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June 01st 2012 print

Frank Salter

The War Against Human Nature in the Social Sciences

While lecturing in ex-Soviet countries from the 1990s it was difficult not to contrast the crumbling facades and rotten plumbing with the neatness of Australian universities. There were two striking similarities—the vivid personalities who worked in both environments and the taboo against human nature afflicting the social sciences. Colleagues in Moscow, Novosibirsk, Prague, Budapest and Bucharest, recalled that during the communist era their attempts to adopt biosocial science—behavioural biology applied to the study of human society—were blocked by Marxists.[1] The discoveries of Charles Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Nikko Tinbergen, William Young, Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, William Hamilton and Edward Wilson and others were mainstream in the study of all species except us.  

It felt just like home. An odd fact that: intolerant leftists held sway in universities on both sides of the Cold War. Ideas can be in poor repair in the best-funded universities.

The intellectual insularity of the social sciences was not a new theme. I had written about sociology’s rejection of biology in a 1996 review of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology.[2] The Dictionary was embarrassingly true to the Standard Social Science Model that has been dominant since the 1930s, according to which the mind and behaviour are shaped only by culture. The Dictionary defined childhood, not as a critical stage of development that is genetically programmed and common to Homo sapiens everywhere, but as “constructed on the inabilities of children as political, intellectual, sexual, or economic beings, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. [This] serves the needs of capitalist states”. The “Marriage” entry did not mention reproduction or child rearing. The entry under “Sex” denied the existence of instinctive sexuality. The “Race” entry denied that visible racial differences are the product of genes. There was no discussion of reproductive interests except for the usual mantra concerning social Darwinism, Herbert Spencer and eugenics. Many of these entries openly criticised conservative values, defining the latter so broadly as to include middle of the road values. There was no entry for “Patriotism”. Just one biologically literate editor could have saved the book by informing contributors of the relevant biosocial facts.

The review’s concluding words bear on the contemporary Australian scene: “Since evolutionary biology is a crucial artery linking the social and the natural sciences, closing off the free flow of biological ideas has resulted in the theoretical and empirical isolation evident in contemporary sociology as summarized in the Dictionary, and calls into question sociology’s status as a science”. I also noted that the part of biosocial science most relevant to understanding society consists of disciplines that study the naturalistic causes of social behaviour: ethology, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, biological anthropology, biopolitics, bioeconomics, behavioural endocrinology, and brain science. Evolutionary theory is part of the tool kit of behavioural biology, useful for generating hypotheses about ultimate causes. All these approaches illuminate facets of human nature, especially those universal to the species. 

The Dictionary was published almost two decades ago. The question I seek to answer here is whether behavioural biology is now a respectable part of Australia’s elite culture. The question is important because many policy and management issues involve assessments of behaviour. Decision makers are unlikely to adopt prudent policies unless their reasoning is based on realistic assumptions about human nature. That applies whether one is trying to improve educational outcomes, increase the representation of women in non-domestic work roles, smooth race relations, or reduce bullying in schools and at work. To answer the question I shall consider three important domains of intellectual culture: the media, business, and academic social science.

Human nature in the media

On the positive side behavioural biology comes up frequently in the media, probably due to consumer demand. We are living at an exciting time of discovery in the field. The human genome was decoded in 2003 resulting in a steady trickle of news about gene expression. At the same time other species’ genomes are being decoded, most recently that of the gorilla, allowing insights into human adaptations.

Many articles are syndicated from Europe or the United States, but Australian researchers are represented. Rob Brooks, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of NSW, recently published Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution Has Shaped the Modern World, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “sublime piece of popular science”. Brooks applies modern evolutionary theory to understand sex and sexuality. On Valentine’s Day he discussed how even romantic relationships must overcome the competitiveness and aggression that is normal, especially between unrelated individuals. The heavy lifting is performed by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.[3]

Melbourne University sociologist Ruth Quibell’s review of The Conflict: Woman and Mother by French feminist Elisabeth Badinter raises doubts about the latter’s opposition to naturalistic mothering.[4] Badinter argues that sociobiological theory is being used by “reactionaries” to shame mums into putting their careers on hold in order to prioritise baby care. Quibell agrees with Badinter that breast feeding, co-sleeping and intervention-free birthing do make parenting more difficult. But Quibell thinks that women are capable of choosing between full-time careers and children. “[Badinter’s] nostalgia for carefree smoking and drinking while pregnant seems less a lament for lost feminine freedoms and more a defence of retrograde hedonism.”

