Beware the new creation myths

I’m slowly making my way through Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women. I had to admit, I had skimmed a not insignificant amount of the first two chapters of the 1991 anthology of Haraway’s early works because I wasn’t particularly interested in Haraway’s close examination of early primate research.

But for reasons I will soon explain, I’m now much inclined to properly read those early chapters. I now realize that Haraway’s work in studying early primate scientists is a significant foundation for future insights in her subsequent work, such as this one, that begins Chapter Three, The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology.

Part of remaking ourselves as socialist-feminist human beings is remaking the sciences which construct the category of “nature” and empower its definitions in technology. Science is about knowledge and power. In our time, natural science defines the human being’s place in nature and history and provides the instruments of domination of the body and the community. By constructing the category nature, natural science imposes limits on history and self-formation. So science is part of the struggle over the nature of our lives. I would like to investigate how the field of modern biology constructs theories about the body and community as capitalist and patriarchal machine and market: the machine for production, the market for exchange, and both machine and market for reproduction. I would like to explore biology as an aspect of the reproduction of capitalist social relations, dealing with the imperative of biological reproduction. That is, I want to show how sociobiology is the science of capitalist reproduction.

Between World War I and the present, biology has been transformed from a science centered on the organism, understood in functionalist terms, to a science studying automated technological devices, understood in terms of cybernetic systems. Organic form, with its hierarchical and physiological cooperation and competition based on “natural” domination and division of labor, gave way to systems theory with its control schemes based on communications networks and a logical technology in which human beings become potentially outmoded symbol-using devices. Life science moved from physiology to systems theory, from scientific medicine to investment management, from Taylorite scientific management and human engineering of the person to modern ergonomics and population control, from psychobiology to sociobiology.

This fundamental change in life science did not occur in an historical vacuum; it accompanied changes in the nature and technology of power, within a continuing dynamic of capitalist reproduction. This paper will only sketch those changes, in an effort to investigate the historical connection between the content of science and its social context.

The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from Human Engineering to Sociobiology”, Donna Haraway, Radical History Review (1979) (20): 206-237.

In this paper, Haraway compares and contrast the biological research work of chimpanzee-studying psychologist Robert Yerkes and ant-studying “father of sociobiology” E.O. Wilson as a means to show the “transformation of biology from a science of sexual organisms to one of reproducing genetic assemblages”.

But there’s another reason why I want to give the attention needed to Haaway’s work. It feels timely again.

Some months ago at the library where I work as a librarian, one of the library staff told me that there were several requests for the library to get a copy of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I did some cursory research and found that it was a New York Times Bestseller from an Isreali academic.

And then I dug further to find out why a broad overview of the history of humanity was on the best seller list and found out that the works of Harari are adored by the CEOs of Silicon Valley:

Less than a decade ago, Yuval Noah Harari was a junior professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stuck teaching a world history survey course because none of the senior faculty would deign to take it on. Today, he’s listened to and praised by the likes of Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who reviewed Harari’s latest book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Harari speaks at the World Economic Forum at Davos, TED, and TimesTalks. At the time of this writing, his books occupied the top two slots on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list… And it’s all due to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book based on that survey course that no one else wanted to teach—a book that has leapt far beyond the original audience for which Harari intended it and has been embraced by the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

The History Disruptor: Why has Silicon Valley embraced a little-known Israeli academic?” Slate, By Laura Miller, Nov 01, 2018

I haven’t read Sapiens but I have read this 6,500 summary called ‘If Sapiens was a blog post‘. And after reading a bunch of reviews of the book, I think I understand the hook of the book. From Slate Magazine again:

Another foundational idea in Harari’s take on history is that “fiction” is the superpower that has enabled homo sapiens to access unprecedented power over other species. The other primates can’t manage stable communities of more than about 150 members. But following what Harari calls “the Cognitive Revolution”—marked by the development of language—“large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.” It isn’t merely our big brains or our opposable thumbs that have made us the emperors of the planet; it’s our ability to work together en masse, mobilized by shared beliefs

Is this why Mark Zuckerberg was such a massive booster of Sapiens when it first came out? Is it because its premise that human civilization is dependent on story-telling is deeply attractive to those industries involved in creating movies, memes, and advertising platforms?

Zuckerberg explains his latest book-club pick on his personal Facebook page: This book is a big history narrative of human civilization — from how we developed from hunter-gatherers early on to how we organize our society and economy today.

Why Mark Zuckerberg wants everyone to read an Israeli historian’s book about the human race, Business Insider, Richard Feloni, Jun. 16, 2015

Or is it because the men involved in Silicon Valley are highly invested in a particular telling of the story of sociobiology. From Laura Miller’s Slate review:

This idea isn’t new; sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson have often characterized religion as a fiction that creates advantageous social unity. But this argument often goes hand in hand with a macho strain of atheism and evolutionary psychology that trumpets both the obsolescence of faith in the age of science and an exaggerated focus on “selfish gene” scenarios in which a ruthless competition underlies every aspect of human existence. An even cruder version of the same attitude can be found in online communities of incels, pickup artists, MGTOWs, and other alienated men, with their pseudoscientific mythos of alpha and beta males and the women who will or won’t sleep with them.

In a Harari twist, Sapiens inverts evolutionary psychology’s usual fetishization of raw male dominance by stating that “even among chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.” The pervasiveness of patriarchy among human cultures he regards as an enduring puzzle: “How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

The History Disruptor: Why has Silicon Valley embraced a little-known Israeli academic?” Slate, By Laura Miller, Nov 01, 2018

Haraway’s 1979 comparison of early primate research and E. O. Wilson and her conclusion that “sociobiology is the science of capitalist reproduction” seems strangely relevant. Again.

Truth be told, the reason why I wrote this blog post is because of a cartoon essay.

Tim Urban of Wait But Why is currently publishing installments of his magnum opus of The Story of Us. And I’m somewhat disturbed that Tim Urban finds it necessary to explain our present day society through evolution and … sociobiology. Again.

The series is just starting and I’m not sure where the Story of Us will go from here. Maybe Tim will get to Haraway and other feminists for insight. But I doubt it.