The Myth of Extraordinary Evil: A Challenge to Evolutionary Theories of Genocide and Xenophobia.

This is a paper I presented at the Mid-South Sociological Association in Lafayette, LA, November 6, 2009. I have left off the page numbers and bibliography for this version. 

“The standard misapplication of evolutionary theory assumes that biological explanation may be equated with devising accounts, often speculative and conjectural in practice, about the adaptive value of any given feature in its original environment (human aggression as good for hunting, music and religion as good for tribal cohesion, for example).” – Stephen J. Gould, Scientific America(1994)

“We all have darks sides to us, and, given the right confluence of contributing factors, we are all capable of some terrible deeds.” – James Waller, Becoming Evil (2002)

In A Natural History of Rape (2000), biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig Palmer argue that since women instinctually seek men of wealth and status with which to copulate, men who do not have such things have developed the instinct to force women to copulate with them. Their proof for this claim is that while rape allegedly occurs in all known cultures, in many cultures there is no known cultural encouragement to rape. Important findings as these, the authors contend, demonstrate “that the best way to better understand the role of culture in the cause of human rape is to approach the subject from the only generally accepted scientific explanation of the behavior of living things: Darwinian evolution by natural selection.”

In Becoming Evil (2002), social psychologist James Waller explores the problem the existence of “extraordinary human evil” and concludes that the capacity to oppress and kill people perceived are different from themselves is ultimately rooted in human nature, what he calls the “ancestral shadow.” He theorizes that proper dispositional character and appropriate situational triggers transfigure the human aptitude for violence into savage action. Deep down, each of us is suited for genocide because the human being is predisposed to hate and dominate others. We are in essence born killers. Augustine Brannigan, a sociologist at the University of Calgary, sketched a similar view of evil in his 1998 essay “Criminology and the Holocaust,” published in Crime and Delinquency, wherein he proposes a theory of genocide based on evolutionary psychology.

These and other writings have provided a ready-made explanation for oppressive and violence behavior in popular consciousness on the political right. I offer here a critique evolutionary psychology and, more generally, sociobiology, as social scientists apply these to the phenomena of hatred and violence. My criticism is that theories founded upon the premise of a universal and innate human potential for hatred and violence are logically problematical and empirically unsound. I also voice political objections to the ideology of human nature, which, consistent with the framework of sociobiology, is conceptualized in this paper as an intransitive and normally stable genotype fixing, or at least shaping, the behavioral characteristics of the phenotype, or “the macroscopic level of the whole organism.” I juxtapose to the sociobiological conception of human nature a constructivist standpoint in which it is argued that what people are is socially determined and that culture and situations shape individual and group choices among historically variable lines of conduct. I argue that, because human agency is a transitive phenomenon, sociobiological explanations of violence are almost certainly false.

I begin with a summary of key points in Waller’s Becoming Evil and Brannigan’s essay “Criminology and the Holocaust,” followed by a critical analysis of their arguments. Twelve problems are identified and elaborated. Although the empirical shortcomings of evolutionary psychology are documented and discussed, my criticisms are concerned for the most part with problems of logic. At points in the critique, I reference studies in the larger sociobiological literature. I conclude with a discussion of the political implications of the sociobiological program and recommend rejecting this approach in favor of the historical materialist approach to studying human social behavior.

Accounts of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915, the German deployment of the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union in 1941, Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, and so forth, are tests of various theories of evil, according to Waller. Extant theories explored in his work include Milgram’s authority studies, Arendt’s banality thesis, Adorno’s authoritarian personality inventory, and Goldhagen’s “willing executioners” hypothesis. Waller’s explanation begins with an appeal to evolutionary psychology, a research program purporting to explain emotions and behaviors by drawing on the logic of natural selection. Evolutionary psychology derives from sociobiology the notion that human behavior is either controlled by genes or emerges from a constellation of genes that conditions our experiences and the expression of social action. Alleged universal forms of social behavior are the products of descent with modification. War, racism, and sexism are at root basic survival processes acquired during adaptive upgrading. The catalog of traits underlying expressions of human nature cited by sociobiologists include territorial imperative, male domination, selfishness, altruism, grammar, and aesthetic sensibilities. Although Waller downplays his enthusiasm for evolutionary psychology by characterizing the field as a “protoscience,” he nevertheless embarks on an extensive defense of it, at the conclusion of which he states that “we can no longer dismiss as an unsupportable theological or philosophical assumption the idea that human nature has a dark side.” As Becoming Evil proceeds, Waller’s certainty in the tenets of evolutionary psychology grows stronger. Two chapters later he writes as if it is a fact “that genocidal evil is readily available in our human potential.” 

