not selfish gene theory!

Maureen Therese Anderson manders at
Sat Nov 27 04:27:02 PST 1999

Oh say it isn't so! I'm gone a few days and return to find (amidsts dozens and dozens of really great posts) that the *the selfish gene* has insinuated its way on to the list as respectable banter!!

...Kelly (one of several posters who've been awe-inspiring in unflagging efforts to enlighten these last days--many thanks) delicately suggested that the selfish-gene theory is a bit "dippy." If so, I'd venture to add that it's dippy like, say, invoking _Bell Curve_ arguments to explain the present condition of blacks, or, "hereditary aptitude" to explain class reproduction across generations, is dippy.

But had either of these latter two been proposed on this list there'd have been much much wider uproar, so I'm still mulling over why this thoroughly debunked fantasy of selfish genes seems to be lodged more legitimately in many lbo-imaginations. The theory is more reviled than the antichrist among those who actually study so-called "mating" patterns (aka comparative kinship schemes) and other cultural schemes, and, as the Stephen Jay Gould postings expound, it's severely flawed for geologists and biologists as well.

Still, posters such as our manifestly well-read, aimiable Rob Schaap, gamely propose:

"A younger woman is a much more likely candidate to help a man's genes project themselves into the future than a woman over 50. A man of 50 is generally still a reliable source of fertile sperms, and the woman's genes do not have as dramatically a lessened chance of making it into the future with him. Even if we're all parented out, or don't want children at all, our selfish genes would still have a say in our preferences, no?"

So okay Rob, I know you've promised your last bleats on the subject, and I'm sorry to jump in late. But I do want to add a few things to the arguments that Kelly et. al. have been making.

It's been hard to catch up with all these posts, but it's clear you invoked the selfish gene theory en route to objecting to "discursive" accounts of gendered dating patterns because this "entirely" ignores biology. More generally you invoked selfish-genes out of a concern that we not take either/or approaches to nature/culture. (though gotta say that your oppositions between animal/biological instincts, on one hand, and "society" stands outside of and regulating it, rather reproduces it.) But you don't have to choose between nature and culture, _and_ you can do this with no help at all from selfish-gene theories. It's exceedingly possible to observe that in human societies both cultural and biological influences are operating, full tilt, all the time. No 80% to 20% or whatever:100% to 100%.

But it does help if you can see their influences operating at different levels. On the level of social-symbolic dynamics, biology doesn't determine specific, positive cultural content, but functions as outer limits to signifying schemes. Think of this analogously to how you wouldn't look to physics or chemistry to explain the positive content of biological phenomena (for that you'd look to dynamics of natural selection, etc. i.e., dynamics at higher levels of complexity). In the same way that chemical and physical dynamics are necessary but insufficient conditions for what happens on the biological level, so the whole premise of explaining social phenomena such as marriage strategies (or dating scene among NY literati) as a direct reflection of some biological instinct is a big category error.

But on to selfish gene theory itself. Because whether you're with me or not on the foregoing, I still very much doubt you need to scrape the bottom of the barrel here to address your culture/nature concern. Selfish gene theory is really in the rancid dregs.

The theory is actually a mutation from natural selection theories about _differential_ reproduction of _populations_ (based on _chance_ genetic and environmental shifts), to an individualist and maximizing model of selection resembling nothing so much as the competitive bourgeouis market-place in which its metaphors were spawned.

Now granted, projecting the social dynamics of one's own society onto "nature" is nothing new, and ever since Hobbes Westerners have been projecting capitalist society onto nature (and then invoking that nature to justify capitalism). But nor is there anything new about market-society detractors critiquing this propensity. That tradition's alive and well in left-circles, and in fact, in the months since I've been on this list, there've been several discussions on the interplays between evolutionary theory and capitalism.

...which goes back to my wondering why this particular manifestation of the market-theory of nature--this one with its nubile women home nurturing their precious eggs while the y-chromosomed are out spreading their seed--why does this one garner respect from people who'd presumably see through market-logics-cum-nature models quickly enough in other contexts? Zizekian disavowal? plain sexism? or maybe just less general exposure to the perils of selfish-gene theory than I'd presumed? If the latter, then herewith some elucidations.

In particular, some words on how ideas about kinship behavior does enormous work in holding up theories of the selfish-gene. "Kinship" was originally pulled in to explain away the paradoxes of an individual (vs. group) based theory of selection. Paradoxes concerning the frequent propensity for "altruistic" and self-sacrificing behaviors by individual organisms--a propensity which, by its competitive individualist-selection theory, ought to be selected against but is instead reproduced across generations.

