A continuity between the behavioral and genetic characteristics of animals and humans is assumed.
The attempt to understand human behavior by means of the study of the traits of animals, and especially of the aggressive traits, is scarcely new. It has, however, received new currency and new prestige through the recent burst of interest in what is popularly known as sociobiology.
As a mode of thought, sociobiology assumes continuity between both the behavioral and the genetic structures of animals and humans. While the ground for this school of thought was broken by writers like Robert Ardrey and Nobel Prize-winning Konrad Lorenz, the major recent expression of it is found in Edward O. Wilson’s volume, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, 1975).
Professor Wilson locates the basic emotions of love, hate, and especially altruism in the structure of the genes. This analytical model does, of course, shape the course of the study and sets the tone of the work as well.
When Professor Wilson’s volume was first published, there appeared in the press strong objections to the author’s major theses. These were held to be a form of neo-Darwinism, a scholarly rationalization of the rightness of the status quo, and a justification of white chauvinism.
Dr. Wilson seemed to be astonished at the vitriolic nature of the criticisms of his work. Some of these came from his own Harvard colleagues, and apparently wounded him deeply, for he has since spent considerable time trying to explain that he was unjustly charged.
Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of the charges against his work, sociobiology as he has formulated it does carry serious implications for many matters. These involve not only such issues as scientific inquiry, but also questions vital to historic Christianity, especially for the Christian understanding of man.
The reader who has sampled the critiques of sociobiology, and particularly those of Professor Wilson’s magnum opus, will find the volume surprisingly mild. There is no table-thumping, actually nothing to outrage the reader. The work is low key, meticulously done, and lacking in anything spectacular.
The stress is primarily upon the forms of community and population behavior of insects and of lower animals. Generalizations are made with caution, and the author’s concern to move into human behavior is restrained.
The objective reader will be amazed at the vast researches the author has either made himself or else surveyed in the work of others. The mastery of detail achieved by Professor Wilson is such as to command the respect of any scholar who appreciates the careful handling of massive detail.
At the same time, there is a constant layer of overtones that the Christian reader cannot ignore. Although the attempt is made to confine conclusions to lower forms of life, there is a constant emphasis upon the continuity between animal and human behavior, and more especially, upon the degree to which animals possess traits we usually regard as human. Similarly, there is constant reference to the parallels between the responses of animals to their social environment and the way in which humans are affected by theirs.
What is less reassuring to the Christian is the way in which Professor Wilson maintains that all such responses to social environment, whether by man or by the higher vertebrates, are grounded in “genetic scales of behavior.” It seems to be his expectation and hope that further studies along these lines will enable us to chart also the development of the human family. And such a charting, it is strongly suggested, will be made in terms of the genetic origins of all human social institutions.
The thoughtful Christian cannot help but raise his guard at hearing such theses as these. More alarming still is the way Professor Wilson deals with the question of altruism. By this term he means all of those human sentiments which are other regarding, and which reveal concern for the disadvantaged (Part I, chapter 5).
To account for the existence of altruistic traits and altruistic behavior in humans, he turns to endocrinology. Thus he attributes all other-regarding feelings and actions to the operation of the hypothalamus and of the limbic systems of the brain, these being geared to the preservation and distribution of “winning genes,” which aid in the struggle for survival. Strong individual organisms—or persons—are thus held to produce and transmit genes that strengthen the kinship group.
From this it follows that all of human behavior, including the altruistic, will ultimately be understood and explained at such time as “a full neuronal explanation of the human brain” has been achieved. He thus anticipates a time of intellectual and moral synthesis in which all behavior will be regarded to be unconscious and instinctual, determined by genes and modified by processes of genetic evolution.
The implications of this for man’s religious and moral life are not difficult to perceive; it is surprising that Christian writers have not been making more of these. Sociobiology has a special relevance for believers because it assigns a merely functional role to each and any form of religious life. There remains no place for a personal God or for the doctrines of creation and providence.
The point of departure for analyzing the implications of this type of thought for evangelical Christianity (or, for that matter, any form of Christianity) is the sociobiologist’s understanding of the altruistic or other-regarding qualities that lie close to the heart of religious faith and practice. Sociobiology would attribute all forms of disinterested love to reciprocity mechanisms. These would consist solely of one or the other of two types: either impulses that contribute to the survival of the species, or the drive to what Wilson calls “kin selection.” This means a type of group selfishness, aimed at the extension of the genetic base of identity within a genetically related group.
It is not surprising that Professor Wilson analyzes the basic drives of all religions, presumably including Christianity, in terms of this model. Every concern, every consideration for the amelioration of the lot of fellow men, and for a just society, all are regarded as merely genetically determined responses. Thus every impulse toward agape would be rooted in either the selfish desire for individaul identity and prestige, or in the quest for a kin-type advantage. As a system without a God who loves, sociobiology has little or no place for a faith that works by love.
It must be noted here that Professor Wilson can incorporate “religion in general” into his system. It is the idea of a personal God that is distasteful to him. He is not allergic to what he terms “soft core” altruism. This, he observes, may lend cohesion and solidarity to interest groups concerned primarily with survival, as is especially the case within small societies with little religious sophistication.
What is totally out of place in sociobiology is belief in a God who reveals himself definitively, and whose Son became man to redeem a people for his name. This is offensive to Wilson’s system, not merely incidentally, but basically and intrinsically.
Evangelicals may well note that sociobiology marshals a vast amount of data to support a thoroughgoing opponent of revealed Christianity. As such, it reinforces the worst in contemporary deterministic naturalism.
Harold B. Kuhn is professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.