Sociobiology, Human Nature: A Catholic Perspective

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Thomas Gilbert identifies three general seminal questions: How should I live? Why? and How does the world work? Gilbert connects the first question to morality, the second to religion, and the third to science. All three together and in their interconnection constitute a worldview (there is also a fourth question that concerns validation).

The third question is clearly the one for which sociobiology is most likely to provide some assistance. Sociobiology is clearly concerned with its subquestions, such as, “What are the causal relationships between observed events?” “What are the causal relationships between our actions and their consequences?” (Gilbert and Moore 1997).

As I have suggested sociobiologists have made a gross error in attempting to provide direct answers to the other two questions, which are the domain of ethics and theology, respectively. Yet these three questions, though distinct, are by no means either isolated or isolable from one another. Sociobiology certainly poses questions for reflection in the first domain, for example, regarding how one ought to live in light of what sociobiology discloses about the innate predispositions underlying some important human behavior. How, for example, might one develop appropriate moral norms guiding homosexual activity, given recent evolutionary discussions of the possible genetic and biological basis of homosexuality as an innate sexual orientation?

This question and questions like it emerge from ethical reflection on sociobiology rather than from sociobiological inquiry proper, which as the scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior is not concerned with normative issues. Sociobiology also raises questions for reflection in the second domain, the religious; for example, what ought one believe about the benevolence of God given the indifference of nature as discussed by sociobiology? How can one understand the notion of soul in light of the evolutionary interpretations of the person? These challenges to theology, it should be noted, emerge from theology itself and not from sociobiology, which is methodologically excluded from considering properly theological notions like God and soul.

If it has trouble asking these kinds of questions, sociobiology is even less equipped to provide satisfying answers to them—satisfying, that is, in terms of the standards or “validation criteria” for theological and moral argumentation (Gilbert and Moore 1997). The standards for theological argumentation—including those developed in biblical studies, historical theology, systematic theology, and moral theology—comprise a range of disciplines that are radically beyond the purview of sociobiologists and their morally inclined allies.

The conclusion of this paper, then, is first, that the object of sociobiology, particularly human social behavior, provides the context for theological and ethical reflection. Sociobiology itself can provide helpful insights into evolved human emotional predispositions, and these insights offer grist for the mill of theological ethics. As suggested above, sociobiologists provide suggestive lines of thought regarding the limits imposed upon human agency and moral concern, the ambiguities typically underlying human motivation, and the positive potential of certain evolved emotional proclivities, such as kin altruism and reciprocity, that might be expanded and habituated in virtuous directions by deliberate moral training.

Unfortunately, sociobiologists have all too often discredited their own descriptive work when they have attempted to venture into unfamiliar normative realms. In conclusion, I believe that a serious commitment on the part of theologians and ethicists to more careful and sustained investigation of sociobiology might encourage more mutual interest and perhaps even collaboration, a mode of inquiry that is absolutely necessary if progress is to be made in understanding the relevance of sociobiology to theological ethics.

Source: Stephen J. Pope (1998) SOCIOBIOLOGY AND HUMAN NATURE: A PERSPECTIVE FROM CATHOLIC THEOLOGY (Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science)


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