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Vaulting Ambition is the first extensive and detailed evaluation of the controversial claims that sociobiologists have made about human nature and human social behavior. It raises the "sociobiology debate" to a new level, moving beyond arguments about the politics of the various parties involved, the degree to which sociobiology assumes genetic determinism, or the falsifiability of the general theory.Sociobiology has made a great deal of noise in the popular intellectual culture. Vaulting Ambition cuts through the charges and counter-charges to take a hard look at the claims and analyses offered by the sociobiologists. It examines what the claims mean, how they relate to standard evolutionary theory, how the biological models are supposed to work, and what is wrong with the headline-grabbing proclamations of human sociobiology. In particular, it refutes the notions that humans are trapped by their evolutionary biology and history in endlessly repeating patterns of aggression, xenophobia, and deceitfulness, or that the inequities of sex, race, and class are genetically based or culturally determined. And it takes up issues of human altruism, freedom, and ethics as well.Kitcher weighs the evidence for sociobiology, for human sociobiology, and for "the pop sociobiological view" of human nature that has engendered the controversy. He concludes that in the field of nonhuman animal studies, rigorous and methodologically sound work about the social lives of insects, birds, and mammals has been done. But in applying the theories to human beings-where even more exacting standards of evidence are called for because of the potential social disaster inherent in adopting a working hypothesis as a basis for public policy - many of the same scientists become wildly speculative, building grand conclusions from what Kitcher shows to be shoddy analysis and flimsy argument.While it may be possible to develop a genuine science of human behavior based on evolutionary biology, genetics, cognition, and culture, Kitcher points out that the sociobiology that has been loudly advertised in the popular and intellectual press is not it. Pop sociobiology has in fact been felled by its overambitious and overreaching creators.Philip Kitcher is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and Director of its Center for the Philosophy of Science. He brings a unique combination of training in philosophy, mathematics, and biology to this thorough treatment of sociobiology. Kitcher is the author of an equally searching book on "Scientific" Creationism, Abusing Science, published by The MIT Press in 1982 and available in paperback.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780262610490
ISBN-10: 0262610493
Format: Paperback
(229mm x 152mm x 25mm)
Pages: 470
Imprint: MIT Press
Publisher: MIT Press Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Jan-1987
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions


US Kirkus Review » Kitcher (philosophy, U. Minn.) has demonstrated previous skills and spleen in putting down creationism (Abusing Science). Here he takes on the whole sociobiology camp in a demolition derby that is not likely to be exceeded in breadth and depth any time soon. To be fair to progenitors, Kitcher distinguishes "pop sociobiology" (Ardrey, Morris, Tiger, Fox) from the canon as set fourth by Wilson, et al. He quotes the more scholarly proponents when they are appropriately constrained in making implications and he gives credit to discrete studies of mammalian behavior or to descriptive ethnography, concerning kinship systems or cultural practices. Where he draws the line is in the assumptions and presumptions that take "narrow" sociobiology to broad generalizations - the "vaulting ambition" that would have genes ruling the human roost. His method is to attack each of the main tenets of s-b theory working from example. A study of a Yanomamo Indian ax fight purports to show that people line up behind the two main antagonists on the basis of genetic relatedness. (This is in keeping with the "inclusive fitness" theory of William Hamilton, which even Kitcher accepts as explaining self-sacrifice: the idea is that you enhance the reproductive chances of relatives who share your genes.) However, he cleverly blows the argument sky-high by showing that in the given instance the opponents were also related. So it goes with the other chief examples (incest taboos, female infanticide, primogeniture) favored by the sociobiologists: Kitcher artfully introduces confounding variables: he states the implicit and arbitrary suppositions of the sociobiologists, their anthropomorphic language and other sins that defeat their attempts to elevate sociobiology as the true science of human nature. Kitcher compliments Wilson for trying to answer early critics with the recent gene-culture co-evolution theory. But again, this is only his preparation for attack on the grounds of the status of the term "culturgen" - the word coined to describe that which individuals choose, a concept covering attitudes, cultural behaviors, etc. Again, the artful philosopher constructs scenarios in which theory falls short and the latest version of sociobiology reveals its reductionist roots. Inevitably, Wilson, Lumsden, et al. succumb to the thesis that genes are the leash that constrains human behavior and that we violate their dicta only at high cost. In short, perhaps Kitcher should borrow a leaf from the enemy camp and write a shorter, popular version of this scholarly volume - thereby increasing the reproductive fitness of the arguments. In any case, this is a first-rate assault that will surely evoke a counterattack. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Philip Kitcher

Philip Kitcher is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and Director of its Center for the Philosophy of Science. Kitcher is the author of a searching book on "Scientific" Creationism, Abusing Science, published by The MIT Press in 1982.

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