“A thought, even a possibility, can shatter and transform us.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
When scientific questions are first posed, they often become the center of contentious debate—think the heliocentric theory, evolution, and even climate change today. At first, they are just thoughts, mere possibilities, but ones with the potential to transform the way we understand the world around us. However, in any science in its beginning stages, there are upsides and downsides to pursuing a revolutionary possibility. What are the implications of the ideas on society? And what does it mean that they are still uncertain? These are the questions with which E. O. Wilson (1978) and S. J. Gould (1978), two of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of their time, grapple in the face of the new field of sociobiology, the study of the evolutionary basis of behavior and its application to humans. Recognizing the claims made by these two authors and the potential benefits and harms to society that they bring up is the key to understanding the value of sociobiology, and furthermore, the value of any other unproven science. Wilson and Gould fundamentally disagree over whether sociobiology, as an uncertain and yet underdeveloped science, is beneficial or detrimental to society, a point that remains hotly contested even to this day. While both authors agree that there is not enough evidence to prove sociobiology definitively, Wilson stresses the benefit and importance of using biology to learn more about human social behavior despite, and even because of, the underlying uncertainty; whereas Gould argues that because of the doubt and lack of substantial evidence regarding the field, the high level of cultural significance would undermine the fields of the human sciences and cause unnecessary conflict while adding very little of value. Furthermore, through an understanding of these two viewpoints on sociobiology, we can elucidate the underlying elements of the greater debate over what to do with an unproven science in general.
Both Wilson and Gould agree that the breadth of understanding of the field of sociobiology is quite limited. Much of Gould’s (1978) argument revolves around a dearth of evidence to support the claims made by supporters of sociobiology. He asserts that sociobiology is no more than storytelling since it relies on general correlations and consistencies without providing direct proof to support the claims. He also brings up the fact that very little is known about the genetics of behavior in humans and states that this prevents us from proving the validity of sociobiology. While Gould focuses a majority of his article on proving this lack of evidence, Wilson (1978) does not seem to be adamantly opposed to conceding the point. Wilson certainly recognizes more evidence than Gould (for instance, citing the differences in testing between fraternal and identical twins); however, he does acknowledge that the field of sociobiology is still quite new and that not much is known yet. Wilson even goes so far as to call the field “a rudimentary science [whose] relevance to human social systems is still largely unexplored” (Wilson 1978, 12). Wilson, for the most part, agrees that at that point in time, the evidence is limited. Therefore, despite the fact that much of Gould’s argument revolves around the lack of substantial proof, the main disagreement between the two authors is not whether there is enough evidence to definitively prove the validity of sociobiological claims. Rather, their main conflict results from differing opinions on the value of pursuing the field in spite of the present lack of evidence.
The differing valuation of the field by Wilson and Gould stems from divergent attitudes regarding plausibility. Both refer to specific ideas and concepts as plausible, but they address the uncertainty in different ways. Gould disapproves of the uncertainty. He makes reference to a theory made by Psychology Professor David Barash stating that aggression in mountain bluebirds is heightened before eggs are laid, an evolutionary adaptation developed due to better chances of effective reproduction. Gould remarks that it is “a perfectly plausible story” (Gould 1978, 531); however, he goes on to “criticise its assertion without evidence or test” as well as its reliance on “consistency with natural selection as the sole criterion for useful speculation” (Gould 1978, 531). “Plausible” to Gould carries a negative connotation, suggesting that the mere possibility of truth is not nearly enough to credit a theory.
For Wilson, though, the idea of something being possible fills him with energy and excitement. When referencing the theory that the mind, the will included, is based in neurophysiological pathways subject to natural selection, Wilson goes so far as to say that his “point is that it is entirely possible” (Wilson 1978, 10). Ironically, Wilson and Gould are making the same point, but they make the point with differing attitudes. Unlike Gould who saw plausibility as a lack of certainty, Wilson saw possibility as an opportunity to learn more. To Wilson, “possible” carries a positive connotation, implying that the theory’s plausibility should motivate us to study and research the field further so as to learn more about human social behavior. In essence, Wilson and Gould agree that many of the sociobiological theories have not been proven with certainty, but remain distinct possibilities. However, the two profoundly differ in their attitudes toward this uncertainty.
