What is the human biological imperative

In 1975 Harvard University Press in Cambridge (Massachusetts) published an extensive textbook on social behavior in animals entitled "Sociobiology - The New Synthesis". Author was the entomologist and ants social life specialist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University. He coined the term "sociobiology".

However, their start is usually set earlier. As early as 1964, William D. Hamilton from the University of Oxford published a model according to which the beneficial behavior of social insects had prevailed in evolution because of the close genetic relationship of the colony members: the individuals in their nesting companions would practically only support their own genetic material.

A hitherto unsolved problem of the theory of evolution was how in the animal world social associations could arise through natural selection and how cooperation and care were possible in general. This does not only apply to the highly developed states of social insects, even if the cohesion among them is particularly impressive. After all, in evolution the individuals of a species compete with each other to pass on their genetic makeup to the next generation - they are primarily competitors, not partners. It was therefore necessary to explain why individuals sometimes restrict their own reproduction in favor of others or even forego it altogether - as in the insect state, but also in some mammal communities.

Earlier behavioral research had declared beneficial behaviors such as social defense to be generally beneficial for the species. But the pioneers of sociobiology rightly stated that a characteristic that does not promote the transmission of one's own genetic makeup cannot establish itself in an evolutionary way.

Hamilton's idea was that kinship selection works in such a case: the genetic information that a living being has in its genome also occurs with a certain probability in its blood relatives. It depends on the degree of kinship, so it is highest with close relatives. Therefore, loss of fitness due to unselfish behavior would be offset by reproductive benefits from relatives who the individual supports.

With the concept of relative selection, sociobiology achieved an important theoretical advance, because the ideas of the theory of evolution can now also be consistently applied to social behavior. And it is thanks to Wilson that he summarized the new findings and worked out their core. But at the same time he spread the idea that social behavior can now generally be explained biologically.

As early as 1975, Wilson claimed to unite different areas of evolutionary research and ecology in a new subject that would be devoted to the biological foundations of all social behavior, specifically also to human behavior. The basis should now finally form the evolutionary concepts that had been developed in biology over the last 100 years and whose basis is the theory of the English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin (1809 to 1882) on the origin of the diversity of living beings. (His most important work "On the Origin of Species" was published in England in 1859.)

With sociobiology, the biological evolution theory has now expanded to such an extent, Wilson said, that in the long term the social sciences could also be integrated into the new subject. Because while these disciplines only described and summarized external phenomena without taking into account the genetic basis that emerged from evolution, they could not in the long run do without modern ideas about the development of life and the adaptation of organisms to their conditions of existence. The attempt to explain human behavior biologically was by no means new.

Attack on the traditional image of man

The theory of evolution has ultimately always been about humans, their origins, their being and their future. No ideology, worldview or religion can get past her for a long time, whether she strictly rejects this fundamental interpretation of the life story in individual cases, merely distanced herself from it in a relative manner or enthusiastically appropriated it.

From the beginning, however, the physical aspect of the human being was of less interest. At least in the West, Homo sapiens - named and described as a primate species in 1758 by the founder of modern taxonomic nomenclature, the Swedish doctor and botanist Carl von Linné (1707 to 1778) - was seen as a special organism, because it was gifted with reason, long before Darwin. "Ni ange ni bête" is how the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623 to 1662) characterized him: he was neither angel nor animal, an amphibian, as it were, between the material and the spiritual world. The essence of man shows itself, this was a general idea, in his thoughts and actions, especially in his reason, ethics and religion.

But for at least 100 years science has repeatedly touched all living things on this image by trying to trace human behavior and thinking - including metaphysical ideas - back to biological causal relationships. This began at the latest with Darwin's book "The Expression of Emotional Movements in Humans and Animals" (the German translation of which appeared in 1872, the same year as the original). For the first time, Darwin dealt in detail with the question of human ancestry.

A few decades later, the Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939) shook the image of man with a completely different thrust: with his depth psychology, he postulated rooted, largely unconscious drives as the decisive force in individual behavior.

