Extracted from Sociobiology and Politics. 1998. ed. by V.S.E Falger et al. 203-214



Robin Allott




This paper attempts to consider the possible relation between sociobiology and human societies, nations, history. History is a continuation of evolution or an authentic segment of evolution. Collingwood saw the relation between history and evolution from the standpoint of the historian: "are not natural processes really historical processes, and is not the being of nature an historical being?" (1961, p. 210). Earlier, Vico, another eminent historian, regarded the historical process as a process whereby human beings build up systems of language, custom, law, government: that is, he thinks of history as the history of the genesis and development of human societies and their institutions (Collingwood 1961, p. 65). He conceived of history as the progressive development of human society. Other accounts have been less well-received. Thorson remarks that "an evolutionary perspective on human affairs... automatically raises the specter of Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists..." (1982, p. 83).

To recognize the intimate relation of history and evolution is important because societies are composed of human individuals who are without doubt the products of evolution and whose bodies and brains have been formed by evolution, by the transmission of genetic material (combined and occasionally mutated). The human society is a product of evolution because it is founded on both the obvious reproductive and survival needs of the human individuals who compose it and is also an expression of the evolved human behavioral and emotional patterns. Any sharp separation of cultural and genetic evolution is to be avoided. We should see "cultural evolution as a socio-genetic system, that is, as a social system for the transmitting of information from generation to generation. Society as a survival mechanism..." (Thorson 1982, p. 127).

The fact with which an evolutionary account of human societies has to cope is that there are many different human societies, different systems, different organizational patterns, and over time societies, systems, organizational patterns have failed, been superseded, emerged, spread, been replicated, shrunk, prospered, mouldered - and that each human society has had to exist in an environment formed by co-existing societies with which it may have contacts, or even conflict. The human society, the nation, is an example of a human group and societies have been selected (naturally?) for survival or extinction or for reconstruction. The survival or failure of societies can be described as an example of group selection - and even of genetic group selection (a debated but currently more acceptable concept. Even those who do not accept group selection may nevertheless recognize that sociocultural evolution can mimic group selection. So Hamilton says: "The social behavior of a species evolves in such a way that in each distinct behavior - every situation - the individual will seem to value his neighbour's fitness against his own according to the coefficients of relationship appropriate in that situation" (1964, p. 19). And Williams: "most of the examples of gregarious and other group phenomena can be explained as the statistical summation of individual adaptation and require no recognition of a functional organization of the group" (1966, p. 258). Against this one can quote Barash: "kin selection is simply a special case of group selection" (1982, p. 114). Survival of a society necessarily carries with it survival of the array of genes found in the human individuals who form that society - the societal genome, the population gene pool which is the genetic environment of every gene" (Williams 1966, p. 251).




But what is the nature of the human group? Why does it cohere? The formation of a group depends, at a minimum, on the recognition of some similarity, some relative difference from individuals not included in the group, but this may lead to no more than the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish, the swarming of gnats. The relation of the human individual to the group is probably much more than that "the group takes on a life above the individual members" (Hardin 1995, p. xii). The tendency to the formation of groups, from the very small to the very large, seems to go way back in the evolutionary history of the species. "It appears altogether sound to grant the existence of a biologically ordained social nature to man" (Thorson 1982, p. 143). "The evidence shows that it [sociality] is an extremely ancient phenomenon..." (Wynne-Edwards 1986, p. 11).

It may have originated simply in the family group, the parents and children, which became necessary because of the altriciality, the helplessness and very partial development of the human infant - which in turn seems to have been the consequence of the disproportionately large brain and head of the human infant. Then the question how the large brain and head might have emerged - possibly from the synchronous development of language: 12. "What selective force did lead to our larger brains? It is conceivable that the relevant factor was the evolution of language" (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, p. 276) and the selective advantages of an ever larger cerebral store, organized through language, both for social interactions and initially for the ability to manipulate 'mentally' perceived, remembered and projected aspects of the environment.

