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Thayer, Bradley A.
International Security, Volume 26, Number 1, Summer 2001, pp. 194-198 (Article)
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Start the Evolution without Us
Duncan S.A. Bell Paul K. MacDonald Bradley A. Thayer
To the Editors:
In his provocative article “Bringing in Darwin: Evolutionary Theory, Realism, and International Politics,” Bradley Thayer appropriates arguments from sociobiology to provide a scientiªc basis for realist international relations theory, and in so doing he follows a recent trend in the social sciences.1 Thayer’s argument is straightforward. First, traditional realist microfoundations are dependent on unacceptably “metaphysical” or “theological” assumptions about human nature (pp. 126–130). Second, ªndings in sociobiology about human nature provide transhistorical, universal, and sufªciently robust foundations for realist claims about international politics (pp. 131–138). We welcome Thayer’s contribution to this debate, but we dispute both his speciªc formulation of sociobiology and the general project of explaining political phenomenon through biological theories. First, we disagree that evolutionary theory “offers a widely accepted scientiªc explanation” of human behavior (p. 138). Instead, we argue that sociobiology remains the object of considerable scientiªc and ethical controversy, and that sociobiological approaches contain numerous methodological ºaws. Second, we contend that even if sociobiology could overcome its inherent limitations, the microfoundations that a sociobiologically informed theory of international politics produces are indeterminate and contradictory. For this reason, sociobiological microfoundations provide no additional analytical leverage in explaining and understanding international politics. Finally, we contend that current microfoundations in the social sciences, including structural realist and rational actor approaches, can be just as “scientiªc” from the perspective of philosophy of science without importing sociobioDuncan S.A. Bell is a doctoral candidate at the Center for International Studies, Cambridge University. He spent the past academic year as a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Political Science, Columbia University. Paul K. MacDonald is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science, Columbia University. They would like to thank Stacie Goddard, Robert Jervis, Philip Kitcher, Daniel Nexon, Joseph Parent, Jack Snyder, and Jennifer Sterling-Folker for their helpful comments. Bradley A. Thayer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota—Duluth. 1. Bradley Thayer, “Bringing in Darwin: Evolutionary Theory, Realism, and International Politics,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2000), pp. 124–151. Future citations appear parenthetically in the text. In international relations, see R. Paul Shaw and Yuwa Wong, “Ethnic Mobilization and the Seeds of Warfare: An Evolutionary Perspective,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (March 1987), pp. 5–31. See also Joseph Lopreato and Timothy Crippen, Crisis in Sociology: The Need for Darwin (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1999); Dorothy Nelkin, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995); and Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: How Selªsh Genes Became Stupid Gods (London: Simon and Schuster, 1999).
International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Summer 2001), pp. 187–198 © 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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logical hypotheses. Taken together, these three criticisms strongly suggest against using sociobiology as a panacea for realism or for international relations theory in general.
sociobiology as a contested science
Thayer advocates the adoption of sociobiological reasoning to augment the traditional realist account of human behavior because sociobiology “offers a ªrm intellectual foundation” (p. 126) and a “sound scientiªc substructure” (p. 127) for understanding the ultimate causes of egoistic and dominating behavior by human beings. He implies that sociobiology, which can be broadly deªned as the application of evolutionary theory to explain the genetic foundations of an organism’s social behavior,2 is generally accepted as an unproblematic approach within the scientiªc community and that the extrapolation of ªndings from sociobiological theories into the realm of human behavior is also widely regarded as legitimate. Neither of these claims can be upheld: The science of sociobiology is the subject of great controversy within biology as well as other cognate disciplines.3 Indeed, given the torrent of scientiªc criticism since the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,4 Thayer’s failure to mention the ethically and scientiªcally contested nature of sociobiology is surprising. Some advocates of sociobiology portray their opponents as motivated primarily by political correctness. We believe, however, that there are serious ethical issues at stake in the attempt to reduce complex social and political behavior to essential elements of human genetics. When accepted uncritically, sociobiological claims contain the potential to be utilized in the naturalization of behaviors that are variable and in the justiªcation of discriminatory sociopolitical orders.5 For this reason, sociobiological theories should be held to a high standard of intellectual and analytical scrutiny before they are adopted as scientiªc fact, or be avoided altogether. Given these concerns, international relations theorists should seriously consider the methodological criticisms leveled against sociobiology. We brieºy highlight three of the most salient of these criticisms.