In the middle of this century, comparative behavioral research, or ethology, became popular in the German-speaking world. The way in which human behavior is based on the world of emotions and social relationships from evolution aroused heated discussions that culminated when Konrad Lorenz (1903 to 1989), one of the founders of the discipline, wrote his generally understandable book in 1963 "The so-called evil" published.

Dealing with the evolution of behavior has given rise to special disciplines, including the so-called evolutionary epistemology, which deals with how our perceptual and thought systems fit into our environment. Other branches that stand out today are behavioral ecology and sociobiology, which partly coincide in terms of content; they specifically ask about the adaptive value of - including human - behavior patterns, ultimately about their evolutionary fitness.

In the following I would like to deal critically with the image of man in these two directions. My thesis is that sociobiology is still largely in a pre-scientific stage in the anthropological field, which not only reduces its fertility, but also encourages ideological abuse and can provoke unnecessary resistance in neighboring disciplines and in the public. It has not yet conclusively and scientifically implemented its own demand for consistent application of the logic of the theory of evolution. I will illustrate this problem using two aspects that are central to your image of man: the sociobiological phrase "egoistic gene" and behavior-ecological explanations for human behavior.

The metaphor of the egoism of genes

The term "selfish gene" comes from the biologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University. In his book with this title (it was published in 1976, in German in 1978) he tries to consistently pursue the sociobiological approach and thus to interpret certain seemingly contradicting observations that could not be conclusively explained within the framework of evolutionary theory. For example, in the past it sometimes appeared to biologists that a species (or population) was so well adapted to the environment in its genetic makeup as a result of natural selection that it reacts as a whole to the various selection forces in the best possible way, but that this does not at the same time applies to the individuals. For example, if a herd of buffalo fights a tiger to protect their calves, the cows risk injury or even death. If a female were instead to discreetly hold back and only defend herself if her own young were threatened, in the first case it would have a good chance of remaining unharmed. After all, there are defensive ungulates like the wildebeest that do not defend themselves socially. The mother only protects her own calf, and other females may even watch when it is ripped off by hyenas.

Indeed, Hamilton's approach could explain the behavior of the buffalo. The cows in a community are closely related - sisters or mothers and their adult daughters. The young animals are therefore very likely to have the same genetic make-up. If a cow also stands up for the calves of the other females, this also benefits her own fitness.

In this case, a social behavior of a larger community seems to benefit. Obviously this is not the case with all social phenomena. There are characteristics that harm a species in ecological competition and still seem to prove themselves. The reason is intra-species selection forces that counteract adaptation to the extra-species environment, for example sexual competition between members of the same sex, differences in the interests of the sexes or competition between siblings.

For example, it has been shown that male lions that conquer a pack of females kill the young animals found. For the females, in principle for the species as such, this would be a loss of investment already made in their rearing. Today's behavior is explained in such a way that the new heads of the harem can now pass on their own genetic material more quickly because the lionesses are in heat more quickly. A behavioral trait that promotes individual advantage would have prevailed at the expense of the ecological adaptation of the species (which I will talk about later).

Dawkins now offers a more extensive, in his opinion generally valid interpretation. According to this, characteristics and behaviors serve neither the individuals nor the species, but the so-called egoism of the genes. From his point of view, living beings are only protoplasmic machines with the help of which the genes carry out their own distribution. Because these survive as replicators (in the form of genetic information) for many generations of individuals, even if they have to be recreated as molecules over and over again. That is why "living organisms exist for the benefit of genes and not the other way around", according to Dawkins in his 1987 book: "The Blind Watchmaker".

Dawkins sees this principle also implemented in humans. Because of his culture he has a - not further defined - potency to evade the puppet play of genes. Nevertheless, they secretly steered his behavior towards maximum gene reproduction, be it in dealing with his own children, in sexual behavior, in politics or in other relationships (Fig. 2). The phrase about egoistic genes is hardly used today because the insight gained acceptance that it can only be meant metaphorically - biologists assume that genes have neither will nor intention. However, they continue to work with the underlying pattern of thought, so one has to ask whether the metaphor is accurate or misleading.

