The starting point of all radical reflection upon epistemology must be the recognition that in matters of philosophy we are still living in the 1930s.footnote When I say ‘we’, I naturally mean, first of all, ‘we’ philosophers. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the fundamental problematics that continue to govern our thinking were established more than half a century ago and in their essentials have scarcely experienced any modification since then. At that time, various schools concurrently established themselves on the ruins of neo-Kantianism: logical positivism, centering on the Vienna Circle, the philosophy which, despite its current crisis, is still paramount in the Anglo-Saxon world and even belatedly gaining a foothold in France; phenomenology with its two contrasting faces, the transcendental logic of Husserl and the ontology of Heidegger; the critical social theory of Hegelian-Marxist provenance, of which Luk£s was the first representative before the Frankfurt School became its bastion; and, finally, dialectical materialism in its Soviet form, the birth of which can be precisely dated in 1931. Despite the intricate lineages to be found in each of these schools, and despite the variations on their main themes introduced by this or that particular philosopher, the stability of the international philosophical landscape is striking—it is almost as if philosophy had suddenly been stopped in its tracks and petrified.

Outside of philosophy proper, a similar ossification of positions also occurred in the so-called human sciences. Thus it was in the 1930s that the official battlelines were formally drawn between ‘behaviorism’ and ‘mentalism’ in psychology; while in political economy it was the moment of the fateful division between Keynesianism (Keynes, an intimate friend of Wittgenstein, wrote his General Theory in 1935) and neo-liberalism (F. A. von Hayek, Popper’s mentor, published Prices and Production in 1931). Meanwhile the claims of functionalism in sociology were being established by Talcott Parsons (whose master-work, The Structure of Social Action, appeared in 1937) and given further epistemological support by logical positivism in the person of Neurath. Finally, the ‘Bloomfield epoch’ in linguistics began to flower in the 1930s (Bloomfield’s seminal textbook, Language, was published in 1933), orienting research to a formalist path which culminated in the work of the Danish linguist Hjemsljev. It seems clear, then, that a central priority in our investigations must be to explore the still enigmatic nature of the link between the situation of stagnation affecting philosophy and the no less striking stability of the theoretical tendencies that divide and govern the field of the contemporary human sciences.

Now in the last four or five years a new discipline with bold scientific pretensions has claimed to discover a solution to these two interlinked crises. This formerly unknown discipline calls itself ‘sociobiology’ and its founder or ‘discoverer’ is Edward O. Wilson. His manifesto, On Human Nature (1978), has given rise to some very lively political controversies in the United States, particularly because of allegations that it contains a barely veiled apology for racism. Without directly entering this debate, I simply want to stress the vast objectives of Wilson’s work and to investigate the theoretical tools which he employs. Part of the spell which has been recently cast by sociobiology has to do with its unconcealed ambition to provide an explicit, unifying foundation for the various social sciences. In Wilson’s view, biology becomes the common ground for the scientific reconciliation of the competing problematics of psychology, sociology and economics: ‘Progress over a large part of biology has been fueled by competition among the various perspectives and techniques derived from cell biology and biochemistry, the discipline and the anti-discipline. . . . I suggest that we are about to repeat this cycle in the blending of biology and the social sciences and that as a consequence the two cultures of Western intellectual life will be joined at last. Biology has traditionally affected the social sciences only indirectly through technological manifestations, such as the benefits of medicine, the mixed blessings of gene splicing and other techniques of genetics, and the specter of population growth. Although of great practical importance, these matters are trivial with reference to the conceptual foundation of the social sciences. The conventional treatments of ‘social biology’ and ‘social issues of biology’ in our colleges and universities present some formidable intellectual challenges, but they are not addressed to the core of social theory. This core is the deep structure of human nature, an essentially biological phenomenon that is also the primary focus of the humanities’ (p. 38).

In fact the biological basis of Wilson’s enterprise is a kind of schematic neo-Darwinism which gives central place to the notion of ‘natural fitness’ as a property attributed to the gene. This Darwinian fitness is measured by the relative frequency of a specific gene in the population over the course of successive generations. Conversely the increased Darwinian fitness of a given gene enhances its ability to reproduce itself within the population. According to Wilson, therefore, the individual exists only as a vehicle for the transmission of its genes and as a support in their process of multiplication. From this standpoint, evolution is rather like a stock-exchange transaction, the sole object of which is the eventual realization of (genetic) dividends. Hence the idea that in each generation the victorious genes separate and reassemble to construct new organisms that on the average contain a higher proportion of the more successful genes. The ultimate result, therefore, is the survival and consolidation of a genetic elite.

I leave it to the biologists to arbitrate the merits of this theory, which evidently rests on a literal and modernized transposition of the old Weismannian conception of the continuity of the germ plasm. As it happens, a number of eminent biologists have recently rejected the central notion of Darwinian fitness or denounced the vulgar evolutionism implicit in sociobiology’s intemperate finalism.footnote1 In addition, I should add that Wilson never explains or defines the notion of ‘behaviour,’ but paradoxically seems to borrow it uncritically from the very behaviourist tradition which he is determined to combat. My concern, however, is not to disprove this questionable theory, but rather to attempt to explain what gives it a peculiar ideological force. This force is drawn from the ‘marriage’ it seeks to promote between two other disciplines that are both well established and quite respectable: genetics (especially population genetics) and, above all, ethology. A careful scrutiny of the writings of sociobiology reveals, that while genetics is the most emphasized partner in this marriage, it is really ethology which provides the most substantial dowry. To be more precise, what the supposed ‘data’ of genetics are charged with guaranteeing are really conclusions drawn from studies in ethology. From an immediate epistemological standpoint, the key question is to determine the status of these putative ‘conclusions’. We can impolitely ask whether the scandal provoked by sociobiology does not actually derive from its attempt to provide scientific clothing to the philosophical fantasy that is concealed at the heart of ethology—a fantasy that ethology has previously refrained from making explicit, prudently letting it appear only in its conclusions, and in the guise of hypotheses.

We must, therefore, direct our attention to ethology, not for its own intrinsic interest, but because of its strategic position in clarifying the ideological questions raised initially by the popularity of sociobiology. At the same time, by a further regression from ethology proper to its roots in the problematic of contemporary biology as a whole, we may also begin to untie the gordion knot that connects biology and the human sciences by the intermediary of certain philosophical positions.

In 1973 the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology was jointly awarded to Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. Even if it is Lorenz who has become the most prominent of this trio, it can be fairly said that the winners of the award were the three founding fathers of ethology as an independent discipline. The historical service of these researchers (whose parallel investigations, significantly, started in the 1930s)—and of Lorenz in particular—was to have rehabilitated the study of animal behaviour in the natural environment as opposed to the laboratory where it had become confined by both behaviourism and Pavlovian reflexology. The explicit aim of the ethologists was to develop the comparative study of animal behaviour. The implementation of this programme has produced an immense accumulation of research which has tended to reinstate the centrality of the notion of the innate: according to Lorenz, there exists in every living organism certain phylogenetic adaptations that determine behaviour. Besides the innate knowledge (instinct) common to a whole species, or even several species, it is possible to observe a repertoire of responses that are set in motion by ‘releasing mechanisms’. In successive studies Lorenz has examined the innate ‘releases’ of congener, mate, child, parent, etc.