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From Biosocial Anthropology to Social Biology: Some Thoughts on Intellectual Communities in the Post-war Sciences July 26, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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This particular post focuses on biosocial anthropology, sociobiology, social biology and bio-social science. Biosocial anthropology is a very specific intellectual community which has self-ordered around the theoretical and evidentiary contributions of Napoleon Chagnon, William Irons, Lee Cronk, and my personal favorite for heterogeneity and provocation, Robin Fox. This community has always traveled in different circles than those of sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson. Biosocial anthropology is also distinct in emphasis from social biology.

I will also detail the bio-social perspective of Kingsley Davis, which in many ways anticipated the conceptual innovations of biosocial anthropology, but whose bio-social science is unknown. His work is an exercise in “anti-reductionism” (my term)—arguing instead for the distinctiveness of human social evolution as opposed to the development of beings in nature.

Fox et al’s lack of mention of bio-social science  is not surprising.  It might be lack of knowledge.  If not, it underscores the desire of post-war disciplines to emancipate themselves from pre-war iterations while also illustrating Pitirim Sorokin’s notion of the multiple discovery of social insights. 

In contrast to biosocial anthropologists, sociobiologists (here I generalize from the work of E.O. Wilson, but I should not) tend to discuss evolution and adaptation primarily within animal communities with a different level of seriousness attending discussions of the social evolution of human civilization.  Fox himself underscores, “Wilson was a product of a distinct strain in evolutionary population genetics…and although he addressed himself, at the very end of the book, to a few topics of human social behavior…he was not a social scientist addressing social scientists; indeed he had very little idea of the concerns of social scientists…” (Conjectures and Confrontations, p. 4)

Robin Fox

Biosocial anthropology is more assuredly sociological and anthropological in its focus on human communities  and the explanation of human behavior (with animal ethology and Neo-Darwinian theories of inheritance and comparative ethology assuming a  foundational function.)

Social biology in contrast developed from the spate of turn-of-the century writers such William H. Mallock (of the aristocracy and evolution school) and then a little later from the works of Alexander Carr-Saunders, R.A. Fisher, and found ample soil in the British inter-war concern with  differential fertility- the inquiry over how social factors affected the birth rates of not only rich and poor but also how the social institutions which governed reproduction in everyday life (marriage, dowry, primogeniture, celibacy) differed and differentiated savage and civilized peoples. Differential fertility very rapidly became in post-war Britain an inquiry into class (which was cognizant of socialism and meliorating reforms) while moving away from the discussion of the fate of civilization and the social evolution of races into nations.

In post-war Britain, the eugenicist and elitist overtones of interwar arguments shifted due to different evidentiary and conceptual moorings  into a fierce discussion of the ability of social institutions (particularly schools) in Britain to distinguish students by aptitude and ability and thereby to mollify the effects of class.

There was a particular concern among a certain group, including the well-known social theorist T.H. Marshall, over how “social sorting” and the “social selection” of the most gifted could occur within the great social experiment known as the welfare state  (see his “Social Selection in the Welfare State,” published in 1957.) These discussions grew in tandem with a renewed inquiry into the connections between intelligence, fertility and social class, which along with recent evidences gleaned from genetics and medicine mingled with discussions of health, mortality and morbidity.

In contrast to social biology and sociobiology, biosocial anthropology has positioned itself as the rigorous, scientifically minded alternative to the relativistic, lax and repetitive inquiry of post-war Bosian social anthropology and  its attendant cultural relativism. Much of this is Fox’s doing.  He is a dedicated Popperian and a dedicated anti-relativist. The  latter he inherits from Ernest Gellner, who first proposed that kinship was both a social and a natural relationship (rooted in biology) in 1957 and with whom Fox studied with at LSE.  Fox’s own work on kinship follows suit (more on this in a later post).

Fox combines Gellner’s anti-relativism with Popper’s emphasis on refutation and test-ability of hypotheses by positing  that Boasian cultural anthropology as relativism is untestable.  Biosocial anthropology then proposes testable hypotheses: that social evolution (and cultural development) is infinitely plural and plastic but is nonetheless constrained by ‘biological givens'; that the universality and persistence of cultural institutions (kinship and the incest taboo, for example) may be explained through biological evolution. Sociobiology as outlined in E.O Wilson’s works does not have the Popperian and anti-relativistic stance.  Wilson, incidentally, confuses post-modernism and relativism.   In his most recent book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, Wilson advocates moral relativism.