The question is whether it fits the logical structure of the selection theory outlined in Figure 3. The scheme intentionally deviates from the usual representation; It is based on circuit diagrams such as those developed by the biologist Bernhard Hassenstein from the University of Freiburg to illustrate complex issues in behavioral research, and shows how natural selection (selection), fitness (suitability) and changes in the gene pool of a population genetic changes. (The gene pool is understood to be the entirety of the genotypes or individual hereditary characteristics of a population.)

In order to understand the selection process, it is essential that the suitability of an individual is not an absolute value, but always expresses a value in relation to that of other conspecifics. It characterizes the relative reproductive success (or failure) of carriers of different genes in the population - to put it simply, how many offspring an animal has in comparison with other members of the same species that carry different genetic information.

If something changes in the gene pool (qualitatively, because genes mutate, or quantitatively, because the number of different expressions of the same gene - the alleles - shifts), this can affect the appearance of the population: as a result of mutations in individuals (the phenotypes) show new characteristics, with allele shifts their frequency changes in the collective. (Mutations that do not affect changed traits are not important here.)

New or differently distributed characteristics usually result in a different ecological embedding of the population, which means not only the relationship to the inanimate and animate environment, but also that of the conspecifics with one another (ecologically neutral changes are again meaningless). This may also shift the suitability pattern of the population - the reproduction rate for the individual genotypes. And this in turn has a direct effect on the composition of the gene pool - which brings us back to our starting point.

A feedback system

For the following considerations it is important to note that there is a selection effect only when all four elements in the cycle change at least slightly because they are causally related in the manner described. It doesn't always have to be that way. In nature it often happens that a change in one place does not affect the next.

The causal chain of genetic, phenotypic and ecological changes is a control system with feedback between the ecological situation and the genetic condition of a species. If the feedback is negative, the system usually stabilizes itself: Ecologically disadvantageous genetic changes usually result in lower levels Reproduction rates of the affected individuals and thus the decrease in the number of alleles involved in the gene pool (one speaks of a stabilizing selection); in this way, unfavorable mutants are eliminated or at least reduced without the structure of the population changing significantly. If the feedback is positive, on the other hand, the self-organizing system strives for a new state of equilibrium through different, sometimes dramatic processes, which is of course only metastable.

In this thought model, the strength and direction of the feedback are measured by the suitability, which determines the transmission - and relative reproduction - of the genetic material to the next generation. As I said, shifts in the gene pool do not have to have a full impact on reproduction rates; in many cases the other links in the system are likely to partially or even completely intercept this, so that little or no evolution takes place.

Now it is theoretically difficult to establish a measure of fitness and practically impossible to measure it directly. Instead of determining reproduction rates, however, there is always only a makeshift; and it also makes a difference whether you count the children or the grandchildren or the descendants of even later generations. But because you have to commit yourself for more precise calculations, you stick to defined fitness correlates, i.e. data with a plausible relationship to theoretical suitability. This solution to the problem can provide an acceptable approximation, but it also limits the statements, as I will show later using a case study.

If you follow the scheme, the metaphor of genetic egoism turns out to be wrong. From a formal point of view, the selection process is a dynamic overall process in which both the genes and the organisms participate. But Dawkins' empty phrase distracts from that. Just as well - or no less one-sided and inaccurate - one could speak of the egoism of the organisms that genes have to serve. After all, genes that are unusable in populations are eliminated through selection, possibly even some that were previously useful.

The fact that the cycle of natural selection does not necessarily ensure the best possible life for individuals or the greatest possible ecological potency of the species does not mean that it maximizes the lifespan of alleles. Such a special position of the genes has no place in the cycle of organisms and the genetic material they pass on.


From what then does the egoism metaphor gain its fascination? This is where, in my opinion, ideological aspects come into play.

Why does Dawkins argue that genes are more important than individual organisms? It is true that - as information - they last longer. But why does he suppose that the short-lived phenomenon is to the advantage of the long-lived? This is a metaphysical evaluation that cannot be substantiated scientifically. A similar question, namely whether the state is there for man or man for the state, was answered unequivocally in favor of the individual in the West under the influence of the ancient and Judeo-Christian image of man.