2. Sociobiology is distinct from social science approaches that employ biological metaphors or analogies. See George Modelski and Kazimierz Poznanski, eds., “Evolutionary Paradigms in the Social Sciences,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3 (September 1996), pp. 315–433. 3. See Ulicia Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 225. See also Arthur L. Kaplan, ed., The Sociobiology Debate: Readings on Ethical and Scientiªc Issues (New York: Harper and Row, 1978); Kenneth Bock, Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980); Philip Kitcher, Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985); Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1978); and Richard C. Lewontin and Steven Rose, Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (London: Penguin, 1984). 4. Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). For Wilson’s own accounts of these debates, see Naturalist (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1994), pp. 305–353. 5. See Elizabeth Allen et al., “Against ‘Sociobiology,’” New York Review of Books, November 13, 1975, pp. 182–186; Richard C. Lewontin, Biology as Ideology (New York: HarperCollins, 1991); Richard M. Lerner, Final Solutions: Biology, Prejudice, and Genocide (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); Jonathan Beckwith, “The Political Use of Sociobiology in the United States and Europe,” Philosophical Forum, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Winter 1981–1982), pp. 311–321; and Lewontin and Rose, Not in Our Genes.
First, the universality of the sociobiological project—and speciªcally its applicability to the study of human behavior—is extremely controversial. Thayer downplays the serious disagreements by claiming that the study of humans is central to the sociobiological project (p. 130). In contrast, one commentator has noted that “most ‘sociobiologists’ . . . are quite uninterested in humans.”6 In particular, many biologists themselves dispute the applicability of sociobiological approaches to humans because of the central role of culture, language, and self-reºexivity in determining human behavior.7 Although advocates of human sociobiology acknowledge the dual inºuences of culture and genetics in shaping human behavior, no consensus exists on how to explain the complex interplay between these factors. Second, sociobiological explanations of human behavior are often unacceptably functionalist. Sociobiologists take a particular form of human behavior and account for it with reference to evolutionary ªtness. Different sociobiologists explain behaviors ranging from selªshness to altruism and from monogamy to rape based on the claim that they confer a selective advantage to the individuals or groups who practice them. The quality of sociobiological explanations and the models used to demonstrate them vary tremendously, but such arguments generally fall into the trap of what Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould call “adaptationism,” the attempt to understand all the physiological and behavioral traits of an organism as evolutionary adaptations.8 Individual traits may in fact be the result of a complex web of design and development in the organism’s growth. The effects of individual genes may not be discernable in isolation from their interaction with other genetic traits and environmental factors. Traits may be nonadaptive and the product of allometry—the relative and incidental growth of a part of an organism in relation to the whole bundle of traits that constitute an organism. Thus a particular behavior may be “a consequence of adaptations rather than an adaptation in its own right.”9 The complexity and unpredictability of interactions between individual selection pressures and particular traits create intractable problems for researchers attempting to isolate the genetic foundations of behavior within variegated environmental and cultural contexts. In other words, even if we develop an account of how any given behavior is functional with reference to evolutionary ªtness, we are a long way from being able to conclude that evolutionary mechanisms actually gave rise to that behavior. In this way, sociobiological accounts easily degenerate into examples of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy generally associated with other versions of functionalist explanations in the so6. Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth, p. 475 (emphasis in original). 7. See Joshua S. Goldstein, “The Emperor’s New Genes: Sociobiology and War,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (March 1987), pp. 33–45; and John Maynard Smith, “Survival through Suicide,” New Scientist, August 28, 1975, pp. 496–497. See also Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth, chap. 7. 8. See, for example, Richard C. Lewontin, “Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program,” Behavioral Science, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1979), pp. 5–14; and Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Vol. 205, No. 1161 (September 21, 1979), pp. 581–598. 9. Philip Kitcher, “On the Crest of ‘La Nouvelle Vague,’” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (March 1987), p. 46; and Kitcher, Vaulting Ambition, chap. 7.
