(April 2001)

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 2-5.

How Successful is Sociobiology?

Tom Bethell (“Against Sociobiology,” January) is to be commended for pointing out the fatal flaw of socio­ biology and of its latter–day offspring “evolutionary psychology”: the lack of falsifiability of many of the hypotheses proposed in these fields. Lack of falsifiability was also, to some degree, a problem even in the relatively noncontroversial field of behavioral ecology, from which sociobiology emerged.

Bethell is quite wrong, however, in asserting that “in the biology departments and in the academy more generally, [E. O.] Wilson and his supporters resoundingly won the debate.” I cannot speak for the “academy more generally,” but in biology departments sociobiology went down to utter defeat. I am aware of no biology department in this country at which a sociobiologist could be hired today, and very few would even have any interest in hiring a behavioral ecologist. Biologists do not take any more kindly to non–falsifiable hypotheses than Mr. Bethell does. Moreover, the twenty–five years since Wilson’s Sociobiology have seen an extraordinary flowering of molecular biology. Today virtually all biologists (even evolutionary biologists) study real genes at the DNA level. There is no interest any more in the make–believe “genes” for altruism, rape, or whatever beloved of Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk.

Austin L. Hughes
Professor of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina
Columbia, South Carolina

Tom Bethell replies:

Upon reflection I shall withdraw the adverb “resoundingly” if Professor Hughes withdraws his claim that sociobiology “went down to utter defeat.” A letter published in Science (October 11, 1996), headed “Sociobiology’s Successes” and signed by twelve scientists from diverse fields, biology among them, makes the point. (The lead author was Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of U.C. Davis’ Department of Anthropology.) After sociobiology was attacked as “sexist,” “racist,” and “determinist,” the letter writers point out, “many researchers did indeed shrink from the label ‘sociobiology,’ but the sociobiological research programs (by whatever name) have prospered.” I believe that to be correct. But I concede that a victory involving the subterfuge of a name–change is not resounding.

Sociobiology has in particular advanced under the flag of evolutionary psychology. In the introduction to the twenty–fifth anniversary edition of his textbook Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, written in December 1999, Edward O. Wilson writes that sociobiology “is a flourishing discipline in zoology,” but, where it pertains to humans, it is “nowadays also called evolutionary psychology.”

To name just four academics sympathetic to sociobiology at work in the biology departments of American universities: Timothy Goldsmith of Yale teaches a course called “Biological Roots of Human Nature”; William Zimmerman of Amherst teaches the “Evolutionary Biology of Human Social Behavior”; David Sloan Wilson (Department of Biology, SUNY–Binghamton) researches the evolutionary basis of human behavior; and Randy Thornhill at the University of New Mexico coauthored the infamous book on the evolution of rape.

I strongly disagree with Prof. Hughes’ claim that because biologists “study real genes at the DNA level,” there is no more interest in “make–believe ‘genes.’” In modern discourse, unfortunately, the word “gene” is used in two different ways. Certain DNA segments “code for” or build proteins, and those segments are indeed called genes. But the “Mendelian” genes beloved of evolutionary biologists are hypothetical constructs, thought of as determining some outward and visible feature of the organism. These genes are certainly not observed in extinct organisms. Even in living ones, genes for the most elementary features of the body, such as height or skin color, have not yet been established.

When Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould in the 1970s derided the “Just–So” stories of the adaptationists, they were criticizing the ease with which unobserved genes for any trait whatever—whether physical or behavioral—could be posited, without any need to observe them. The claim that genes for leopard’s spots helped conceal the leopard and so contributed to its survival is vacuous unless the genes are detected, which never happens. The claim that those genes that “are selected for” displace those that are not is a tautology masquerading as science. It cannot be falsified in this universe or in any other. Unobserved genes continue to be the stock–in–trade of the evolutionary biologist. The critics of sociobiology used arguments that were often political, but sometimes perilous to the evolution not just of behavior, but of bodies as well.

How We Could Have Won in Vietnam

Although I may have missed some nuance in Adam Garfinkle’s “That Lousy War: Explaining Vietnam” (December 2000), it surprised me that his assumption (and that of the authors of the books he surveyed) seems to be that the war was unwinnable.

If a nation plans its military strategy to obtain a draw one should not be surprised that victory remains unachieved. But what if we had chosen to fight the war in North Vietnam—i.e., to invade—rather than stand on the strategic defensive in the South? After all, even World War II might have ended in a loss if we had decided never to invade the Axis homelands and even to avoid destroying their economic bases, as we did with Vietnam.

