Transcript: Robert Sapolsky on Behavioral Evolution II at Stanford

And from day one, the critics of this entire world have made a point of something that initially seems kind of silly, but may not be silly, which is the entire founding generation of these sociobiologists were white, Southern males. Make of that what you will. EO Wilson from Alabama, Robert Trivers, Irven DeVore, a whole population of these folks, the first generation of these people, were all white males from the American South. Whereas Gould and Lewontin, all of these guys, were Northeastern Marxists.

So we got kind of a major contrast here. And the critique of the sociobiological view is, well, isn’t it interesting that their notion of how evolution works just happens to emphasize the naturalness of a system that rewards them for the inequalities that we have? Isn’t it interesting that their models predict the naturalness of a world in which they’re the ones who benefit most from the notion that this is natural? And from day one, that has been a strong critique. And that’s not like critiquing cilia amoeba theories for political implications. That is a very real one. Because the notions that this is pertinent to making sense of, is rape a human psychopathology, or is rape a competitive strategy, is the fact that children are more likely to be killed by stepfathers than by biological fathers. Does that represent something about the typical socioeconomic pressures in families with step-parents versus the natural biology of gene competition through competitive infanticide? This has a lot of implications.

And from day one, as this field emerged in the late ’70s, there was a huge political agenda that was assumed to be there. Sufficiently so at one lecture, a famous conference in 1977 where EO Wilson was presenting there, a bunch of people rushed the stage and knocked him off the stage and dumped water on him and chanted, whatever it is in German, saying, we will have a society of law and order. This is pretty agitated circumstances for thinking about science. This was a group in Boston called Science for the People, which was a Marxist group at the time there, and saying, all this sociobiological stuff is doing is justifying a world in which it is male-dominated, stratified, and where aggression and competition pays off. And this has been highly controversial from the beginning.

The one counter to it — and I think a lot of that was valid, and I think a lot of it instead defaults into models where this is not making a whole lot of sense. The one thing to be pointed out is, when we see what punctuated equilibrium is about, it’s exactly the sort of world of evolution that produces the sort of world that a Gould or a Lewontin would want it to be, one which minimizes competition in favor of cooperation and a whole pattern of stasis and rapid dialectical change. It’s exactly the world that two Marxist geneticists would say evolution should be about.

So I think that as a first pass, you’re seeing this stuff is dripping in sociopolitical implications. So starting Monday, we will look at this punctuated equilibrium, taking apart this piece of the story.


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