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SOCIOBIOLOGY, INDIVIDUAUTY, AND ETHICS: A RESPONSE EDWARD O. WILSON* In the accompanying essay, Bernard D. Davis [1] has identified an important piece hitherto missing from human sociobiology and the three-cornered relation among ethics, social policy, and biology. In essence, Davis states that individuality is so vital a part of human nature—indeed, is virtually diagnostic of the species—that it will always defeat attempts to define a human prototype and to derive ethics and an optimum polity directiy from a knowledge of biology. Individuality is based in part on genetic diversity, but even if all human beings could be made psychobiologically uniform (an unlikely and depressing prospect), diversity would still arise in abundance from the interaction of members of society during the course of settling status, apportioning resources, and dividing labor. Because human beings are both intelligent and organized along fundamentally mammalian lines, individuation is certain to be a process of overriding importance in social life. Davis notes two levels at which this compound of high intelligence and diversity works against the predictive powers of sociobiology and, even more forcefully, reduces the potential cohesiveness ofthe social sciences. The first is the complexity of cognition. Individuals make decisions on the basis of a tortuous sequence of physiological events that start with vision and other processes of perception, proceed through memory storage and recall, and end with valuation and decision making. Because something like 100 billion nerve cells are involved, and these display a great deal of idiosyncrasy due to genetic variation and differences in experience, the behavior of individuals cannot be predicted from moment to moment with any degree of precision. At the next higher level, The author is greatly indebted to Bernard D. Davis and CharlesJ. Lumsden for conversations in which the problems and promise ofresearch on human diversity were made more fully apparent. The research cited here was supported by National Science Foundation grant no. DEB 77-27515 and a grant from die Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. ?Museum of Comparative Zoology Laboratories, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.© 1982 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 0031-5982/83/2601-0322$01.00 Perspectives inBiology andMediane, 26, 1 ¦ Autumn 1982 \ 19 that of social interaction, the complexity is enormously increased, and the prospect of predicting the response of an entire society is correspondingly diminished. With these considerations in mind, Davis suggests that individual diversity rather than altruism is the central problem of human sociobiology . In 1975 I had identified altruism as the central problem of general sociobiology [2], but so much research has been devoted to it since then (for recent reviews see [3, 4]) that it is no longer much of a mystery, and Davis is very likely correct in moving diversity to center stage. Davis also suggests that indeterminacy at the level of the mind and culture is so large that the values guiding "social behavior within a group will continue basically to be derived by a political process, whetiier ofnegotiated agreement or ofimposed authority," and as a result "we cannot expect a scientific process to replace the political process, with its reliance on trial and error and on compromise." The traditional distinction between "is" and "ought" will be preserved, not as a categorical absolute ofepistemology but as a gap in knowledge too great to be closed by even die most determined efforts of science. Pluralism will continue to reign in talents, passions, beliefs, and religions; no single Utopian ideal is possible or even desirable. Sociobiology and the remainder of science can contribute a great deal, Davis concludes, by defining the origins of morality and political behavior and by predicting the consequences ofselecting certain policies over others. But it cannot be the ultimate guide. "Indeed, die greatest accomplishment of applied sociobiology may be almost the opposite of prescribing ethics. Instead, by recognizing the importance of genetic differences, and the inevitability of genetically based conflicts within individuals and between individuals, sociobiology could supply a corrective to the illusion that progress in science and technology, or in politics, can lead to a completely harmonious society based on the moral perfection of man." Davis thus arrives at a position similar to that of Theodosius Dobzhansky, who stated that a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 19-29
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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