Rejecting the blank slate theory, which assumes that variable environmental conditions (culture, social structure, geography, and so forth) are the cause of group differentiation in H. sapiens, Waller argues that human beings are “driven by a set of universal reasoning circuits that were designed by natural selectionto solve adaptive problemsfaced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors” (emphasis his). Some psychological adaptations come to us in the form of comradeship, love, cooperativeness, communication, nurturance, a sense of justice and fairness, and self-sacrifice. However, alongside our more prosocial proclivities exist “darker ultimate motives.” These include “intergroup competition for dominance, boundary definition, and fear of social exclusion.” Both sides of human nature comprise what Waller calls our “ancestral shadow.”

The chief components of our innate capacity for evil, according to Waller, are ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and the desire for social dominance. Human beings “have an innate, evolution-produced tendency to seek proximity to familiar faces because what is unfamiliar is probably dangerous and should be avoided.” Relying on the problematic logic of homology, Waller offers the observation that chimpanzees have a dark side as evidence for the “the idea that our aggressive and violent tendencies go back into our prehuman past.” Waller appeals to an incident that occurred in 1974, in which Godi, a chimp of the Kahama troop in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, was observed by Hillali Matama (a field assistant from Jane Goodall’s research center) being tortured by chimpanzees from a neighboring troop. Chimps and humans, Waller notes, share 98.4 percent of the same DNA. He quotes Wrangham and Peterson who, based on this incident, write, “The idea that humans might have been favored by natural selection to hate and to kill their enemies has become entirely, if tragically, reasonable.” Wrangham and Peterson contend that these “surprisingly excellent models of our direct ancestors” demonstrate that “[c]himpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war, making modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million-year habit of lethal aggression.” Waller then states as fact that “our ape ancestors have passed to us a legacy of aggression and violence, shaped by the power of natural selection.” In the spirit of Desmond Morris’ Naked Ape, Waller concludes that the behavior of our closest ancestors reflects our desire for social dominance.

However, Becoming Evil is not a one-sided sociobiological explanation of evil. The author stresses that we will not find genocide in a gene. “Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and our desire for social dominance are tendencies, not triggers that lead to mechanical causation or reflex action,” he writes. He begins his search for these other causes with a focus on the psychosocial determinants of mass murder. Here the perpetrators’ “identity” becomes salient. However, Waller criticizes the tendency among social psychologists to seek explanations locating causal factors outside the individual. Although situational factors play a role, he stresses the need for researchers to focus on evil dispositions, because the “personalities of perpetrators do matter.” Among the dispositional influences Waller identifies are cultural belief systems, which involve orientations to authority and ideological commitments; the degree of moral disengagement, which concerns justifications, euphemisms, and exonerations; and rational self-interest, encompassing professional and personal self-interest. Yet, he emphasizes, as with the evil potential in human nature, personal disposition “only tells us that we all capableof extraordinary evil.” We are left with only potential.

Waller then turns to the immediate social context, theorizing that perpetrators embed in a “culture of cruelty.” Through ritualized deindividuation and suppression of conscience, the culture of cruelty extracts loyalty from the individual by escalating commitments to killing operations. Facilitating the culture of cruelty is collective inaction, explained by “diffusion of responsibility,” or the “bystander effect.” Waller explores how definitions of the target, seen in the concepts of “other” and those who have experienced “social death,” contribute to extraordinary evil. He draws his evidence from the social psychology literature on “us-them thinking,” “out-group homogeneity,” the “accentuation” effect, dehumanization, and “victim blaming.” In these arguments, Waller’s arguments enjoy some points of contact with the sociological literature, for instance (although he does not cite them) in the analysis of contradictory moral systems and techniques of neutralization by Gresham Sykes and David Matza.