Wilson’s and Gould’s divergent attitudes toward uncertainty result in conflicting views on the spread of sociobiology as either detrimental or beneficial to society. While Gould does state that he believes future research will disprove many of the sociobiological claims, he views the prospective end product of sociobiology as the “reduction of the human sciences to Darwinian theory” (Gould 1978, 533). He believes that the claims inherently invalidate and undermine the value of the human sciences and cultural fields, causing them to suffer profoundly. Additionally, he believes that the mere pervasiveness of the idea causes unneeded conflict, citing a New York Times article suggesting that sociobiology’s contention that women and men are biologically unique is a reason why women will never (and perhaps should never) be fully equal to men. Gould asserts that if the claims were proven that he would accept them and make no effort to suppress them; however, he argues that because the claims are uncertain, the potential ramifications of accepting the hypotheses are a big enough concern that the spread of the claims serve as a detriment to society.
Wilson (1978), on the other hand, feels that sociobiology will bring an illumination of the human condition that will improve society, the human sciences included. He believes that only further research on the brain and application of Darwinian principles can elucidate a more profound understanding of the way human behavior functions, which Wilson sees as integral in providing “humanity with the perspective it requires to formulate its highest social goals” (Wilson 1978, 11). Wilson believes that not only will advances in sociobiology help us gain a better understanding of human behavior scientifically, but they will also bring positive effects for cultural fulfillment. Therefore, Wilson, focusing on the potential benefits, sees the possibility of finding truth in sociobiology as something to be celebrated as a step toward improving our cultural understanding. He even believes that future research will enrich the social sciences that Gould feels will be undermined. Wilson, in believing that sociobiology, despite its uncertainty, can bring improvements to society, is in stark contrast with Gould who, focusing on the potential detriments, cautions against the spread of the uncertain claims.
Gould’s and Wilson’s views, while central to the debate over sociobiology, have wider implications that speak to the value of any uncertain and unproven science. Gould, a well-known and well-recognized scientist himself, by no means implies through his article that no science should be legitimized if it begins as an uncertain possibility. Naturally, all science must begin as just a hypothesis before it undergoes sufficient testing to be deemed generally accepted by the scientific community. However, Gould feels that in some instances more caution should be taken—perhaps even to the point of dismissal, as in the case of sociobiology. Gould’s criteria for restricting the advancement of scientific research are “political clout” and “social importance,” which he references when talking about sociobiology and the large amount of unrest over the area (Gould 1978, 532). Gould believes that when the content of an unproven science has implications on the greater community, it is acceptable to curb the spread of the ideas so as to avoid causing rifts in society.
To Wilson, however, nothing is more important than the pursuit of truth and scientific discovery. He believes that since all science begins as an uncertainty, we should not only respect but also actively pursue further investigation so as to illuminate as much of the world around us as we can. Wilson does not see social unrest as a valid reason to stifle research and the spread of ideas, and his 1978 paper is largely a rebuttal of these particular claims. While Gould feels that the spread of an uncertain science that causes detrimental rifts in society does more harm than good, Wilson believes that the chance to expand our breadth of knowledge outweighs any potentially negative consequences.
Despite their disagreement, Wilson and Gould both recognize that sociobiology is a possibility with earth-shattering and transforming effects on our society. However, where Wilson believes the revolutionary effects to be beneficial, Gould believes them to be detrimental. Wilson and Gould’s debate over sociobiology presents a wider debate over the valuation of any science that is not absolute. New scientific hypotheses, like sociobiology, are arising constantly; and many have the potential to have a significant impact on the way humans perceive science and the world around us. Only once we reconcile the future possibilities and present drawbacks of these hypotheses can we determine the role that they can, and perhaps should, play in the domain of science and in our everyday lives. The debate between Wilson and Gould over sociobiology is both fervent and specific, but in truth, it also serves as a lens by which to understand the benefits and complications at the birth of any uncertain scientific possibility.
Gould, S.J. (1978). Sociobiology: The art of storytelling. New Scientist, 16, 530-533.
Wilson, E.O. (1978). Introduction: What is sociobiology. In M.S. Gregory, A. Silvers, and D. Sutch (eds), Sociobiology and human nature: An interdisciplinary critique and defense. San Francisco: Jossey-Batch, 1-12.