The territory of Man. Socio-anthropology versus biology

Traduction anglaise par Brigitte DEMEURE (mars-avril 2023)

Salvador JUAN
Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Caen-Normandie,
BP 5186, 14032 Caen Cedex

The territory of Man
Socio-anthropology versus biology

As we commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth and since naturalism is reviving in the social sciences, it is perhaps useful to examine the tumultuous relationship between biology and socio-anthropology from the perspective of respective territories and disciplinary boundaries. This question is not new and cannot be seriously dealt with by forgetting the history of thought. Throughout the 19th century, especially during its second half, the problem arose of the limits and specificities of the "socio-human" sciences (SHS) versus the natural and life sciences (NLS). It is in the past of the former and in their dominated culture by the latter that we must look for the sources of the problem we pose today. If important debates divided most authors of the time on the characters and attributes of humans, almost all authors of SHS agree, in order to defend their ideas, to use arguments and methods, including classification, derived from biology or rather naturalists. There is therefore consensus on this epistemological level, outside the creationists. However, this consensus is far from having disappeared today. On the contrary, naturalism in socio-anthropology has modernized and recently amplified.
The influence of NLSs, or their tendencies to (re)colonize SHS, today passes through certain disciplines, all belonging to the vast field of biology : these are paleontology, ethology, genetics, neurophysiology or "neuroscience" (alongside psychology, itself colonized by these specialties with high pragmatic value), and ecology. These different disciplines try to establish their development and strengthen their legitimacy by encroaching on the field of socio-anthropology, or on the territory of Man1. There are systematic connections between animality and humanity, reinforced by the idea of unity of the living, a naturalization, therefore a desymbolization and a growing influence of biological reasoning in the explanation of cultural and historical phenomena. To link this revival to fairly lively controversies in the seventies, we can call "sociobiology" this tendency to interpret social facts based on "natural" or organic-physiological factors and criteria. A brief step backwards will be useful to better show the origins and extent of the problem of scientific colonization that we want to deal with here. This is what this article will first tackle. In a second step, we will recall the first reluctance in the face of animality– humanity confusion while showing its contemporary academic manifestations. Finally, we will try to draw the limits and identify the originality – in a way, the "hard core", to deliberately use a metaphor of physics – of SHS.

At the roots of the renewal of sociobiology

It is the enterprise of animalization of human beings and of the naturalization of social facts that are denounced here ; in no way the morphological and functional homology of mammals, a class to which we belong biologically. If animal experimentation (regardless of ethical or ideological positions on the matter) can provide useful data for medicine, it is because many laws of physiology and the effects of certain substances are identical in all mammals. However, from the fact that comparable, even identical, biological laws govern various forms of life with regard to organic and physiological functioning, it cannot be inferred that the institutions sedimented by history have a biogenetic cause. However, it is the renewal of this old shift in meaning that it is important to question in order to consolidate the field of socio-anthropology. But what are the limits of the SHS field ? Before attempting an answer to this question and to better designate the amalgam at issue here, it is appropriate to make a short retrospective.