With language came the birth of the self. Damasio argues that subjectivity came before language: "Subjectivity emerges ... when the brain is producing not just images of objects, not just images of organism responses to the object, but a third kind of image, that of an organism in the act of perceiving and responding to an object.... This basic neural device does not require language. The metaself construction I envisage is purely nonverbal... using the elementary representational rules of the sensory and motor systems in space and time. I see no reason why animals without language would not make such narratives" (Damasio 1994, p. 242). Similarly Llinas:" 'self' is clearly a neuronal computational construct in every way similar to all other perceptual states fed by our sensory inputs, and has no separate existence from other perceptual realms" (1987, p. 355). But Damasio goes on to assign a vital role to language: "Humans have available second order narrative capacities, provided by language... The refined form of subjectivity that is ours would emerge from the latter process. Language may not be the source of the self, but it certainly is the source of the 'I'" (Damasio 1994, p. 243). Mead contended that: "The transformation of the biologic individual to the minded organism or self takes place through the agency of language" (1934, p. xx). I ascribe a greater importance to language because language allows one to objectify oneself and through the objectivation of self to objectify the self of others. I agree with Vine when he emphasizes "The profound significance of this latter capacity for self-objectification, as stressed by the 'symbolic interactionist' theories stemming from the ideas of G.H.Mead... Degrees of subjective identification of the self and its interests...with the group as a symbolized collective object... then become possible" (Vine 1987, p. 65).

Group sentiment depends upon the recognition of others as similar selves to oneself, analysable and predictable for this very reason. "By showing each and every one of us how our own brain/mind works, consciousness provides us with an extraordinarily effective tool for understanding - by analogy- the minds of others like ourselves" (Humphrey 1987, p. 380). Tajfel relates individual self and social self: "social identity will be understood as that part of an individual's self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership" (1981, p. 255)and Tonnesmann takes up the point: "Tajfel and his colleagues have drawn the conclusion that psychological group membership is first of all a perceptual and cognitive affair... Group memberships are real for the individual in that they become part of the self... personal identity and social identity can both be treated as subsystems of the self" (1987, p. 184).

The formation of societies is not a peculiarly human thing. There are the astonishingly successful societies formed by ants, bees and termites;: the vast number of different ant societies, "the number of all existing ant species... lies somewhere between 12000 and 14000 species" (Dumpert 1978, p. 10), offer similarities and contrasts with human societies as reflected in the title of Forel's famous book "The social world of the ants compared with that of man" (1928). Consideration of the properties of ant societies allows one to think more coolly about the features of human societies; surprisingly, as E.O. Wilson has commented: "Ants and other social insects have been underutilized in.. literature on behavior and ecology. Ants are premier organisms for research in behavioral ecology and sociobiology.... The shaping of the organism and the development of societies by natural selection" (Hölldobler and Wilson 1990, p. 3).



Ant societies contain highly morphologically and behaviorally differentiated individuals, resulting from very specific reproductive23 and developmental patterns: "Being social insects in the true sense of eusociality, one is describing a situation in which several generations live together and in which the offspring are reared by a caste itself unable to reproduce, so that one is able to distinguish a division of labour" (Dumpert 1978, p. 1); ants make use of a whole array of functional communication devices for the benefit (without obviously any deliberate intent) of the society as a whole: "The ability to communicate is one of the essential preconditions for social behavior... ants possess a particularly full repertoire of possibilities for mutual understanding" (p. 64).

