--most animals are more or less adapted to their habitats, and we have not had, remember, we're a slow evolver in terms of genetics. We got about twenty year generation time. That's why the bacteria get ahead of us so easily, cause they can have twenty generations in a day. And so, if we did become comfortable, as I suspect we did, in a green surroundings instead of purple surroundings, and then all of a sudden, you start putting purple surroundings everywhere, we haven't had time to adjust to that evolutionarily, we have to adjust to that culturally.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Let me do…

Title: It's the Biology, Stupid

Peter Robinson: Issue one, homosexuality. A study published in 1993 by Dean Hamer of the National Institutes of Health, who thinks he has discovered a gay, what has now become called a gay gene….

Paul Ehrlich: Subsequently shown to be wrong.

Peter Robinson: Subsequently shown to be wrong?

Paul Ehrlich: Yeah, totally.

Peter Robinson: But is there no basis at all, no ba…..

Paul Ehrlich: But certainly…

Peter Robinson: Isn't he onto the notion…

Paul Ehrlich: There may be a biological basis of homosexuality. That is, it may have to do with when in the uterus, a certain pulse of hormones comes through. It could be totally environmental….

Peter Robinson: Okay, then let me as--let me make that the first question. Does it strike you that homosexuality is the kind of behavior that one day we will discover has a biological basis? Lionel?

Lionel Tiger: Well…

Paul Ehrlich: What do you mean by biological? Excuse me, do you--you got to separate genetic and biological.

Jeffrey Schloss: That's where environment comes in.

Peter Robinson: Oh, I see. I see.

Jeffrey Schloss: See the interesting question's are….

Peter Robinson: Well help me with the question then. What is it--how--what is it, what is the interesting and correct way to put the question?

[Talking at same time]

Jeffrey Schloss: It may be biological in a sense that the--by the time consciousness of sexual preference emerges, there is--this is a case where there is no choice. But the fact that it's biological, that is to say, in-trained in the brain in some way, doesn't mean it's genetic. There could be environmental factors that mediate the development.

Lionel Tiger: Yeah there's--there's--there was very good evidence from small mammals about male fetuses whose mothers were given sedatives, barbiturates, who turned out to be feminized by conventional analysis of behavior.

Peter Robinson: Give me two or three small mammals. What do you mean…

Lionel Tiger: Rabbits, monkeys..

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Lionel Tiger: …rodents. And it turns out from the pharmacopoeia in--in Denmark, women who took barbiturates, which widely given in the 50's and 60's, had a higher number of male children who were defined as homosexual. Now I'm--I'm inclined to a developmental explanation for this..

Paul Ehrlich: Well homosexuality is very common in other organisms spread all over the place and with different explanations. But the basic thing is, what the hell difference does it make? In other words, who cares?

Peter Robinson: That's precisely…

Paul Ehrlich: There's no social policy that comes from deciding whether it's genetic or biological or social.

Peter Robinson: Oh no, no. That's no--that's not true at all. Homosexuality of--of all different kinds was, until recently, against the law. There are certain..

Paul Ehrlich: Yeah, that's just stupid. But that--what I'm saying…

Peter Robinson: Well now, but wait a minute. You may think it's stupid but unless your findings arise from evolutionary ecology, this field that we're talking about now, I'm not interested in them. That is to say, what I want to know is, does this discipline have insights into this issue to offer? And would those in--would those insights be such as to militate against a traditional moral understand--to--to--to militate against laws against homosexuality.

[Talking at the same time]

Paul Ehrlich: Since we know that homosexuality is common, and in some sense natural, that's the insight you get.

Peter Robinson: That's it. You agree with that?

Lionel Tiger: I--I--I would--I would be very angry if somebody were to say that there's a biological basis for abusing homosexual people. Or..

