Where Nature and Society Meet

Mechanical Materialism Revisited

On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University Press 1978

Reviewed by Ethel Tobach (comparative psychology),
American Museum of Natural History

Although planned as the third in the trilogy, beginning with Insect Societies and Sociobiology, in this book Wilson seems to have been affected by the critics of the second book Sociobiology. This is evident in his imprecise labelling and grouping of his critics as "learning theorists,” “Marxists" and "ultraenvironmentalists." He presents his vulgarized version of their "positions" without giving any bibliographic references to support his attributions to them. He also apparently is responding to those who have criticized him from a viewpoint based on the concept of levels of organization and integration by offering a bowdlerized concept in his proposal of sociobiology as the anti‑discipline to other disciplines. The most outstanding target of his response to criticism, however, is "Marxism."

Marxism and other secular religions offer little more than promise of material welfare and a legislated escape from the consequences of human nature (p 3) . . . It is a misconception among many of the more traditional Marxists. . . that social behavior can be shaped into virtually any form (p 18) . . . Thus, institutionalized Soviet Marxism, which is itself a form of religion embellished with handsome trappings, has failed to displace what many Russians for centuries have considered the soul of their national existence [that is, the various forms of organized religion, ET] (p 70) . . . most of contemporary intellectual avid political stri e is due to the conflict between three great mythologies: Marxism, traditional religion, and scientific materialism. Marxism is still regarded by purists as a form of scientific materialism, but it is not. The perception of history as an inevitable class struggle . . . is supposed to be based on an understanding . . . of pure economic processes . . . Marx, Engels, and all the disciples and deviationists after them, however s histicated, have operated on a set of larger hidden premises about the deeper desires of human beings and the extent to which human behavior can be molded by social environments . . .

To replace the "failures of 'Marxist' materialism” he offers "scientific materialism." His definition of scientific materialism derives from his concept of science. "Science may be regarded as a minimal problem consisting of the completest presentation of facts with the least possible expenditure of thought.” He cites this definition by Ernst Mach (p 11). But Wilson is not satisfied with the definition, and adds the "other half of the scientific process . . . The remainder consists of the reconstruction of complexity by an expanding synthesis under the control of laws newly demonstrated by analysis . . . When the observer shifts his attention from one level of organization to the next, as from physics to chemistry or from chemistry to biology, he expects to find obedience to all the laws of the levels below. But to reconstitute the upper levels of organization requires specifying the arrangement of the lower units and this in turn generates richness and the basis of new, unexpected principles" (p 11).

According to Wilson, one of the pinnacles of social organization reached in evolution is that of insect societies (wasps, bees, ants). They are successful because they are made up of individuals which are related ("sisters") and thus genetically very similar. Therefore, they "cooperate" with each other because they are guaranteeing that their genes will be passed on to the next generation. This is an untested formulation devised by Wilson which he defends by analogy and description. (Experimentally testable explanations of this form of social organization have been offered by others, e.g., Schneirla, Topoff). As an example of his concept of levels of organization, he makes the following set of statements: Societies of wasps, bees and ants dominate and alter most of the land habitats of the earth. In Brazil, they constitute more than 20 percent of the weight of all land animals, including worms, toucans and jaguars.

Wilson equates species success and domination with number and weight; he says this is due to their genes; therefore, species success is due to genes. Further, the "lower" level of genetic process yields the emergence of a new form of social organization which in turn yields a richness of new principles . . . by rearranging the elemental unit, the chromosomes or genes. If they are rearranged otherwise, the social organization is different.

The mixture of static, structural, non‑dialectical levels is an example of his "new" materialism, "scientific materialism." Wilson's interpretation of the concept of levels is reductionistic and mechanical. A truly scientific application of dialectical materialism to the relation between genes and social organization recognizes an extremely complex and indirect relationship even in the case of insects to say nothing of human beings. The biochemical processes which are expressed by different relationships of chromosomes and genes have profound implications for the next, qualitatively different level of organization, that is, the elaboration of enzymes and other molecular arrangements of materials which yield qualitatively different series of levels, hierarchically arrangeable, such as cells, tissues, organs and systems (e.g. respiratory, endocrine, nervous).

These levels and their integration (resolution of their contradictions) are expressed in different stages of development, in particular environmental contexts. (Environmental = "social action" as defined by James M. Lawler in I.Q., Heritability and Racism, N.Y., International, 1978). On the "micro" level of the individual organism in its social environment and on the "macro" level of the social group in its particular physical setting, changes take place which are more or less adequate to affect the function and activity of the individual organizam and affect the social relationships of the group. It is the history of these changing relationships which brings about the characteristic social organization and behavior of any group of animals. The wasps, bees and ants stand in a particular contradictory relationship with their environments because of the inner contradictions of their own levels of integration, they are not likely to be so successful in the control of their environments as are the higher animals such as primates and humans.

Wilson's "scientific" materialism is a variation of mechanical materialism. Engels, writing on Feuerbach, described mechanical materialism as follows:

"Nature, it was known, was in constant motion. But according to the ideas of that time, this motion turned eternally in a circle and therefore never moved from the spot; it produced the same results over and over again."