It should be noted that Dawkins' statement ("You are nothing - your genes are everything") is astonishingly similar to the slogan in which the primacy of the permanent people's body over the perishable individual was put in the Third Reich ("You are nothing - your people is everything"). The harmony is by no means accidental, because the fascism of National Socialist stamping was already inspired in its formative phase by the social Darwinism of the time (Italian fascism in this respect mainly only from the elite theory of the economic theorist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto).

The phrase about genetic egoism characterizes a materialistic worldview. Strictly speaking, it is a biological variant of the much older myth of eternal, only real and lonely matter. It is precisely because Dawkins is a materialist that he finds genes more important than people; and in order to give shape to his faith, he creates mythical images, which he, as a biologist, form from the material of his discipline. With the formulation "egoistic gene" he expresses his reverence for the material replicators of life in a pictorial and poetic way.

The problem is not that there are such imagery. In any case, man - even as a materialist or nihilist - cannot escape his very own mythical essence; and to this we owe linguistic figures of great poetic power - just think of the words of the French biochemist Jacques Monod (1910 to 1976; Nobel Prize in Medicine 1965) that humans are "gypsies on the edge of the universe". But it becomes problematic when images of this kind permeate scientific discourse and influence ideology and politics with the presumed authority of empirical science. Then biologisms such as "subhuman", "inferior" or "unworthy" life can arise, which have caused immeasurable damage in our history.

That one still has to warn against this today becomes clear further below when I discuss the behavior-ecological explanation of human action. In this branch of research, too, there is a risk that the worldview dictates the interpretation of findings. Dawkins metaphor also resonates in concrete sociobiological investigations, although this is more difficult to recognize because the thought structures there are usually much more differentiated.

Learning and selection

The complexity of the problems increases sharply when research turns to humans, because experience, learning and tradition play a major role in them. All the more fascinating is the idea of ​​ultimately being able to explain even cultural phenomena in terms of evolutionary theory.

How does learning fit into the concept of selection and adaptation? To illustrate this, one has to expand the scheme of Figure 3 (Figure 4): There is a second feedback in the system, because learning can affect suitability because it modifies behavior - a characteristic of the organism; that is precisely its purpose. (Negative feedback can also be a stabilization of the existing.)

The ability to acquire language, for example, is based on a genetic basis; But the learning content is by no means genetically determined in the case of language and in the case of other skills it is usually not strictly genetically determined - every healthy and not deprived child learns the respective mother tongue.

All higher animals are open to change in a certain way; Learning processes play an essential part in the development of behavior, whereby the age phases that are important for certain experiences are in some cases specified specifically for the species. In the case of human beings, the quintessential cultural being, traditions are particularly important.

Self-change through learning takes place through experience (or also through traditions) with the consequences of one's own behavior, and success is assessed by a built-in, inner system of needs, motives and drives. This usually results in a feedback via the environment. It is important in our context that the learning control loop is coupled with the selection control loop. The type and strength of this coupling depend, however, on quite specific conditions.

On the one hand, changes in adaptation brought about by learning, that is, forms or modifications of behavioral characteristics, must also result in changes in suitability (otherwise they could not be subject to natural selection). This does not necessarily happen because individuals who behave differently achieve different reproductive successes, i.e. produce different numbers of offspring. This is because, as long as they have no other predetermined learning programs than their conspecifics and do not differ genetically specifically from them in any other way, for the genetic composition of the population.

This neutrality of selection can be illustrated by the example of nepotism (the promotion of blood relatives at the expense of others), which is often used in sociobiology. Since Hamilton's publication there has been a thesis that supporting blood relatives is worthwhile for fitness because, depending on the degree of relationship, they have a certain probability of having the same genes as you. By supporting them, you are practically promoting your own genes - and thus increase your own fitness. From the logic of evolutionary theory, however, it follows that the latter does not necessarily take place.

