Reduction Science Digging Itself a Hole

The latest fight in the sociobiology territories is over proto-sociobiologist Bill Hamilton, who personally held a fairly repellent set of views on eugenics, advocating aggressive pruning of the gene tree.

The Bill Hamilton affair is great fuel for the Gould/Lewontin vs. Dawkins/Wilson debate over most everything, but it throws a lot of noise into the argument, since there’s no necessary connection between Hamilton’s eugenicism and his presmuably more influential sociobiology work.

But I tend against the Dawkins/Wilson stance anyway, so here’s what struck me the most:

[Hamilton] decided in his 20s that genocide was partly a response to the spectacle of a competing tribe’s population growing. He believed that differential birth rates between groups would lead inevitably to massacres like those in Rwanda or Kosovo.

It’s not patently offensive like much of what surrounds it, but it’s more insidious. Sociobiology is often accused of fatalism, which people like Wilson deny, but if Hamilton believed that, it gives his adherents much license to treat savagery and genocide as unavoidable, and thus, something that it is futile to fight against. Napoleon Chagnon got at the same thing when he painted the yanomami (i.e., primitive society) as intrinsically violent.

This point has been made by many, many anti-sociobiologists over the years, but many of them go on to accuse the sociobiologists of racism, sexism, and complicity in all sorts of bestial acts. I don’t know that it’s quite true. It’s one thing to advocate indifference to genocide, and another to advocate a point of view that lends support to indifference to genocide. I’ve known too many people who wore the “hopeless cause” badge as a matter of pride.

But the claim of inevitability makes it very tempting to shred Hamilton, Chagnon, and whoever else for lending support to views that they may not have had. This constitutes the noise in the argument. Most of them wouldn’t say if they did.

Fortunately, claims of inevitability of well near anything have never stood up very well. For a less loaded example, take a look at Dawkins’s imitation of E.M. Cioran:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

River Out of Eden, p. 133

It’s not morally damnable, but it’s hardly scientific. Whether or not Hamilton gave away the secret reprehensible agenda, sociobiology will survive his eugencist beliefs, which will be labeled incidental. The point of weakness remains their fatalism.

Leave a Reply