Tom Bethell (“Against
Sociobiology,” January) is to be commended for pointing
out the fatal flaw of socio biology and of its latter–day
offspring “evolutionary psychology”: the lack of falsifiability
of many of the hypotheses proposed in these fields. Lack
of falsifiability was also, to some degree, a problem even
in the relatively noncontroversial field of behavioral ecology,
from which sociobiology emerged.
Bethell is quite wrong, however, in asserting that “in the biology departments
and in the academy more generally, [E. O.] Wilson and his supporters resoundingly
won the debate.” I cannot speak for the “academy more generally,” but in biology
departments sociobiology went down to utter defeat. I am aware of no biology
department in this country at which a sociobiologist could be hired today, and
very few would even have any interest in hiring a behavioral ecologist. Biologists
do not take any more kindly to non–falsifiable hypotheses than Mr. Bethell does.
Moreover, the twenty–five years since Wilson’s Sociobiology have seen
an extraordinary flowering of molecular biology. Today virtually all biologists
(even evolutionary biologists) study real genes at the DNA level. There is no
interest any more in the make–believe “genes” for altruism, rape, or whatever
beloved of Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk.
Austin L. Hughes
Professor of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina
Columbia, South Carolina
Tom Bethell replies:
Upon reflection I shall withdraw the adverb “resoundingly” if Professor Hughes
withdraws his claim that sociobiology “went down to utter defeat.” A letter
published in Science (October 11, 1996), headed “Sociobiology’s Successes”
and signed by twelve scientists from diverse fields, biology among them, makes
the point. (The lead author was Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of U.C. Davis’ Department
of Anthropology.) After sociobiology was attacked as “sexist,” “racist,” and
“determinist,” the letter writers point out, “many researchers did indeed shrink
from the label ‘sociobiology,’ but the sociobiological research programs (by
whatever name) have prospered.” I believe that to be correct. But I concede
that a victory involving the subterfuge of a name–change is not resounding.
Sociobiology has in particular advanced under the flag of evolutionary psychology.
In the introduction to the twenty–fifth anniversary edition of his textbook
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, written in December 1999, Edward O.
Wilson writes that sociobiology “is a flourishing discipline in zoology,” but,
where it pertains to humans, it is “nowadays also called evolutionary psychology.”
To name just four academics sympathetic to sociobiology at work in the biology
departments of American universities: Timothy Goldsmith of Yale teaches a course
called “Biological Roots of Human Nature”; William Zimmerman of Amherst teaches
the “Evolutionary Biology of Human Social Behavior”; David Sloan Wilson (Department
of Biology, SUNY–Binghamton) researches the evolutionary basis of human behavior;
and Randy Thornhill at the University of New Mexico coauthored the infamous
book on the evolution of rape.
I strongly disagree with Prof. Hughes’ claim that because biologists “study
real genes at the DNA level,” there is no more interest in “make–believe ‘genes.’”
In modern discourse, unfortunately, the word “gene” is used in two different
ways. Certain DNA segments “code for” or build proteins, and those segments
are indeed called genes. But the “Mendelian” genes beloved of evolutionary biologists
are hypothetical constructs, thought of as determining some outward and visible
feature of the organism. These genes are certainly not observed in extinct organisms.
Even in living ones, genes for the most elementary features of the body, such
as height or skin color, have not yet been established.
When Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould in the 1970s derided the “Just–So”
stories of the adaptationists, they were criticizing the ease with which unobserved
genes for any trait whatever—whether physical or behavioral—could be posited,
without any need to observe them. The claim that genes for leopard’s spots helped
conceal the leopard and so contributed to its survival is vacuous unless the
genes are detected, which never happens. The claim that those genes that “are
selected for” displace those that are not is a tautology masquerading as science.
It cannot be falsified in this universe or in any other. Unobserved genes continue
to be the stock–in–trade of the evolutionary biologist. The critics of sociobiology
used arguments that were often political, but sometimes perilous to the evolution
not just of behavior, but of bodies as well.
Although I may have missed some nuance in Adam Garfinkle’s
Lousy War: Explaining Vietnam” (December 2000), it surprised
me that his assumption (and that of the authors of the books
he surveyed) seems to be that the war was unwinnable.
If a nation plans its military strategy to obtain a draw one should not be
surprised that victory remains unachieved. But what if we had chosen to fight
the war in North Vietnam—i.e., to invade—rather than stand on the strategic
defensive in the South? After all, even World War II might have ended in a loss
if we had decided never to invade the Axis homelands and even to avoid destroying
their economic bases, as we did with Vietnam.