Nepotism is not relevant for evolution as long as the families supporting their relatives do not differ genetically specifically from others, as long as the custom is spread only through learning and tradition. Even if such families should have more descendants, it only means that they pass on more of the pool's genes to future generations than others; the gene pool of the population would remain unchanged, however much their behavior changed due to the establishment of the new tradition.

A second consideration goes even further: The two coupled spheres of activity, learning and selection, have completely different control times.

For the gene pool - that is, for selection - it is at least one generation (unless a fatal mutation occurs); often there are many. The strength of the regulation, especially in the case of complex features, is likely to be low in many cases. It takes many generations for a new hereditary trait to establish itself in a certain way, especially if it involves many mutation steps.

The control time for learning, on the other hand, is usually many times shorter, and the effect can be very effective. A new cultural habit can become common property in a very short time. It is therefore conceivable and in practice often the case that the two control loops become decoupled, even if the changes in behavior brought about by learning bring real adaptive or even reproductive advantages.

Such a decoupling, as it were a blurring of the genetic information through a non-genetic feedback from the characteristics of an organism via environmental effects back to the characteristics, also takes place without learning being involved: an animal in a barren environment, for example, remains smaller than one in lush, despite the same genetic equipment. A spider adapts its inherited web building behavior to the circumstances it encounters. In this way, the ecological adaptation breaks free from the genetic specifications within certain limits. Even most of the highly genetically structured behavioral programs are therefore not completely rigid, but still leave considerable freedom. Such extensive information as would be required for fine-tuning under all - especially all future - conditions would blow up the genome: every single reaction, for example to vegetation, weather conditions and prey occurrence, cannot be precisely programmed in a spider.

But through learning, the ability to change one's behavior - without genetic feedback - reaches completely different dimensions. This is especially true for humans, by far the most adaptive living being. I would like to explain this connection using a constructed example.

Hypothetical Indians, real Holsteiners and Frisians

Let us assume that an indigenous tribe of pre-Columbian Central America has invented a new, yield-increasing agricultural technique and is now multiplying more strongly than the neighboring groups. If this strain also differs genetically from the others, its genotypes would henceforth have an advantage. If, however, the neighbors adopt the progressive process within a few generations and can then eat just as well and consequently have more children and are able to raise them, the advantage of selection fizzles out.

The system of individual learning and collective tradition formation nevertheless gives rise to ever new changes in the behavior of all groups involved, while overall only a minimal allele shift results. The fact that genetic and cultural evolution are largely decoupled should be the rule rather than the exception in human cultural history.

How do sociobiologists approach such relationships? As an example I would like to cite publications by the anthropologist Eckart Voland from the University of Göttingen.

In one case, the basis was the marriage, birth and death dates in the church registers of the East Holstein community of Leezen for the period from 1720 to 1869. According to this, the chances of survival of male and female babies in the rural population at that time were dependent on the social rank of the family. On average, slightly more boys die than girls - this is genetic and constitutional. But among the Leezener full farmers there were slightly more girls in the first year of life, especially among the firstborn, in other families - smallholders, farm workers and tradesmen - on the other hand (as expected) more boys. Although the difference was only a few percent, it was significant for more than 3000 recorded births (Fig. 5).

Voland writes: "According to the sociobiological view, the observed differences in mortality ... go back to a different caring behavior of the parents and reflect a psychosocially different desirability of the sexes in the family planning of the four social groups."

You will have to agree to that. Interestingly, however, a similar study of Krummhörn on the East Frisian coast north-west of Emden, carried out by Voland together with Claudia Engel from the University of Göttingen, yielded exactly the opposite results. According to the church records, male infants in all classes had died there between 1720 and 1874, and sons of large farmers even more frequently than those of small farmers and those without property; Newborn girls, on the other hand, died less in large farming families than in others.

Voland and Claudia Engel suspected that the differences in inheritance law and population growth between the two areas were responsible for this disparity. In Krummhörn the population had not increased from the 17th to the 19th century, and there was no more abandoned land available. The population of Leezen, on the other hand, was able to expand at that time; sons who did not inherit had chances of acquiring property.