[Talking at the same time]

Lionel Tiger: …in any way, truncating their lives because of some notion that their--they may be at the end of a normal curve. Basically, understanding biology in the behavioral sense is--is that there's a normal curve. It was Darwin's basic insight was to see that variation was the name of the game, not categories. And somebody is going to be homosexual, somebody is going to be, if you will, compulsively heterosexual, there is going to be variation. And I always tell students, that if you want to lo--look at a living system, the shortest analytical distance between two points is a normal curve. And that would apply to sexuality as to anything else.

Jeffrey Schloss: Well, I mean, I think we need to distinguish between two issues here. The first one is, a naturalistic explanation for homosexuality. And there it doesn't matter whether it's genetic or environmental, but what--what do we do with that? That's the question you're raising.

Peter Robinson: Well I'm asking--I'm asking if there are insights from this field of science that--that--that ought to be taken seriously by policymakers, by legislators and so forth?

Jeffrey Schloss: Well but here we need to make a couple of distinctions.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Jeffrey Schloss: The first one is a moral inference. And--and to assume a--a connection between a moral inference and the--and the way nature is--is I think to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Because something is a certain way doesn't mean it should be that way. But the second issue is, once you have a moral judgment on homosexuality or rape, or anything else, how does that inform policy issues? And that's the second issue.

Title: To Soothe a Savage Beast

Peter Robinson: Frederick Goodwin, renowned psychologist, particularly noted for his studies of chimpanzees. Goodwin noted that in the jungle, practically all violence against chimpanzees themselves, was committed by young male chimps, which he believed had--there was evidence that they were genetically disordered. They were--they were somehow or other hay-wired. Goodwin then creates a furor when he suggests, in the early 1990's, that the same might be true of human society, and goes so far as to suggest--and we already know that young males commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, right? That's a simple finding. So he suggests that it might have a bio--a genetic basis, and that at least in principle, we could possibly identify them when they're very young, and treat them some--with drug therapy, something like that. So he takes finding--genetic findings from--combined with fieldwork, applies them to human beings, and creates a furor? What do you make of that? Lionel.

Lionel Tiger: Well, for example, it's being done right now with Ritalin. And--and it's to me utterly scandalous.

Peter Robinson: The "it" is?

Lionel Tiger: Taking kids that behave in a way that is regarded as somehow abhorrent or potentially dangerous, and drugging them so they'll shut up. Now ag--again, young males are as he described, very active and bellicose, and they're always competing with each other in order to achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve. But to--to say that there's a genetic infirmary, in--infirmity that you can attack chemically, seems to me exactly what the--what the Ritalin providers are doing.

Peter Robinson: Is there anything you can tell me about crime that will help me think through the kinds of legislation that we ought to enact?

Paul Ehrlich: One does not have the information, not even remotely, to say that this form of male behavior, or this sorm--form of female behavior, is in some sense dictated by the genes, and that we can correct it chemically. Does this mean that males and females are gonna behave the same way? We know perfectly well they don't behave the same way in many circumstances. But we also don't know which--how much of that is really traces to any differences in the genotype, and how much of it traces to the things they learn, as we're learning more and more. Kids at know--at the age of nine months things that ten years ago, we thought they had no clue about.

Peter Robinson: Crime and sociobiology, Jeff?

Jeffrey Schloss: Even if we had demonstrative data that there was genetic variation which led to crime, which we don't. It still wouldn't...

Peter Robinson: Does it strike you as plausible? Is that the kind of thing that you would expect…

Jeffrey Schloss: Actually it doesn't strike me as plausible..

Peter Robinson: …to turn up.

Jeffrey Schloss: …but it strikes me as possible. But the point I want to make is even if we had that data, it wouldn't suggest that the genes were the problem. Well, in--in fact, it may be the social structure that needs changing, and not the gene. So my concern is branding a particular genetic constitution as pathological, when, in fact, in a different environment, it might not be pathological at all.

Lionel Tiger: Let me--let me address that question.

Jeffrey Schloss: That's your point about Ritalin.