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cial sciences.10 This problem of isolating particular genetic traits is compounded within human populations, which are not generally divided into isolated, distinguishable gene pools and which, as mentioned above, attribute a large role to culture in determining socially acceptable and legitimate behavior.11 Third, sociobiologists themselves disagree over the unit of selection that should be emphasized during evolution—whether it be the gene, the individual, or the group.12 Because different sociobiological studies examine selection at different analytical levels, they frequently produce different and contradictory hypotheses about what behaviors should maximize ªtness. Sociobiologists have not systematically examined how different units of selection interact analytically, and they disagree as to what level exerts the greatest degree of inºuence on evolution. For example, Maynard Smith argues that if ªtness is exercised at an aggregate level, then group-level selection pressures must be sufªciently stringent and rapid so that incentives to maximize individual ªtness will not supersede those of the group.13 Empirically assessing the relative degree and frequency of group selection pressures vis-à-vis individual or genetic factors is extraordinarily complex, however, and in the messy world of human political and cultural interaction, this task is practically impossible. This controversy is further muddied by disagreement over how to operationalize the theoretical concept of the gene. Many biologists dispute the notion that particular genes can be understood in isolation, and emphasize the importance of the interactions between genes in a complete, interconnected genome as well as to the environment in which they are embedded.14 Similarly, others criticize the fact that many sociobiologists do not actually link particular behavior with an individual gene, but rather rely on population genetics and statistical analysis to identify “hypothetical” genes that correlate with particular behaviors. These critics correctly view the highly stylized, formal results of sociobiology as suspect, because they are never able to control for all possible exogenous variables and they minimize the importance of controlled experimentation.15
10. See Arthur L. Stinchcombe, Constructing Social Theories (New York: Harcourt, 1968), pp. 87–101; and Jeffrey C. Alexander, Neofunctionalism and After (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998). 11. For further elaboration on these points, see Goldstein, “The Emperor’s New Genes.” See also Richard C. Lewontin, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Evolutionary Biology, Vol. 6 (New York: Plenum, 1972), pp. 381–494. 12. See Segerståle, Defenders of the Truth, p. 72. 13. See John Maynard Smith, “Group Selection and Kin Selection,” Nature, March 14, 1964, pp. 1145–1147. For a discussion, see Kitcher, Vaulting Ambition, pp. 77–80. 14. Ernst Mayr, “How to Carry Out the Adaptationist Program,” American Naturalist, Vol. 121, No. 3 (March 1983), pp. 324–334. For other leading biological critiques, see Lewontin, “Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program”; Peter Medewar, “Stretch Genes,” New York Review of Books, July 16, 1981, pp. 45–48; and Gabriel Dover, “Anti-Dawkins,” in Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, eds., Alas, Poor Darwin (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000). Dover, p. 48, notes that “genes are not self-replicating units; they are not eternal; they are not units of selection; they are not units of function; and they are not units of instruction. They are modular in construction and history; invariably redundant; each involved in a multitude of functions; and misbehave in a bizarre range of ways. They coevolve intimately and interactively with each other through their protein and RNA products. They have no meaning outside of their interactions, with regard to any adaptive features of an individual: there are no one-to-one links between genes and complex traits.” 15. See Segerståle, Defenders of the Truth, chaps. 11–14; and John Maynard Smith and N. Warren, “Models of Cultural and Genetic Change,” Evolution, Vol. 36, No. 3 (May 1982), pp. 620–627.