Waller concludes Becoming Evil with a synopsis of his theory of extraordinary human evil and briefly explores ways to suppress our tendency to kill others unlike ourselves. He condenses his argument into three concepts: the actor, the context of the action, and the definition of the target. Here, his commitment to a pessimistic theory of human nature becomes palpable. Waller emphasizes the importance of “the universal dispositional nature of human nature”—our “ancestral shadow”—for understanding the perpetrator, because researchers “cannot underestimate the impact of what we are on whowe are.” He argues that extraordinary evil rests in “innate, evolution-produced tendencies for ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and the desire for social dominance” and is therefore “readily available in our human potential.” Our nature “endows us with the psychological mechanisms that leave us all capable of extraordinary evil when activated by appropriate cues.” The major cues triggering extraordinary evil are the aforementioned cultural belief systems, moral disengagement, and rational self-interest. Because the disposition towards violence occurs in a social context, the culture of cruelty plays a role in helping “perpetrators initiate, sustain, and cope with their extraordinary evil.” At the heart of the culture of cruelty are the phenomena of professional socialization, group solidarity, and the merging of role and person. Finally, perpetrators must see their targets as unworthy of full moral consideration. The organizers of mass death achieve the social death of their victims by dehumanizing them.

Four years before the publication of Becoming Evil, Augustine Brannigan, Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary, sketched a similar view of evil in a1998 essay “Criminology and the Holocaust,” published in Crime and Delinquency. Founding his arguments for the most part upon Matt Ridley’s thesis in The Origins of Virtue, Brannigan argues that “the dark side of [our] sociability is group prejudice and an intolerance for out-groups.” He provides two sources of evidence for this view. The first is the tendency of male chimpanzees to form coalitions and raid neighboring troops for females (Brannigan assumes, as does Waller, the validity of homology, as well as the genetic origins of chimp behavior). The second is the social behaviors of the Yanomamö of Venezuela, a group that Brannigan characterizes as a “modern stone-age people.” From these examples, Brannigan draws the following conclusion: “the evolution of sociability, altruism, and the instincts for coalitions goes hand in hand with hostility to outsiders.” Our “belligerence arises from our coalitionist nature,” which lies “at the heart of our sociability as a species and is the root of xenophobia.”

After stating that the ideas evolutionary psychologists generate will provide fertile grounds for sociologists “if they contain clues to the basis of collective ethnic violence and genocide,” Brannigan introduces several caveats into the discussion. First, theories of crime remain based on voluntarism. Human nature supplies the appetite for violence, but it does not guarantee that violence will result. Individuals choose to misbehave. The author avoids discussing the paradox of amalgamating an existentialist position, which involves moral judgments, with sociobiology, in which human beings, because behavior is determined by extrasocial forces, are not viewed as subject to moral evaluation. Second, culture remains the mechanism that switches instincts on/off or excites other instincts to switch them on/off. Third, and this follows from the second, our shared biological constitution does not fate us to violence. Citing Buss’ work The Evolution of Desire, Brannigan writes that our ability to curb our ancestral desires “seems to borrow in spades from the mechanisms central to sociological criminology—high levels of self-control and social control, conditions that are acquired to various degrees during early childhood socialization.” Given the dynamic between our desire for violence and a culture that suppresses it, “xenophobic behavior—and its management—are here for the long haul.” Thus, despite caveats, Brannigan returns to the construct of human nature as the master explanatory variable. We do not learn to be evil, according to this view; rather we learn not to be evil.

Sociobiology is at best an impoverished scientific paradigm for explaining human thought, emotion, and behavior. At worst, it is unscientific, a form of scientism, the application of method from one area of study (biology) to another area of study (anthropology/sociology) without regard to the qualitatively different phenomenon under study. The application of evolutionary theory to the level of reality that encompasses interpretation and meaning commits a fallacy, a domain level error, by falsely applying a logic induced from observations of the natural domain to a domain that operates on a different logic, the logic that forms the basis of sociology and anthropology, disciplines both dependent upon natural history in an ultimate sense (though not needing to always take account of it), that nonetheless operate according to emergent logic as different from biology as biology is from physics. Scientists recognize that the biological domain cannot be reduced to physics. An ecosystem, despite having a physical dimension, is not a physical system. Natural relations are not governed by the same forces. Ideas in physics can be used metaphorically to describe observations in biology, but they are always metaphors. And the process by which metaphors are generated and used remain explicable only in terms of the mental lives of persons, which, without a social environment where language is present, are not even possible.