There is a stream of related articles, as indicated by these snapshots. Ross Gittins, a leading business journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, favourably reviewed a U.S. book that argues for economic regulation based on Darwinian theory.[5] Articles on self improvement are becoming better informed and realistic in their claims: “Genetics matter but there’s still much you can do to obtain the body you want . . .”.[6] Numerous stories about performance-enhancing drugs in sport mention the biochemistry of growth and sex differences. That testosterone produces masculine appearance and behaviour is perhaps the best reported fact about behavioural biology. A recent discussion of the emotion of disgust—its brain centres, expression and functions—was reprinted in The Sun Herald[7] from The New York Times. Medical genetics is well represented. An article on the disadvantages of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder reported its genetic basis and its concentration in boys and men.

Contemporary criticisms of biosocial science are less radical than the absolute denials of 1970s and 1980s. An example is a full-page feature article critical of evolutionary psychology in the Weekend Australian[8] by a Californian psychologist. In its discussion of adolescence the article conceded: “One of the most distinctive evolutionary features of human beings is our unusually long, protected childhood. Human children depend on adults for much longer than those of any other primate.” Both sides of this debate have adopted some of the same evolutionary premises.

There has long been strong demand for natural history television programmes, such as David Attenborough’s BBC productions. The latest exotic skull from the human past can be front page news, with information about the lost species’ diet, range and competitive challenges. For example, Sydney Morning Herald readers were recently informed about a previously unknown extinct population of hominids found to have lived in China.[9] The report noted that an Australian researcher helped make the find, that it had primitive features such as a thick skull but also the imprint of modern frontal lobes, that the population had survived until 11,500 years ago, and that it did not interbreed with modern humans. Such reports inject evolutionary perspectives into popular culture. An American television documentary[10] shown on SBS TV discussed Homo erectus. The program explained that the species was the most successful of human ancestors, not as measured by lifestyle or health but because it survived for two million years, an acknowledgement of long-term perspectives and group survival in an era of instant gratification and hyper-individualism. 

Another British documentary aired on ABC TV examined the subject of human intelligence.[11] There has been much controversy and vituperation on this aspect of human behaviour, both when it involves comparison of races or comparison of classes within the one ethnic group. The program informed viewers that the IQ test is still the most common measure of intelligence but that IQ tells only “half the story”. Other intelligence tests were discussed and it was noted that psychologists could not agree on how to improve on IQ. Biological factors were downplayed, such as IQ’s strong heritability. Also not mentioned was that IQ, despite limitations, is a powerful predictor of educational achievement and social mobility.[12]

A more forthright discussion of intelligence and society is economics Professor Judith Sloan’s review of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, the new book by political scientist Charles Murray.[13] Murray’s book is an empirical confirmation of the thesis advanced in his The Bell Curve, the bestselling tome of 1994 co-authored with psychologist Richard Herrnstein. That earlier book was strongly criticised on ideological grounds, though its premises concerning IQ and educational performance are widely accepted among cognitive psychologists. It argued that a self-perpetuating cognitive elite is developing in the United States due to the ongoing segregation and intermarriage of professionals in top universities and exclusive neighbourhoods. Sloan manages to avoid the terms “IQ”, “intelligence” and “bell curve” but gets the message across with terms such as “exceptional intellectual ability” and “highest cognitive abilities”. It has long been known that higher education is stratified. Murray shows how far this has gone. The pinnacle of the system comprises a score of elite universities such as Harvard and Princeton, which are gatekeepers to the high income professions. And because spouses tend to meet one another at university or work (“educational homogamy” in Murray’s terminology), the IQ advantage is passed onto children more reliably than it was in the past. The cognitive-economic elite has arrived, at least in the U.S. Hopefully Sloan is correct in her assessment that Australia’s elite is lagging behind America’s in that regard. A newspaper review cannot be exhaustive and Sloan does not mention that a necessary part of Murray’s overall analysis is that when gross inequalities in nutrition are reduced, differences in intelligence result largely from genetic variation. Nor is research noted showing that IQ predicts much social mobility. In his new book Murray himself does not report cross-disciplinary research by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen showing that average national IQ correlates strongly with GDP. The finding indicates that China, freed of the most debilitating constraints of communism, has a long way to go before its economic growth levels off.[14] The review is a refreshing reminder of how biosocial science can help unpick complex social phenomena, such as patterns of social mobility within and between populations.

