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Biologism Day School, Theory and Practice in Educashun

About 40 people attended the third RP day-school”
on sociobiology, which was held at Goldsmiths’

College on Saturday 10 November. In the morning,
Martin Barker gave an introduction to sociobiologic·
al theory, focussing especially on Richard Dawkins’

book, The Selfish Gene, and this was followed by a
general discussion. In the afternoon, we split into
smaller groups, to look at particular popularizations of sociobiology with very clear political
messages: a piece by Richard Verrall of the
National Front, using sociobiology to support
racism; another by Glen Wilson (of London
University’s Institute of Psychiatry) in She,
entitled ‘Why Can’t a Woman be more like a Man? ‘;
and one in the Daily Mail, claiming that Thatcherite
capitalism had now been shown to be ‘biologically
valid’. Some of the issues that came up in the
groups were then fed back into a general session,
at the end of the afternoon.

In his opening talk, Martin emphasi zed the key
theoretical disagreement between sociobiologists
(such as Wilson, Dawkins, and Trivers) and their
immediate predecessors as advocates of evolutionary explanations of human soc ial behaviour, the
ethologists (such as Lorenz, Morris, and Ardrey).

Whereas human ethologists took the unit of selection
to be the species, or populations of species, the
sociobiologists take it to be the individual member
of the species (or, more strictly, the individual
gene). So, whilst ethologists could find a simple
rationale for altruistic behaviour, as contributing
to the species’ survival, sociobiologists have
instead to show how such behaviour could be part
of the rational strategy of a ‘selfish’ gene, for its
success in self-replication. Likewise, there are
differences in the analysis of aggression, with
ethologists claiming spec ies -benefits for innate
controls over its destructive consequences, and
soc iobiologists starting instead from the benefits
to individuals of successful aggressive behaviour.

Martin also argued that there were indeed connections between sociobiological theory and the support
of specific political positions: racism, for instance,
could be argued to from the tendency of individuals
to be more aggressive to members of groups that
are significantly less genetically related to them
than are members of that individual’s own society.

The discussions during the rest of the day raised
a lot of different issues, with considerable disagreements on many of them. Some people thought
it important to emphasize the differences between
sociobiologists themselves, about how far the
theory could be applied to human soc ial behaviour.

Thus Maynard Smith, despite having contributed a
central theoretical component to sociobiology (the
idea of an ‘evolutionarily stable strategy’) rejected
almost any application to humans, whilst some
American sociogiologists, such as Trivers,
Hamilton, and Wilson, showed little such restraint.

Dawkins, it seemed, came somewhere in the
middle, insisting on the radical difference betweer
human ‘culture’ and biological evolution, but then
introducing, in the ‘meme’ concept, a theory of
cultural evolution based on a strongly Darwinian

analogy. Further, it was pointed out that throughout
The Selfish Gene, whilst talking of non-human
animals, he used parallels and analogies with
humans, either explicitly, or implicitly via anthropomorphic descriptions of animals (and, even more
problematically, of genes themselves).

So many felt that the pOlitical popularizations of
SOCi~biology were largely prefigured in the way he
and other sociobiologists had presented the theory for instance, with the use of terms such as ‘hawks’,
‘doves’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘selfish’, and suchlike. At the
same time, these popularizations claimed the
theory,,” in its fully-fledged applicatio~ t~ hum,ans,
to be highly authoritative and proven SCIence. But
there were a lot of different responses to this at
the day-school. Some regarded any claim to
scientific status, as contrasted with ‘ideology’, as
itself ideological; others, that one could fairly
straightforwardly show that Dawkins’s arguments
for the theory failed to meet normal scientific
requirements – for instance only evidence that
‘fitted’ was ever mentioned and no attempt was
made to show how sociobiology explained even these
phenomena better than alternative explanat~ons. An
additional complexity here was the suggeshon made
that all evolutionary expl anations have a strong
tendency to tautology: what now exis~s must be .

‘beneficial’ since it’s what has surVIved, and WIth
a little ingenuity almost anything can be suitably
explained by applying the formula in a way that is
almost impossible to check since hypothetical
events in the very remote past are typically
referred to.

On the question whether there are direct political
implications of sociobiological theory opinions also
differed. Sociobiologists themselves tended to
invoke the fact-value dichotomy to defend themselves against such accusations; but even those of
us who partly accept this dichotomy have to deal
with the obvious implications of ‘hard-line’ sociobiologists who claim that certain features of human
behaviour are unalterable or inevitable. Some
argued that providing that some ‘autonomy’ was
left to ‘human culture’, sociobiologists could
claim that they were merely identifying ‘problems’

due to ‘human nature’ which could be dealt with
politically in many different ways (for instance the
Daily Mail piece presented Conservativism as harnessing’ the selfish and competitive nature of
humans with appropriate institutions; presumably
these themselves do not accord with this nature yet this same piece presented sociobiology as
proving that all human soc ial behaviour is genetically
determinedn Others argued that sociobiologists
could give no coherent account of this ‘autonomy of
culture’; and that, in any case, the biology v.

culture dichotomy was itself unacceptable.

