Monday, February 13, 2006

Sociobiology 1: Nature vs. Nurture

I am a sociologist. In the great argument about whether sex roles are more nature or nurture, sociologists are pretty much obliged to believe that gender differences are 1% nature and 99% nurture. It’s practically a union regulation. Part of the reason we believe that sex roles are socially constructed is from scientific evidence. But another part of the reason we believe this is because it gives sociologists more power. If sex roles – and, indeed, all of social life – can be reconstructed, who better to do it than sociologists?

However …

Two things changed my mind. First, I got married and had kids, a boy and girls. My wife and I graduated from the West Point of political correctness. We tried to raise our kids androgynously. It didn’t work. Nature will out, and it did. They are not sexists, but the girls are clearly girls, and the boy is clearly a boy. And in the process of being pregnant and having little babies and getting more and more married, my wife and I discovered that we are female and male in deep and ineluctable ways. Which is fine.

The other thing that changed my mind was studying sociobiology. Sociobiology, also known as evolutionary psychology, argues that many of the regular features of human behavior are deep in the human nature because they conferred an evolutionary advantage, long ago if not still today. The key idea of sociobiology that affects family life is that in mate selection, women do the choosing. This is Darwin's theory of "sexual selection," which accounts for competition among individuals within a species in the same way that his more famous "natural selection" accounts for competition among different species. Women do the choosing in mate selection because they bear much more of the risk from mating.

The basic idea is that women have a long list of what they look for in a husband, with resources and commitment being the two basic categories. Men, on the other hand, have a pretty short list: youth and beauty in any woman; youth, beauty, and fidelity in a wife. (Homosexuals, by the way, use pretty much the same rules.) And at root, mate selection is not about the married couple, but about their children. This fundamental asymmetry in what the sexes want means that courtship is a dance, a back and forth of displaying the necessary attributes for making and raising children well, and committing those necessary attributes for keeps. Men and women are almost like different species in their approach to having children – make many and hope some survive vs. make a few and nurture them carefully.

Marriage is a great cultural achievement that unites these two strategies. All cultures have invented some form of it, because our mammalian biology is at is starkest when we are dealing with the difficulty of caring for infants. There are only a few social strategies that really work, though individual variation in any society is enormous around those basic models.

So where does this leave me on nature vs. nurture? I am trying to hold the line at 50/50.


Unknown said...

I dabbled in behavioral genetics in the mid to late 1970's (about the time Wilson's book Sociobiology -- The New Synthesis came out. I can remember the bitter fights over nature vs nurture, and the charges of "rigid biological determinism" that were hurled at the sociobiologists as well as the behavioral geneticists.

It might be good to note that E.O Wilson, in Sociobiology, pointed out that humans represent an additional complication -- the fact that we can deliberately choose to act in opposition to what our nature would have us do, and further, that social effects on our behavior may, in fact, be a more powerful determinant than our genes in many cases.

50/50 may be a good compromise between the extremes of the nature/nurture debate. Of course, behaviors are generally too complex to be attributed to single genes (unless you talking about wasp hygienic behavior), so each gene involved in a particular behavior would have its own independent environmental component.

Anonymous said...

"more and more married"--a wonderful description of the institution's organic nature. Merci.

Anonymous said...

As you might guess given my sympathy for the whole Vico/Hegel/Dilthey/Gadamer tradition, I'm not too sympathetic to Wilson and sociobiology. It seems to me to involve both a fundamental contradiction in the way we understand human activity (human practices are learned and liable to moral judgment while biological processes are neither) and an epistemological exception for itself (this is the way all organisms behave, except the unmoved observer).

By the way, for a humerous but ultimately very sad fictional account of sociologists and their radical commitments, you might want to read The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury.

By the way (2), I dropped by your office to say hello on Thursday but, like Elvis, you had left the building.

Gruntled said...

"It seems to me to involve both a fundamental contradiction in the way we understand human activity (human practices are learned and liable to moral judgment while biological processes are neither) and an epistemological exception for itself (this is the way all organisms behave, except the unmoved observer)."

Don't these two contradictions cancel out? This is the way all organisms behave, except when we humans do the observing, we are moved, and can do otherwise. Sometimes we do. Sociology notes that most people follow patterns most of the time (that is what makes them patterns), and sociobiology offers a theory of why we see the particular patterns that we do in mate selection, marriage, and childrearing. Biological processes are subject to moral judgment for people (not other species) because we can understand them and do otherwise.

Anonymous said...

My comment on sociobiology wasn't as clear as it should have been. The first parenthetical was my critique of the confusion of explaining human practices, which are the result of choice and habit, in the idiom of natural processes, which are the result of neither. My point here is that it makes no more sense to use moral language about sociobiological 'traits' than it does to use such language about the tides. Humans may be animals, but biology is a fundamentally different order of inquiry than history, sociology, or ethics.

My second parenthetical was intended as a satirical paraphrase of what I take to be the internal contradictions inherent in making deterministic claims about the character of human behavior and then exempting oneself from the implications of such claims. I believe that this contradiction is common to the sociobiological work of someone like Wilson, but also to theories of false consciousness like Marx's and to the structuralists and post structuralism of Levi-Strauss and Foucault.

Unknown said...

I think the point that many people are making is that, in humans (for the most part), genes don't determine behavior; they influence behavior. A gene interacting with its environment results in what we observe as a phenotype.

Gruntled said...

It is part of the great mystery of human nature that biological regularities that we see in whole populations are not determinative in individuals. In fact, the more we understand the biological regularities of human populations, the more power any given individual has to choose to buck the trend. Most people will not buck the trend, but any reader of this blog may.

Anonymous said...

I am a junior in sociology at the University of South Florida and I am frustrated daily by the lack of scientific inquiry and interest in at least probing this subject. My sociology book only has one paragraph in it about the study of sociobiology and it uses that paragraph to make the field sound as ridiculous and unsubstantiated as possible. If I even approach the subject by asking a thoughtful question I am lambasted by my professors who most certainly will find a way to use the words "Hitler" or "Nazi" in their response to me. It is a very odd atmosphere in all my classes. Rather than my professors encouraging scientific curiousity, they are charged by their own political and ideological motivations. If I wanted that I'd start going to Sunday School again.

Gruntled said...

Yeah, sociology is devoted to the idea that everything is a social construction so that we can change it. But this isn't really so. You may want to pursue your own reading list -- you might like my family sociology syllabus - I blogged about it at