Geneticists studying intelligence are beginning to identify the many genes contributing to brain function. On 16 April an understated news item on the ABC website reported a major breakthrough, partly led by two Australian geneticists, Nick Martin and Margaret Wright at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research. This was the largest brain study ever undertaken, involving over 20,000 subjects and 200 scientists. The research involved brain scans, genetic epidemiology, and IQ testing, found a gene that codes for a small fraction of brain size and IQ.[15]

The educated public has become aware of biosocial themes thanks to media reports such as those described above. That awareness is assumed by commentators and humorists, allowing hyperbole and levity to be predicated upon it. For example, Richard Glover of the Sydney Morning Herald writes: “[Men] see a woman, a woman of appropriate age, and in our ears a heavenly choir begins to sing. The whole weight of evolution bears down on us; the history of the planet itself; our DNA thrums with one question: ‘Could this be the opportunity I have long sought to fulfil my genetic destiny and to go forth and multiply, albeit in the nicest, consensual, mutually pleasurable way.’”[16]

Any discussion of evolutionary themes in the media must include the omnipresent atheist Richard Dawkins. His latest appearance was on the ABC’s Q&A on 9th April, debating Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, on whether the universe had a creator. Dawkins is an emeritus fellow of Oxford University. For much of his career he has been an influential public educator on how the myriad adaptations found in the natural world are produced by natural selection. His first great publishing success, The Selfish Gene (1976), sold over a million copies in 25 languages. The ideas and prose were captivating, though I agree with the author that a more appropriate title would have been The Altruistic Gene.

Dawkins has a genius for slicing and dicing the indigestible mathematics of Darwinian theory into metaphorical titbits. He has attained celebrity status, appearing with other luminaries where gravitas and clear diction are needed. But Dawkins’ contribution to injecting biosocial science into public debates is limited and not always positive. Certainly his views concerning natural selection help clear away obfuscation[17] but they introduce others.[18] Dawkins made it clear decades ago that he does not challenge biological illiteracy in the social sciences. In some respects he resembles the Marxist critics of sociobiology who praise evolution for its atheistic implications while opposing any use of biology to analyse society. Biosocial science has been advanced by scholars of all political persuasions. But its most powerful enemies have not been theists but left ideologues, including grandiloquent Darwinians such as Richard Lewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould. Given this background, Dawkins’ proselytising atheism could well be retarding the spread of evolutionary ideas by reinforcing the false impression that Darwinism is necessarily hostile to religion and the middle ground of political values. It is disappointing that he has focused his energies on attacking a target that is soft by virtue of lying outside science. The mismatch, which at times resembles blood sport, would be less jarring if he had taken on the hardened irrationalism of the social sciences.

A truer champion of biology in the social sciences is Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, whose books such as How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature have helped popularise evolutionary psychology. Unlike Dawkins, Pinker has taken on biological denialism in the social sciences. He has criticised the intolerance usually directed at biosocial scientists when they breach socialist taboos. His new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes was reviewed twice in the Sydney Morning Herald. One review, by Macquarie University law professor Frank Carrigan, had a highlighted sentence: “Humans were wired for violence from the outset.” The review included trenchant criticism but judged the book to be “brilliantly conceived”.[19] In the other review, international editor Peter Hartcher related Pinker’s thesis to contemporary warfare and the rise of China.[20]

Inevitably the science of human nature is entering the political culture, even if it must often bypass social scientists and disengaged biologists to do so. Popularisation is no substitute for academic analysis. But it can whet curiosity. As biosocial science opens beachheads in the United States and Europe, Australian gatekeepers will find it more difficult to police the culture. Meanwhile, biobehavioural information is largely absent from political editorials and analyses by leading political correspondents. When it does appear in the media it concerns relatively uncontroversial subjects. Biosocial science is limited to gossip and mostly kept away from the serious business of debating policy.

Human nature in business culture

Although MBA courses in Australia’s management schools do not yet include findings from behavioural biology, executive coaching programs sometimes allow that input. Management culture and the consultancy industry have been more open to ideas coming from ethology and evolutionary psychology than the social sciences.

Andrew O’Keeffe, a well-respected senior human resources consultant based in Sydney, deploys findings from primatology and evolutionary psychology to coach business leaders and help businesses cope with organisational change. He is the author of Hardwired Humans: Successful Leadership Using Human Instincts (Roundtable, 2011). O’Keeffe adapts research by biosocial scientists such as Nigel Nicholson, a professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School. This research is integrated with findings from evolutionary biology, for example the primatology of Jane Goodall and the anthropology of Robin Dunbar. 

