Chapter 9, The Social Sciences

Now Wilson begins takes his conclusions about human nature and searches for ways to bring insight, if not explanation, to various aspects of human culture, in particular studies in the humanities that are supposedly resistant to scientific analysis or insight.

Key points in this chapter:

  • The social sciences, in contrast to the medical sciences, do poorly in dealing with complex problems;
  • The social sciences don’t speak a common language, are not grounded in the physical realities of human psychology, and are hobbled by social activism and tribal loyalty to original grand masters, like Durkheim, Marx, and Freud;
  • The social science best poised to bridge the gap to the natural sciences is economics, which measures things and constructs models to try to predict things. Still, its success is limited, due to lack of fundamental laws, or even a solid foundation of units and processes.
  • And the models are simplistic, relying on folk psychology, including the idea that people make choices based on their background and environment, not human nature.
  • Wilson recognizes heuristics, in the beginning (in the 1990s) of studies about psychological biases; these traits are commonplace, he says, especially among “cult members, the deeply religious, and the less educated.”


  • It’s notable here (and in at least one later book) that Wilson is a casual sf fan, though only of movies.
  • There’s a flavor of Asimov’s psychohistory here, in the way generalizations about economics or whatever can be measured and analyzed. But only a flavor.
  • In the section about sociology, where did these notions of being morally wrong come from? Given that culture derived in part from human nature, which in turn is built up of relationships between family members, those in other tribes, and so on? Well, I think the answer is, from culture and environment, the latter in particular having changed greatly since the time our genetic predispositions were formed. What seems right in the context of a tribe maybe not seem appropriate living in a large culture among mostly strangers. But I didn’t see Wilson exactly spell that out.
  • The fourth point above has been made since then, by Haidt and others, as meaning that human beings are not rational players after all; they make decisions based on emotional grounds, and then try to rationalize them with ‘reason,’ as lawyers do.
  • So Wilson underestimates, as has become increasingly known, the degree to which *all* people use heuristics, or are subject to psychological biases — even when consciously trying to avoid them.



People expect the social sciences to provide knowledge to understand their lives and control their future; the power to predict what happens if society selects one course of action over another. How well are they doing on such predictions? Not very well.

Compare the medical sciences. It too faces big, urgent problems, which like those in the social sciences, are complex because their root causes are poorly understood. Still, medical sciences are progressing rapidly. Progress in the social sciences is much slower, partly due to ideological disputes. The medical sciences have consilience; the social sciences do not. The former have molecular and cell biology. The latter are snarled by disunity and failure of vision. They spurn the idea of a hierarchical ordering of knowledge like that which unites the natural sciences. Their fields don’t speak the same language. Some favor social activism. They are shackled by tribal loyalty. Some are in thrall to the original grand masters. Examples of various studies: critical theory, functionalism, structuralism, even Marxism and psychoanalytic theory “where so much of academia disappeared in the twentieth century.”

None have ever been grounded in the physical realities of human biology and psychology. Granted, the social sciences are hypercomplex. Much of what people think they know in these fields is based on folk psychology. (Einstein defined common sense, as “everything learned to the age of eighteen” 183.8.) Similarly for social theorists, who have misjudged various social movements, e.g. Muslim fundamentalism 184t. Their founders — Durkheim, Marx, Boas, Freud — ignored the natural sciences by design.  They were inhibited by political ideology. One example is the idea of cultural relativism. This led to identity politics, concerning subcultures of ethnics, women, and homosexuals. Biology was disregarded. This led to a rejection of the idea of a unified human nature. What then unites humanity? What behaviors cannot be excused? Theocracy, colonialism, child labor, torture, slavery? 185.5.

Currently anthropology is breaking into two cultures, biological anthropologists vs cultural ones. Author compares the former to the Star Wars movies, in which aliens behave just like humans. The latter’s view is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which protagonists take human form but retain their alien natures. A resolution in 1994 included two contradictory goals — a “commitment to biological and cultural variation” but also a “refusal to biologize or otherwise essentialize diversity.”

