First Things 83 (May 1998): 59-62

Books in Review

Briefly Noted


By Nancy Pearcey

The Social Meaning of Modern Biology: From Social Darwinism to Sociobiology. By Howard L. Kaye. With a new epilogue by the author. Transaction. 208 pp. $19.95 paper.

Evolutionary psychology (an updated form of sociobiology) is a rapidly growing field, and has spilled over into the popular press through articles on the adaptive benefits of such things as infanticide. All of which makes this a propitious time for the republication of Howard Kaye's incisive philosophical critique of sociobiology, first published ten years ago. Sociobiology is a secularized form of natural theology, Kaye explains: an attempt to "translat[e] our lives and history back into the language of nature so that we might once again find a cosmic guide for the problems of living." But the attempt fails, he argues, because in order to derive moral guidance for humans from things like genes, sociobiologists first have to attribute to them the cognitive and moral attributes of humans (e.g., "selfish genes"). In short, the sociobiologist first reads his own moral program into nature and then, unsurprisingly, discovers it from nature. Moreover, Kaye argues, these attempts at moral guidance are logically incoherent, given sociobiology's reduction of human beings to mere "mechanisms," "programmed" by natural selection, for then what can it mean to talk about choice and values? Evolutionary psychology avoids some of the cruder reductionism of the older sociobiology. But by attempting to unmask all thought and feelings as genetically programmed survival strategies, Kaye warns, it may still "have a corrosive effect on our moral principles, social order, and even our souls."