Cardboard Darwinism & Double Transference

“Cardboard Darwinism,” writes biologist Stephen Jay Gould in an essay of the same name, “is a reductionist, one-way theory about the grafting of information from environment upon organism,” or what amounts to a form of biological determinism. Gould’s critique of this hollowed-out version of Darwin’s theory comes in the context of a larger critical appraisal of human sociobiology, an offshoot of evolutionary theory originating with the work of Edward O. Wilson.

Sociobiology’s central claim, as Gould’s critique implies, is that all human behavior can ultimately be traced back to biological, evolutionary roots. Human nature is an amalgam of discrete behavior traits (such as “aggression,” “nurturance,” or “altruism”) that have direct corollaries in the natural world, a world which in turn has carefully and selectively shaped these traits in a linear, traceable form—from the lobster’s pursuit of hierarchical dominance to the incel’s pretensions to self-actualized enlightenment.

Gould marshalled most of his energies to show how the scientific propositions of sociobiology were methodologically flawed. His argument was that, despite its purported revolutionary breakthrough, sociobiology merely amounted to an application of “the strictest form of Darwinian orthodoxy” to human behavior, one that “locates all evolutionary mechanics in the struggle among organisms for reproductive success” alone. Such a theory, at the least, would have a difficult time explaining the lightning speed of cultural change as compared to the geologic pace of evolutionary change. Moreover, this was an orthodoxy which—in its reliance on strict adaptationism (the unjustifiably optimistic view that evolutionary traits have been selectively optimized for currently discernable behaviors)—was quickly becoming outmoded in Gould’s field in favor of a more dialectical, materialist approach.

But one wonders what Gould would have made of the era of the Intellectual Dark Web, where pop sociobiology abounds in the reactionary screeds of Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and other pseudo-intellectuals of the conservative “anti-woke” backlash. For as Gould recognized, it is not only the science that is at stake in the critique of sociobiology. There is also a necessary political component, as sociobiology is often used, quite often explicitly, to prop up the biological inevitability of coercive social systems—whether capitalism, patriarchy, racism, or some other supposedly innate feature of “human nature” or “Western civilization.” For these thinkers and others who use science for chauvinistic ends, to question the biological hardwiring of sex difference, race, liberal capitalism, or the supremacy of Western culture amounts to an assault on the foundations of scientific reality itself. The genome is selfish (and Judeo-Christian).

The irony in all of this is that what pop sociobiology claims to discern in nature as biological, genetic law—and therefore what must be extrapolated to human society as a result—is not a primordial “nature as such,” but is itself a construction of social realities. This irony is underscored by what John Bellamy Foster, drawing from Marx and Engels, calls the “double transference” between society and nature—”taking ideas from society to explain nature and then re-extrapolating these concepts back again from nature to society in naturalized garb.”

The transfer may be meaningful going one way—a substantive metaphor of how plant life forms a “community,” for example—but to transfer these ideas from nature back to society constitutes a reductionistic “sleight of hand” that reflects both bad science and (usually) bad politics. As Foster describes:

Neither Marx nor Engels objected strongly in principle to the notion of the “struggle for existence” in nature…. Still, there were some problems, as they indicated, associated with the reading of the conditions of bourgeois society into nature—thereby producing one-sided conceptions drawn from alienated society and anthropomorphizing nature in terms of these. Much more serious, however, from their standpoint was the re-extrapolation of these ideas—originally derived from bourgeois society and then imputed to nature—back again to society in naturalized, objectified form, and as eternal natural laws, in a kind of double transference.

In other words, what pop sociobiology takes as genetic truth owes not so much to the science of evolution as to the saturation of science in a capitalist political economy—one that is truly defined in terms of competition, hierarchy, and a “survival of the fittest” mentality. But far from being another kind of all-encompassing determinism, the social relations of capitalist political economy are rather the objective conditions under which science is undertaken. Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit, its imperialist expansion, and its domination of the weak mold both a world to be measured and the tools with which to measure it.

Thus, scientists confront this natural world of transferred, if hidden, social values and either engage with it critically (Darwin, Marx, Gould) or use it to defend systems of control (the IDW and pop sociobiologists).


Books Discussed:

Stephen Jay Gould, An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas

John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth

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