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UNDERSTANDING IT ALL

by Robert M. Young

Review of C. D. Darlington, The Evolution of Man and Society.

Allen & Unwin, 1969. Pp. 753. £70s

This book is a snare for the unwary. It displays impressive erudition, is written in an authoritative manner, and has a seductive surface plausibility. However. when all is said and done (after nearly 700 pages, innumerable charts and tables, and an impressive bibliography) it is clear that Professor Darlington has written a profoundly reactionary book in the guise of legitimate scientific hypotheses and findings.

The Evolution of Man and Society has been given the full treatment. It was previewed in one of the Sunday glossies, reviews have had pride of place in the newspapers and weeklies, and a précis of the argument has appeared in a major historical journal. Why? Its topic bears on a general issue which embraces many of the trendiest writings in the last few years: the relationship between nature and culture. This theme was at the centre of the Enlightenment debate on the relationship between reason and nature. It formed the rationale for the concept of a social science in the mid-19th century when political economy, psychology, the study of the brain. and the developing disciplines of anthropology and sociology were all integrated by the theory of evolution. Evolutionism implied that man was a part of nature and that human nature was the product of a non purposive, undesigned interaction between random biological change and the vicissitudes of the environment. Man and all his works. could be seen as the product of processes which were basically biological. Nineteenth century attempts to apply the theory of evolution directly to psychological, social and cultural phenomena were premature. and the various disciplines went their separate ways after the turn of the century. Man's place in nature remained an open question, although it was clear that the theory of evolution was basic to the issue.

In the last few years there has grown up a loosely-related family of inquiries which have re-addressed themselves to the question which preoccupied Enlightenment and evolutionary thinkers. Some students of animal behaviour have made dubious attempts to extend their ethological concepts to account for human aggression, nationalism, and other aspects of social behaviour. Structural linguists have argued that there is an important innate component in the development and structure of human languages. Experimental psychologists have tried to spell out the physiological basis of sexual and emotional functions. These attempts to reduce complex human interactions to better-understood and presumably more basic categories have been complemented by efforts on the part of .anthropologists and sociologists to maintain qualitative distinctions between animal behaviour and the actions of humans in a social context. Thus the kinship systems and intentions of men are central to the social sciences and are said to play very different roles in biology. Similarly, the psychological and psychiatric theories which have been influenced by Continental phenomenology have set their faces against the use of traditional scientific categories in the explanation of human situations. Laing and his large following among young people want no part of the depersonalisation and reification of man. Indeed. some have gone much farther into mysticism, astrology and orgone boxes.

But no one denies that genetics has governed the biological evolution of man and that we are in many ways determined by our genetic endowment. Whatever one’s reservations about the precise relationship between the categories of scientific explanation and those of human explanation, there is a relationship, and it is important to consider it carefully. In the meantime the disciplines which could supply the relevant findings have undergone dramatic developments: archaeology, anthropology, demography and genetics. These have led Darlington to reassess the question in an audacious form. He believes that in the last 25 years it has become possible to relate biology and history much more closely and to attempt a single account of human and social evolution.

What form should this take? If we say that all of man's works can be included in a biological framework, then the temptation becomes almost overwhelming to attempt to write history as biology. Since the basic mechanism of evolutionary change is genetic and since the orthodoxy of scientific explanation implies that a more mechanistic account is preferable to — because more basic than — a less mechanistic one, the programme of Darlington's book seems almost inevitable: rewrite history as genetics. Genetics and demography have shown themselves able to claim and win a place in the crowded timetable of teaching in the social sciences which many feel outweighs their solid contributions to the understanding of society and history. They can do so, because social scientists feel, defensively, that these disciplines are somehow more scientific.

Having placed this book historically and conceptually, one can now consider it historiographically. Darlington sets out to cover 20 million years. He says in his preface that the attempt to integrate history and biology 'could have no point unless the same principles could be shown at work all the way through man's evolution and history'. At the end of the book he says of H. G. Wells's Outline of History that

his idea of one history of man is vindicated. It has become the only aim that we can justify today. And we are indebted to his successor, Carleton Coon, for maintaining that aim with the much greater resources at his command.

In fact, histories whose scope extends from Plato to Nato are the object of almost universal derision among historians (Darlington reaches Plato at p. 232), and Coon's works on the history of man and especially on the origin of races have been the object of heated controversy in America. Darlington often quotes Coon with approval but gives no hint of the allegations of rank racialism which his work has engendered.