Human nature has long figured in popular ideas about management. In 1971 Antony Jay wrote a popular book applying ethology to modern management before using its insights to co-author the Yes Minister series for the BBC. One can almost smell cabinet intrigues in the book title: Corporation Man; Who He Is, What He Does, Why His Ancient Tribal Impulses Dominate the Life of the Modern Corporation. Jay—now Sir Antony Jay—is still applying those insights to current events. Recently he analysed the BBC’s persistent leftist bias in terms that could be applied to our ABC or the social science establishment.

Anyone familiar with large organisations knows that over the years they develop and perpetuate their own ethos, their own value system, their own corporate beliefs and standards. . . . Those at the top of the tree are the custodians of corporate orthodoxy; they recruit applicants in their own image, and the applicants are steadily indoctrinated with the organisation’s principles and practices. Heretics tend to leave fairly early in their careers (London Telegraph, 10 Dec. 2011).[21]

Ethology’s emphasis on non-verbal behaviour (“body language”) makes it a good fit for analysing and coaching managers. Some graduates of ethology courses have been doing business as management consultants since the 1980s, initially in the United States and more recently in Germany. Bio-behavioural research into business behaviour is most advanced in the United States and Britain. Relevant fields are human resources and marketing. A recent example is a study into race relations and discrimination. The research employed functional magnetic resonance imaging to view brain activity while subjects made decisions about inter-ethnic behaviour. The study was led by Michael Norton, Associate Professor of Business Administration in the Marketing Unit at the Harvard Business School, previously at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.[22]   

The likely cause of business being more open to human nature is the unforgiving nature of economic competition. The churning of businesses and the spilling of red ink bear a resemblance to nature in tooth and claw. The constant winnowing of careers and firms keeps existential realities before business leaders’ eyes, a tonic for the ideology-afflicted. Another likely factor is the connection with economics. Economic theories must sooner or later work in the real world, which arguably keeps them on a shorter empirical leash than sociological and anthropological theories.

Human nature in the social sciences

Biosocial theories considered highly problematic and even repugnant in Australian social science are accepted in a growing number of universities overseas, especially in the United States.

Around 1980 Australian social science fitted a general pattern of excluding human nature from teaching and research. Marx and Weber were in. Darwin was out. That situation had its origins near the start of the 20th century, when radical ideology began to come into fashion among American intellectuals. A politically inspired movement developed in the United States that worked to marginalise the concept of human nature in the social sciences. The task was considerable because the founders of anthropology and sociology, such as William Sumner and Edward Ross, knew that human nature was important. How that movement grew and maintained its hermeneutic intolerance is properly the subject for another essay, though there is already a considerable literature on the subject.[23] By the 1940s behavioural biology was indeed marginalised in the social sciences in the United States. Its lowly status was spread afar when the university system expanded after the Second World War and the United States became the powerhouse of social science research by mid century. Human nature began its return slowly in the 1970s, a trend that continues.

In the early 21st century, biosocial science is a growing and influential trend in American anthropology and psychology, with a smaller though well-established presence in political science. Even in sociology the bio-behavioural approach has a presence, though the ideological headwinds are strongest in that discipline.

A comparable history of the Australian academic scene has not been attempted. However, some evidence is available. First an anecdote. During my experience as a student of political science from the late 1970s through to 1990 at the University of Sydney and Griffith University in Brisbane, I came across only one scholar who systematically applied behavioural biology to social science analysis. Hiram Caton (1936-2010) supervised my masters and doctoral research at Griffith, both in the interdisciplinary field of biosocial science. In 1988 we published a bibliography of the field[24] and updated it in 1993.[25] During those years behavioural biology was marginal in Australian social science.

At the end of the century Caton took stock of Australian biopolitics in an article appropriately titled “‘Biopolitics? Never heard of it’: A report from Australia”.[26] Despite the title, the article dealt with “all research involving synthesis between social and biological sciences”. Caton circulated a survey to 31 persons, receiving 18 responses. He also searched nine university websites for biosocial content of curricula and government websites concerned with higher education policy. This was a formal update of a previous assessment he made in a 1982 paper.[27] In neither paper could he report significant uptake of behavioural biology in Australian social sciences. He himself abandoned attempts to teach the subject in the 1990s due to pressure from colleagues.

All except two of Caton’s respondents agreed with his questionnaire’s assumption that “there was something odd or dysfunctional about the failure of biobehavioral research to develop in Australia” (p. 250). One unnamed critic disagreed with biosocial science on the mistaken assumption that it consisted of sociobiological theory. The latter was in fact only one strand of the biosocial conceptual tool kit, which also includes ethology, endocrinology, and social technology theory. The other, zoologist S. A. (Tony) Barnett (1915-2003), also opposed sociobiology but in addition opposed the notion of a fixed human nature.