In sum, numerous evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists who, although extremely sympathetic to the scientiªc study of humans, regard sociobiology as simplistic and misleadingly erroneous.16 For this reason, sociobiology provides an unstable set of foundations on which to construct a rigorously scientiªc approach to the study of world politics, for its scientiªc status remains essentially contested.
sociobiology and international relations theory
Even if sociobiologists were to ªnd not merely plausible but testable linkages between speciªc behavioral dispositions and genetic selection, it is not clear that these would be of much use in explaining outcomes in international relations, which are the result of complex interactions between myriad human and collective actors. Appropriating sociobiological ªndings, at least in the cursory manner that Thayer outlines, provides little explanatory leverage for international relations theory in general, and realism in particular. Sociobiological accounts come in two versions. The ªrst attempts to reduce human behavior to genetic imperatives.17 The second recognizes that social relations result from a complex interplay between inherited characteristics and environmental conditions, including material and cultural factors. Most sophisticated sociobiologists favor the latter version. As Wilson himself argues, “the problem [of sociobiology] can be more clearly cast in these terms: how have genetic evolution and cultural evolution interacted to create the development of the human mind?”18 But as we argued above, such a position makes it extremely difªcult to methodologically distinguish between biological and environmental sources of observed behavior. Thayer concedes this point when he acknowledges that egoism and the drive to dominate may “result from other causes” (p. 130, n. 33) than evolution. Similarly, in his application of sociobiology to the origins of war, Thayer admits that “warfare . . . is greatly inºuenced by culture and the international system” (p. 144), while in his discussion of ethnic conºict, he grants that ethnocentric behavior can be “reinforced or weakened by environmental factors such as culture or religion” (p. 148).19
16. See, for example, Edmund Leach, “Biology and Social Science: Wedding or Rape?” Nature, May 21, 1981, pp. 267–268; Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology; and Rose and Rose, Alas, Poor Darwin. 17. Many critics have accused sociobiology of falling into the trap of genetic reductionism. Although we believe that Thayer avoids this trap, he does so by developing a microfoundation for understanding human behavior that is indeterminate at best. On genetic reductionism, see Patrick Bateson, “Sociobiology and Genetic Determinism,” Theoria to Theory, Vol. 14 (1981), pp. 291–300; and Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin, Design for a Life: How Behavior Develops (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999). See also Gabriel Dover, Dear Mr. Darwin: Letters on the Evolution of Life and Human Nature (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000). 18. See Wilson, Naturalist, p. 351. 19. In fact, almost all contemporary authors who study ethnic conºict dismiss “primordialist” claims regarding the centrality of genetic or other biological factors. See James D. Fearon and David D. Latin, “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity,” International Organization, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Autumn 2000), pp. 845–875; and Anthony D. Smith, “Ethno-Symbolism and the Study of Nationalism,” in Smith, ed., Myths and Memories of the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3–20.
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It follows that in international relations, we have no way to tell whether a particular outcome—for instance, the predilection for conºict or balancing behavior of an actor or group of actors—is a result of human nature or environmental factors. Thayer provides no scope conditions as to when one should expect genetics to trump environmental factors, nor does he specify mechanisms by which evolutionary and environmental factors combine to create particular patterns of human behavior. For this reason, sociobiology provides at best a limited and probabilistic account of the role of biology in human behavior. To make matters worse, Thayer’s conception of sociobiology generates contradictory predictions about what types of behavior evolutionary pressures generate. Because he avoids discussion of the sociobiological debate regarding the unit of selection, Thayer proposes inconsistent evolutionary mechanisms that exert inºuence at different analytical levels. For example, at the level of the individual, he draws on Richard Dawkins’s work to argue that humans will behave egoistically, placing their interests above all others (p. 132). Simultaneously, he argues that humans will often act submissively, sublimating their own interests to dominant individuals in “dominance hierarchies” (pp. 134–136). In his explanation of the origins of war, he contends that genetic pressures encourage individuals to behave altruistically, sacriªcing themselves for the collectivity during warfare (pp. 143–144). As a microfoundation for understanding human behavior, therefore, Thayer’s account cannot tell us when individual humans will behave egoistically, submissively, or altruistically. Moreover, the diverse and contradictory sociobiological approaches that Thayer strings together cannot conclusively sketch the mechanisms by which these individual motivations aggregate to social groups. The lack of any discussion regarding how individual dispositions inºuence the behavior of institutionalized social groupings is particularly problematic, because the behaviors that Thayer seeks to explain occur exclusively at the level of the group. In other words, because sociobiology does not present analytically rigorous or empirically persuasive linkages between individual genetic predispositions and group behaviors, importing sociobiology into international relations theory does not help to illuminate the fundamental issue of international politics—the behavior and interactions of human aggregates, whether they be states, corporations, international organizations, or ethnic groups.