I discuss the following twelve problems present in both Waller and Brannigan’s work, problems representative of the larger evolutionary psychology and sociobiology literature: (1) neglect of culture and social structure, variables crucial to any explanation of mass human action, that is the sociocultural force as the prime mover of hatred and violence; (2) neglect of the role of motive, thus very little analysis of willful social action (actions derived from the sociocultural system, not from the biological one); (3) explicit and implicit use of the logic of control theory, which uses a “but for” logic of explanation, and thus assumes facts not in evidence (ordinarily, people don’t need a reason not to kill); (4) resort to circular reasoning; (5) reliance on fallacious explanations of the sort Gould calls “just-so stories,” a illegitimate form of teleology in which everything is explicable in a manner consistent with the theory; (6) erroneous belief in the inherent connection between cultural universals and human nature (as well as the vacuity of categories of cultural universals); (7) explanations of variability in quantity and quality using constants as exogenous causal factors; (8) the problematic logic of homology (deriving conclusion based on observation of other animals); (9) empirical and logical weaknesses of laboratory-based animal studies (assuming the validity of homology); (10) ignorance of the paucity of evidence demonstrating the existence of behavioral genes and the absence of any reasonable theory explaining the link between genes and behavior, not to mention attitudes and motives; (11) the problem of overgeneralization using atypical examples; and (12) appeal to the false ontology of human nature. On this last point, I emphasize that this is not a dismissal of the fact that humans are animals or that they have needs that are universal. It is skepticism regarding the idea that human attitudes, motives, and actions are the expression of evolved brain circuitry or modules.

Any explanation of group hatred and mass killing claiming completeness must explore how historical dynamics structure societies to make genocide more likely and take account of the shared beliefs that guide the perpetration of collective murder. The arguments presented by Waller and Brannigan fail as explanations because they tend to neglect culture and social structure. Although Waller does address the force of culture, this element plays a marginal role in his explanation; culture may act to prevent the manifestation of the genocidal impulse. Moreover, while Waller seeks nomothetic status for his subcultural explanation (the strongest element of his theory), the situational component remains inadequate for a general theory of evil because there is no explanation for how such situations arise in the first place. At best it is a woefully incomplete account.

Without an account of motive, explanations for intentional social action become doubtful. While Brannigan seems unaware of the problem of motive for his proposed framework (beyond misplaced appeals to voluntarism), Waller’s reticence to deal systematically with willful human conduct is evident in his mishandling of Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996). Goldhagen contends that the Holocaust was rooted in anti-Semitic culture, the sentiments of which were widespread in Weimar Germany. This culture shaped the milieu in which Germans were raised. Xenophobia was acquired during a lifetime of socialization in anti-Semitic culture. Therefore, racial hatred and racial pride provided the motive to kill Jews. When called upon to embrace their white German identity and save their troubled nation, Germans became “willing executioners.” The Nazis did not unleash a violent human nature, as Waller and Brannigan argue; rather, German fascism unchained learned genocidal anti-Semitism. There were certainly other causal forces at work. Macroeconomic instability created a context in which the Nazis could, by joining with traditional conservative forces, rise to power. A bureaucratic state machine made possible the mass production of death. These factors (largely ignored by Waller and Brannigan) constituted the opportunity for and the means of genocide. But anti-Semitism served as the motive. Waller’s criticism that Goldhagen’s explanation of motive is tautological finds Waller hoisted upon his own petard; for his own thesis rests upon a claim that the genocidal disposition is latent in all of us. What is more, whereas Goldhagen is able to empirically demonstrate the existence of an anti-Semitic culture and sentiment, Waller is only able to speculate about innate violent tendencies.

The claim that biology is not destiny, voiced by both authors, reveals the central weakness of their shared approach, namely, a fundamental commitment to the logic of control theory. Brannigan writes, “The Nazis may have played to instinctual out-group animosities in the reign of terror from 1933 to 1945, but the postwar peace process and the trial of war criminals orchestrated the innate moral instincts to reduce racial bigotry.” In other words, proper socialization can reduce the likelihood that H. sapiens will murder other belonging to groups not like theirs. He thus explicitly connects evolutionary psychology to control theory, which states that but forproper socialization, humans naturally commit acts of force and fraud. In other words, people need a reason not to kill. (While Waller does not make this connection explicit, his work nevertheless shares with Brannigan’s the logic of control theory.)