Barnett’s views warrant discussion because of his influential stance against biosocial science in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. His influence was partly due to his prestige as a professor of zoology at the Australian National University. In addition he was frequently provided a platform by ABC Radio, a gate keeper of high culture in Australia.[28]

Caton had known Barnett personally since the 1970s and agreed with his criticism of Darwinians’ overconfidence. Caton rejected as presumptious the notion that anthropology, sociology and political science could be branches of biology, that sociobiology could somehow preempt social science.[29] He saw biobehavioural analysis as a necessary but far from sufficient foundation. At the same time he thought it unreasonable to exclude behavioural biology from social science curricula. It was from this perspective that Caton wrote with authority in 2001 that “[f]or nearly four decades he [Barnett] has, as science publicist and author, discouraged the birth of the dreaded hybrid [biosocial science].” Barnett spoke with passion against any attempts to apply Darwinian theory to the study of human society partly on scientific grounds but also because it would, he thought, restrict freedom, dignity and autonomy. He opposed biology-based ideas about human nature because they reinforced pessimistic stereotypes of humans as selfish, violent, mendacious, sexually opportunistic, competitive and exploitative. Barnett thought that future society could be free of such behaviours and opposed any ideas—such as that of an innate human nature—likely to weaken society’s resolve to abolish them. Caton raised the obvious objection that all of these traits are “empirically quite pronounced” and, moreover, consistent with Darwinian theory. Acknowledging them as part of human nature is not pessimistic but realistic, so why not accept the observations and abandon utopia?

Caton implied that Barnett’s absolute rejection of biosocial science did not follow from scientific arguments. It was politically motivated, especially regarding issues of race. His publications on the subject show that his historical arguments were derived from the left establishment in the United States, including discredited founders such as Franz Boas and his school.[30] Another resemblance was Barnett’s hostility to the Western tradition when it inevitably contradicted his utopianism. He characterised neo-Darwinian images of humanity as “emphasising human depravity”. “In their misanthropy they reflect the outlook of conservative pessimists who have influenced European thought for two and a half millennia. . .”.[31]

Like the Marxist critics Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin, Barnett did not fully acknowledge that the extreme selectionist models at the heart of the project were not ends in themselves but hypotheses to be tested and modified in light of data.[32] A theory is valuable if, despite oversimplification, it inspires cycles of hypothesising, testing, and theoretical revision. Barnett’s position was more subtle than that of Gould and Lewontin. His discussion of mathematical biology showed an appreciation of how simplified models contribute to knowledge. However, he did not credit the advances made by selectionist models as heuristics in studying human social behaviour.

The case of Richard Dawkins’ offensive against the Church discussed earlier suggests that Barnett was too worried about neo-Darwinism violating leftist taboos. For generations Darwinism has been used selectively to attack religion—mainly Christianity—while leaving anti-biological irrationalism in academe alone.

At the turn of the 21st century Caton’s survey found political pressure from that direction to be a major retardant of biosocial science. He cited an example of graduate students in anthropology stating that their supervisors “warned them not to get involved with evolutionary perspectives because of the political dangers to their careers”. More about political bias presently.

In March 2011, to survey the place of biosocial science in Australia, I wrote to 31 deans and professors in university departments of politics, anthropology, and sociology. I asked them for information about “the status of and prospects for biosocial courses or research” in their departments. [33] The letter defined biosocial science broadly as “the study of political and social phenomena using knowledge, methods and theory drawn from behavioural biology”, and concluded: “Is biosocial science taught in [the department] or are there plans to do so?  If not, what do you think are the prospects of introducing it?”

There were eighteen responses from fifteen departments situated in nine universities. Several respondents found my description of biosocial science interesting and regretted that their department did not teach it or plan to. However, all except one response were variations on this succinct reply: “The short answer to your question is: no, and no.” The one partial exception was the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. A professor wrote that the answer to my question depended on how “biosocial science” was defined. If it meant “aspects of human life in which social and biological processes play interacting roles” then “quite a few of our courses have a biosocial theme running through them”. The topics were treated by the Journal of Biosocial Science.[34] However he thought that I meant specific theories. In that sense, the most relevant course in the School examined controversies surrounding theories that treated human societies as animal societies. Those theories included ethology, sociobiology, behavioural ecology, and evolutionary psychology. Thus even this one exception did not deploy behavioural biology to study society or train students how to do so. Instead it examined controversies that arose from such deployment.

