The Corner

Re: Evolutionary Corruption

Jonah, that Barash piece is way off the mark in its dark characterization of sociobiology.  First of all, sociobiology is a branch of evolutionary biology, and is concerned with human behavior only because humans are among the planet’s social species.

The discipline of sociobiology seeks to elucidate the biological bases of social behavior among social animals, and began as a way of integrating population genetics into the study of insect societies. 

Sociobiology does not deny that among mammals and especially humans there are other bases for social behavior, in particular the cultural and the spiritual. 

But social altruism is a central concern because altruistic behavior always comes at the expense of the individual. And that, as the famed Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson wrote in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis ,

brings us to the central theoretical problem of sociobiology: How can altruism, which by definition reduces personal fitness, possibly evolve by natural selection?  The answer is kinship: if the genes causing the altruism are shared by two organisms because of common descent, and if the altruistic act by one organism increases the joint contribution of these genes to the next generation, the propensity to altruism will spread through the gene pool.

Now, when he writes this, what he is thinking of most primordially is a way of explaining in terms of mechanistic population genetics what circumstances lead, e.g., some fertile wasps to help raise their sister’s offspring in lieu of procreating themselves. 

But there are important implications for human behavior.  Humans share many behavioral tendencies with other primates (strong in-group out-group identification; brother-sister incest taboos; etc.).  It is plain to see that many of the associated ethical norms are in part biological in origin, because genes can create behavioral instincts that are advantageous in natural selection and those genes must then propagate more successfully. 

There is a reason why devout Christians are easier to find in the hard sciences than in the humanities and social sciences.  Many of the great discoveries in evolutionary biology–the theory of molecular co-evolution, for example–were made by scientists who see no contradiction in simultaneously exalting the ethical doctrines of their faith, and discovering the mechanistic contribution that population genetics makes to the development of those doctrines.  They see God’s design in the wonders of the universe — everywhere and in everything.

Population genetics dictates that species with low rates of reproduction will evolve behavioral “taboos” against feeding on their own children.  I think high school students can safely be taught this, with no great risk that they will love their children any less when they grow up.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.