Sociobiology and Reductionism

Reductionism is a method of understanding a complex or complicated system by describing it in terms of its simpler component parts. As a scientific methodology, reductionism has proven to be very successful. It has led to great advances in the human understanding of nature, and paved the way for the technological revolution of the twentieth century. In the fields of physics and chemistry in particular, the reductionist approach has enabled scientists to understand the constituents of matter in terms of molecules and atoms, and these further in terms of protons, neutrons and electrons. Such understanding has enabled us to develop new materials, each tailored for modern day applications, and has underpinned the invention and manufacture of telephones, radio, television, computers and probably the whole infrastructure of modern society. The fruits of reductionism have given humankind more power and control over his surroundings than ever before imagined. Hence many scientists believe that reductionism is the best way to understanding anything, some even believe it is the only way.

While reductionism has had indisputable success as a method of investigation in physics, chemistry and also medicine, it has become more and more apparent that when reductionism is followed as the only point of view, then problems arise. In medicine, the holistic approach of taking into account the entirety of a person's lifestyle is proving to be more fruitful, than the reductionist approach of attacking each new symptom with a new drug, whose side effects on the patient and environment are not always completely known. Similarly, in physics and chemistry, whether it be in the development of nuclear power, or a new chemical plant, the "old science" approach of reductionism that focuses attention solely on the well-understood and immediately beneficial consequences, all too often ignores the terrible effects on the environment. Such problems stem from "the reductionist nightmare," which is a phrase coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (scientific skeptics themselves) in their book "Figments of Reality." They state that nearly all interesting systems (such as people or societies or snowflakes or DNA molecules) are far too complex to be understood from the "bottom up" or reductionist approach. They point out that even the simplest of rules, such as those in a simple mathematical game, lead to vast realms of possibilities with complicated patterns and structures that could never be predicted in a practical way from the starting rules. Similarly, the complex organization of an ant colony could never be predicted from the simple chemical rules that each ant follows. The most recent Nobel Prize winner in physics, Robert Laughlin, awarded for his work in the theory of strongly correlated electrons (where strange and wonderful effects arise from a collection of electrons that could not be foreseen from the knowledge of each electron individually), shares their view. In the recent Centennial Meeting of the American Physics Society, he parodied the viewpoint of Stephen Weinberg (also a Nobel laureate) who seeks a physical "Theory of Everything" in the (mistaken) belief that a knowledge of the equations of the underlying fields of nature will explain all that exists. Laughlin asks how those equations could possibly explain him, his thoughts and his ideas. It is interesting that modern physicists are now moving to the viewpoint that those in other fields (perhaps not so rooted in the successes of reductionism) have always held. A common phenomenon in academic circles is that those in one field view their subject to be more important than all others. Hence it can be understandable that a physicist would want to argue that everything can be explained by physics (so doing away with biology, psychology, sociology and theology) whereas a theologian might argue that physicists deal with the lowest level of nature, while theologians address the highest levels. However, when physicists themselves are saying that there is more to life than the underlying equations, the days of reductionism are surely numbered!

One must be careful, though, to differentiate (if it is necessary to do so) the views of scientific materialists who have abandoned reductionism, from the theistic outlook. The materialistic view holds that everything, including us, is made of matter and only matter. However, they say the matter is arranged in such great complexity, that it is ridiculously impracticable to try to understand a person in terms of her individual atoms. In the same way, there is no sense in trying to understand the running of a computer program, or the scene on a television screen by analyzing every electron involved. They would deny that there is any extra force of "vitalism" that makes people different from other material objects. While agreeing with a hierarchical viewpoint as far as degrees of complexity go, they would hold out expectations that a computer as complex as we are, would be as sentient and conscious as we are. Similarly, if, somehow, someone could place atoms and electrons together in exactly the same combination as within our bodies, then this would create someone exactly the same as us. Perhaps this is not so controversial. John Haught declares his hope that the words in his book, "Science and Religion," are more than just chemicals on paper. However, when the ink is copied by a machine that does not understand the words, and is printed in an identical copy, it is still the same book with the same meaning. There has been no need to add the "soul of the book" from a nonphysical source, into each copy. Scientific materialists would say the same about us, but tend to think that religion says otherwise. This, perhaps mistaken belief of the religious viewpoint by scientific skeptics is what fuels their desire to add their materialistic philosophy to their science.