Brannigan’s characterization of the tenets of control theory as mechanisms central to sociological criminology reveals a stunning ignorance of the literature. While deterrence models appeal to control theory, there is no disciplinary consensus over the utility of control theory in understanding criminality. Indeed, control theory is widely recognized as a deeply problematical approach in the discipline. It is empirically questionable at many points, and its logical problems are probably insurmountable. Elliott Currie puts the matter succinctly when he writes, “Whatever one may think, on a purely philosophical level, about [the control theorist’s] attitude toward human nature, it cannot tell us why some times, some places, and some groups are more criminal than others.” Because of its status as an assumption awaiting substantiation, the premise of a Hobbesian-style human nature is deficient as a causal theory of criminal behavior. Put another way, control theory assumes facts not in evidence. It takes for granted what needs proving.

Like control theory, the logic underlying sociobiological thought is tautological. How do we know that a person has a genetic potential to commit mass murder? Because we see that person participating in mass murder. How is it possible that a person can participate in mass murder? Because that person has a genetic potential to do so. Perhaps it suffices here to simply turn Waller’s critique of Goldhagen against his own logic in Becoming Evil: if you are a human, and you are not engaging in genocidal activities, and you are not aware of your genocidal instincts, it is because your murderous disposition runs so deep that it need not be expressed consciousness. Indeed, “both its expression and its lack of expression testif[y] to that fact.” Such an explanation (which is no strawman in Waller’s case) is akin to Freud’s theory of psychopathy or Gottfredson and Hirschi’s theory of low self control or a priest’s diagnosis of demon possession as the cause of some malady. All these theories explain behavior by reference to non-falsifiable and infinitely rationalizable constructs.

Sociobiological explanations almost always fall under the species of fallacious reasoning Stephen J. Gould (following Rudyard Kipling) calls “just-so stories.” The hallmark of the just-so story is that any behavior, in the hands of a creative proponent of natural selection, can be explained in terms of the theory. Examples of just-so stories are Simpson’s pelycosaur’s dorsal fin explanation, Bartholomew and Casey’s claim of functional endothermy of large beetles, and Barash’s theory of variation in aggression in mountain blue birds (see Gould 1994 for details and more stories). The tales Waller and Brannigan weave are similar to Barash’s ethological theory of blue birds, what Gould calls “sociobiological stories”:

Ever since Darwin proposed it, the theory of natural selection has been marred by an uncritical style of speculative application…: one simply constructs a story to explain how a shape, function, or behavior might benefit its possessor. Virtuosity in invention replaces testability and mere consistency with evolutionary theory becomes the primary criterion of acceptance. Although this dubious procedure has been used throughout evolutionary biology, it has recently become the primary style of explanation in sociobiology. [Or, as Ludwig von Bertalanffy put it years earlier, “If selection is taken as an axiomatic and a priori principle, it is always possible to imagine auxiliary hypothesis — unproved and by nature unprovable — to make it work in any special case.… Some adaptive value…can always be constructed or imagined.”]

After explaining that their theory of the (relative) invariance of the age-crime curve “posits a single psychological mechanism as the cause of all forms of criminality,” Kanazawa and Still provide an excellent example of a just-so story in the criminological literature. They explain that “lower-class” men are overrepresented in violent and property crimes “because lower-class men lack the resources and status to attract women, and, therefore, they need to be more competitive and to acquire more material resources in order to achieve reproductive success.” Putting aside the empirically-challenged claim that “lower-class” men commit more violent and property crimes than affluent men, Kanazawa and Still’s explanation is organized entirely around the unrealistic assumption that human social behavior maximizes fitness, defined as accomplishing the transmission of genetic material (for a vigorous defense of unrealistic assumptions, see Kanazawa).

Waller challenges the dismissal of sociobiology on the grounds that it is merely a collection of just-so stories. He characterizes this claim as the false charge of “ultra-Darwinism” and emphasizes that evolutionary psychologists do not assert that natural selection accounts for everything. Yet, he goes on to write that natural selection “is the only evolutionary force that acts as a ‘designer’ in engineering mechanisms to solve adaptive problems.” He thus gives a natural selection a thoroughly teleological cast. Characterizing natural processes as purposeful is inconsistent with modern evolutionary thought. This error is the foundation upon which just-so stories are erected. Furthermore, Waller’s claim that natural selection “is the only known causal process capable of producing complex functional organic mechanisms,” even if true, is irrelevant to the question of social behavior.