I’m sure that some would dismiss this out of hand since it might have led to
a general war. Opinions on this may differ; mine is that a vigorous offensive
military strategy, combined with a domestic economic policy of “guns” rather
than Johnson’s “guns and butter,” would have both bluffed the USSR and China
and been far better accepted by the American public than the no–win Johnson/McNamara
New Lyme, Ohio
Adam Garfinkle replies:
With all due respect, Mr. Donley has missed more than a nuance. My essay describes
Michael Lind’s view in these words: “Lind . . . argues that it [fighting the
war] was the right thing to have done, and that it might have turned out pretty
well had Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, and a few choice others not
screwed things up.” I say a few paragraphs later that I share this view that
the war was, in fact, winnable. Toward the end of the essay, I criticize the
military and Mr. McNamara for abetting an abysmally misbegotten military strategy,
the obvious implication being that a sounder strategy could have produced a
In his review of G. Ronald
Murphy’s The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove (January),
Philip Zaleski was not quite right in saying that the religious
meaning of the Brothers Grimm has been neglected. G. K.
Chesterton made fairy tales a cornerstone of his classic
Christian apologetic, Orthodoxy. In a chapter called
“The Ethics of Elfland,” he explained the spiritual wisdom
he found in Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Beauty and
the Beast, and Sleeping Beauty. Later, he connected these
insights to the Christian faith. Chesterton’s understanding
of pagan mythology, given in Everlasting Man, a book
that influenced C. S. Lewis in becoming a Christian, seemed
to be built upon that primary insight. And then Lewis came
full circle with his own series of popular redemptive fairy
tales, the Chronicles of Narnia.
Together, the two men reminded Western Christianity of the truth (common to
such central Christian thinkers as Paul, Augustine, Cle ment, and Pascal) that,
as Lewis put it, “The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion
among a thousand religions simply false. It was rather, ‘Where . . . have the
hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?’” So the seed the Brothers Grimm planted
perhaps grew into a pretty big beanstalk itself.
One of my own favorites is Jorinda and Joringa. (It was when I was reading
this story to my children that I started to think more deeply about the spirituality
of the Brothers Grimm.) Jorinda, a beautiful maiden, is transformed into a nightingale
and taken captive in a castle by a witch. Her lover (a shepherd) is powerless
to approach the castle. Then one day he finds a red flower with a dew drop in
the center of it. Touching the witch with the flower, he deprives her of her
sorcery, and sets all the enchanted maidens free from their cages. The tale
strikes me as a beautiful picture of Christ and those he frees from their sins.
I wonder what color were the flowers Wilhelm kept in his Greek New Testament?
Siebold University of Nagasaki
Philip Zaleski replies:
Mr. Marshall is right, of course. Chesterton and Lewis make much of fairy tales;
so too, in the same literary lineage, do George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien.
What I meant to say (famous words!) was that the religious meaning of fairy
tales has been largely ignored by scholars—a notable exception being Tolkien’s
essay “On Fairy–Stories,” in which he suggests that these tales provide “a far–off
gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world,” a foretaste of the joy
of Christ. Father Murphy’s The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove does much
to rectify this scholarly oversight.
As for the color of those pressed flowers, I went directly to the source and
asked Fr. Murphy. He reports that the petals were “about the size and shape
of a daisy’s,” and that although they had faded badly, his impression was that,
yes, they had “once been red.”
Although mocking, if that is not too strong a word, Father
William O’Malley for “making up his own creed” (While
We’re At It, January), Richard John Neuhaus fails to
address adequately the factual observations and the arguments
of Fr. O’Malley’s article, “Plow Before You Plant,” which
appeared in the September 15, 2000 issue of America.
For fifteen years or more Fr. O’Malley has been writing, not about college
professors or committed adult Christians (or about those, like myself, who are
faithful readers of First Things), but about teenagers—American high school
students, primarily those from middle–class and affluent families, who are the
objects of Catholic “catechesis.” Fr. O’Malley writes about his students in
Catholic high schools; my twenty years of teaching in parish “Confirmation programs”
suggests his observations apply even more accurately to those public high school
students whose parents order them to the parish center for one hour of class
a week. (I might mention, by way of background, that in the affluent suburban
parish in which I teach, probably a third of my students have parents divorced
or living apart, and more than half don’t attend Mass regularly, because their
Fr. O’Malley has observed that these young people are “baptized but not converted.”