That Wilson is caught in this circle becomes particularly obvious when he turns from insects to humans. Because, for him, the nature of humans is "biologically” determined, "we are forced to choose among the elements  human nature by reference to value systems which these same elements (i.e., the genes—ET) created in an evolutionary age now long vanished" (p 196). In other words, since human genes are "the same" the value systems they produced when they first started to function are "the same." Nature and evolution may keep changing, but for Wilson, nothing changes, except by accident.

While Wilson disingenuously admits that his own view "is mythology in the sense that the laws it adduces here and now are believed but can never be definitely proved to form a cause and effect continuum from physics to the social sciences," he nevertheless asserts that we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanation of the natural sciences . . . sociobiology can account for the very origin of mythology by the principle of natural selection acting on the genetically evolving material structures of the human brain" (p 192). The structure that provides the material base for the human need to believe in the myth is the hypothalamic‑limbic complex, the neural system where "gut" feelings of right and wrong, of morality, ethics and philosophy have evolved. Further, "scientific materialism embodied in biology will, through a reexamination of the mind and the foundations of social behavior, serve as a kind of anti‑discipline to the humanities . . . In order to address the central issues of the humanities, including ideology and religious belief, science itself must become more sophisticated and in part specially crafted to deal with the peculiar features of human biology" (p 204).

And what is the special craft that science must develop? The task before science is based on Wilson's fundamental belief in genetic determinism: social behavior is ultimately derived from a genetic code.

Human genetics is now growing quickly along with all other branches of science. In time, much knowledge concerning the genetic foundation of social behavior will accumulate, and techniques may become available for altering gene complexes by molecular engineering and rapid selection through cloning . . . The human species can change its own nature. What will it choose? Will it remain the same, teetering on a jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice‑Age adaptations? Or will it press on toward still higher intelligence and creativity?. . . New patterns of sociality could be installed in bits and pieces (i.e., recombinant DNA types of operations, ET). It might be possible to imitate genetically the more nearly perfect nuclear family of the white‑handed gibbon or the harmonious sisterhoods of the honeybees (p 208).

Although he skates on the thin ice of a regressive eugenics based on an equally regressive Social Darwinism, Wilson is astute enough to recognize the dangers. He, therefore, sets up the following dilemmas which scientists and society must face. The first dilemma is that human beings have no place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature (p 195). In other words, once it has solved all its problems there would be no further purpose in life. The second dilemma is that to change human nature, which because of its biological nature, has no place to go, and thus give it a place to go, genetic engineering is required (eugenics). But, because evolution favors diversity in the genetic pool (i.e., distribution of many different variations of the characteristics of individuals belonging to the same species). Wilson is willing to concede that human beings are faced with the third dilemma. “ . . . the preservation of the entire gene pool as a contingent primary value [is necessary—ET] until such time as an almost unimaginable greater knowledge of human heredity provides us with the option of a democratically contrived eugenics" (p 198). In other words, because we do not know which genes are the "desirable" ones, we have to preserve all the genes. But, as the goal is to work out the genetic basis of social behavior, one supposes that it is a matter of time for those genes which will be found "undesirable." This is the third dilemma: it may be that there is something in the human genetic make‑up which will prevent the species from pursuing this genetic knowledge and implementing it.

In a letter to Engels in 1862, Marx writes: "it is remarkable that Darwin recognizes among brutes and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, 'inventions' and Malthusian 'struggle for existence.' It is Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes, and it is reminiscent of Hegel in the Phenomenology, where bourgeois society figures as a 'spiritual animal kingdom,' while with Darwin the animal kingdom figures as bourgeois society." Wilson reflects his world in his theory also, a world in which women and minorities in capitalist and other societies hold their positions because of the genetic evolution of their form and physiology. Even undeniable social changes which have taken place are attributed to biology. According to him, the reason slavery did not succeed as a system for human beings as it does for some specis of insects is that human beings evolved a ". . . hard, irreducible, stubborn core of biological urgency, and biological necessity, and biological reason, that culture cannot reach and that reserves the right, which sooner or later it will exercise, to judge the culture and resist and revise it." (Lionel Trilling: Beyond Culture, cited by Wilson on p. 80). Slavery is defeated, not because of social consciousness derived from changing social relationships, but because of human "biology."

Wilson really believes that ". . . the core of social theory . . . is the deep structure of human nature, an essentially biological phenomenon that is also the primary focus of the humanities" (p 10). It follows that society cannot be fundamentally altered except by genetic engineering, the correct implementations of which may never take place because humans may be genetically programmed not to do this. In the best of cases, it would have to be delayed until there is an "unimaginable" development of science. I think that people will not wait that long for genetic engineering to improve itself that much. — Benjamin Rush Newsletter, March 1979.

SOURCE: Tobach, Ethel. "Mechanical Materialism Revisited" [review of On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson], Science and Nature, no. 2 (1979), pp. 60-64.

Stephen Jay Gould's Philosophy & History of Science & the Humanities
by R. Dumain

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

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