Lionel Tiger: Let's look at the school system in overall. I published the book, a couple of years ago called, The Decline of Males, and I started to look at what was happening to boys and girls in schools. Fifty six percent of college students in America are now female. The school system, in general, produces females that do better than bo--than males. And one of the responses has been to drug the boys, because they're not producing the behaviors that seem to be appropriate. And I think we're making a misapplication of a bad theory, which is that boys and girls are identical, and forcing boys into a situation in which they're becoming the losers.

Peter Robinson: What you're saying then Lionel is, the finding of sociobiology is a more profound understanding of the differences between boys and girls.

Lionel Tiger: Let me add to it another tone, which is one of humility. I think one of the things that a good biologist does is watch the animals, listen to what they--they vocalize, use the eyes. And we have not done that. We--we have become ideologues of our own behavior. The worst example, of course, were the communists, who--who essentially tried to create a whole new Soviet man, Chinese man, and so on.

Peter Robinson: Ignored all of nature…

[Talking at the same time]

Lionel Tiger: They ignored it all, and it was just the theorists who ran--ran with the--the--the game, and the poor people had to suffer. And they did indeed suffer.

Paul Ehrlich: Well look at it this way. Social engineering, in the wrong circumstance, gives you Pol Pot, Stalin, and so on and so forth. Our problem, since we are involved in cultural evolution, and we are. I mean after all, what are we doing right now? We're trying to change people's minds on things, and how they think about them, is to figure out ways to do that in an open, democratic, transparent manner, so that people can see what's going on. Because social engineering can be…

Title: Dangerous Curves Ahead

Peter Robinson: Charles Murray, Richard Hernstein's famous book The Bell Curve. And they go though all kinds of literature, and they discover that within very predictable bounds, there are differences in I.Q. among races. And as they presented it, Asians and European Jews came on top, whites came next, and black's came at the bottom. Is that a legitimate finding of sociobiol--how--how do you deal with that?

Jeffrey Schloss: There are a number of highly critical reviews of--of those studies but…

Peter Robinson: Do you challenge the findings?

Jeffrey Schloss: Yeah, and I also challenge…

Paul Ehrlich: They're dead wrong.

Peter Robinson: They're dead wrong? All three of you would say--as a matter of science, the findings are dead wrong.

Jeffrey Schloss: On two levels though.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Jeffrey Schloss: I want to also challenge the connection with sociobiology. Because, in fact, there's no plausible evolutionary argument why those kinds of differences should exist.

Paul Ehrlich: Ed Wilson himself wrote the most important paper that made that book nonsense in about 1954 with Bill Brown, when he pointed out what all biologists know is that there are no such things as the races, as categorized there.

Peter Robinson: Now wait a minute. You walk down a street and you know that--I mean, the category certainly exists, it's in the census and…

Paul Ehrlich: Well not true…

Peter Robinson: No, no. And I walk down the street I have…

[Talking at the same time]

Paul Ehrlich: …you would see--you would classify people by smell, and the smells wouldn't match skin color. Just cause you're a sight animal, that you think, oh, it's obvious. He's got dark skin, he's got light skin. But if you go around the world and look at our genes or our taste or our height, or anything else, you got entirely different categories. It's an arbitrary selection of skin color.

Peter Robinson: Well but to say that it's an arbitrary selection doesn--isn't to say that it doesn't exist.

Paul Ehrlich: It exists culturally.

Peter Robinson: It might not correlate with other things outside itself..

Paul Ehrlich: It exists culturally.

Jeffrey Schloss: Actually he--he doesn't do it.

Peter Robinson: No?

Jeffrey Schloss: He doesn't correlate it with skin color.

Peter Robinson: Listen.

Jeffrey Schloss: We work in categories. We simplify the world to fit categories, and oftentimes that works. But in this case, it turns out that human variation, which is real, we can't dispute that.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Jeffrey Schloss: Doesn't cluster. What a race means is that it's a clustered group, and that there are non-discrete or discontinuous groups. And that's simply not true of human variation.