The study does not make it very clear how the authors classify their findings: Are traditional, and therefore individually acquired, reaction patterns responsible for the obvious differences in infant care, or are genetic dispositions that at least determine behavioral tendencies? On the one hand, the two Göttingen researchers definitely include the possibility that behavior patterns that were once well adapted no longer have a fitness-enhancing effect due to rapid cultural progress. On the other hand, they seem to be inclined to the view that a genetic disposition steers behavior towards newborn children in one direction or the other: that depending on the needs and social possibilities - having an heir or having to care for the other children appropriately - on them one way or another is affected.

However, it is important to make a clear distinction between the two explanations. If the genetic interpretation were correct, then this would mean: A hereditary behavior program activates different levels of care for boys and girls, depending on the social and family situation and other circumstances strategically adapt to the respective conditions. Well-to-do parents in Leezen would have had to look after male babies more; Well-off parents in Krummhörn, on the other hand, would have looked after the girls especially because of different living conditions. Such a disposition to prefer born children according to the circumstances that of one gender should have established itself at some point in human evolution because it increased suitability. It is possible that other groups without this characteristic were inferior to the competition and no longer exist today. The pattern would still be stabilized against loss mutants. This is the common state of traits that all individuals have.

One could of course interpret the findings of Voland and Claudia Engel much more simply psychologically: Depending on the social circumstances, the family either welcomes a child of one sex or rejects it emotionally, and this is unconsciously expressed in more or less loving and concerned affection. For full farmers in Leezen who wanted a farm heir, a firstborn boy would have tended to be motivating, a girl would have been frustrating; in Krummhörn it could have been the other way round. Such an emotional difference could be measured with psychological methods and could be explained by known factors in behavior control, even if no specific genetic program existed for the intensity of care for female and male infants.

Thus the psychological explanation would be sufficient. According to the scientific principle that the most economical interpretation is to be preferred as long as there are no important arguments for a more complex one, the genetic interpretation must be specifically justified.

What would speak in favor of the genetic hypothesis? For example, this could be a finding that can no longer be assigned purely psychologically. Such critical evidence would exist if it turned out that the families of the large farmers in Leezen and Krummhörn had more descendants as a result of their respective behavior than others who cared for newborn boys and girls equally well or equally badly. This would not prove the existence of a genetic behavior program; but at least that would mean that such a program, if it existed, would hold its own in the population.

The results of the Göttingen sociobiologists are not sufficient for such a conclusion. In the 19th century there was indeed a disproportionately large number of descendants of wealthy farm farmers in Krummhörn compared to descendants from other marriages that had been concluded a hundred years earlier. However, it would be crucial to know how this reproductive advantage came about. One would have to take into account, on the one hand, that for large farmers of the time in question, for social reasons alone, it is to be expected that their children would be better off in any location, and on the other hand, whether relatively more people from the other classes had emigrated.

Furthermore, it would indicate a genetic influence if one found similar differences in infant mortality among other sections of the population, for example in the comparison between the nobility and the bourgeoisie or between the upper and lower bourgeoisie. Because it is hardly to be expected that a hereditary behavior program - if it exists - is limited to only one class, region or culture. On the other hand, a psychological explanation would be much more likely that the care behavior is characterized by short-term and small-scale cultural differences. In my opinion, the divergences between the two rural regions of Leezen and Krummhörn should be interpreted in this way.

Biological imperative?

I did not choose the works of Eckart Voland and Claudia Engel as examples in order to discredit these authors, but to show that in sociobiology the distinction between individually acquired and inherited behavioral patterns is not sufficiently taken into account in the formation of theories.The reason seems to me to be that the approach of their discipline is logically fuzzy, as can be seen from the following quote from a work by Voland and his colleague Paul Winkler: "The truly innovative thing about hominization, according to the sociobiological view, is that the 'biological imperative is genetic Fitness maximization 'increasingly with cultural means - and thus more flexible and adaptable - to correspond. " (The inserted quote comes from the former President of the German Research Foundation Hubert Markl, full professor of the Faculty of Biology with the field of behavioral physiology at the University of Konstanz.)

