Framework, methodology and goals
There are many theories, and even manners of theorizing, concerning biological and cultural aspects of ourselves. The relations between theories concerning these two aspects are rich and politically important. They are fraught with ambiguity, inconsistency, and bias – heated debates over concepts such as 'race' or 'nature/nurture' serve as reminders of this. What concerns me here is the intersection between theories of, and in, these two domains. In particular, I will investigate two different styles of investigation regarding the evolution of social properties and relations. I call these styles formal and compositional. I argue that the possibility of unification in social science (one of the two themes of this edition of GJSS) will require analyzing, and overcoming, radically different ways of doing research, as we can see in the specific examples of two different ways of attempting to unify biological theories with the study of society and culture. Perhaps there is no complete way to overcome these different styles of biological social science, nor even of unifying biology and social science [i.e., pluralism (of various sorts); the other theme of this edition of GJSS!] and these may not in themselves be unfortunate conclusions. Furthermore, currently the state of biological social science is one of radical plurality. Whether pluralism or unification of theories and styles of investigation of biological social science will or should be the ultimate goal, and whether either a unification of these styles, or of biology and social science, or both are even desirable, an analysis of these styles is important and even requisite in order to understand research in the area where biology and social science overlap.
Let me first articulate the two styles of scientific investigation in biology that I have analyzed elsewhere: formal and compositional biology (Winther 2003; 2006a, b). Each style has distinct and internally consistent ways of reasoning: explaining, modeling, and abstracting. Whereas formal biology revolves around mathematical laws and models, compositional biology examines material parts and wholes. The difference between these styles is not a matter of the natural domain studied or scientific specialty included. Rather, they differ in their methodologies of theorizing and experimenting.[i]Each style can, and does, examine the same biological system (e.g., social insects or organisms) in distinct ways, sometimes even reaching conflicting conclusions about the system's processes and entities. Conflicts arise especially since each style yearns for completeness – that is, each style employs its own method toolbox to develop a coherent and general theory (with a characteristic theoretical structure: '(causal) arrows' or 'equal signs'), which the style then takes to be necessary and sufficient to explain all the data in question.
With respect to these two styles of investigation in biology, philosophers generally believe that formal biology is more philosophically robust, interesting, and important. Evolutionary genetics, which employs the formal style and is concerned with the dynamics of evolutionary change in populations, is often considered the paradigm theoretical biology. Significant philosophical analysis has been devoted to it. Compositional biology, on the other hand, is sometimes accused of being merely stampcollecting or being obsessed with mechanistic detail. This is unfair because the compositional style is truly scientific, as I show here and elsewhere (Winther 2003; 2006a, b). It is also unfortunate and even ironic that the compositional style, which governs most of biology, has received the least philosophical attention. Added impetus for my project in the philosophy of biology comes from social, economic, and ethical concerns endemic to molecular genetics, biochemistry, biomedicine, physiology, as well as developmental and cellular biology, all of which are biological and medical sciences employing the compositional style. For example, genetic engineering, stem cell research, and medical therapies stemming from bioengineering, are more appropriately analyzed as cases of compositional, rather than formal, styles.
In this paper on biological social science, I will analyze two different family of views - formal and compositional - concerning the evolution of culture and society, stemming from biologists interested in the evolution of culture and society.
I will now present, in a telegraphic manner, my examples of, respectively, formal and compositional biological social science.With respect to formal biological social science, there is the gene-culture co-evolutionary theory of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981), or Boyd and Richerson (1985), or even the memetics of Dawkins (1976) and the adaptationism and genetic determinism of the sociobiologists (e.g., Wilson 1975). The compositional biological social science that I will analyze in detail is the theory of animal and human societies that the mid twentieth-century University of Chicago Ecology Group composed of W.C. Allee, A.E. Emerson, Ralph Gerard, and, last but not least, the formal compositional hybrid figures of Thomas Park and Sewall Wright were trying to develop. The synthetic biological social science that was being forged at Chicago by scientists, as well as by sociologists, like Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, is a superb case of a compositional biological social science in the making. Revisiting this work may very well reopen some abandoned intellectual tracks that may prove to be useful in our attempts to evaluate the unity-pluralism of biological social science. Despite the modeling, empirical, political and rhetorical efforts prevailing in the last two generations of biological social science, we certainly need not whole-heartedly accept formal biological social science as the final and only way of understanding the relationship between biology and social sciences.
Let me now turn to the relation between the empirical content of the theories and styles of theorizing of biological social science, and the crucial political, ethical and social implications of these theories and styles.The compositional style is, in some respects and for some purposes, more empirically adequate than the formal style. This should not be underestimated. But this does not imply, by any means, that biological social science - compositional or formal or some other style - is necessarily desirable or that more empirical adequacy inherently leads to a more responsible politics or ethics. Whatever its empirical adequacy may be, I accept that biological social science is, by its very nature, not socially, ethically, and politically unproblematic. It can even be directly pernicious. However, the important normative questions surrounding the very existence and purpose of biological social science (to which I will briefly return in the conclusion) will not be my primary concern here.
Furthermore, these normative questions need not even, strictly speaking, concern me here. While it may seem like a contentious point, I believe that the empirical content, empirical methodology and the theory of a science (e.g., biological social science) underdetermines its ethical and political interpretation. The scientific data, methodology (both, of course, partially determined by theory) and theory do not come with an interpretation of their political, ethical or social implications already attached. For example, some have read the Chicago Ecology Group's attempts at a compositional biological social science synthesis as an attempt to defend 'group conformism and blind discipline' (Keulartz 1998, 138; see also Simpson 1941; Novikoff 1945). These critics read the Group as defending totalitarian ideals – the social group dominates and controls the individual. I believe that it is not accidental that Novikoff and Simpson both wrote their criticisms during the Second World War. Other commentators have, instead, gleaned social-democratic ideals from the theoretical efforts of this Group – for example, the Group stressed the importance of cooperation over competition in animal as well as human societies (e.g., Mitman 1992).
Thus, while scientific data, methodology, and theory are certainly not independent of political and ethical views, extremely different political, social and ethical interpretations can be gleaned from the same data, methodology, and theory. This underdetermination stems, in this case, both from ambiguity in the views of the Group, and from underdetermination, as a logical phenomenon in the sense of the Duhem-Quine thesis, from the same information. Regarding ambiguity, the Ecology Group, on the one hand, discussed social integration and mechanisms of dominance and subordination parts could have on one another as well as the whole could have on the parts. But, on the other hand, it also stated that 'the part-whole relationship is reciprocal' (Gerard & Emerson 1945, 583). There is flexibility and openness in gleaning political and ethical interpretations from these biological social scientific claims. To consider another example, it barely requires mentioning that Darwinism has been interpreted for all sorts of liberal-democratic, communist, and fascist agendas and purposes. While there may not be radical underdetermination of the social, political and ethical implications of biological social science, there most certainly is partial underdetermination (both as a logical point and as a point of ambiguity). Finally, in this paper I seek more to understand compositional biological social science and less to judge it. I certainly agree that one could judge it for its purposes, interpretations, and dangers; but one can also attempt - with some success - to present, describe, and analyze its scientific data, method, and theory analytically prior to investigating its variety of socially-relevant implications.