Sociology stands even further apart from the natural sciences. It’s basically the anthropology of complex societies, to which the sociologists belong. (Or vice versa.) Many of them avoid biology. The focus is on social phenomena, not the behavior of single individuals, as if biology were only about entire organisms. Durkheim set the ground rules in 1894, creating more of an art form than a science, derived from Western ideals. It remains the stronghold of the Standard Social Science Model, SSSM, that sees culture as irreducible to elements of biology or psychology. Thus, human minds are products of culture. They resist genetic determinism (racism, war, class division) not because it’s incorrect, but because it’s morally wrong. But no one believes in genetic determinism to that degree.

P188. Within a middle ground, social sciences are compatible with the natural sciences. The first to doing this is to recognize that while they are sciences, social theory is not yet true theory. The idea of hermeneutics, close analysis and interpretation of texts, is how natural history is interpreted; but it does not involve webs of causation. And so on, with example of remark by Richard Rorty about epistemology.

How will the social and natural sciences unify? Consider the perspectives of four disciplines: the sociologist, the anthropologist, the primatologist, and the sociobiologist. The perspective widens at each stage. From infinite variation, to patterns and limits, to an evolutionary perspective among all the primates, to the biological basis of all social behavior. There won’t be a true theory until these disciplines communicate with each other. Connections have begun. Cognitive neurosciences; human behavioral genetics; evolutionary biology; and the environmental sciences.

P192. How these might play together can be seen through examples. Author suggests how to move forward. Understanding that behavior is guided by epigenetic rules. Review of what that means, 193m, with examples (colors, sibling avoidance, et al).

P194. How to expand the scale of time and space? Consider the example of the fundamental theory of the family. Patterns predicted by the theory closely matched the evidence. Examples, 194-5.

P195. The social science best poised to bridge the gap to the natural sciences is economics. Historical background: fathers including Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, themes were supply and demand, free-market economics, and the invisible hand. The Marginalist Era shifted the focus to properties of the invisible hand, with mathematical models. That became microeconomics, in which economic change was measured mathematically. Then came Neoclassical economics in 1900, still with us, along with the Era of Model Building. So the strengths of economics are its focus on things that can be measured. There are weaknesses: first Newtonian (the lack of fundamental laws) and hermetic (their models are sealed off from the complexities of human nature).

Thus there have been many embarrassing failures of prediction. They cannot provide definitive answers to a variety of economic questions, like the optimal amount of fiscal regulation. The world economy sails along with no agreement about how it works. Scientists look for four qualities in theory and in mathematical models: parsimony. Generality. Consilience. And predictiveness. By these criteria economic theory is on par with population genetics. Example of the Hardy-Weinberg principle of Mendelian genetics, with equations(!): earlobes, coin flipping. Economics, like population genetics, share ‘exogenous shocks,’ random evens in a complex world. A second problem is that economics lacks a solid foundation of units and processes (like the natural sciences do). 202.2—the translation from individual to aggregate behavior. By ignoring biology and psychology, relying on folk psychology, they carry parsimony and generality too far. Example of Becker, 1992 Nobel winner, who tried to go beyond the principle of rational choice to other reasons people make decisions. The implications extend to many fields. Yet those models are still simplistic. Folk psychology confirms common sense beliefs. They cling to the idea that people make choices based on their background and environment, not human nature.

It will require psychology and biology to inform economic and other social theory to explain this. What conditions affect how people make choices? Generalizations, 204b ff: categories of choice; some conditions are preemptive; and other things that affect rational calculation and decision-making. Example of reproductive strategies. Rational choice theory presumes that above all humans are rational in their actions. But this is not how people think. [[ as well established by Kahnaman, Haidt, and others since Wilson wrote this book ]] Rather, people engage in “satisficing” or follow “heuristics” like those suggested by Tversky and Kahneman [[ ah ha! ]]). Heuristics work most of the time but at other times can be wildly off. Examples of anchoring, how an estimate depends on what you see first. How this applies to other behaviors, 207b. The idea is still controversial; primitive thought summarized 208.4. [[ Here is Wilson recognizing the very early stages of the study of psychological biases, build into us by evolution, that still drive our thinking, about which much literature has appeared in the past 20 years. ]] These traits remain commonplace – especially among “cult members, the deeply religious, and the less educated” 208.6.

P208. Some throw up their hands at the thought of a consilience from biology to culture. They’re unwilling to concede that science has no intellectual limits.

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