The stance against biosocial science has not been absolute. Caton recalled ANU anthropologist Derek Freeman’s drawing on ethology in his 1983 criticism of Margaret Mead’s book on Samoa. While head of his department, Freeman recruited a researcher on nonverbal behaviour. Biologists outside the social sciences continue to do research relevant to behaviour and every now and then comment on social implications. A high-profile example was Nobel Prize laureate Macfarlane Burnet (1899-1985) who, though an immunologist, ventured into the subject of social power. In The Endurance of Life: The Implications of Genetics for Human Life (1978), Burnet dealt mainly with ageing. But he also discussed behaviour and power, demonstrating familiarity with the ethology and sociobiology of the time. Burnet was publicly criticised for giving a “dismal, unappealing view of humanity”.

Away from such controversies Australian scientists have been building expertise in such fields as behaviour genetics, neuroscience, behavioural economics, and animal behavioural ecology. The last is the lineal descendant of Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology. These disciplines study biological aspects of behaviour, emphasising individual and group differences and reproductive strategies. Rob Brooks, the behavioural ecologist from UNSW discussed earlier, began studying life history strategies in fish, insects and mice in Johannesburg and found that the same biological principles applied to human Sex & Rock ‘n’ Roll. Other prominent Australian biosocial scientists, mentioned earlier, are Nick Martin and Margaret Wright at the Genetic Epidemiology Laboratory in Brisbane. Martin is a leading twin researcher who helped establish the Australian twin register in 1978. Housed at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, the registry has grown to be one of the world’s largest repositories of twin data. Martin and Wright helped initiate the Enigma Consortium, a cooperative venture by over 200 scientists that recently achieved a breakthrough in identifying the first “intelligence gene”. The gene accounts for 1% of differences in IQ. One of Martin and Wright’s contributions was to show that brain size correlates with IQ. The study has relevance to understanding ageing and dementia as well as the structure and development of intelligence.

It is the rise of evolutionary psychology that poses the greatest threat to the disciplinary isolation of the social sciences. The new field emerged from sociobiology in the 1980s in journals such as Ethology and Sociobiology (now Evolution and Human Behavior) and Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Since then graduate students have fed back into psychology departments and others have found utility in theories such as domain-specific cognition, slow and fast life history strategies, genetic similarity, parental investment, and models of selection. Psychology is a bridging discipline that helps introduce behavioural science into studies of society, for example via the interdisciplinary field of political psychology. It will be interesting to watch whether this new trend, together with other branches of behavioural biology, increases the pressure on the social science perimeter.

The emergence of evolutionary psychology returns the discipline to its biological roots, with a revival of interest in physiology and adaptive behaviour in natural settings. It also represents the revenge of sociobiology. Evolutionary psychology developed from the ferment of ideas and research ignited by one of the greatest scientific controversies of the last century. It began in 1975 when Harvard University professor Edward O. Wilson included a chapter on humans in his magisterial opus Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which brought together current theory and data on animal social behaviour. The central theoretical problem was altruism, which is held by utopians to be something owed by all to all, but which in fact is channelled disproportionately towards kin in all animals species. Wilson came under furious assault from Marxist vigilantes who perceived a challenge to their academic hegemony.[35] Leading lights such as Richard Lewontin and Steven Rose led the charge. They rejected the validity of behavioural genetics as a whole, which underlay Martin and Wright’s discovery of a gene for brain size described above. Wilson fought back with books such as On Human Nature (1978) and Genes, Mind, and Culture (1981), which pioneered the theory of gene-culture evolution. In Consilience (1998) Wilson advocated unifying knowledge from biology, the humanities and the social sciences.

Wilson lost the battle in the sense that the social sciences did not embrace sociobiology. In the social sciences and humanities the term came to represent dangerous reactionism (i.e. middle of the road conservatism). The term “sociobiology” was successfully stigmatised and was dropped even by many practitioners. However, it seems that Wilson is winning the war because many psychologists (and in the U.S. anthropologists) are working again on human nature and explicitly drawing on biobehavioural data and methods. In Australia, several respondents reported taking up this type of research on its merits, not due to overseas connections. This corroborates the impression of the artificiality and growing fragility of the social sciences’ taboo against biology.

Recently the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt described how the social sciences reproduce their intolerant political agenda. Like Antony Jay and the BBC, Haidt knows his subject from the inside. Indeed, he presented his criticisms at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, in January 2011.[36] Haidt argued that the discipline of social psychology is a “tribal-moral society” that shuts out research and researchers likely to produce results that conflict with liberal (i.e. socialist) beliefs.