Sixth, the claim that a universal feature of a species’ social life, such as violence, reveals something intrinsic to the genotype of that species is not automatically valid. There is no essential connection between universality and innateness. For instance, granting that all human groups have language implies nothing about an innate capacity to acquire language. Humans could come by language entirely by enculturation. Thus the hunt for cultural universals — which is itself problematical, as the examples are so empirically vacuous as to be true by definition — is probably a waste of time if the goal is to use these universals to prove that certain behaviors are genetically essential to H. sapiens. (A challenge to language as strictly learned behavior has been advanced by Noam Chomsky, but this theory is presently founded upon a non-empirical biological entity, “the language facility” and thus suffers from many of the same problems identified here with respect to sociobiological theories.)

Seventh, if we were to agree that human nature were a universal, a universal is a constant and therefore cannot explain variability. Human nature becomes as much a necessary condition for genocide as does the existence of human beings. One is as irrelevant to any scientific explanation of mass murder as the other. What explains genocide? According to the logic of Waller’s argument, it cannot be human nature. He says as much when he emphasizes that our potential for evil is just that: a potential. It cannot be our personal disposition, either, since this, too, is only a potential. What we are left with as an explanation for evil is the culture of cruelty, which only explains how ordinary people are inducted into killing projects. What, then, is the point of discussing human nature? The point — and why else would he bring it up — is that Waller very much wants to root violence in human nature and universalize the problem. Aware of the severe theoretical and empirical constraints inherent in making such a claim, he is forced to try and reconcile desire and reality. The result is a confused thesis in which human nature is depicted as the ultimate causal force yet always remains only a potential. Brannigan’s go at the problem is not any worse, although it is less systematic.

Eighth, granting for the sake of argument that chimps as a matter of habit kill one another, the problem of homology remains. It does not follow that because organisms are morphologically and genetically similar, and therefore may share a common ancestor, that similar behaviors arise from shared ancestry. (How are we to account for similar behaviors exhibited by organisms that are morphologically and genetically dissimilar?) Biologist David L. Hull, a noted critic of essentialist arguments, writes, “Most phenotypic traits are highly variable both within and between species. In some species there is more intraspecific variation than interspecific variation. Reverting to the genetic level does not help much. In fact, it only reaffirms the preceding observations.” (For an extensive critique of the general concept of homology see de Beer). Is Godi’s fate (unknown, since he was never seen again) one of those singular events that unlocks the riddles of human aggression and violence? Moreover, if other animals share our nature, what is uniquely human about it?

Ninth, even if we assume that the logic of homology is adequate for drawing inferences about human behavior from nonhuman animal behavior, we are confronted with the scientific reality that the empirical relationship between violence and biology in all animals is problematic. Suzanne Sunday, a professor of psychobiology at Cornell University writes, “At best, the hormonal, genetic, and sociobiological data indicate that there is no simple relationship between biology and aggression among nonhumans.” These complexities are compounded by the problem inherent in generalizing from the laboratory, where most animal studies are conducted, to the natural environment. Rats are social animals. What do laboratory experiments involving rats in cages tell us about rats in the wild? Thus, the knowledge sociologists gain from animal behavior studies (which appears to be limited) comes with a price: the baggage of ethology.

Tenth, has any researcher discovered the behavioral gene that accounts for an alleged instinct as complex as mass murder in H. sapiens? Because of the persistent failure by researchers to either specify the gene that causes social behavior or to explain the process by which a gene could influence social behavior, the logic of explanation becomes one of “triangulation,” as Boehm puts it. Such language is designed to place a positive spin on the type of illogic I am criticizing in this paper. Boehm provides an fine example of tautological reasoning when he writes that “genotypic tendencies…are strong enough so that they are likely to be either expressed or else decisively suppressedin adequately socialized and enculturated individuals who live in the full range of circumstance typical of our evolutionary history.” (I need to emphasize that the theoretical approach criticized in this essay is not the same as biological positivism, a body of work that explains variation in individual patterns of criminal offending by assuming genetic defects or hormonal imbalances. Biological positivism is marked, for instance, by the notorious twins studies. One of the best critiques of biological positivism I have read can be found in Chapter 3 in Gottfredson and Hirschi’s A General Theory of Crime. What sociobiologists require to move their theory forward is direct evidence of genes involved in behavior and a valid framework for explaining behavior based on the presence of those genes. I recognize that some of the best methods for obtaining the evidence necessary to test sociobiological theories run contrary to the system of ethics that rightly limits the range of possible experiments using human subjects, but the creativity sociobiologists regularly display in telling just-so stories could surely be put to good use in devising rigorous experimental protocols that do not violate accepted moral standards of scientific research. (For a review of the literature on biological theories of human aggression and a critique see Rosoff.)