So "kin-selection" helped resolve the contradiction between individual-based theories of competitive advantage and empirical observations of persistently un-selfish behavior. Sociobiologists asserted that those benefitting from the self-sacrificing acts in fact share a lot of genetic substance with the altruistic actor. Thus, in terms of the reproduction of an individual's genetic code, self-sacrificing behavior could _still_ be based on individualist selfishness (=whew!= close call!) since the individual's sacrifice helped his kin reproduce.

This is of course where sociobiology gets its most parodic, with its theorists (and supposedly all of us, unconsciously) scribbling those marginal-utilities formulae; genetic cost-benefits calculations factoring average shared heredity between kin with benefit to others' repreductive success over cost to one's own reproductive success (sibling coefficient of shared heredity=1/2, parents' siblings 1/4, parents' siblings children=1/8, etc.) So, you know, you'd risk your life to swim out and save two of your drowning siblings, eight cousins (okay they're on a raft), 32 second cousins (a big raft), etc.

Sociobiologists support this entrepreneurial algebra by pointing out (rightly) what a central category "kinship" has been for organizing social behavior for most of human history. They also point out that cooperation and shared interests (in production, property and varieties of mutual aid, etc.) are often correlated to determinations of "near" vs. "distant" kin, or kin vs. non-kin.

But this is where they're most utterly deluded about how kinship schemes actually operate. Because they're not at all based on "natural" or "biological" kin-relations but on cultural ones. They're _arbitary_ (in the Saussurean sense) schemes of descent, residence, marriage, etc. That's why anthropologists who study kinship salivate when someone starts citing their geneologies: because they know they're going to hear about complex social dynamics, not biological ones.

So yes kinship systems do have conceptions of shared substance between members, and yes, these conceptions have corresponding notions of sociability. But this is not about "shared genes." Members "inside" a kin group are always more closely related to lots of people outside the group. All but a small fraction of a person's geneological kin can in fact be excluded from "close kin," while conversely kin systems always stress "close" commonalities with people only distantly related or indeed complete (genetic) strangers. (And this not because they've been "hoodwinked" into thinking their nonkin are biological kin, but because kin membership, as a social and not biological phenomenon, is obtained performatively, not genetically.)

Thus you have unilineal descent systems (loads of them) where children are "strangers" kinwise, to either the mother or the father; or residency prescriptions whereby parent's parent's sibling's children's children (reproductive coefficient 1/32) are designated much closer kin than one's own siblings (reproductive coefficient 1/2); or, certain bilateral-descent Polynesian groups, where parents perform infanticide on their genetic children in high numbers, then later adopt non-genetically related kin, raised as their own children, in even higher numbers; and on ad infinitum.

In short, people are always, by definition, doing kin-inspired things that make absolutely no sense from the perspective of selfish gene theory. But they're things that do make sense within the society's meaningful schemes. And in light of this facct that kinship is manifestly not ordered by or for individual biological reproductive success, sociobiology has precious little left to stand on.

...So back, Rob, to your desire to partially explain (how much? 5%? 30%?) the May-December preferences at NYC academic circuits by selfish-gene theory. We all know the drill (at least those of us who read the popular press): genetically speaking, dads are deadbeats by nature, prone to abandon their sexual partners because they can reproduce their genetic material as often as they can knock a woman up, whereas a woman can only reproduce every year, and furthermore she becomes infertile earlier. So deadbeat dad is off to maximize his seed dispersal with more nubile babes. (always, always always "maximizing" in sociobiology, which has drifted so far from classic natural selection it's breathtaking.)

hard to keep track of all the "dippy" ideas we've got here: dippy biological ideas, where the individual organism is the self-directing subject of adaptation rather than groups; dippy ideas of social fields, such that a specific social tendency such as differential dating patterns among, say, 55-year old men and women in upper-middle class NYC (neither, presumably,interested in more kids), directly reflects the differential fertility between male and female fifty-somethings; dippy ideas about kinship and reproduction that undergird the whole theory; dippy market-saturated imagery of Hobbesian men and women who in fact just don't exist as some pre-cultural base line because we were always already motivated by and enmeshed in all sorts of social relationships before we even became modern humans.

And still, after all that, turns out even on its own multiply dippy terms the theory doesn't hold up: those who've suspended disbelief and engaged in the fantasy have pointed out that even if we could imagine this Hobbesian scenario of limited male parenting investment, scarce female resources (because parenting and post-natal investment has fallen on her) and correspondingly intense male competition, then what you'd get is war of he-man against he-man, wherein the mortality chances of those seed-spreading he-men would actually increase. (I think Rakesh actually mentioned this point earlier today.) Combine this with, given dead-beat dad's limited involvement with child or beleaguered mother, reduced chances of child surviving to reproductive age, and those selfish male genes have got a most pathetic reproductive strategy.

But of course even that thought exercise just dignifies the theory with more respect than it deserves.

sufficiently vented, Maureen

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list