Haidt based this thesis on three observations. First, social psychologists have sacred values that are neither empirical nor methodological dogmas. These values take the form of taboos that constrain thinking. Secondly, they have created a homogeneous society. There is almost no moral or political diversity within the discipline. While conservatives outnumber liberals 2-to-1 in the general U.S. population, they are outnumbered 200 or 300-to-1 within social psychology. Haidt managed to locate only one declared conservative social psychology academic. Finally, social psychologists have created a hostile environment that suppresses and discourages non-liberals, such as libertarians and conservatives. He gave examples of how conservative students are intimidated into not pursuing social psychology for fear of the social environment in the discipline and the taboo-breaking results they might find. The situation described by Haidt is a microcosm of the soft totalitarianism that a radicalised intellectual elite has imposed on Western societies since the Second World War.

The taboos identified by Haidt concern race and sex differences, blaming the victim, stereotype accuracy, and nativism. The lack of political diversity hurts the discipline because different points of view lead to the discovery of novel phenomena. What Haidt found in social psychology also exists in the liberal social sciences. Haidt’s report agrees with Hiram Caton’s article discussed earlier about the importance of political correctness in selecting personnel in the social sciences and how it shapes research agendas and chills creativity from student times onwards.

Despite promising signs, until now Australian social sciences have managed to keep human nature at bay. While not monolithic, the exclusion of biosocial science has been effective enough to retain the Standard Social Science Model as the accepted dogma in many departments. The situation is a harsher version of that overseas. Disciplines whose subject is human social behaviour generally do not include biological information in their curricula or research. It is like economists considering money to be unmentionable or physicists writing off certain particles for lack of charm.

Behavioural biology is making headway in psychology while the sociological disciplines—sociology, anthropology and political science together with specialist areas such as gender studies—have maintained the rage against any science that dispels utopian dreams. The result has been the unfolding, largely unwitting, of the Gramscian vision of training a new intellectual elite, year after year, generation after generation. That is how the social sciences long ago became a vital area of strength for leftist hegemony in Western intellectual culture and a breeding ground for radical movements.


The social sciences’ stand against behavioural biology is leaving them increasingly isolated and irrelevant. News about human nature attracts audiences and as a result is opening up popular culture to information more advanced than that made available university courses. Business often sees the relevance of hardwired social behaviour to management practice. Behavioural biology’s influence in adjacent disciplines such as psychology and economics is growing. The social science role of providing analysis and social technologies for governments and corporations is being poached by disciplines that are less ideologically and theoretically constrained. 

My personal experience illustrates the contrast between the popular, business and academic taste for the science of human nature. During postgraduate research in biosocial science at Griffith University, from 1984 to 1990, non-academics would often express interest in the subject. I remember conversations about human universals, body language, evolutionary history, biological sex differences, sexual identity, power, ethnicity, child behaviour, and so on. The same interest frequently came from academics not immersed in the social sciences. In 1990 the local ABC radio station sensed that interest and invited me to present a few talkback sessions on body language. Managers also expressed interest. Two federal bureaucracies engaged me to detect and prevent occupational stress. But the academic response in the social sciences was weak or antagonistic. Over the next twenty years I experienced a slow warming of attitudes by social scientists in Europe and the United States, and frequent enthusiasm among students. The survey described above indicates a growing latent interest in biosocial science but it has not yet found practical expression in teaching and research.

A caveat is in order concerning the foregoing review, which has not been exhaustive. It is possible that sociology students somewhere are being introduced to behavioural endocrinology or that political science students are learning about primate social models and field observational methods. At the same time it should be emphasised that my criticisms of social science concern lack of pluralism, and is not directed at whole fields of knowledge. Biosocial science can aspire only to being an aspect of these disciplines.

At the start of this article I suggested that just one biologically informed editor could have saved The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. The same applies to departments of sociology, anthropology and political science in Australian universities. A light seasoning of colleagues whose research draws on the biological sciences would give departmental cultures a taste of the natural world. That would be interdisciplinarity with teeth. Who knows? It might hasten the end of the Gramscian assault on human nature.

What to do about our universities? At this juncture, after such a negative review, readers might expect me to suggest remedies. Apart from a policy of waiting for the inevitable, I do not pretend to know them. More important at this stage is to assess the damage done to our political culture by over half a century of tribal-moral social science.

