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The Liberal Gene: Sociobiology as Emancipatory Discourse in the Late Soviet Union

Yvonne Howell
Slavic Review
Vol. 69, No. 2 (SUMMER 2010), pp. 356-376
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25677102
Page Count: 21
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The Liberal Gene: Sociobiology as Emancipatory Discourse in the Late Soviet Union
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Abstract

Sociobiology investigates all manifestations of human nature—including our moral, aesthetic, and intellectual strivings—from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In this article, Yvonne Howell examines V.P. Efroimson's controversial 1971 Novyi mir article, "The Genealogy of Altruism: Ethics from the Perspective of Human Evolutionary Genetics," in order to point out one of the paradoxes embedded in late Soviet culture: namely, the potentially reductive and reactionary discourse of sociobiology was used instead to make a compelling argument for social pluralism, intellectual freedom, and individual moral responsibility. Howell compares the initial rejection of sociobiology by liberals in the west with the valorization of Efroimson's evolutionary ethics among a broad spectrum of the liberal, educated public in late USSR. She shows how Efroimson updated the "evolutionary humanism" championed by Soviet geneticists in the 1920s to challenge enduring Brezhnev-era dogma about the malleability of human nature. This account indicates a trajectory from earlier tensions between disciplining scripts for selfhood typical of Soviet modernism and alternative narratives (both humanistic and biological) for an ethics based on autonomous individual self-scripting.

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