Michael Polyani, who discusses the nature of DNA, makes an interesting argument. He points out that the sequence of bases (labeled by their initial letters, A, C, T and G) is not predetermined by the laws of chemistry, and moreover, if the laws of chemistry did specify the sequence, then it would not have the necessary information content to serve its purpose. At first, the argument appears to be specious, because any single thread of DNA is chemically specified (barring mutations, which are physically determined by other outside processes) by the matching pattern in its "mother cell". However, the point is that the information content is what matters to life, and that can not be understood simply form the chemistry of the DNA strand - the whole decoding system used by the organism is necessary. So, one must look beyond the strand of DNA itself to understand its purpose, just as one must go beyond the ink on paper of a book, but to a knowledge of the language, syntax and broader culture to understand its message. Hence reductionism fails in so many arenas, where one must look outside the system, and at higher levels of complexity to gain understanding, rather than break it up to discover the secrets within. Reductionism has gained favor in the last decade as a means of understanding human behavior. The theory of sociobiology, as propounded by Michael Ruse and Edward Wilson, claims that all human behaviors, including social, altruistic and religious behavior, is caused by maximizing the survival propensity for out genes. As stated, all of the wonders of art, torments of conscience and crises of faith are no more than the workings out of genetic survival. Reductionism reigns supreme. Arthur Peacocke provides a careful response to the claims of sociobiologists. As a biologist himself, he understands the good science that underlies many of the statements, but as a theologian does not want to conflate the scientific truths with the controversial philosophical viewpoints added by some (but not all) sociobiologists. Nobody would argue that genetically programmed behavior is ubiquitous in society - just look at how commercials are designed to appeal to our senses (or some people's senses!) However, it is easy to believe, when we make a decision, which does not follow our animal impulses, perhaps from a moral principle, that we have used our freewill to rise above our genes. Sociobiology causes much unease by suggesting that these decisions, even altruistic ones that do us no obvious long term good, are caused by genetic programming. The essence of their reasoning is that those people with genes making them nice to those around them, are more likely to succeed in a social group (cooperation makes a group stronger). So in hard times those groups containing people who are nasty are less likely to survive than those with altruistic members. Hence altruistic genes get passed on, while self-centered ones die out along with the dysfunctional society that they cause.

Arthur Peacocke warns theologians against attacking the arguments rather simplistically portrayed above. Instead, he asks us to incorporate the science of sociobiology into a theistic universe. The more we understand what pressures and influences there are on our choices, the clearer our vision to make the best moral decisions. I do not think many theologians believe that God gave humans an arbitrary morality to abide by - it makes good sense that religious morality should coincide with a morality that allows for a developing, blossoming society, and the "noogenesis" of Teilhard de Chardin's vision.

I tend to view the tides and changes of social behavior over the years within the scheme of "memes" suggested by Richard Dawkins. As an example, one can consider the Old Testament law as given in Leviticus. I think it is widely accepted that the majority of rules given are just those that enable a group of several thousand to live in semi-arid wilderness for a generation, without disease or internal conflict wiping them out. The sociobiologist's argument from genetic survival would suggest that many similar groups attempted to survive a period in the wilderness, but all died out, except for those with the right rules for survival. The "meme" argument looks instead at the survival of the social rules, where people are free to pick and choose the rules to a certain extent, so that some laws become obsolete, while others become foundational. In this sense, those manners of behavior which led to problems could have been disposed of and legislated against, before the whole tribe died out. Hence there is a parallel survival of social rules and norms, which if successful get passed on. This method leads to a much more rapid rate of change of society than mere genetic survival could allow. The fundamental religious viewpoint, which says that God knew the best rules, so handed them to the tribe at the outset, while possible does not seem to be necessary to retain a theistic belief.

Nevertheless, understanding how the behavioral norms in another society help it to function, is less controversial and less soul-searching than scrutinizing our own cherished principles under such a cold microscope. Is our moral behavior changing fundamentally with time, and does that matter? Reductionism can tell us nothing about what ought to happen, only what is. It may tell us that a widespread lapse into immoral behavior will lead to the downfall of a civilization, but it also suggests that one civilization is as good as another, so what matters if one lasts longer than another? The same with individual human lives. Sociobiology must forecast its own doom, because no society which follows its philosophies would survive for long - sociobiology tells us that people need morals, but then tells us they are meaningless, so not worth having!


Paul Miller
Last modified: Wed Oct 13 17:59:10 EDT 1999