Eleventh, as for the Yanomamö, anthropologists have long noted that this group is unique when it comes to their levels of aggression, warfare, and male domination. Put another way, the Yanomamö are not a typical gatherer and hunter group, and, therefore, should not be used as a basis for generalizing to other hunting and gathering groups, let alone other types of social formation. Indeed, the accumulated evidence convincingly demonstrates that, in general, gatherer and hunter societies represent the most peaceful, democratic, and egalitarian type of social formation (Leacock 1986; see also Goodale 1971). This is a problem for sociobiological theories of violence. Since gatherers and hunters are closer to the Hobbesean “state of nature” they should be more violent than any other societal types. Human should experience a reduction of violence with increasing civilization. Empirical contradiction of the sociobiological premise is punctuated by Blick’s (1988) finding that European-induced culture conflict, the result of colonization, has increasedwarfare in tribal societies, including genocidal warfare. At least with respect to violence, the mission civilisatrice has made circumstances worse, not better. It is worth noting that Brannigan’s appeal to the Yanomamö has similarities to Marvin Harris and William Tulio Divale’s notion of the “Male Supremacy Complex,” a disturbing argument that links female subordination, falsely claimed to be universal, to the practice of warfare. Like Brannigan, Harris and Divale generalize to all human groups from evidence gathered about the Yanomamö. Harris and Divale’s conclusion that primitive types of warfare are curbed by civilizing processes brought by western colonizers, finds considerable affinity with Brannigan’s argument concerning the cultural suppression of genocidal tendencies (see Casey for a critique).

Finally, if human beings have one thing in common as social beings it is almost certainly the absence of a universal nature or “essence.” The concrete relations that underpin societal structures constitute us as social beings in the historical moment. As Karl Marx put it in his Theses on Feuerbach: “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” In other words, there is no essence of humanity but for what is given to our species by social forces, which are dynamical and historically variable. Hull insists, and I agree, that not only is what is referred to as “essence” is transitory, but that this does not change the fact of our biological identity as H. sapiens. “Biologically we will remain the same species, the same lineage,” he writes, “even through we lose our ‘essence’.” Since the “essence” of humanity is transitory and plastic, it follows that it cannot originate in our nature which—consistent with sociobiological usage—is intransitive and (relatively) stable. Certainly the evolutionary psychologist would not agree with Hull’s statement that “human nature surely exists [if] by ‘human nature’ all one means is a trait which happens to be prevalent and important for the movement,” as this conceptualization runs up against the necessity of an intransitive, universal, and relatively consistent human nature.

In the end, the genetic explanation for behavior remains little more than a species of theological truth leveled against either attempts at subtle understanding of complex and historically variable phenomena or those claims that human beings are not inherently evil. (I have intentionally left out of the critique the problem of using religious constructs like evil in the context of the social sciences because of obvious space constraints.) As Waller puts the matter, “we all can be considered the children of Cain.” For the sociobiologists, our potential for violence is an original sin to be wrapped in scientific jargon and circular reasoning. Why do human beings war? Because, E. O. Wilson argues, kin selection has produced a natural human tendency to close ranks against and express belligerence towards strangers, strengthening group solidarity and thwarting attacks against the group. This is the source of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, and it is what causes us to war. Why do men rape? Thornhill and Palmer argue in A Natural History of Rape that since women instinctually seek men of wealth and status with which to copulate, men who do not have such things have developed the instinct to force women to copulate with them. Their proof? While rape allegedly occurs in all known cultures, in many cultures there is no known cultural encouragement to rape. Such important findings as these, the authors contend, demonstrate “that the best way to better understand the role of culture in the cause of human rape is to approach the subject from the only generally accepted scientific explanation of the behaviour of living things: Darwinian evolution by natural selection.” Why are men better at math? Because, to protect, guide, and secure food for their tribes, men have developed a superior ability to negotiate three-dimensional space. Just-so stories. “Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions,” Richard Dawkins wrote in all seriousness in River out of Eden. There is nothing scientific about any of this. It is a very old and pessimistic ideology—a myth that reproduces its power in the manner of all myths, via contradiction and appeal to indemonstrable essence.