I’m sure that some would dismiss this out of hand since it might have led to a general war. Opinions on this may differ; mine is that a vigorous offensive military strategy, combined with a domestic economic policy of “guns” rather than Johnson’s “guns and butter,” would have both bluffed the USSR and China and been far better accepted by the American public than the no–win Johnson/McNamara plan.

Richard Donley
New Lyme, Ohio

Adam Garfinkle replies:

With all due respect, Mr. Donley has missed more than a nuance. My essay describes Michael Lind’s view in these words: “Lind . . . argues that it [fighting the war] was the right thing to have done, and that it might have turned out pretty well had Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, and a few choice others not screwed things up.” I say a few paragraphs later that I share this view that the war was, in fact, winnable. Toward the end of the essay, I criticize the military and Mr. McNamara for abetting an abysmally misbegotten military strategy, the obvious implication being that a sounder strategy could have produced a different outcome.

Elfland and Christianity

In his review of G. Ronald Murphy’s The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove (January), Philip Zaleski was not quite right in saying that the religious meaning of the Brothers Grimm has been neglected. G. K. Chesterton made fairy tales a cornerstone of his classic Christian apologetic, Orthodoxy. In a chapter called “The Ethics of Elfland,” he explained the spiritual wisdom he found in Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty. Later, he connected these insights to the Christian faith. Chesterton’s understanding of pagan mythology, given in Everlasting Man, a book that influenced C. S. Lewis in becoming a Christian, seemed to be built upon that primary insight. And then Lewis came full circle with his own series of popular redemptive fairy tales, the Chronicles of Narnia.

Together, the two men reminded Western Christianity of the truth (common to such central Christian thinkers as Paul, Augustine, Cle­ ment, and Pascal) that, as Lewis put it, “The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, ‘Where . . . have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?’” So the seed the Brothers Grimm planted perhaps grew into a pretty big beanstalk itself.

One of my own favorites is Jorinda and Joringa. (It was when I was reading this story to my children that I started to think more deeply about the spirituality of the Brothers Grimm.) Jorinda, a beautiful maiden, is transformed into a nightingale and taken captive in a castle by a witch. Her lover (a shepherd) is powerless to approach the castle. Then one day he finds a red flower with a dew drop in the center of it. Touching the witch with the flower, he deprives her of her sorcery, and sets all the enchanted maidens free from their cages. The tale strikes me as a beautiful picture of Christ and those he frees from their sins. I wonder what color were the flowers Wilhelm kept in his Greek New Testament?

David Marshall
Siebold University of Nagasaki
Nagasaki, Japan

Philip Zaleski replies:

Mr. Marshall is right, of course. Chesterton and Lewis make much of fairy tales; so too, in the same literary lineage, do George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien. What I meant to say (famous words!) was that the religious meaning of fairy tales has been largely ignored by scholars—a notable exception being Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy–Stories,” in which he suggests that these tales provide “a far–off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world,” a foretaste of the joy of Christ. Father Murphy’s The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove does much to rectify this scholarly oversight.

As for the color of those pressed flowers, I went directly to the source and asked Fr. Murphy. He reports that the petals were “about the size and shape of a daisy’s,” and that although they had faded badly, his impression was that, yes, they had “once been red.”

Catechesis and Pre–Evangelization

Although mocking, if that is not too strong a word, Father William O’Malley for “making up his own creed” (While We’re At It, January), Richard John Neuhaus fails to address adequately the factual observations and the arguments of Fr. O’Malley’s article, “Plow Before You Plant,” which appeared in the September 15, 2000 issue of America.

For fifteen years or more Fr. O’Malley has been writing, not about college professors or committed adult Christians (or about those, like myself, who are faithful readers of First Things), but about teenagers—American high school students, primarily those from middle–class and affluent families, who are the objects of Catholic “catechesis.” Fr. O’Malley writes about his students in Catholic high schools; my twenty years of teaching in parish “Confirmation programs” suggests his observations apply even more accurately to those public high school students whose parents order them to the parish center for one hour of class a week. (I might mention, by way of background, that in the affluent suburban parish in which I teach, probably a third of my students have parents divorced or living apart, and more than half don’t attend Mass regularly, because their parents don’t.)