Finally there was discussion of the general attitude towards forms of biologism that could or
should be developed on the left. Some argued that
it was pointless or even counter-productive to
engage in the theoretical issues at all: for instance
appropriate ‘refutations’ of biological determinism
about sex roles could easily be provided by people

s imply changing their own lives in ways the biological approach said was impossible. Others, by
contrast, thought it would be valuable to follow on
the discussions of sociobiology at the day-school
by more detailed critical analyses of specific
sociobiological attempts to explain certain areas
of human behaviour, such as Wilson’s explanation
of homosexuality or Trivers’ account of human kin

I found the day interesting and useful, and I got

the impression that many others did, though some
felt that the discussions were not sufficiently
concrete (Le. addressed to the detail of sociobiological claims), and others that the issues were
too abstract to derive any direct practical benefit
from the day. Needless to say (as people say), I’ve
left out a lot of points of view that were p.1t because
of my (unconsciously) selective memory.

Russell Keat

Three years ago in the pages of this journal
Michel Foucault declared that
A new mode of ‘connection between theory and
practice’ has been established. Intellectuals have
become accustomed to working not in the
character of the ‘universal’, the ‘exemplary’,
the ‘just-and-true’ for all, but in spec ific sectors,
at prec ise points where they are situated either
by professional conditions of work or their
conditions of life. (1)
At the time that seemed a premature claim. As a
teacher working in an inner London comprehensive
school it seemed to me then that those who styled
themselves as intellectuals within the educational
world continued to cast themselves in the role of
‘universal consciousness’ rather than, as Foucault
suggested, specific ‘exchangers’. Foucault was, I
felt, at least as far as the teaching profession was
concerned, expressing a somewhat optimistic
vision of the future rather than a considered view
of the past.

I am not so sure now. For on 16 November 1979
twenty teachers, of whom I was one, came together
for three days at Fircroft College, Birmingham, to
discuss and prepare a report on the role of the
teacher in research. We represented a wide variety
of experience both in terms of the research projects
with which we had been associated and of the posts
that we had held in nursery, primary and secondary
schools and colleges of education. All of us had
been involved in some form of classroom research
either as part of a curriculum development project,
to fulfil the requirements of a higher degree, or
simply out of a desire to learn more about our own
classrooms; and all of us had now come together to

share our experience of classroom research and to
define some of the key issues relating to our role
within the research process.

The significance of this conference lay in the
fact that it was planned, organised and coordinated
by practising teachers and that an organisation as
prestigious as the Schools Council should have felt
it worthwhile to back a venture in which teachers
were to make a considered statement on key questions relating to the relevance of educational
research. The teachers who attended were intent
upon forging a new mode of connection between
theory and practice: alternative forms of research
and of collaboration between teachers and professional researchers. The work of these teachers
shows, I believe, that many of them are aLready
pushing past the fixed forms and beginning to see
through and beyond them the elements of new,
dynamic formations. ‘The mode of existence of the
new intellectual’, as Gramsci pointed out, ‘must
consist of being actively involved in practical life,
as a builder, an organiser’ (2).

The full report of the conference is available
free of charge from the Schools Council. Anyone
wishing to receive a copy should write to the
Publications Department, Schools Council, 160
Great Portland Street, London W1N 6LL. Any other
correspondence concerning the conference or
possible outcomes should be addressed to me, Jon
Nixon, the conference organiser, at Woodberry
Down School, Woodberry Grove, London N4 2SH.

1 FOllcault, Mlchel, The political function of the i;1tellectual, p12, in
Radical Philosophy, No. 17, Summer 1977, pp12 -14.

2 Gramsci, Antonio, The modern prince and other writings, International
Publishers, 1978 (7th printing), p122.

K. O. Apel, Towards a Transformation of Philosophy
RKP, £12.50 hc.

A. Arato and P. Breines, The Young Lukacs and the
Origins of Western Marxism. Pluto Press, £10
hc, £4.95 pb.

R. Bologh, Dialectical Phenomenology: Marx’s
Method, RKP, £12. hc.

A. Bozarth-Campbell, The Word’s Body, University
of Alabama Press, £9.30 hc.

M. Chanan, The Dream that Kicks – early history of
British film, RKP, £12.50 hc.

‘R. Edwards, Pleasures and Pains, Cornell UP,
£6 hc.

M. Foucault, Power, Truth, Strategy, Feral
Publications (Sydney, Australia), no price.

B. Glassner, Essential Interactionism: on the
understanding of prejudice, RKP, £7.95 hc

P. Hoch, White Hero, Black Beast, Pluto Press,
£8.95 hc, £3.95 ph.

M. Markovic and G. Petrovic, Paaxis: Yugoslav
Essays in the Philosophy and Methodology of the
Social Sciences, D. Reidel Pub. Co. $55.30 hc,
$23.70 pb.

E. Nagel, The Structure of Science, RKP, £4.95 pb
H. Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, RKP,
£2.95 ph.

D. Silverman and B. Torode, The Material Word,
RKP, £9.50 hc.

D. Watson, Caring for Strangers, RKP, £7.50 hc,
£3.75 pb.

M. Poster, Sartre’s Marxism, Pluto Press,
£2.50 pb.

R. Seaver (trans.), Sartre, by himself, Urizen
Books (NY), £1.95 ph.

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