Ant societies are organized to achieve the fundamental objectives of reproduction, development, feeding, defence, warmth, shelter, and so on. Dumpert describes features of any societies relevant for this paper: the ant hills of our indigenous ants have a plethora of internal subdivisions and conceal their inhabitants in an ordered structure of chambers and passages... intelligent and technically accurate constructions which, in their position and structure, fulfil the various temperature and moisture conditions for the development of the brood. Ant societies include individuals with very different reproductive roles; some which work, others which do not; over a third of all workers in a wood ant colony remain idle in the normal way of things, seem to have specialized in 'doing nothing'" some contribute, some do not; research on wood ants contradicts the idea of an equal distribution of food brought into a colony to all the members. Frequently there are individual ants who only take food and never hand it on; some individual workers may receive over 500 percent more than others. Ants acquire their communication system by shared upbringing, the culture of the nest. The chemical signals of the brood are not recognized by the workers from 'birth' onwards, but are learned during a sensitive phase shortly after hatching, probably irreversibly (Dumpert 1978, pp. 109, 116, 117, 1999). The same is the case for bees: "Many eusocial hymenopterans can recognize nest-mates.... a bee learns the genotypes of other bees in its colony, and accepts them as nest-mates, but does not know its own genotype.... there is no convincing evidence that eusocial insects can distinguish lineages within a colony... the ability of bees to recognize others by their genotype is of a kind that helps the survival of the colony, but not of particular lineages within the colony..." (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, p. 267). Ants repel strangers, defend one another. The ants' pattern of societal organization has been successful over millions of years; it has allowed them to cope with major environmental changes, to colonize every part of the planet, every climatic region, innumerable specific niches; to form thousands of different species: "their attainment of a worldwide distribution across nearly all climatic boundaries, through the development of variations in behavior patterns [rather than through morphological adaptation]" (Dumpert 1978, p. 4).

Set against the development of the many different forms of ant societies (behaviorally distinguished as well as morphologically, one can consider the parallel development over a much shorter period of the many different forms of human societies, the similarities and dissimilarities of structure. Human societies constitute themselves by processes of isolation similar to those by which species are formed (the word 'pseudospeciation' has been used). The isolating mechanisms include language, geography, belief sets (religions and ideologies) as well as apparent physical differences. The objectives of the human society, however such a society originates, are the same as those of the ant society - survival, reproduction, security, defence, stability, perpetuation of the system. In the same way as the ant is integrated into the ant society by the distinctive features and functions of the individual ants, by the communication system, by the reproductive system, so the human individual is integrated into the human society by shared language, reproductive patterns, regularized interaction. "We accept [the origin of human speech] as being the decisive step in the origin of specifically human society" (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, p. 12). The integration of the society is the basis for successful competition against other similar societies and for maintenance of the population. One can readily apply to human societies Dumpert's comment about ants: "the long-term advantage belongs to those species which are successful in maintaining their own in the face of their chief enemies which are, in the majority of cases, probably their own species or close relatives" (p. 263). In the ant society there is a societal genome, that is, a persisting array of genes from which the structure of the society derives. In the human society, there is also a societal genome, the population gene pool of the society from which the physical and cultural aspects of the society ultimately derive. Ants recognize each other as participants of the same society by chemical markers which are learnt in development; members of human societies recognize each other as members of the same society by language, ideological or physical markers, also learnt in development. Both ants and humans have neural predispositions to learn the character of the societal environment in which they find themselves.




The resemblances between ant societies and human societies are suggestive. Parallel systems may develop from parallel circumstances and achieve parallel practical ends: "Individual ants... can survive and transmit genes... only as part of a social group: the same is effectively true of humans" (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, p. 7). The issue to be considered, looking to the future, is whether and in what directions human societies may develop. They are less physically integrated than the ant societies. Will they under the pressure of environmental, technological and other change come to resemble ant societies more closely - or will they diverge from the integrated pattern of ant societies? We are in a period of extraordinary fluidity in human societal organization. If the structure of a society (a system) largely derives from the structure of the reproductive system coupled with the structure of the communication system, then what follows when either or both of these change? prediction is difficult not least because "if current environmental conditions are too novel, then mechanisms may fail to develop, or to operate, as they did in the past" (Betzig 1989, 320).