What does that mean? If it is only meant to say that humans as a species safeguard their life and that of their descendants in contrast to all animals through cultural achievements, then that is correct, but not a discovery of sociobiology. Of course, cultural achievements are imperative for people - who wanted to deny that? If, on the other hand, this means that the special patterns of action of cultures arise through natural selection in the same way as genetic information, then more is being said than is provable or even plausible. The term "biological imperative" turns out to be just as metaphorical as that of the "egoistic gene", and once again it seems to me that biologists have a need for universality from an ideological point of view.

I believe that sociobiological research on humans still lacks theoretically clear and thus testable hypotheses - the first prerequisite for a fruitful science. There is thus a risk that ideological guidelines will influence the interpretation of the data unnoticed. Therefore, it seems to me that the concepts used in such anthropological studies are still at a pre-scientific stage. Now that in itself would not be reprehensible and still no reason for criticism, because no research direction is completely free from it. However, melodious metaphors should not obscure urgent scientific problems.

For example, it would be overdue to bring behavioral biology together with psychology and sociology, but it is still completely unclear how these three disciplines can be linked. Psycho- and sociology have been dealing with human behavior for many decades. Their findings have considerable explanatory power, even without having to assume selection effects, even under the postulate that human behavior can be understood from its own laws.

In addition, the biological approaches have their justification and their value. The only thing missing so far is a determination of the position in the circle of the other subjects. To think that you can, so to speak, collect them in your own discipline, as Wilson believed, will not solve this problem in any case.

In the twenties of this century there was still broad consensus that natural science could provide a universal view of the world that is binding for all areas - including a comprehensive view of man. Laws of nature, which only need to be discovered, should be able to explain the external and internal movements of man, just like the movements of the stars or the atoms. The idea that reality can be grasped objectively was first given up in modern physics. His discipline does not describe nature, as the atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901 to 1976), who was significantly involved in this process, put it, but "our experience with nature".

Is it only physics that can no longer afford the nineteenth-century way of thinking that appears naive from today's perspective? The physics theorist Paul Davies of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne says of the developments in physics and the life sciences in his book "God and Modern Physics", published in 1986: "It is as if the two disciplines were on express trains and those in opposite directions Drive direction. " That may be an exaggeration, but it is not fundamentally wrong. The insight is not very widespread among biologists that their methods do not capture people as such, but only obtain data from their research experiences with him; the crisis of their scientific worldview is still ahead of them.

The uncritically exaggerated claim that sociobiology could arrive at a comprehensive theory about the "man himself", as Wilson stated as a goal, apparently already has practical effects in research: For example, purely ethological investigations are increasingly being replaced by neurobiological ones . Instead of studying the behavior itself, it is better to determine its anatomical and biochemical requirements - from the higher system level one switches to a lower one, because the classical concepts of scientific reductionism still fit there to some extent for the time being. They are no longer sufficient in ethology and anthropological sociobiology.

Biology needs philosophical advances not only for theoretical, but also for ethical reasons. The image of the human being as it is formed in the mind is not insignificant when it comes to dealing with human beings in the state and society. Here responsibility is to be discovered and perceived.


- Sociobiology. The New Synthesis. By Edward O. Wilson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 1975.

- The Selfish Gene. By Richard Dawkins. Springer Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York 1978.

- The blind watchmaker. A new plea for Darwinism. By Richard Dawkins. Kindler Verlag, Munich 1987.

- Man - a puppet of evolution? A critique of sociobiology. By Hansjörg Hemminger. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1983.

- behavioral biology of the child. By Bernhard Hassenstein. 4th extended new edition, Piper Verlag, Munich 1987.

- It's not the genes ... biology, ideology and human nature. By Richard C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin. Psychologie Verlagsunion, Munich, Weinheim 1988.

- From killing to murder. The real evil in evolutionary history. From Christian Vogel. Hanser Verlag, Munich, Vienna 1989.

- evolution and adaptation. Why the past explains the present. Edited by Eckart Voland. Hirzel Verlag, Stuttgart 1993.

From: Spektrum der Wissenschaft 6/1994, page 72
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is contained in Spectrum of Science 6/1994