Dr Frank Salter is an urban anthropologist and political ethologist. His text, Emotions in Command, is used to teach observational methods and ethological theory of organisations. Frank consults on the management of interpersonal behaviour and is a visiting scholar in the Department of Government, University of Sydney. Website: socialtechnologies.com.au



[1] One colleague explained how the Soviet authorities suppressed human ethology. New overseas developments in physics were immediately available, but he first learnt of Konrad Lorenz’s book On Aggression ten years after it was written, and only then from a Russian translation of a book criticising Lorenz written by an Austrian Marxist.

[2] Salter, F. K. (1996). "Sociology as alchemy [review of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 1994]." Skeptic 4(1): 50-59.

[3] “The Course of True Love Was Never about Profit”, SMH 14 Feb. 2012, p. 11.

[4] SMH 4-5 Feb. 2012, Spectrum, p. 35.

[5] SMH 23-25 Dec. 2011, Weekend Business p. 8.The book is Robert Frank’s, The Darwin Economy.

[6] Sun Herald 11 March 2012, p. 20.

[7] Sun Herald, 29 Jan. 2012, Extra, p. 4.

[8] Alison Gopnik, The Weekend Australian, 11-12 Feb. 2012, Inquirer, p. 17.

[9] SMH, 15 March 2012, p. 1.

[10] SBS One, Lost Worlds, WGBH production, 11 March 2012.

[11] “Battle of the Brains”, ABC1 TV, 27 Feb. 2012, produced for Horizon by the BBC in 2007.

[12] Salter, F. K. (2008). Class mobility, environment, and genes: A Darwinian conflict analysis. In The new evolutionary social science: Human nature, social behavior, and social change. Edited by H.-J. Niedenzu, T. Meleghy and P. Meyer. Boulder, Colorado, Paradigm: 159-171.

[13] Judith Sloan, Weekend Australian, 17-18 March 2012, Inquirer, p. 17.

[14] Lynn, R. and T. Vanhanen (2002). IQ and the wealth of nations. Westport, Conn., Praeger.

[16] Richard Glover, SMH, 3-4 March 2012, Spectrum p. 5.

[17] See Richard Dawkins interview Steven Rose: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xdvj1r_steven-rose_tech.

[18] Salter, F. K. (2008). "Misunderstandings of kin selection and the delay in quantifying ethnic kinship." Mankind Quarterly 48(3): 311-344.

[19] Frank Carrigan, SMH Review, 18-19 Feb. 2012, pp. 18-19.

[20] Peter Hartcher, SMH, 31 Jan. 2012, p. 11.

[22] Norton, M. I., M. F. Mason, et al. (2012). "An fMRI investigation of racial paralysis." Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience.

[23] Degler, C. (1991). In search of human nature: The decline and revival of Darwinism in American social thought. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Segerstråle, U. (2000). Defenders of truth: The battle for science in the sociobiology debate and beyond. New York, Oxford University Press.

Kaufmann, E. (2004). The rise and fall of Anglo-America. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

[24] Caton, H. P. and F. K. Salter (1988). A bibliography of biosocial science. Brisbane, St. Albans Press.

[25] Caton, H. P., F. K. Salter, and J. van der Dennen (1993). The bibliography of human behavior. Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press.

[26] Caton, H. P. (2001). ‘Biopolitics? Never heard of it’: A report from Australia. Evolutionary approaches in the behavioral sciences: Toward a better understanding of human nature. S. A. Peterson and A. Somit. Amsterdam, JAI-Elsevier Science: 247-269.

[27] Caton, H. P. (1982). Biosocial science: Knowledge for enlightened political leadership. Paper prepared for the American Political Science Association annual convention, Denver, Colarado, 2-6 September.

[28] On the ABC’s The Science Show  and Ockham’s Razor (http://currawong.net/s-a-barnett/).

[29] Rosenberg, A. (1981). Sociobiology and the preemption of social science. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

[30] See the references on race in Barnett, S. A. (1988). Biology and freedom: An essay on the implications of human ethology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[31] Barnett, S. A. (1983). "Humanity and natural selection." Ethology and Sociobiology 4(1): 35-51, p. 35.

[32] Barnett, S. A. (1988). Biology and freedom: An essay on the implications of human ethology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 91-3.

[33] This number was coincidentally the same as Caton’s.

[35] Wilson, E. O. (1978). Academic vigilantism and the political significance of sociobiology. The sociobiology debate: Readings on the ethical and scientific issues concerning sociobiology. A. L. Caplan. New York, Harper and Row: 291-303.

[36] Jonathan Haidt, "The bright future of post-partisan social psychology", 27 Jan. 2011, http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/jhaidt-819710-haidt-postpartisan-social-psychology/