Lionel Tiger: There was interesting story about the dogs that are trained to sniff for drugs and salami at airports. And it turns out that the variation between members of the same breed is far greater than the variation betwe--between breeds themselves. That is, the beagles are not especially good at doing it as opposed to a mutt or some other thing. Same with humans. And this government has created a set of categories, which are so preposterous and so--so dangerous…

Peter Robinson: So the long census form that just asked millions of Americans to identify themselves on the basis of race is scientifically nonsense.

Lionel Tiger: I always fill in…

Paul Ehrlich: That's the kindest thing I could say about it.

Lionel Tiger: Yeah. I always fill in Native American because it's technically the closest.

Title: Sexy Beasts

Peter Robinson: Edward O. Wilson. Edward Osborn Wilson, we quote him once again. He argues that, and now I quote, "Forcing similar role identities on both men and women," quote again, "Flies in the face of thousands of years, in which mammals demonstrated a strong tendency for the sexual division of labor. Since this division of labor is persistent from hunter gatherer, through agriculture, agricultural and industrial societies, it suggests a genetic origin," closed quote. Therefore, I'm putting--I'm being intentionally tendentious here, therefore, affirmative action programs for women are misguided from the get-go. There will always be a glass ceiling because women behave differently. And in the rough and tumble of cooperate world, you need the aggressive behavior, the aggressive male behavior that Lionel has--is been delineating. Right?

Paul Ehrlich: Wrong.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Paul Ehrlich: But I--I'm not saying that there are not behavioral differences.

Peter Robinson: You--you--you agree with every word of the Wilson quotation that I just gave you?

Paul Ehrlich: There certainly has always been a--a division of labor and so on and so forth. And obviously..

Peter Robinson: And that suggests a genetic basis…

Paul Ehrlich: Sure there's a genetic basis cause there's obviously genes that give a difference between testicles and ovaries and so on. The women are, in some sense, committed to not more than nine months of attention to children and so on. But as you can see culturally in our society, we're changing very rapidly, different. When--when Ann and I were young, there was no question that I would be dominant. It would be my career. She would take care of the kid. Now more and more often, the men are taking leave to help with the kinds of things--we have a society in which one can change the roles..

Peter Robinson: And you are talking--you are describing a society which is attempting to force similar role models on men and women, which flies in the face of thousands of years.

Lionel Tiger: The fact is that we have to look to what sex is about. It's about reproduction. And we're moving to a system which as Paul has indicated, the birth rates are very low, they're in fact below replacement in the industrial societies. And the reason for that is, that the bond between males and females has been broken from the sacred bound of which was permanent, to one in which, as there's more--more freedom of movement or more independence, or more isolation. So a third of babies…

Peter Robinson: You're talking about increasing divorce rates, people marrying later, having smaller families, all of that?

Lionel Tiger: Yeah, and a third--a third--a third of babies are born to single mother's, which means that these wom…

Peter Robinson: In this country?

Lionel Tiger: In this country, and in--and in Europe too. I mean, it's not--not just this country. And the consequence of that is that women have to be both productive, have a job, and reproductive. Men have to be productive, but being reproductive is very difficult because it's very hard for many men, particularly ones that are deprived to begin with, to find ma--females that are willing to accept them. And so the women are having babies on their own. And what's--what's really happened, which is cruel, is that there's the façade that sex roles are changing. Because now more women work, it's not that they choose to work, they have to work, because they're not having hubby providing income for--for the women and children. And so it's wom--women who are really bearing the functional brunt of these changes, cause they have to do more, but it's men who are being, as I call it in my book, alienated from the means of reproduction. So more and more men are outlaws not in-laws.

Peter Robinson: So can we say then, as a--as a minimum statement, that the finding of sociobiology with regard--let me put this to you--that the findings of soci--sociobiology with regard to gender role, as a minimum statement is this: gender roles are deeply rooted and we should think long and hard before altering them, or we should think long and hard whether changes in gender roles that we now see appearing all around us, are in fact gen--beneficial to anybody, but per--perhaps particularly to women. It's enough to makes us suspicious of what we see happening around us.

