Genotypes, phenotypes, Radcliffe-Brown and Nazism.

The following passage is from:
Sommer, V. (in press, 2000). The holy wars against infanticide. Which side are you on? and why? pp. IN van Schaik, C. & Janson, C. (Ed.), Infanticide by Males and its Implications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
It shows how ideas can be linked in surprising and perhaps uncomfortable ways. My point in posting it here is simply to illustrate how a "liberal" idea -- genetical explanations for infanticide are bad! -- can in principle find itself allied with a fascist political agenda. This is certainly not an indictment of Dolhinow -- she is no fascist at all -- and the link Sommer makes is arguably so indirect as to be meaningless. The point is just that it can be made: given sufficient ingenuity on the part of the advocate, just about any political/moral position can be "derived from" [some understanding of] biology. So, as Sommer urges, at least let's try to get the biology right.

"The interpretation of infanticide as a pathology has its roots in typological reasoning. Animals are believed to have a species-specific repertoire of behaviour. Those who deviate from such "universals" are consequently "deviant", "maladaptive", "pathological" or "abnormal". "Overcrowding" (Curtin & Dolhinow, 1979) is a corresponding misnomer since no God-given gold standard for population density exists. Animals will reproduce rapidly until a habitat's carrying capacity is reached. Different behaviours might be employed under low and high densities and some individuals will do better than others (cf. Moore, 1999). One cannot have it both ways and rightly emphasize that "one genotype can produce a wealth of different phenotypes" (Dolhinow, 1999: 194) while at the same time hang on to the dichotomy of "normal" versus "atypical" (Dolhinow, 1999: 195). It is therefore quite peculiar if not self-contradictory that Dolhinow (1994) tends to stress the problematic "reification" of social systems, pointing towards the tremendous "intraspecies behavioral variability" of primates. This resembles modern behavioural ecology, which has done away with the emphasis on "uniformity" and the labeling of alleged "asocial" behaviour as "sick". Instead, selection is believed to produce individuals who are capable of strategic and tactic responses, resulting in behavioural polymorphisms and "plasticity in primate societies" (Fuentes, 1999: 183). A behaviour such as infanticide is therefore not necessarily an all-or-none phenomenon, but may or may not occur -- depending on varying socio-ecological circumstances. Such a theorem has room for non-conformist life trajectories.

The British ethnologist Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) helped to pave the way to (since outdated) group-selectionist ideas. He maintained that the health of a society could be measured by how well its members were integrated, societal structure being "like that of the organic structure of a living body" (Radcliffe-Brown 1952, cit. in Jay 1963: 224). The analogy to body cells suggests that the individual within society has little value. Dolhinow applied this to societies of non-human primates where age and sex classes fulfill roles to support the "functionally integrated structure". Variability in behaviour may lead to "temporary alterations in the 'normal' structure" but such "disequilibrium" will soon give way to the original "equilibrium" (Jay 1963: 239). This catechism of harmonious togetherness knows no place for acts that do not foster group cohesion.

Tragically, Nazi ideology was built on similar convictions, and Konrad Lorenz himself lent pseudo-scientific credibility to it. He, who held a degree in medical sciences, proposed to eradicate "asocial" members from the "supra- individual organism" of the Deutsches Reich, just as a doctor has to cut out cancerous cells from individual bodies (Lorenz 1940, cit. in Muller-Hill 1984). There is certainly no straight line from the Nazis via Lorenz to the rejection of the idea that so-called "selfish" behaviour is pathological. However, it is worth noting that group-selectionist (=systemic) arguments can be as easily perverted into fascist currency as gene-centered (=individualistic) views (cf. Segerstrale 1992, 2000).

Further reading (caveat emptor; some is good, some less so -- read several before drawing any conclusions!):

  • Alexander, R. D. (1987). The Biology of Moral Systems. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

  • Katz, L. D. (2000). Evolutionary Origins of Morality: Cross- Disciplinary Perspectives. Thorverton (UK): Imprint Academic.

  • Rensberger, B. (1992). Science and sensitivity: primates, politics and the sudden debate over the origins of human violence. Washington Post, Sunday, 1 March.

  • Schubert, G. & Masters, R. D. (1991). Primate Politics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 296.

  • Segerstrale, U. (1992). Reductionism, "bad science", and politics: a critique of anti-reductionist reasoning. Politics and the Life Sciences. 11: 199-214.

  • Segerstrale, U. (2000). Defenders of the Truth. The Battle for Sicence in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Skybreak, A. (1984). Of Primeval Steps & Future Leaps: An Essay on the Emergence of Human Beings, the Source of Women's Oppression, and the Road to Emancipation. Chicago: Banner Press.

  • Smuts, B. (1995). The evolutionary origins of patriarchy. Human Nature. 6: 1-31.

  • Stent, G. S. (1980). Morality as a Biological Phenomenon: The Presuppositions of Sociobiological Research. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thanks to Volker Sommer for permission to quote his paper here.

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