Kitcher on Good and Bad Sociobiology

From: nik bollons (
Date: Thu Dec 11 1997 - 12:46:21 GMT

Dear All

Here's a quick email on what i pulled out of the seminar on Tuesday -
which wasn't much.

Kitcher's article made a number of criticisms of Sociobiological work
that had been carried out upto 1975 - the year the article was printed.
He also made a number of methodological and theoretical criticisms which
s.b should take into consideration in the future. He picked holes in the
work of Wilson and Alexander, and used them as examples of where things
were going wrong in s.b.
A few of his main criticisms (that i could find) were:

1- S.b tries to explain how traits evolved in a species, it also tries
to explain how traits arose in many species - such as flying in birds -,
the second is a tall order.

2- Much of the data on animal behavioural ecology (animal behaviour) is
not sound methodological, making any conclusions drawn from them,
somewhat 'suspect'(he, kitcher, states examples, but does not give
specific reasons why the data is so poor).

3 -In many cases - he uses Wilson's data as an example - if a subject
does not show a behavioural trait which has been modelled to appear in
the whole population, then that individual is dealt with in an ad hoc
basis. Whereas, it should have been taken into account in the model.
(We then went on to discuss that it is wrong to put the 'exceptions to
the rule' as some mutant who's gene for the trait do not work - there
may be env influences)

4 - By anthropomorphing animal behaviour (descriding it as human) s.b
are using terms and phrases that do not do justice to the animal being
observed - animal behaviour is different and more complex in some ways
than humans and should not be compared. In this way, s.b are kind of
clipping and shaping behaviour, so that it can fit into their model's.

5 - Many people see Natural Selection as the 'survival of the fittest',
the fittest being the optimal phenotype to that env. This is misleading.
It implies something has reached its peak in selection terms, and
stopped. There is, however, no optimal phenotype to the env. Just some
species are more successful than others - even though there adaptions
may not be the optimal to survive in that env, they are making the
'best-of-a-bad-job' as they say.

6 - One of the 'upshots' of the idea of an optimal phenotype, is that
s.b go looking for it. They look for the ideal behaviour trait or ESS,
even though that particular population may not have evolved using it -
they may use diluted a version, which serves them just as well.

There are a other points in the article, but i must be honest, i found
it really hard going on my kid-sib brain - which is a pity because i was
looking forwad to criticizing s.b (sorry!).

I do not have the foggiest idea what is going on in 'Darwin's Dangerous
Idea', so i'll wait for email.


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