The basis of a sociobiology of societies would presumably be population genetics. It would deal with evolved but malleable behavior patterns, the operation of group effects within the society, the relation between the evolutionarily determined behavioral characteristics of the individual and the changing societal environment. It might even attempt to identify and study the requirements for a successful society: order without rigidity, a capacity for innovation and the borrowing of innovation, unity of societal sentiment, the ability to understand and absorb the impact of technological and other changes, how basic human 'drives' are related, for example, to a well-functioning economic system, to a just balance of conservation and change, to the production of functionally useful patterns of societal behavior (morality, courtesy, social relations), the maintenance of societal health, of population size, of defensive strength, Most important would be the ability to respond effectively to changes in the internation environment. The structures of societies are subject to change as a result of interaction between environmental changes and fundamental (evolved) aspects of human emotional/action neural organization. If human societies are in overt or implicit competition with each other, then changes in individual societies will in fact reflect and exploit the new possibilities, for example, from progress in genetics, in genetic engineering, from the changes in communication systems, from changes in the understanding of the biological basis for human societies, the individual and social psychological organization of the human in society.

More specifically what are the new opportunities, or challenges, being offered by changes in the environment. How will human societies respond, both within each society and between societies? Again: "the potentials of a biological mechanism are not necessarily constrained by, and cannot necessarily be predicted from, the purposes for which the mechanism was designed by natural selection" (Symons 1979, p. 313). Rapid technological and scientific changes, which have played a dominant part in determining the form taken by human societies over historical time, are now in progress or in prospect which can bring about unprecedentedly major changes in the foundations of current human societies. The changes in progress or in prospect include many affecting the reproductive patterns of human society: advances in contraception, acceptance of abortion and even infanticide, vasectomy, homosexuality; other actual or expected change can be even more radical in their effects: genetic engineering, gene therapy, genetic screening, prosthetic surgery, advances in neurology. Add to these the widening use of powerful brain-modifying drugs, the misapplication of drugs developed for medical purposes (smart drugs) which affect the individual's relationship to society. And in another fundamental aspect of human society, advances in electronic supervision and communication, plus advances in facilities for population flow between societies.




If the foundation for societal structures is to be found in the evolved psychology of the individual plus his physical needs and capabilities plus the link between individual and society formed by the integration of the individual and social self, the social identity theory of Tajfel and Hewitt, then brain-modification through chemicals can strike at the roots of the social system. This is why the problem of the use and misuse of heroin, cocaine, cannabis, and the new smart drugs is of importance. If drug use continues to grow - perhaps reflecting discontents with existing society - then at some point (in some places already reached) there is the possibility of disintegration of societies where drug use is most widespread. The express or implicit competition between societies will operate in favour of societies where drug use is less.

Perhaps even more fundamental for the future are changes affecting reproductive patterns and practices and beyond these directly affecting the societal genome, through gene therapy, gene screening and genetic engineering. We are "at the beginning of a revolution, the Genetic Revolution, which will have as much impact on human society as the Industrial Revolution.... Genetic engineering can achieve in a year what evolution can never achieve. As a result of human social evolution, we can accelerate biological evolution in a way that was never dreamed of before" (Russo and Cove 1995, pp. vii, 193). "In principle the possibilities for genetic engineering are almost limitless. Organisms might be made with any mix and match of desired characteristics... Humans and mice share the overwhelming majority of all their genes... differences... which seem so great to us, probably depend mainly on quite small differences in the relative timing of developmental programs which use the same genes... potential for good or evil" (Williams, Ceccarelli and Spurr 1993, 118). "Do we want to change humankind?... We should make it clear that it is not yet possible, mainly for technical reasons, to transform human cells genetically. But what is not possible today can be possible next year or in five years" (Russo and Cove 1995, 212).

