Biological Politics

April 30, 2008 | 2 Comments

Category: Biology, Society

Biologist Maynard Smith has noted what many academics have observed, that politics seems closely tied to science.  Neo-Darwinists, sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists and reductionists in general seem inclined to identify with the conservative or the right wing of the political spectrum.

Scientists don’t often experience themselves within a larger arc of societal transformation or social evolution.  Scientists are warriors battling for space on journal pages and struggling for the respect of their peers.  Their perspective can be surprisingly limited by the time and effort it takes to carve out a sphere of influence in sub or sub sub-disciplines visited only by others that speak their arcane lingo.  These intellectual athletes are often testosterone obsessed, wearing metaphoric jockstraps on their heads to protect vulnerable ideas.  The environment itself selects for the competitors, not cooperators.  It is no mistake that there are, for example, so many women doctors but so few women academics in the biological sciences, though that ratio is changing.

I’m wondering if the conservative proclivities of the Neo-Darwinists and the reductionists are evidence of biological evolutionary principles in societal evolution.

When Darwin first proposed his theory of natural selection, the theory was considered audacious and maybe even useful.  (Theories can’t be true.  They can be useful.  Asking if a theory is true is like asking if a story is true.  A story is a story, a sliver of reality told from a particular point of view.)  Darwin’s colleague and co-discoverer of natural selection, George Russel Wallace, was a liberal of his time.  For example, Wallace assigned equal social and intellectual status to both aboriginals and western academics.  I’m wondering if these early reductionists, originators of natural selection, were political liberals.  Intellectuals with laboratories were often men of means, suggesting Tory rather than Whig associations.  Still, I’m wondering if adherents of new theories tend to be embraced by the political Left.  Those clinging to old theories would be, or course, conservative.

Were the reductionists/conservatives of our times liberals 150 years ago when these ideas emerged?  New species are formed when flexibility is evidenced and taken advantage of by fitting a new feature into a changing environment.  Flexibility is a liberal quality.  It takes flexibility of mind to embrace new ideas.  Neo-Darwinism was once new.

These days, like their might-makes-right, neo-conservative, ideological cousins, the Neo-Darwinists are failing to spin their stories in ways that satisfactorily explain.  Victorians both, Neo-Darwinists and social Darwinists are disappearing, but they are by no means yet extinct.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 30th, 2008 at 6:22 am and is filed under Biology, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
2 Comments so far

  1. roy davies on April 30, 2008 5:46 pm

    How different would the world e if we had social Wallaceism instead of social Darwinism? Read THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY: ORIGINS OF A SCIENTIFIC CRIME to guage just how deserving Darwin really is to have even been placed on the same podium as Wallace. Book available from from tomorrow. See also

  2. Andrew on July 11, 2009 3:20 pm

    I’m just finishing reading “Spent” by Geoffrey Miller. Miller successfully defends the position that evolutionary psychologists, academicians, are left of center, not right of center.

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