Sunday, June 16, 2002

The Triump of Sociobiology-Book Review Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

The Triumph of Sociobiology-Book Review I just finished The Triumph of Sociobiology by John Alcock. It caught my attention because it seemed to have a provocative title-the use of the term sociobiology has gone out of vogue-to be replaced by the more family friendly evolutionary psychology. I'm not one to play around with definitions-I think it's cowardice for "liberals" to become "progressives" and "libertarians" to switch to "market liberals" to avoid the opprobrium of their earlier labels. Changing your name doesn't make the enemy less belligerent-they know who you are-and you'll always have a target on your forehead as far they're concerned. In addition to which-I think the term sociobiology is more all-encompassing than evolutionary psychology-as the latter explicitly focuses on the similarities between human beings-gender excepted-while sociobiology tends connote a friendlier attitude toward race realism and behavioral genetics that might focus on differences within the population. I have to start by saying I was pleasantly surprised by Dr. Alcock's book. At 256 pages-I was expecting a glorified pamphlet (especially with the title including the word triumph). The last 30 pages are in fact composed of an appendix, citations and selected references. This is a reasonable ratio for a book aimed at the popular audience-and if you're a close reader you'll find yourself jumping to the back and looking up a citation you might want to follow up on later. For a book of its length and target audience it has a rather large quotient of "red meat" science. The first two chapters are a gentle introduction to the what's and how's of sociobiology. This is more for those who's only contact with the subject comes from the popular press. In chapter 2 Alcock tackles the group selection vs. individual selection ("He died for the good of the species") debate. Alcock correctly points out that individual selection is the prevailing orthodoxy in the scientific community-and tries to dismiss dissenters such as David Sloan Wilson as presenting only variations on the individual selection paradigm ("multi-level selection"). The latter point seems close to Dawkin's dismissal of dissenters from the neo-Darwinist camp as quibbling about details or cranks (Gould & co.). To paraphrase and mangle-we are all individual selectionists now. Except for chapter five, all the remaining chapters until the last two tend to focus on the science-with a large number of rebuttals of critics of sociobiology in the academy like Steven Rose. Chapter six especially, "What have sociobiologists discovered," is interesting-it presents some persuasive cases where the "Sociobiology is too 'Just So Stories'" complaint seems to be debunked. The only problem is that in the short format that Alcock is working in, he can only sketch the outlines of any given explanation-and so it sometimes does have a "Just-So" feeling. This is where the citations come in-those who wish to find out more and have access to a local college library can find out the meat of the science that Alcock is referring to without much difficulty. The last few chapters deal with the political and social conflicts that revolve around the sociobiology debate. I don't think Alcock was as comfortable and expert in this area, his depictions of the figures central to the intellectual turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s is minimal and here his brevity becomes spare to the point of being uninformative. Those interested in this topic-the conflicts between Lewontin and E.O. Wilson for instance-would be better served picking up Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate by Ullica Segerstrale. But Alcock's summary will serve to whet the appetite. In terms of particulars to watch for, I noted that Alcock didn't have the word "race" in his index. But, early on in the book (page 50) Alcock makes a persuasive case for the heritability of IQ (backed by the appropriate citations to twin studies). Of course, he won't say that there might be racial differences in this-but he does hint that a certain group of Amazon Indians might be genetically predisposed to prefer a different waist-hip ratio than the vast majority of humans (page 143). Asserting that different races might have different genetic tendencies for certain behavioral traits after spending some time arguing for the genetic basis of intelligence-one should not be shocked if one's ideas are "misused." Alcock and his fellow-travelers might deny that their ideas have any applicability to race differences as their critics accuse them of, but books like this, which seems to put the framework of all the dots for one to connect, belie their claims. I give it four out of five stars.

Principles of Population Genetics
Genetics of Populations
Molecular Evolution
Quantitative Genetics
Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics
Evolutionary Genetics
Molecular Markers, Natural History, and Evolution
The Genetics of Human Populations
Genetics and Analysis of Quantitative Traits
Epistasis and Evolutionary Process
Evolutionary Human Genetics
Mathematical Models in Biology
Evolutionary Genetics: Case Studies and Concepts
Narrow Roads of Gene Land 1
Narrow Roads of Gene Land 2
Narrow Roads of Gene Land 3
Statistical Methods in Molecular Evolution
The History and Geography of Human Genes
Population Genetics and Microevolutionary Theory
Population Genetics, Molecular Evolution, and the Neutral Theory
Genetical Theory of Natural Selection
Evolution and the Genetics of Populations
Genetics and Origins of Species
Tempo and Mode in Evolution
Causes of Evolution
The Great Human Diasporas
Bones, Stones and Molecules
Natural Selection and Social Theory
Journey of Man
Mapping Human History
The Seven Daughters of Eve
Evolution for Everyone
Why Sex Matters
Mother Nature
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
R.A. Fisher, the Life of a Scientist
Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology
Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics
A Reason for Everything
The Ancestor's Tale
Dragon Bone Hill
Endless Forms Most Beautiful
The Selfish Gene
Adaptation and Natural Selection
Nature via Nurture
The Symbolic Species
The Imitation Factor
The Red Queen
Out of Thin Air
Evolutionary Dynamics
The Origin of Species
The Descent of Man
Age of Abundance
The Darwin Wars
The Evolutionists
The Creationists
Of Moths and Men
The Language Instinct
How We Decide
Predictably Irrational
The Black Swan
Fooled By Randomness
Descartes' Baby
Religion Explained
In Gods We Trust
Darwin's Cathedral
A Theory of Religion
The Meme Machine
Synaptic Self
The Mating Mind
A Separate Creation
The Number Sense
The 10,000 Year Explosion
The Math Gene
Explaining Culture
Origin and Evolution of Cultures
Dawn of Human Culture
The Origins of Virtue
Prehistory of the Mind
The Nurture Assumption
The Moral Animal
Born That Way
No Two Alike
Survival of the Prettiest
The Blank Slate
The g Factor
The Origin Of The Mind
Unto Others
Defenders of the Truth
The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition
Before the Dawn
Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era
The Essential Difference
Geography of Thought
The Classical World
The Fall of the Roman Empire
The Fall of Rome
History of Rome
How Rome Fell
The Making of a Christian Aristoracy
The Rise of Western Christendom
Keepers of the Keys of Heaven
A History of the Byzantine State and Society
Europe After Rome
The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity
The Barbarian Conversion
A History of Christianity
God's War
Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
The Sacred Chain
Divided by the Faith
The Reformation
Pursuit of Glory
Albion's Seed
From Plato to Nato
China: A New History
China in World History
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Children of the Revolution
When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World
The Great Arab Conquests
After Tamerlane
A History of Iran
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language
A World History
Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Human Web
Plagues and Peoples
A Concise Economic History of the World
Power and Plenty
A Splendid Exchange
Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD
Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations
A Farewell to Alms
The Ascent of Money
The Great Divergence
Clash of Extremes
War and Peace and War
Historical Dynamics
The Age of Lincoln
The Great Upheaval
What Hath God Wrought
Freedom Just Around the Corner
Throes of Democracy
Grand New Party
A Beautiful Math
When Genius Failed
Catholicism and Freedom
American Judaism

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