BIOSOCIOLOGY
An Emerging Paradigm

English - Spanish

 

Anthony Walsh
Foreword by Robert A. Gordon
PRAEGER Westport,
Connecticut London

 

Biology is the key to human nature, and social scientists cannot afford to ignore its rapidly tightening principles. But the social sciences are potentially far richer in content. Eventually they will absorb the relevant ideas of biology and go on to beggar them by comparison.

E. Wilson (1990:260)

 

Biosociology is an emerging paradigm seeking to understand human behavior by integrating relevant insights from the natural sciences into traditional sociological thinking. Biosociology is not a "biological" perspective; it is a biosocial perspective that recognizes "the continuous, mutual, and inseparable interaction between biology and the social environment" ( Lancaster, Altmann, Rossi, & Sherrod, 1987:2). Biosociology posits no ultimate causes of human behavior; rather, it seeks to understand how biological factors interact with other factors to produce observed behavior. It does not seek to "reduce" complex behavior to the level of biological processes in isolation from environmental influences; it merely insists that such processes must be recognized and included in any analysis of behavior and that such an analysis be consistent with those processes.

Biosociology is not sociobiology. Sociobiology has a more ambitious agenda, it concerns itself with the behavior of all animals, it has a grand theory (evolutionary theory), and it seeks ultimate causes. Sociobiological explanations are concerned with the ultimate "whys" of a phenomenon in terms of evolved species traits, and biosociology is concerned with the "hows" of a phenomenon in terms of less distal and more proximate causes. Biosociology and sociobiology are only alternative perspectives in the same sense that proximate and ultimate explanations are alternative (but not competing) explanations. As the grand unifying theory of all life sciences, evolutionary theory provides explanations of ultimate causes and provides directions for the investigation of proximate biosocial causes; and in this sense, it subsumes biosociology. As Allan Mazur (who, as far as I can determine, coined the term biosociology) explains, "Sociobiology promises to revolutionize the social sciences at all levels, while biosociology seeks a quiet niche in positivist microsociology" ( 1981:157).

Sociobiological thinking is useful in that it "grounds" a phenomenon in a broad and general theory, but its very broadness and generality make it less than satisfying to sociologists. 1 Sociologists tend to be "problem" oriented and to conduct research designed more to address and ameliorate social problems rather than to illuminate some ultimate "truth" about human nature. Sociobiologists, on the other hand, are more interested in universals in human nature than differences, a fact that led one of its major proponents to write that sociobiology may be "minimally relevant to social policy decisions" ( Symons, 1987:141). For instance, to say that men rape and kill because lust and aggression are male mammalian traits selected in by evolutionary pressures ( Thornhill & Thornhill, 1992) may well be true, but it begs an awful lot of questions. Such behavior is the result of phylogenetic characteristics all men share but few express in the normal course of events. If a given man rapes or kills, the distal phylogenetic causes are less useful to us in terms of understanding that behavior than are proximate ontogenetic causes. We would like to know about the offender's unique genotype, the functioning of his nervous system and its usual state of arousal (neurohormonal activation), his developmental experiences, the immediate activating stimuli, and how all these factors permutate and interact.


REDUCTIONISM AND HOLISM IN SCIENCE

Physicist Percy Bridgman maintained that the first and most important step in understanding any system--atomic particles, chemical compounds, cells, individual organisms, societies--is to understand the elementary units comprising the system. The ultimate problem in the social sciences is similar to that of the physical sciences but is more complex.

The ultimate problem is the problem of understanding the functioning of the elementary units of which the systems are built up. The elementary units in the physical sciences are particles. There are only a few kinds of them. It took us a long time to find some of the laws and we haven't got the laws of some of the particles yet. The elementary units of the social sciences are men and the corresponding ultimate problem is to understand the individual human being. ( Bridgman, 1955:49-50)

This is not to deny that social phenomena can be explained on their own terms, or that lower-level "elementary units" explanations are necessarily superior to holistic ones. Rather, it is to say that complex social phenomena can be more fully understood if their explanations maintain consistency with what we know about the more elementary units--the biology and psychology of the actors in the social drama. Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow ( 1992:4) refer to this principle of conceptual consistency as vertical integration, explaining that this term refers "to the principle that the various disciplines within the behavioral and social sciences should make themselves mutually consistent, and consistent with what is known in the natural sciences as well." As reasonable as this seems, many sociologists might see it as a call for reductionism, against which there has been a long history of opposition.