social science and microfoundations
Thayer argues that importing evolutionary arguments into international relations provides a better microfoundation for understanding human behavior because it is “superior” to other realist accounts “as judged by the common metrics in philosophy of science.” Thayer’s main target is the human nature assumption associated with classical realism—Reinhold Niebuhr’s evil or Hans Morgenthau’s animus dominandi (p. 137). This strikes us as odd for at least two reasons. First, according to Carl Hempel, not every theoretical term requires an empirical counterpart. Such assumptions might be properly scientiªc if the theory as a whole is veriªed through empirical observation.20
20. See Carl G. Hempel, “The Theoreticians’ Dilemma,” in Herbert Feigl, Grover Maxwell, and Michael Scriven, eds., Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Minneapolis: University of
Thus, we disagree with Thayer’s contention that sociobiology provides a “better ultimate cause” (p. 137) for realist theory because both “its ultimate and proximate causes are testable” (p. 127). Most philosophers of science argue that, by deªnition, theoretical assumptions cannot be tested or evaluated independent from the hypotheses that they generate.21 The merit of a particular theory is not whether all of its elements are testable, but rather whether the hypotheses it generates are clear, falsiªable, internally consistent, and therefore amenable to empirical evaluation.22 Second, most contemporary variants of realism reject human nature assumptions in favor of structuralist or rational choice–based analytic categories. In this way, these approaches generally meet the broad methodological standards outlined above in the sense that both generate falsiªable, consistent, and empirically testable hypotheses from a set of theoretical presuppositions. For example, although a structural realist approach assumes away the theoretical importance of factors at the state level,23 it still generates falsiªable and testable predictions about how characteristics of the international system, such as its polarity, affect international stability.24 Similarly, although rational choice approaches ignore the degree to which state actors do not behave in a manner consistent with instrumental rationality,25 a rational choice approach can generate a series of deductively linked, eminently testable hypotheses about how idealized actors with assumed preferences respond to particular structural situations.26
Minnesota Press, 1958), p. 50. Thayer conºates Hempel’s veriªcationist position with Karl Popper’s falsiªcationism. For a discussion, see Imre Lakatos, “Falsiªcation and the Methodology of Scientiªc Research Programs,” in Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 93–132; Trevor J. Barnes, Logics of Dislocation: Models, Metaphors, and Meanings of Economic Space (London: Guilford, 1996), p. 107; and Bruce J. Caldwell, Beyond Positivism: Economic Methodology in the Twentieth Century (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982), p. 25. 21. The idea that abstraction is the foundation of theoretical inquiry is not novel. Max Weber ªrst expressed this notion in his 1906 seminal essay, “The Logic of Historical Explanation.” See Walter Garrison Runciman, ed., Max Weber: Selections in Translation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Similarly, in recent philosophy of science, Imre Lakatos separates the “hard-core” theoretical assumptions from a “protective belt” of auxiliary, observational hypotheses and initial conditions. See Lakatos, “Falsiªcation and the Methodology of Scientiªc Research Programs,” pp. 135–137. See also Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science (New York: Harcourt, 1961). 22. See Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientiªc Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 105–107; and Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), p. 10. 23. See Waltz, Theory of International Politics, chap. 4. For a discussion, see Colin Elman, “Horses for Courses: Why Not Neorealist Theories of Foreign Policy?” Security Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn 1996), pp. 7–53. 24. See Waltz, Theory of International Politics, chap. 7; Kenneth N. Waltz, “Evaluating Theories”; and Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman, “Lakatos and Neorealism: A Reply to Vasquez,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, No. 4 (December 1997), pp. 913–917 and 923–926, respectively. 25. See Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and James G. March and Johan P. Olsen, “The Institutional Dynamics of International Political Orders,” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn 1998), pp. 943– 969. 26. See Daniel Diermeir, “Rational Choice and the Role of Theory in Political Science,” in Jeffrey Friedman, ed., The Rational Choice Controversy: Economic Models of Politics Reconsidered (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996); John Ferejohn, “Rationality and Interpretation,” in Kristen
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Therefore one can make theoretical assumptions about what motivates human behavior when constructing theories and still generate hypotheses that are amenable to empirical evaluation. In this way, ultimate causes may be assumed such that testable theories of proximate inºuences can be hypothesized. Although Thayer may be correct that sociobiology can be tested and falsiªed, he is mistaken when he argues that sociobiology is superior to current approaches to political realism. In fact, current varieties of realism may generate microfoundations that are superior to sociobiology because they are not as indeterminate and inconsistent as the sociobiological alternative.