Fox and others of this group have wished to ground their understanding of human culture and human behavior in biological constants while avoiding biological reductionism, elitism and genetic determinism.  One can have recourse to biology without being reductionist. This requires more explanation than can be attempted here.

The particularities of the biosocial perspective versus sociobiology also underscores how analysis of intellectual movements and ideas using ethical or philosophical “filters of judgment” (for lack of a better word) obscures rather than explains. By excoriating Fox and Wilson for genetic determinism, biologism (Mario Bunge) and the like, commentators have frequently confused them and grouped them together.  Perhaps they should be grouped together, but the similarity of these enterprises is assumed rather than proved. By detailing the existential threats which these sciences pose to human nature and our understanding of it, by classifying them as dangerous ideas,  bioethicists and philosophers of science have limited their analysis of the content of those ideas to a bare minimum, leading to frequent distortions. Philosophers of science and others have defended both sociobiology and bioosociology, but less frequently, and for self-interested reasons.

Bio-social (note hyphen) science had a pre-Second World War practitioner in Kingsley Davis (see his “The Sociology of Prostitution” written in 1937). Davis’ own work, though in many ways within the orbit of Robert Merton’s Durkheimian (deviance, anomie, etc.) tastes, points not to the mid-twentieth century sociology of deviance, but to Hebert Spencer and Edward Westermark’s concern with the origins of institutions and with the genesis and persistence of near universal norms and customs (especially those concerning marriage and reproduction).

Kingsley Davis (August 20, 1908 – February 27, 1997

Kingsley Davis (August 20, 1908 – February 27, 1997

In the tumultuous period after the First World War in the US and the UK, cultural practices concerning marriage and family were the most liable to become the focus of bio-social inquiry since anything connected to marriage and reproduction immediately addressed the connections between nature and society.  The use of natural and biological evidence, in period of social change (and fears of the pervasiveness of irrationality)  and quick developments of disciplines such as primatology, was a way of grounding social inquiry ‘objectively’ (and not too infrequently quantitatively)  and of addressing such vexing issues as proper methodology as well as criteria for disciplinary progress.  As importantly, biology and ethology were part of an argument for the distinctiveness of human social mores (as opposed to whatever “customs” animals practiced in nature).

Davis were keen to show that while primate studies and accounts of social insects allowed some insight into human social (and sexual behavior), the connections between biology, culture and animal ethology only serve to, in Davis’ case, establish a basic principle: “the use of sexual stimulation in a system of dominance to attain non-sexual ends.”

The point which he seeks to establish has to do not with the reduction of human to animal behavior but rather to use ethology to make a profounder and more important point about prostitution as a human social institution.   This was- ” prostitution resembles…behavior found in our most respectable institutions” (“The Sociology of Prostitution.”) 

Similarly in his textbook Human Society (1949), he narrated the similarities between human and primate cultures only to accentuate the distinctions between them, nothing that while in primates “exaggeration, modification and complication of more complex traits occur primarily on a physiological basis, they occur in human society on a cultural basis.”  While there were deep similarities between animal and human, human society nonetheless created a caste system and division of labor more complex than anything found among primates. Most importantly, human beings, though similar in some respects to primates regarding “neural complexity,” only man alone was “capable of evolving a system of arbitrary symbolic communication” (44).

The purposes of this excursion have been to illustrate, however briefly, that the bio-social perspective existed before the Second World War, with enough likeness to give us pause about Fox and others protestations to complete novelty; that the inquiry of bio social anthropology is nonetheless as a distinct post-war development which must be untangled from both sociobiology and social biology; that recourse to biology and ethology in biologically inclined social theories, far from heralding any profound statements about human nature, is argumentatively and evidence-wise used as a “step in the ladder” to a more important point about the particularity of human social institutions.

In the next post, I will go into further detail about the interconnections and distinctions between biosocial anthropology and sociobiology. This will also examine Fox’s publications on incest and kinship in greater detail.  The next post will also try to assess whether, biosociology (like Davis’ bio-social science) is explicitly anti-reductionist in its use of biology.  If such is the case then there would have to be a concerted effort to recast this inquiry into the connections between nature and society outside the existing narratives of reductionism and determinism. The question of course remains open as to whether sociobiology engages in the same anti-reductionist work, and this will be dealt with as well.

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