When scientists write about the methodologies employed in their disciplines, they typically refer to hierarchically arranged "levels of analysis." These levels serve to organize knowledge within a field of inquiry along manageable lines, albeit artificially discrete ones. The term reductionism is often used disparagingly to mean that an inappropriate (lower) unit of analysis has been used to explore, describe, or explain a particular research question. Examining the phenomenon of crime, for instance, one level of analysis might be "society." We could ask questions like "Why is society A more criminogenic than society B?" or "Why is society X more criminogenic today than it was Y years ago?" To ask such questions is to seek a reply from the sociologist (or other social scientist) because it is couched in broad "macro" terms. It is asking for an explanation of the difference in crime rates between two different societies or between the same society at two different times. Being so couched, we need to look for cultural factors that differentiate the two societies or time periods in such a way as to provide a satisfactory explanation for differences in crime rates. A psychologist may also attempt to answer the question using the vocabulary of psychology to indicate that society A produces a different kind of mind-set as it relates to conformity or nonconformity than society B. In doing so, the psychologist has "reduced" the explanation of a question couched in terms of one unit of analysis (whole societies) to a lower unit of analysis (individual mind-sets). A sociologist may consider this inappropriate; the psychologist would beg to differ.

The sociologist need not use the vocabulary of psychology to answer the question as posed, for it does not inquire about "mind-sets." But the psychologist must necessarily use the vocabulary of the sociologist because he or she must delineate the nature of the social milieu producing the mind-sets so that the question and its answer maintain consistency; that is, the psychological explanation of the phenomenon requires the use not only of psychological terms but also of specifically sociological, political, economic, and historical terms that do not typically appear in psychology's vocabulary. However, in finding that the culture of society A produces individuals who tend more than individuals in society B to be competitive, aggressive, or hedonistic, for example, and that those possessing such traits tend to be more criminal than those who do not, the psychologist has added a useful dimension to sociological explanation. He or she has not detracted from the sociologist's explanation as long as the cultural conditions associated with the development of the enumerated character traits are acknowledged.

Unlike the psychologist, however, a biologist or chemist could not reply to the question if limited to the vocabulary of biology and chemistry. There are biochemical explanations for why some people are more competitive, aggressive, or hedonistic than others, thereby reducing psychological units of analysis (individual human beings) to biochemical units of analysis (the molecular goings-on within those individuals). But any such biochemical explanation for individual differences says nothing about why such traits apparently translate into criminal behavior more in society A than society B nor why it is that one can be competitive, aggressive, and hedonistic and be perfectly law abiding.

Crime rates are emergent properties of sociocultural systems that cannot be deduced from molecular analysis of individuals within them. To assert that they can, a biochemist would have to show that properties of the whole (society) can be deduced from biochemical properties of its constituent parts (individuals) and would have to show that these properties differ between societies A and B. In other words, the biochemist must possess a suitable theory making it possible to analyze the form and nature of the whole as having been derived from the properties of biochemical units of analysis. No such theory exists. Thus, the phenomenon which is to be explained (crime rates) can be adequately explained sociologically, adequately explained psychologically given the proviso that sociocultural variables are acknowledged, and not explained at all by biochemistry. The line separating sociology and psychology is fuzzy with regard to this question, but the line separating sociology and biochemistry is clear and sharp.

Because discipline lines are sharp with regard to some questions, it does not mean that cross-disciplinary lines of communication are closed with regard to other questions. Biosociology believes that the social and behavioral sciences are continuous with biology in the same way that biology is continuous with chemistry and chemistry with physics. Others like to draw sharp lines and erect high fences between "their" science and its neighbors regardless of the form in which a particular research question is posed. The drawers of sharp lines invoke the notion of emergence or holism--the notion that wholes constitute higher levels of organization, the properties of which are not considered predictable from properties found at lower levels of organization. It is undeniable that there are many emergent phenomena possessing properties which are far more complex than the sum of their parts, but what constitutes a "whole" depends on the discipline -one science's holism is another's reductionism. The issue of whether principles relating to one discipline are reducible to the principles of another is entirely an empirical one. To decide the issue on any other basis is to dishonor the spirit of science.

At one time or another in the history of science, representatives of each science on August Comte's "hierarchy of science" ladder, conscious of the emergent nature of the phenomena they study, have attempted to disassociation.

Anthony Walsh is currently Professor of Criminal Justice at Boise State University in Idaho. His research interests include any social-psychological topic that can be informed by biological concepts, particularly IQ and crime. Walsh is the author or coauthor of nine other books and more than sixty journal articles or essays.

 

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