Importing sociobiology into international relations does not accomplish any of the goals its proponents assert: Sociobiology does not provide a scientiªcally accepted view of human nature, the microfoundations it generates are indeterminate with regard to the role of material environment and culture, and the leaps that sociobiology makes between individual and group behaviors are underspeciªed and contradictory. Given the presence of plausible social scientiªc alternatives to sociobiology, including structural and rational actor analytical approaches, realist scholars should be extremely wary of importing the ethically charged and methodologically ºawed sociobiological approach into the study of world politics. —Duncan S.A. Bell —Paul K. MacDonald New York, New York
The Author Replies:
Duncan Bell and Paul MacDonald have offered a thoughtful critique of my effort to promote consilience and introduce evolutionary theory to the study of international politics.1 Their letter is especially valuable for two reasons. First, challenging the research of others is a proven method in advancing scholarship. Second, the letter reºects many points of agreement: For example, we concur that any proponent of the application of evolutionary theory to the totality of human behavior, or sociobiology, who reduces complex social issues solely to genetics would be misdirected. Moreover, any theorist who attempts to use evolutionary theory to justify a speciªc political order would be guilty of the naturalistic fallacy—that is, one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Evolutionary theory may be able to inform an explanation of human behavior, but science cannot dictate what humans should do. Contemporary evolutionary theorists avoid this danger when they use science to understand facts about the world, as
Renwick Monroe, ed., The Economic Approach to Politics (New York: HarperCollins, 1991); Morris Fiorina, “Rational Choice, Empirical Contributions, and the Scientiªc Enterprise,” in Friedman, The Rational Choice Controversy; and Mark P. Petracca, “The Rational Actor Approach to Politics,” in Monroe, The Economic Approach to Politics. 1. Bradley A. Thayer, “Bringing in Darwin: Evolutionary Theory, Realism, and International Politics,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2000), pp. 124–151.
Charles Darwin did when he explained that he sought to determine truth, not to justify contemporary social prejudices or beliefs: “We are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it.”2 Of course, any theory or theoretical approach—whether rational choice, Rawlsian liberalism, or evolutionary theory—may be misused to derive morally ºawed policies, and natural and social scientists should be on guard against those who commit this fallacy. That said, I devote the rest of my remarks to answering Bell and MacDonald’s major criticisms of my work.
