The New Sociobiology:
Contemporary gender ideologists naturalize their preferred social order, using a traditional recipe.
by Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. She began following trans issues when they intersected with her primary field of research, lowland South American anthropology. She was one of the first academics in Canada to be “cancelled” for her feminism.
This May, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a piece entitled “Biological science rejects the sex binary, and that’s good for humanity”. The sub-header is “Evidence from various sciences reveals that there are diverse ways of being male, female, or both. An anthropologist argues that embracing these truths will help humans flourish.”
The article makes an appeal to biology to justify and naturalize social arrangements favored by elites and which are at present under challenge by non-elites, women particularly. The rhetorical frame is that dissent and protest are all very well if silly people (silly women especially) want to spend their time that way, but both foolish and doomed in the long run because the natural order makes certain facts of life inevitable.
Every scholarly generation seems to produce the social apologists it needs. When Fuentes tells us fish and lizards change sex and some lady hyenas have penises, get used to it (actually they have big clitorises) he’s doing something highly placed authorities have always done. How can you expect me to be faithful, baby, when I’m born to commune with the spirit of the buck in rut? What is your hard-won sports opportunity or your prison cell with no male rapist in it, sweetheart, when you consider the ways of the clownfish? Don’t blame me. It’s just science.
Perhaps the most famous version of this rhetorical frame is the medieval conception of the “Great Chain of Being”. This is a hierarchical ranking of the universe with God at the top, angels below, and encompassing the whole order of existence from people down to rocks. Each participates in the nature of the divine in some measure, but that measure diminishes from top to bottom. Of course, this putatively natural order was both a model of and a model for feudalism: king at the top, aristocrats below, peasants at the bottom – each in their appointed place in the social world just as they are in the God’s divine plan for the known natural universe. The Great Chain of Being was so influential on Western thought-patterns that both popular and scientific apprehension of the theory of evolution by natural selection tended at first to express it in terms of higher and lower evolutionary forms, as if frogs were less – rather than differently – evolved than, say, cats. This crept into nineteenth and early twentieth century discussions of human difference in ways that you can easily guess.
These inter-articulations were in large part unselfconscious. Natural and social scientists didn’t notice that they were projecting on to nature what they already absorbed as true from society. In 1903, Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss published a brilliant analysis of the extent to which all human cognition is cobbled out of social experience. Primitive Classification took most of its examples from what were then called “savage” societies: Australian totemism and the like. They argued that Aboriginal Australians did not analogize from the natural world to organize themselves (“as the witchetty grub differs from the hakea flower, so our group differs from your group”), but that they instead analogized from their own social groupings to organize the natural world (“just as we are divided into groups, so the natural world is differentiated into kinds and categories”). As Durkheim and Mauss put it, “the fundamental notions of the intellect, the essential categories of thought, may be the product of social factors… It is because men were organized that they have been able to organize things”. They rather cagily analyzed so-called “primitive” thought in order to convey a strong claim about the need for scientific humility. If thinking about the world through categories suggested to us by social experience is something all humans do, modern scientists ought to be mindful of it.
Nevertheless, in the late twentieth century, a novel method of avowed and self-conscious projective analysis emerged: sociobiology. Its most famous exponents were insectologist E.O. Wilson and geneticist Richard Dawkins. This new approach had a tremendous impact in anthropology, enabling a full-throated assertion that to suppose that the social order and the biological order reflect one another is not to become lost in that potential hall of mirrors about which Durkheim and Mauss had warned. Instead, it is a means to simultaneously apprehend nature and society with unique, shimmering, consilient clarity.
In anthropology, Napoleon Chagnon became Wilson’s and Dawkins’s bulldog. At a time when feminists were making all kinds of unwelcome noises about shifting social roles towards sexual equality, Chagnon demonstrated in a series of publications across the 1970s and 1980s that male dominance and male aggression are genetically hard-wired because they are beneficial. He did this by tracking the reproductive fitness of men in a remote Amazonian tribe, the Yanomami. He showed that men who were “killers” fathered more children than men who were not killers. Feminists could squeak all they liked but the biological facts of the social order are beyond cavil: reproductive fortune favors the macho man and the social order in which we all live is generated by that simple truth.
This held together until other anthropologists started looking at some of the social facts sustaining that biological slam dunk. First, the Yanomami category “killer” includes some men who claim to have induced deaths by shamanic magic in enemy communities. These men enjoy high prestige but are not meaty-fisted head bashers. Second, Chagnon didn’t pay serious ethnographic attention to Yanomami women but later anthropologists did. It turns out that while successful senior warriors do have more wives and thus more socially attributed children, some of these junior wives are trysting with men as young and socially powerless as themselves. This rather complicates the biological facts of fatherhood upon which Chagnon’s argument depends. Finally and most devastatingly, Chagnon’s numerator (offspring) was divided by the wrong denominator (“killer” dads). He was counting the (socially attributed) children of senior warriors who lived to tell their tales of battle and enjoy the social prestige that came with doing so. Macho violence turned out to be rather less reproductively adaptive for a lot of other men, who died young in inter-tribal violence and in so doing left few or no offspring behind. Chagnon’s calculations of reproductive fitness did not include these “killer” men who died young, throwing off his numbers quite seriously.
The late Marshall Sahlins, author among other things of the perennially relevant The Use and Abuse of Biology (1976), wrote a devastating essay in 2000 that pointed out that Chagnon’s tales of macho ax-wielding as human nature were particularly persuasive to American audiences seeking to absolve themselves of the horrors of the Vietnam War. If killing is just what men do, is it really a good use of time to apportion blame about it? Isn’t it best to just accept the nature of things and move on?
I don’t enjoy the retrospective temporal horizon Sahlins did, writing after the lapse of decades about the work of a late twentieth century sociobiologist. Fuentes’ piece came out just this month, and I’ve only recently begun paying sustained attention to the proliferation of this novel twenty-first century incarnation of sociobiology. But I’ll take a stab at assessing the ideology informing it and the political work it is doing. Fuentes is telling us that boundaries – particularly women’s boundaries – are stupid things, not worth a toss in the grand scheme of life. Resistance – particularly by women – is futile because a social order that favors male interests is given by immutable natural facts that these recalcitrant (or simply stupid) ladies are failing to grasp. A sociobiologist sage is here to explain. The message is the same old message. It will age the same old way.
Feminists who object to the claims of trans ideology often do so by picking up the cudgels of biology: chromosomal sex, or testosterone, or the earnest terrain of how babies are made. It is certainly the case that some fact-claims are more robust and supportable than other fact-claims, and the set favored by trans ideologues (always with the clownfish) are made of thin stuff. Nevertheless, anyone intellectually serious in any discipline, from the humanities to STEM, will be well aware that there is indeed something elusive and fundamentally unknowable about reality-in-itself. We are all, always, just trying to do our best to get at it. Fighting for the terrain of the absolute really real Truth, no backsies, is simultaneously a noble quest and an impossible one.
Where we poor humans are on safer ground is pattern recognition. Trans ideology is recognizably misogynist. It trots out arguments that are shatteringly racist. It is favored by and funded by late modern elites. It makes all the moves those kinds of ideologies, and their accompanying claims about the constitution of reality, have always made. It attracts the same kinds of apologists from the same kinds of privileged institutions. It’s very old wine, in a fairly old bottle, just swaddled this time in a novelty pink and blue koozie.