Jeffrey Schloss: Well, it's enough to make us want to think hard about it, but not necessarily suspicious, and let me tell you why. The Wilson quote is a little disingenuous. The fact is general…

Peter Robinson: On his part or mine?

Jeffrey Schloss: On his part.

Peter Robinson: Ah.

Jeffrey Schloss: The fa--I mean he appeals to--to mammals. But the fact is, the nature and, in fact, the extent of sexual dimorphism, of--of gender differentiation in--in mammals is--is--the variation there is very great. So on the one hand you have elephant seals who are very dimorphic both physically and in terms of their roles…

Paul Ehrlich: Males are huge, the females are small.

Jeffrey Schloss: And there's a case where the mating system involves a harem. On the other hand, you have some species of voles, which form lifelong pair and bonds. The males and females are very similar, and the sexual differentiation of roles is very slight. And one of the things that sociobiology can point out is yes, gender roles do have a genetic entailment, but the degree of sexual dimorphism or variation in roles is related to mating structure. And that--that's where the con--questions get very complicated when we look at human beings. Because…

Paul Ehrlich: There are many, many different gender roles in different societies and so on…

Jeffrey Schloss: And different mating structures.

Paul Ehrlich: One of the reasons I like to call the book, Human Natures, the idea is there isn't just one thing all people do.

O--o--okay. So…

Paul Ehrlich: In any cir--even when the biology is strongly involved, as it obviously is in reproduction, we found a lot of different ways to deal with reproduction and with changes all the time…

Title: Viva la (Genetic) Revolucion?

Peter Robinson: Is sociobiology in its present form merely one more fascinating sci--science that bright minds ought to pursue for its own sake with no more bearing on social policy and our body of law, than cosmology, trying to study the far edges of the universe? Its insights are much too limited for us to act on. Lionel.

Lionel Tiger: Wrong. It's always seemed to me universities are completely idiotic in making a distinction between the natural and the social sciences. The implication of that is that social behavior is not natural. It's such a profound concl--starting point as to make the relation between the two parts of the university contentious and difficult.

Peter Robinson: Paul.

Paul Ehrlich: So--the early sociobiology did an important thing, and that was refocus the attention on the issue that we are evolved organisms and that we were not just plain tabula rasa, that anything could be done with under any circumstances. But I agree totally with Lionel, what we have to do is bring the social sciences and biology together; not for the biologists that teach the social sciences. It's not like bringing physicists into solve the problems of biology, which never works, but to work together on these critical issues, particularly the ones of cultural evolution.

Peter Robinson: Let me--you get the last question of the show, but I'm going to reformulate it. I'm going to try to make a stronger statement which is to say that sociobiology teaches us at least this much; that human nature is extremely durable, having arisen from processes that reach back across through the mists of time, and that any effort to rewrite human nature, at a minimum, sociobiology teaches us that Marx was a madman. Do you go for that?

Jeffrey Schloss: You--you mention in your book the connection between human nature and genetic endowments. Of course the--the history of notions of human nature aren't only materialistic. So that's an issue that we haven't discussed. But I would close with a quote from Pascal actually. He says, "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is; he who would act the angel, acts the brute." In other words, if we have some sort of Gnostic libertarianism that says our biology doesn't matter, we'll act the worst for it, not the best for it. We need to take heed to who we are.

Peter Robinson: Any man who quotes Pascal is taking at least a backhanded slap at Marx. May I assert that much?

Jeffrey Schloss: Yeah, sure.

Peter Robinson: Jeff, Paul and Lionel, thank you very much.

Paul Ehrlich: Great pleasure.

Peter Robinson: Our guests agree that biology places limits on the malleability of human nature. To what extent biology should affect the malleability of public policy, well, that is a different and, as you saw, a messier question. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.