scientific debate should not be mistaken for flawed science
Bell and MacDonald argue that sociobiology is a controversial subject. Controversy, however, does not make a theory ºawed, nor is it a necessary or sufªcient condition for outright rejection. The important issue is whether any controversy is anchored in scientiªc fact that discredits the theory or science. Evolutionary theory is strongly supported by scientiªc fact, and there is a consensus among evolutionary theorists that evolution through natural selection applies to humans—this was one of Darwin’s most revolutionary insights—and that natural selection operates as an ultimate cause of human behavior. More speciªcally, Bell and MacDonald argue that no consensus exists to explain the interplay of evolutionary and environmental causes of human behavior. To the contrary: Both are inextricably linked and necessary to explain human behavior.3 To address this issue in any detail, we need additional information. This might include, for example, identifying the behavior that we seek to explain and determining the appropriate level of analysis. Evolutionary theory cannot explain why the Thirty Years’ War lasted thirty years. It can, however, offer ultimate causal explanations of other behavior of interest to scholars of international politics, such as warfare. Relying on the work of Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, Bell and MacDonald argue that explanations of human behavior grounded in sociobiology are unacceptably functionalist and prone to the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. In response, I make three brief rebuttals. First, like controversy there is nothing inherently wrong with functionalism as a theory of explanation. An explanation’s usefulness depends on numerous factors, including: the issue under examination, the context of the explanation, and whether the explanation is testable. Second, Gould and Lewontin do not argue that human behavior is independent of natural selection. They agree with Darwin that natural selection is “the most important of evolutionary mechanisms,”4 although unlike major evolutionary theorists, they suggest that natural selection cannot explain the development of all traits or physiology, a position not supported by major evolutionary theorists. As Ernst Mayr, the dean of evolutionary biology, writes, “Gould and Lewontin’s
2. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), Vol. 2, p. 405. 3. Numerous evolutionary theorists make this point. For an overview, see Ernst Mayr, One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), pp. 154–155. 4. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme,” in Elliott Sober, ed., Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, 2d ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), p. 81.
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proposals are not ‘alternatives to the adaptationist program,’ but simply legitimate forms of it” and, like it, “are ultimately based on natural selection.”5 This is a major reason why Mayr concludes that “little is wrong with the adaptationist program as such, contrary to the claims of Gould and Lewontin.”6 Third, the post hoc, ergo propter hoc charge might be valid if adaptationist explanations were untestable. But as the distinguished evolutionary theorist George Williams argues, adaptationism, like other scientiªc programs, is testable because it considers multiple hypotheses and compares them with the empirical evidence, just as any scientiªc program would.7 Competing hypotheses can be checked against empirical evidence. Moreover, any explanation must be consistent with what is known about the trait being examined. For example, in his discussion of the pony ªsh’s glow, Williams notes that scientists must explain, among other things, “when [its] light would be turned on, [and] what kind of light it would emit.”8 Thus adaptationist explanations do not just explain traits; they also explain why such traits are maintained. The criticism of Gould and Lewontin notwithstanding, Williams concludes that adaptationism “continues to be a powerful method for the discovery of important facts about living organisms.”9 Bell and MacDonald also argue that evolutionary theorists disagree about the level at which natural selection operates. Although there is indeed some debate over this issue, the consensus among contemporary evolutionary theorists is that evolution works at the level of the gene. They also agree that for almost all animals, including humans, the individual is important because the phenotype must survive long enough to reproduce and possibly pass to posterity favorable genetic mutations. On the other hand, some evolutionary theorists suggest that natural selection can operate at the group level (group selection).10 The ultimate resolution of this debate does not prevent the use of evolutionary theory in international relations, however, any more than scholarship in international politics is encumbered by its levels of analysis. Which is more valuable is often an empirical question. Thus, as with any science, evolutionary theory has its share of disagreements, but rather than being a problem, this should be taken as an indication of its robustness.
understanding what theories can and cannot accomplish
Bell and MacDonald’s second major criticism is that evolutionary approaches do not provide explanatory leverage. To support this position, they advance two arguments. First, after acknowledging that sociobiology recognizes complexity in causation of be havior, they fault it because it is “extremely difªcult to methodologically distinguish be tween biological and environmental sources of observed behavior.”