Fr. O’Malley has observed that these young people are “baptized but not converted.” They understand Christianity as “being moral,” and they understand “being moral” as “being nice to people.” In my own experience, students asked to make a list of moral virtues never list “courage,” to give one example, and are extremely puzzled and surprised when asked why courage might be a moral virtue. What “the Church says” and what “Scripture says” are matters of extreme indifference—the students silently but stoutly resist the premise that these are significant sources of authority. As Fr. O’Malley says, the vast majority don’t presently care or know much about God (much less about Jesus Christ). They don’t understand the very idea of Christian altruism—making one’s life a gift—and how it might apply to their own lives. As Fr. O’Malley says, they aren’t bad kids, they can be delightful in many ways, but they aren’t, really, Christians. What they need is not catechesis, nor even evangelization, but pre–evangelization: “Plow before you plant.”

And the catechetical establishment most often does, as Fr. O’Malley argues, ignore these realities, prescribing that we should “teach” these teenagers “as if their families still routinely attend Sunday benediction.” The teachers of teachers want “indoctrination rather than conversion,” and “thorough coverage rather than heart–to–heart engagement.” In my experience, the “doctrinal” subject matter prescribed is likely to be, not filioque (which I think Fr. Neuhaus might recognize as Fr. O’Malley’s exercise in hyperbole), but a politically correct version of “social justice.”

If this is in fact the context, then pre–evangelization by teaching “natural theology” first makes a lot of sense—and the proposition needs, at least, to be publicized and debated. Fr. O’Malley’s emphasis on epistemology at the beginning makes a lot of sense too—how do you “know,” why do you believe? As for Fr. O’Malley’s simplified “creed,” if, by Confirmation time, just one of my little flock understood the meaning of those four theological propositions (never mind believing them with “a reasonable degree of certainty”), I would join Fr. O’Malley in levitating.

Michael P. Daly
Manlius, New York
Taking Offense

Largely ignoring the substance of my article, “Are Unions Obsolete?” (Commonweal, November 3, 2000), my friend Richard John Neuhaus in his rejoinder (While We’re At It, January) said that it was “false and offensive” on my part to say that he had never publicly spoken this way about Cardinal O’Connor’s stand on labor issues while the Cardinal was alive.

He would have every right to be offended if that was what I had actually said. But it is emphatically not what I said. I knew perfectly well that Father Neuhaus had more than once said his piece in public about labor issues while the Cardinal was alive. I also assumed, of course, that the Cardinal, who had the reputation of being a serious reader, was fully aware of what Fr. Neuhaus had written about labor issues. But that’s not what I was talking about in my article. Referring to Fr. Neuhaus’ National Catholic Register interview in which he said that the Cardinal’s support of labor unions was “a weakness rather than a strength,” I said that he “never spoke that way about the Cardinal’s stand on labor issues while the Cardinal was alive.” There is nothing in Fr. Neuhaus’ response to dispute or even question the accuracy of this statement.

I might add that I refrained from saying in my article that Fr. Neuhaus’ silence in public about the Cardinal’s stand on labor issues until the Cardinal had passed away was rather strange in view of the fact that, to his credit, Fr. Neuhaus has frequently and delightedly crossed swords in public with other living and high–ranking ecclesiastics. (Think Rembert Weakland as a prime example in this regard.) I have no way of knowing why Fr. Neuhaus made an exception in the case of the Cardinal and why he gave him a pass after the Cardinal had passed from the scene.

At the end of his response Fr. Neuhaus expresses the hope that I will emulate Cardinal O’Connor’s admirable policy of accommodating respectful disagreement. Not to worry. As one who has been around the polemical track for more than fifty years, I don’t take disagreements personally even when I feel that I have been misquoted inadvertently or otherwise. In short, even though I honestly think that Fr. Neuhaus misconstrued my article, I will consider him a friend, and, needless to add, I hope that this feeling is mutual.

Monsignor George G. Higgins
Washington, D.C.

RJN replies:

Yes, the feeling is mutual, but it should not be hard to understand why I made an exception for Cardinal O’Connor. He was my bishop and I would not, except under the most pressing necessity, criticize my bishop in public. He knew what I thought. Asked in an interview after his death about the strengths and weaknesses of his leadership, I responded candidly and, I hope, charitably. Asked while he was my bishop, I allowed for no weaknesses. This is called loyalty.