They understand Christianity as “being moral,” and they understand “being moral”
as “being nice to people.” In my own experience, students asked to make a list
of moral virtues never list “courage,” to give one example, and are extremely
puzzled and surprised when asked why courage might be a moral virtue. What “the
Church says” and what “Scripture says” are matters of extreme indifference—the
students silently but stoutly resist the premise that these are significant
sources of authority. As Fr. O’Malley says, the vast majority don’t presently
care or know much about God (much less about Jesus Christ). They don’t understand
the very idea of Christian altruism—making one’s life a gift—and how it might
apply to their own lives. As Fr. O’Malley says, they aren’t bad kids, they can
be delightful in many ways, but they aren’t, really, Christians. What they need
is not catechesis, nor even evangelization, but pre–evangelization: “Plow before
And the catechetical establishment most often does, as Fr. O’Malley argues,
ignore these realities, prescribing that we should “teach” these teenagers “as
if their families still routinely attend Sunday benediction.” The teachers of
teachers want “indoctrination rather than conversion,” and “thorough coverage
rather than heart–to–heart engagement.” In my experience, the “doctrinal” subject
matter prescribed is likely to be, not filioque (which I think Fr. Neuhaus
might recognize as Fr. O’Malley’s exercise in hyperbole), but a politically
correct version of “social justice.”
If this is in fact the context, then pre–evangelization by teaching “natural
theology” first makes a lot of sense—and the proposition needs, at least, to
be publicized and debated. Fr. O’Malley’s emphasis on epistemology at the beginning
makes a lot of sense too—how do you “know,” why do you believe? As for Fr. O’Malley’s
simplified “creed,” if, by Confirmation time, just one of my little flock understood
the meaning of those four theological propositions (never mind believing them
with “a reasonable degree of certainty”), I would join Fr. O’Malley in levitating.
Michael P. Daly
Manlius, New York
Largely ignoring the substance of my article, “Are Unions Obsolete?” (Commonweal,
November 3, 2000), my friend Richard John Neuhaus in his
We’re At It, January) said that it was “false and offensive”
on my part to say that he had never publicly spoken this
way about Cardinal O’Connor’s stand on labor issues while
the Cardinal was alive.
He would have every right to be offended if that was what I had actually said.
But it is emphatically not what I said. I knew perfectly well that Father Neuhaus
had more than once said his piece in public about labor issues while the Cardinal
was alive. I also assumed, of course, that the Cardinal, who had the reputation
of being a serious reader, was fully aware of what Fr. Neuhaus had written about
labor issues. But that’s not what I was talking about in my article. Referring
to Fr. Neuhaus’ National Catholic Register interview in which he said
that the Cardinal’s support of labor unions was “a weakness rather than a strength,”
I said that he “never spoke that way about the Cardinal’s stand on labor issues
while the Cardinal was alive.” There is nothing in Fr. Neuhaus’ response to
dispute or even question the accuracy of this statement.
I might add that I refrained from saying in my article that Fr. Neuhaus’ silence
in public about the Cardinal’s stand on labor issues until the Cardinal had
passed away was rather strange in view of the fact that, to his credit, Fr.
Neuhaus has frequently and delightedly crossed swords in public with other living
and high–ranking ecclesiastics. (Think Rembert Weakland as a prime example in
this regard.) I have no way of knowing why Fr. Neuhaus made an exception in
the case of the Cardinal and why he gave him a pass after the Cardinal had passed
from the scene.
At the end of his response Fr. Neuhaus expresses the hope that I will emulate
Cardinal O’Connor’s admirable policy of accommodating respectful disagreement.
Not to worry. As one who has been around the polemical track for more than fifty
years, I don’t take disagreements personally even when I feel that I have been
misquoted inadvertently or otherwise. In short, even though I honestly think
that Fr. Neuhaus misconstrued my article, I will consider him a friend, and,
needless to add, I hope that this feeling is mutual.
Monsignor George G. Higgins
Yes, the feeling is mutual, but it should not be hard to understand why I made
an exception for Cardinal O’Connor. He was my bishop and I would not, except
under the most pressing necessity, criticize my bishop in public. He knew what
I thought. Asked in an interview after his death about the strengths and weaknesses
of his leadership, I responded candidly and, I hope, charitably. Asked while
he was my bishop, I allowed for no weaknesses. This is called loyalty.