I am aware that my arguments will strike the advocates of human nature as ideological and polemical (I confess to the latter). But I do not reject the idea of human nature merely because I find evolutionary psychology politically distasteful (which, for some, surely makes me more likely to distort sociobiological accounts for ideological purposes); rather, I suggest that sociobiology is an ideology that erects a barrier to critical theorizing about and research into the causes of violence. Frankly, at least for now, sociobiology is scientifically irrelevant for explaining xenophobia and genocide. And I do not think that we are likely to see sociobiology’s stock rise in the future. When we talk about political ideology and behavior, of which mass killing is a species, we are discussing human-made structures that make humans. To say that there is an unalterable human nature is to falsely naturalize a historically and culturally given entity: social being. Such an error indicates an unscientific posture. (The construct “human nature” has always struck me as an oxymoron.)

Yet the political concerns of the progressive social scientist arerelevant, and so is sociobiology as an ideological force. However much its proponents wish to deny the unpleasant consequences of this mode of explanation (they say their critics wrongly draw ought from is, falsely confirming their claims as factual), it remains a fact that sociobiology, and similar logics, such as control theory, have become a justification for greater levels of official coercion. Within such “logics,” the proliferation of violence around the world is not conceptualized as the problems of class, race, gender, and age inequalities and political oppression, but rather global violence is seen as a problem of containing “evil” human nature. The solutions that nation-states are increasingly adopting are not programs to end human suffering, but rather the expansion of the mechanisms of control. The problems of injustice are “solved” by greater political and cultural repression. Mihalio Marković states the matter this way: “conservative advocates of law and order derive the legitimacy of coercive state machinery from the view of human beings as naturally egoistic, aggressive, acquisitive, primarily satisfied in the satisfaction of their own appetites.” For those who press for greater control over human interaction “the gloomier and more cynical [is] their view of human beings, who are considered basically evil…. The worse their image, the less hope for any project of social improvement, the more justification for restrictions of freedom.” This gloomy view is no more obvious than in Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve and J. Philippe Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior. Rushton’s claims that differences in the genetic constitutions of groups of Homo sapiens explain differences in degrees of intelligence, impulsivity, aggression, and violence drew the ire of progressive social scientists. Yet the extremism of scholars such as Rushton function to mask the reactionary character of the field.

The alternative to authortiarian science is a democratic scientific approach that recognizes that Homo sapiensis the product of its social and cultural environment. Such an approach is found in historical materialism, the scientific framework first outlined by Karl Marx. The human being is, Marx wrote in 1857, “not only a social animal, but an animal that can individualize himself only within society.” There are no instincts that guide the individual independent of the social group: “Production by an isolated individual outside society—a rare event, which might occur when a civilized person who has already absorbed the dynamic social forces is accidentally cast into the wilderness—is just as preposterous as the development of speech without individuals who live together and talk to one another.” The “human essence,” Marx wrote in 1845, “is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” He observed that “[a]ll social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” Scientific discovery and refinement since Marx confirm his conclusion. Sound science is based not on speculation about nonfalsifiable entities and processes, but on empirical observation and actual practice.

Much as did the social Darwinian of the nineteenth century, contemporary appeals to human nature keep people from recognizing that social life is our collective creation and is therefore changeable, not over a long period of time, as Waller and Brannigan assert, but right now. Xenophobia “and its management” do not have to be “here for the long haul.” We need not squint to try to see the “faint glimmer of hope that we all may, ultimately, be delivered from extraordinary evil.” Solving the problems of xenophobia and genocide requires collectively changing the structure of a world that gives opportunity, license and motive to hate and kill. Social scientists must, at the very least, free this task from the weight of atavistic and reactionary ideology.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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