In short, The Evolution of Man and Society is a takeover bid. Nothing about man 'can be regarded as outside the scope of genetic enquiry'. Thus is an unexceptionable programme. What is worrying is that Darlington claims that he has reached a major conclusion on the basis of scientific evidence: 'The processes by which human societies evolve are thus in principle the same as those working at a pre-human stage of evolution.' The argument of the book however, depends on the systematically ambiguous use of a number of key concepts. In particular, when cultural or historical terms would do as well. the author routinely substitutes biological terms. Thus there are about 90 occurrences of the term 'evolution' where 'history' or 'development' would do Similarly, there are about 150 places where phenomena are explained in terms of genetics when there is little or no evidence to support the claim. His most dubious speculations characteristically appear parenthetically or are stated authoritatively as matters of fact. Finally, the style is portentous and very general claims and sweeping conclusions appear gratuitously with little apparent relation to the preceding narrative It is often difficult to see how the historical narrative (interesting in itself) supports the biological thesis of the book, while the cumulative effect of the use of biological terms is very misleading. Surely one of the first duties of an innovator — and certainly of a popularising one — is to point out which of his claims are contentious and speculative and to present their evidential basis, lest the non-specialist reader be led astray.

There is hardly any human attribute or social change which is not at some point 'explained' in genetic terms. The author fails to distinguish customary or learned behaviour which may have an as yet unknown genetic component and equally unknown genetic consequences from stable customs and habits for which there is no known genetic basis. Here are a few examples of phenomena for which large genetic claims are made: the incest taboo. belief systems, castes, skills. trades. moral codes. militarism, pastoralism, social classes. being a prophet, horsemanship, ability to govern, Christian tolerance, Jewish religious devotion, homosexuality and the master-slave relationship. The abilities of Newton. Bismarck, Marx and Lenin are largely attributed to their being class hybrids. The following quotations help to convey the tendency of the book: 'All advanced societies, as we have seen. arise from a stratification of social classes whose genetic differences and mutual dependence are the permanent foundation of their advance.' 'Indeed class differences ultimately all derive from genetic and, usually, racial differences.' 'The colonised and genetically stratified societies are, as always, advancing faster than the un-colonised or de-colonised and unstratified societies' 'In short, racial discrimination has a genetic basis with a large instinctive and irrational component. Its action may be modified by education or by economic processes. But it cannot be suppressed by law.' On the next page science tells us that racial segregation and apartheid are not to be lightly dismissed. The principle of subordinating one racial group to another 'has governed the evolution of all advancing societies since soon after the beginning of agriculture. And it has been the means of their advancement.' By the way, 'All the great races of man differ in smell; they dislike one another’s smell and are kept apart by it. But in the nostrils of all other races the pygmies positively stink. It is a property which has arisen from their genetic and ecological isolation.' The Irish, the working class and black men do not fare much better though they have other genetic deficiencies.

On the positive side, Darlington has raised very interesting issues connected with unconscious selection, sexual selection, monasticism, primogeniture, hereditary immunities, and the dynastic and social consequences of inbreeding (and incest) versus outbreeding. The book also touches on eugenic questions which cannot be answered with in the limits of science as now constituted. However, these matters are so inextricably interwoven with dubious assertions which are liable to reactionary and racialist interpretations that one would do better to start elsewhere. The relationships among natural selection, the transmission of cultural and social norms, and the processes of social change are far more complex than Darlington shows, and many potentially fruitful analogies between the social and biological sciences are by-passed in favour of his own conclusions.

Professional botanists and geneticists acknowledge that Darlington's cytological work of 30 years ago is internationally recognised as a lasting contribution to science. His ideas on the evolution of genetic systems, among others, have been very provocative. Similarly, specialists in the separate cultures and periods covered in parts of this book find his bibliography contains most of the basic works needed to prepare a high level popularisation. He is Professor of Botany at Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the author or editor of 15 previous books and innumerable scientific and occasional papers, In his own field his reputation is secure. However, all agree that a very firm line should be drawn between his solid cytological work and his stimulating ideas on the one hand and the social and political extrapolations which he has attempted on the other.

I have tried to convey the conclusion that in the opinion of one historian of biology this book is insidious, and its surface plausibility depends on ambiguities, premature conclusions and downright puns. At the end of the volume Darlington has listed 'a succession of pioneers'; in the proof copy these were called 'some precursors'. The list includes Paine, Malthus, Darwin, Marx, Galton, Bagehot, Tylor and Acton. A psychiatrist colleague of mine turned up the other day to discuss problems of explanation in that confused discipline. I spoke of my preoccupation with trying to convey the problems raised by this book. 'It is well-known,' he said. 'A specialised scientist stares down his microscope for 40 years and does very good work. Towards the end of his career he asks himself about the wider meaning of it all. He racks back the focus knob on the microscope, tilts the instrument back, and looks about him through its eyepieces. He stares hard for a time, a marvellous gleam comes into his eyes, and he exclaims, ”1 understand all!”’

Reprinted from New Statesman 26 September 1969.

Copyright: New Statesman

Address for Correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

 


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