5. Ernst Mayr, Toward a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 155. 6. Ibid., p. 157. 7. George C. Williams. The Pony Fish’s Glow: And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature (New York: Basic Books, 1997), pp. 17–19. 8. Ibid., p. 19. 9. Ibid. 10. See Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselªsh Behavior (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998). Arguing against group selection is H. Kern Reeve and Laurent Keller, “Levels of Selection: Burying the Units-of-Selection Debate and
In response, it is important to underscore what theories can and cannot accomplish. Evolutionary theory, for example, can provide an ultimate causation of behavior. It cannot elucidate why a particular animal did something at a particular time, just as neorealism cannot explain why a given state undertook a speciªc policy at a speciªc time. This does not mean that neorealism has little or no explanatory leverage, and is to misunderstand the role of theory in international politics. So it is for evolutionary theory. To explain the behavior of a particular animal is to move from an ultimate to a proximate explanation. Combining insights drawn from evolutionary theory with those drawn from environmental factors, scholars can then explicate this behavior. Thus the false dichotomy between nature and environment should be rejected. In “Bringing in Darwin,” I did not seek to establish that evolutionary causes of behavior trump environmental causes. One does not trump the other. Rather I suggested that evolutionary theory can assist the study of certain issues in international politics (e.g., warfare and ethnic conºict). Evolutionary theorists often use the metaphor of a cake to make this point. Just as all the ingredients in a recipe are required to make the cake, so too are evolutionary and environmental causes necessary to explain behavior. Once this is understood, scholars will no longer believe that a methodological test is necessary or desirable to determine what is wholly genetic or environmental. Bell and MacDonald also contend that my argument offers “contradictory predictions about what types of behavior evolutionary pressures generate” because, they submit, I maintain that humans are egoists who often act submissively in dominance hierarchies but at other times may act altruistically. But I did not argue that this was the totality of human behavior or that evolutionary theory can explain all. Indeed it seems obvious that humans and other animals are capable of these behaviors—and many more—given the right circumstances. It is important to stress this point. Evolutionary theory explains why individual animals are egoistic, why they may live in a dominance hierarchy, or why they may be altruistic. It does not submit that animals solely pursue these types of behaviors, because an explanation of speciªc individual action requires incorporating environmental causes. Thus, when Bell and MacDonald write that “Thayer’s account cannot tell us when individual humans will behave egoistically, submissively, or altruistically” is to misunderstand evolutionary theory, ultimate causation, and the value of theories. Furthermore, Bell and MacDonald argue that I did not describe the mechanisms to “conclusively sketch” how “individual motivations aggregate to social groups.” My succinct answer is that evolutionary theory can provide insight into human group behavior, although precisely how depends in part on the empirical issue being examined. Despite Bell and MacDonald’s claim to the contrary, evolutionary theory can provide insight into what they describe as the fundamental issue of international politics: “the behavior and interactions of human aggregates” such as states and ethnic groups.11 Furthermore, if we adopt a broader conception of what the fundamental issues are in international politics to include, for example, the psychological approaches of Irving
Unearthing the Crucial New Issues,” in Keller, ed., Levels of Selection in Evolution (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 3–14. 11. See, for example, Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1987).
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Janis, Robert Jervis, Yuen Foong Khong, and Deborah Welch Larson, then given time evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology are likely to generate signiªcant insights for ªrst-image approaches. Indeed evolutionary theory has the potential to reinvigorate ªrst-image scholarship, improve rational choice theory, and promote a better understanding of agency.
evolutionary theory and realism: a definite improvement
Finally, Bell and MacDonald argue that realism may be anchored on rational choice theory or neorealism. I agree, but would make two observations. First, my intent was to show that evolutionary theory could scientiªcally ground the realism of Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. I did not argue that this was necessarily the sole foundation for realism, and it obviously is not for neorealism. Second, although there are competing conceptions in the philosophy of science of the proper metrics to judge almost every aspect of a theory, including antecedent conditions and testability, ultimate causal explanations based on evolutionary theory are testable. By any standard, this signiªcantly improves realism’s explanatory power because the metaphysical and religious foundations on which Morgenthau’s and Niebuhr’s theories are based are no longer required.
advancing the science of international politics
Bell and MacDonald have raised many excellent arguments and have helped to advance comprehension of how evolutionary theory may be used in international politics. Their arguments, however, do not detract from my effort to promote consilience and to use evolutionary theory to better inform theories and empirical issues studied in international politics. Moreover, given that this project has just gotten under way, Bell and MacDonald’s claim that evolutionary theory will not assist social science or international relations theory is too hasty a judgment. Let us at least permit a case to be made before sentence is passed. Intellectual tolerance is important for the robust health of any discipline, including international politics. Rather than being shunned, evolutionary theory should be welcomed to permit the advancement of the science of international politics. —Bradley A. Thayer Duluth, Minnesota
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