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Promethean Fire, by Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson

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Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind.
by Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson.
Harvard. 216 pp. $17.50.

A new generation of physical and biological scientists has been looking to nature rather than culture for authoritative answers to the troubling questions of who we are, what we can become, and how we are to live. Within this new wave, the entomologist and founding theorist of sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, has emerged as a leading intellectual. His most recent book, Promethean Fire, co-authored with Charles J. Lumsden, a young theoretical physicist, boldly announces the discovery of the positivist grail: a true scientific account of the human essence.

Thanks to the theory of “gene-culture coevolution,” the authors believe they can now explain human behavior and history by the interaction of genes, mind, and culture. This theory, they assert, “grounded in the facts, principles, and mathematics” of science, will enable us to construct a “more potent human science” with enormous “potential significance for a broad range of problems involving human behavior and social structure.”

In thus attempting to analyze the underlying bio-logic of the mind and culture, and by proposing a mechanism through which the genes are said to guide and constrain the various ways we think, feel, and live, Wilson and Lumsden have again raised the stakes in the sociobiology debate. Wilson’s monumental Sociobiology (1975) initiated this debate by synthesizing a wealth of scientific knowledge about the evolution of social behavior across the spectrum of species, from corals to man. Wilson’s aim was to extend Darwinian analysis beyond the physical traits of organisms to their behavioral and social characteristics.

Sociobiology proved controversial because it presented a radical and disturbing view of organic life. According to Wilson, all traits of all organisms, including man, could be analyzed as genetically prescribed “devices” which increased the ability of an individual organism to survive and reproduce its genes in its particular environment. In effect, any organism could be viewed as nothing other than the means by which genes copied themselves. Everything from the aggregation of slime molds to the intellect and spirituality of homo sapiens, his social institutions and history, could be accounted for through this simple calculus of genetic costs and benefits.

Wilson’s work thus appeared to raise anew a number of troublesome questions: To what extent has our evolutionary history shaped the way we are and what we can become? To what extent, given the revelations of science, are human beliefs and moralities still valid? And to what extent can science tell us objectively how to live?

Prematurely proclaimed by the New York Times as a breakthrough in the scientific understanding of human behavior, Sociobiology was soon attacked for its alleged ideological implications, both by the political Left and by some of Wilson’s own colleagues. In arguing for a greater role for biological processes and purposes in human affairs, and thus restricting the range of human choices, Wilson was accused of lending support to all kinds of racist, class-bound, and sexist defenses of the social status quo. Wilson responded sharply by attacking his critics as Marxist vigilantes and by largely ignoring their more substantive criticisms.

Wilson’s next major work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, was a popularized but even more speculative effort. The theme of On Human Nature was simple. The ancient question of “human nature,” about which “literary” scholars had free-associated for thousands of years, could now be answered scientifically. The social sciences and humanities could now be, and indeed must be, absorbed into the natural sciences. In this way a biologically correct society and code of ethics—one built around species survival—could be achieved (at the price, to be sure, of the destruction of all those religious myths from which we have traditionally derived our moral consensus and sense of meaning).

Once again accused of a politically dangerous biological determinism, Wilson was now criticized as well for his assertion that “genes hold culture on a leash.” According to Wilson, specific cultural patterns are either biological adaptations somehow under the control of genes (like the avoidance of incest) or exaggerated forms of previously adaptive behaviors (like nationalism). Some anthropologists, philosophers, and biologists were willing to concede the possibility that certain cultural universals—incest taboos, tool use, language—could indeed have a biological basis. They argued, however, that sociobiology could not account for human inventiveness, cultural diversity, and cultural change. For instance, the capacity and even the tendency to create religious myths, marriage ceremonies, and kinship systems might be in the genes, but how could their diverse contents be genetically prescribed? How could genetic evolution help us understand the origins and effects of the Industrial Revolution?

Wilson began working with Lumsden to develop a theory that could meet such objections. The result, Genes, Mind, and Culture (1981), was a highly theoretical attempt to integrate cognitive psychology, behavioral genetics, and cultural anthropology into a more sophisticated human sociobiology. The authors claimed to have discovered the mechanism by which the genes, by determining the structure and functioning of the human brain, could direct the creation of such cultural patterns as styles of dress and sex roles. Drawing on sophisticated mathematical reasoning borrowed from statistical mechanics, they attempted to demonstrate how the extreme cultural diversity described by anthropologists was compatible with elaborate genetic programming. In addition, their calculations suggested that genetic evolution could take place quite rapidly, in as little as 50 generations (what Lumsden and Wilson rather tastelessly referred to as the “thousand-year rule”). Thus biological changes could conceivably underlie broad historical changes.



Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the work and its intimidating mathematical arguments, Genes, Mind, and Culture caused more irritation than excitement. Promethean Fire is designed to popularize the analysis and to spell out its profound implications. Curiously, the book also presents the authors’ personal account of the difficult road they followed to their currrent theoretical breakthrough. The purpose of this account is not simply to increase reader interest. Given the mathematical complexities of their original analysis, far beyond the tolerance and capacity of the average reader, and given the present lack of compelling evidence to support their theory, the authors’ account becomes an essential means of authenticating their work by demonstrating their scientific sincerity. In contrast to their critics, whom they refer to as radical leftists and “thinkers” but never as scientists, the authors stress that they have proceeded in a strictly scientific fashion, developing their ideas not from personal hopes, political ideologies, or a-priori beliefs, but from “the discovery and synthesis of new facts” which then led “to the creation of new ideas,” to be further refined and criticized by the community of their peers. The resulting theory, they tell us, is a triumph of the scientific method.

The theory of “gene-culture co-evolution” which Lumsden and Wilson have developed is essentially a theory of how the mind works and generates culture. By “prescribing” the structure and biochemistry of the brain, genes also guide the development and workings of the mind in ways that either have been, or still are, biologically useful. Genes create what the authors call “epigenetic rules,” innate mental tendencies and preferences (fear of snakes, love of sweets) which direct the way we perceive, think, feel, choose, and act. By doing so, these rules influence the formation of culture, which Lumsden and Wilson view as the simple sum of the genetically guided choices made by each individual from the array presented to him. The cultural patterns that prove biologically adaptive will enable the individuals possessing the correct epigenetic rules to survive and reproduce at higher rates. The naturally selected cultural elements, epigenetic rules, and the genes “prescribing” them will thus spread through the population. It is in this way that “genes hold culture on a leash.”

According to the authors, the remarkable evolution of the human mind was essentially an evolution of epigenetic rules. These rules, however, do not rigidly determine our cultural choices; they only bias those choices and the frequency with which we shift between competing cultural options (such as incest and outbreeding). What is genetically determined, say the authors, “is not a particular social response but rather the statistical pattern of response across many societies.” A certain amount of chance variation between societies—cultural diversity—is thus entirely compatible with genetic control. As for historical changes, Lumsden and Wilson simply observe that “at present there is no scientific proof that the essential qualities of a Charlemagne or the Quattrocento cannot emerge from a sophisticated theory of gene-culture coevolution applied to history.”

Armed with the theory of gene-culture coevolution, the authors believe they can now solve “the great sphinx’s riddle of the meaning of man,” which has baffled all previous non-scientific philosophers. The answer, they warn, is not pretty; in fact it threatens our “most valued myths.” The essence of man, his brain, is simply “a machine created by genetic evolution” to help us survive and reproduce. This “plain but awesome fact” means that in our politics, ethics, and self-understanding, we are not free to ignore our biological make-up and purposes. Moreover, since many of the epigenetic rules, such as those governing aggression and xenophobia, are now obsolete, inefficient, and downright harmful, they must be retooled by scientist/social engineers.

Is it time, then, to turn in our Plato, Augustine, and Freud? Or, to put the question differently, just what is the scientific status of this work? Although Lumsden and Wilson view their theory as orthodox science, certain questionable assumptions about mind and culture and an extreme reductionism mar their thought and inflate their claims.

Observers of men in society have always known that no human culture, not even our own, is a supermarket of discrete and competing cultural products—row upon row of hymns, gods, cuisines, clothing styles, styles of life—to which each individual is uniformly exposed, and from which he selects according to genetically prescribed preferences and abhorrences. Nor have existing cultural practices been selected solely for their survival value. Rather, each culture has done the shopping for us, circumscribing the chaos of possibility and ordering our choices to make our lives possible and meaningful. The mind is indeed no blank slate, and it certainly possesses a material basis. Yet as with books, which also have a material basis, the ideas expressed by the mind are virtually limitless.

Only an a-priori reductionism could lead one to conclude that all human choices and tendencies—even the “selection of social and economic roles” and the “goals and principles that organize our daily lives”—are governed by epigenetic rules. Not even the few such “rules” which Lumsden and Wilson do identify are so constraining. We may tend to fear and hate strangers, but we also find them attractive, even seductive. Children like sweets; we consider a cultivated palate one that has overcome this preference. Nor is the example of brother-sister incest avoidance so univocal. We may find the idea abhorrent, but even the authors refer to an undercurrent of “quiet titillation” at the prospect. The invention of birth control and amniocentesis makes the practice of incest harmless if not useful biologically.

A question which needs to be raised is why such distinguished scientists, claiming extreme scientific rigor, have allowed such flawed assumptions to guide their work. The authors themselves suggest an answer. Viewing the present as “the most dangerous of times,” they hope that a true human science can provide us with “universal goals” and “absolute ethical truths,” the highest of which is species survival, upon which we can all agree and by which we can conduct our lives. A moral and social passion is at work in this valuable attempt to integrate the disparate findings of various scientific specialities into a new natural philosophy with which to create a more harmonious and integrated society. But is it the right one? This is not for the authors, but rather for all of us, to say.

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