The new eugenics is totally different from the old eugenics, which culminated in Social Darwinism and worse, but it is still eugenics, the direct attempt to improve the societal genome. An active debate is in progress about the ethical aspects of genetic manipulation but if in fact societies are in competition with one another, then it seems inevitable that at some time (perhaps not distant) in some society (already some possible candidates) the extreme possibilities of genetic engineering will be exploited driven also by commercial factors: "The pharmaceutical industry has discovered a new Eldorado" (1995, p. 119). The potentials of gene therapy are immense: there are some 2000 different diseases caused by a defect in one or more genes. In the future "Do you have cancer? Take the pill with the normal gene. Inject yourself with the gene for HIV immunity. All these are still dreams but there are thousands of serious scientists in dozens of new gene therapy companies who are working to make these dreams come true" (1995, p. 114).

Natural selection of societies may seem to proceed slowly but in fact it is extremely rapid, both historically and immeasurably more so when considered on an evolutionary timescale.




Such might be the basis for constructing a sociobiology of societies extending E.O. Wilson's interpretation: "Sociobiology is defined as the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.... One of the functions of sociobiology... is to reformulate the foundations of the social sciences in a way that draws these subjects into the Modern [evolutionary] Synthesis" (1975, p. 4) to arrive at "the blending of biology and the social sciences... the two cultures... will be joined at last... This concern is the deep structure of human nature, an essentially biological phenomenon that is also the primary focus of the humanities" (1978, p. 10). There are objections to such an idea which present themselves, for example:

It would take too long to argue these points in depth - the debates are in progress in other places - but the following are quick responses that may be made:


A final comment: part of the resistance to the idea of a sociobiology of societies, a group sociobiology, flows from the emphasis on the 'selfish gene' and the semi-mathematical theories elaborated to reconcile the gene as the only unit of selection: inclusive fitness, kinship selection, reciprocal altruism, game theories of cooperation, cheaters and so on. Originators of some of these ideas (e.g. the Prisoner's Dilemma) have begun to see the inadequacy or inapplicability of them for human society, however necessary or appropriate they may be for other species: "the intellectual fascination of the Prisoner's Dilemma may have led us to overestimate its evolutionary importance" (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995, 261). The definition of 'gene' used in these theories is variable or questionable: "A unit of natural selection may be something else altogether, and at the very least is likely to be a combination of genes rather than one specific one. In other words, both Dawkins and Wilson take a word with a highly specific biological meaning, and use it with a very much vaguer, and ultimately indefinable (except circularly) meaning" (Hayes 1995, p. 149), the trajectory from gene to behavior (via an immensely complex neural system) is hypothetical: "there are no genes specifically for human behaviors -- species-typical movement patterns excepted.... There can be no such thing as a generalized reproduction-maximizer mechanism because there is no general, undeniably effective way to maximize reproduction" (Symons 1992, p. 139). The attempt to bring the very special features of human behavior and human society under theories essentially developed for other animal species may be misguided: "Most of the differences between species among the millions of multicellular animals are probably in discriminations, choices and actions, which are products of the brain, not in skeleton, skin and other organs" (Bullock 1993, p. 95); "measurements of the percent of genomic difference [between humans and other primates] cannot reveal what the crucial differences are.... some writers indulge in an unscientific distortion or shrinkage of scale of degree of complexity in comments similar to these: 'chimpanzees, too, are self-conscious, witness their behavior with a mirror... they cooperate, they communicate, it's all a matter of degree'.... it is precisely the degree of differences between other species and the one that writes poems, recognizes a myriad shades of emotion, fabricates artifacts by the million, invents an infinity of recipes and musical pieces, dances in countless styles, supports libraries, prisons, mental hospitals, universities and wars, that makes it worthwhile the attention of biologists" (Bullock 1993, p. 90). Human sociobiology and the sociobiology of human societies, while it can make use of theory and research derived from other species, must come to grips with the radical differences created by the human possession of language as a societal instrument, and the massive intellectual development consequent on language, something emphasized by Charles Darwin in the Descent of Man (1871, Part I, p. 57).


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