The aporia of social evolutionism in the 19th century

There is an evolutionary reason in biology – which it is out of the question to deny here, except to reconnect with a creationism excluding any scientific posture – which has often historically translated into unreason in the human sciences. By sliding from the biological evolution of living beings to the evolution of societies and postulating that the same laws govern these two domains, most authors of the last centuries, almost all in fact, have slipped from nature to culture. In this shift, in this slide rather, the best sociologists have lost part of their scientificity, because they have yielded to the worst thing that can happen to a scientist : to let themselves be penetrated by both ideological and religious beliefs without their knowledge. But the sometimes "religious" ideology, (in the socio-anthropological sense of the term sacralization), of social evolutionism has largely penetrated, more or less deeply it is true, all the founders of the discipline under the cover of biological science which is scientific as long as it remains biological and which almost always loads itself with ideology as soon as it claims to explain sociohuman facts. Sociology, born with the fantasy of copying biology and anthropology, was from the start enclosed in the nets of medicine and therefore biology, hence the organicism of the early days of these two disciplines which owes perhaps, and paradoxically2, to the more general conditions of empowerment of the human sciences as a whole. However, Durkheim (1918), relying on Rousseau, very quickly rejects the biologism of animality-humanity confusion and defines the latter by an access to socially instituted symbolism (we will come back to this), which does not prevent his contradictions.
For example, Durkheim (in various works, notably in his 1893 book) conveyed Spencer’s idea of heterogeneity accompanying both natural and socio-economic development. This is why he will take note of the process of division of social labor and even value it as an axial or central criterion for assessing the level of civilization. This is also why he will often evoke higher/inferior (primitive in this case) societies. Although nuanced and circumspect, although he wanted to empower sociology more than any other in his time, he yielded, for most of his life and work, to an organicism bringing together the natural sciences and the sociohuman sciences. Many others have done it before him, from socialists to anarchists. But the animalization of man that the Durkheimians reject continues its path since Aristotle and with the positivism of the 19th century. It constitutes the cultural bath in which sociology is born, as shown by the work of the inventor of this word.
Long before Darwin, Auguste Comte – who had read Lamarck and Cuvier – already advanced, in 1839 in the 51st lesson of his Cours de philosophie positive (1839, 291), the great evolutionary discovery of correspondence between onto- and phylogeny applied to humans but in the field of the sciences of society : "Individual development necessarily reproduces before our eyes, in a more rapid and familiar succession (...), the principal phases of social development". What will be called social organicism is already contained in this sentence which presupposes this homology of the individual microcosm and the social macrocosm : the –social– history of humanity would be incorporated by each human being, and we would relive all its phases in our own maturation. In chapter four of his text The System of Positive Politics, in the section devoted to language and in order to better dismiss theological or metaphysical explanations, Comte goes so far as to ensure that "the positive knowledge of man provides the only means of finally penetrating the true nature of the various animals".3 Let us cease, he explains, to isolate humanity from all animal species and social facts will finally be enlightened, in particular by the zoological comparison on which, according to him, any positive theory must be based. For example, a positive theory of human language must necessarily "relate it appropriately to its biological strain. For voluntary signs necessarily have their true roots in the invoking signs-, the -study of which must even be carried out first regarding the smallest degrees of animality, where it is better freed from any foreign complication.” So, not only should linguistics be an ethology, but it should rely on the most rudimentary species to constitute itself scientifically. Marx is also part of this very majority group of followers of an unconditional attachment to Darwinian sociobiology. Even if his historical theory is based on the idea of successive ruptures, he is based on sociobiological continuism, which is why he will send his book Capital to Darwin (Gould, 2002, 131-148) who had an ideology opposed to his own and who will only read the beginning. When Marx evokes (1857-58) the barbarians lending themselves "to any task" or the peoples of shepherds hunters or fishermen who would be "below the point where evolution actually begins", he yields to the clichés of his time and allows himself to be influenced by a hierarchy contrary to the universalism of his most ideological writings. Let’s generalize the point. All the founders of sociology, including those who remain Christians, give in to the Spencero-Darwinian confusion (because Spencer, like Malthus, influenced Darwin) of constructing their definition of social change and modernity on the basis of the heterogeneity and complexity associated with functional specializations, as in biology. It is likely that, taken individually, each "founding father" of sociology would recognize that the laws of nature cannot be applied to a project of explanation of human culture or sociality. For example, Darwinian Karl Marx certainly did not confuse the class struggle with the interspecific competitive struggles of biologists, and Engels openly criticized Darwin for the caricature of humanity he presented (1875, 366). But their texts will nevertheless reinforce social Darwinism by cultivating the parallelism natural evolution-social evolution. Ditto with "liberals" like Tocqueville, Pareto or Weber who invite us to define social facts as facts of culture but who frequently yield to evolutionary value judgments4. The most radical of Darwinian liberals deserves a little development. Of the many books by Spencer, considered the father of social evolutionism by some authors (Tort, 1996), it is Principles of Sociology (1876) that seems to us to have the most useful elements to understand this sociobiology that he founded with Darwin, as a mode of reasoning leaving multiple traces in socio-anthropology. Society is defined as a more or less organized aggregate according to the evolution of the organism coinciding with the state of differentiation of the parties. In evolution, integration is primary and differentiation secondary, that is, the increasing heterogeneity and complexity of bodies manifest their degree of evolution. So that the change in the internal structure of individuals of a species accompanies the change in function. The important analogy proposed by Spencer, which the Durkheimians will take up, is that all the groupings but also the forms of the arranged space, the circulation routes (etc.), correspond either to a morphostructure of the social body, or to a "physiological" function of this organic aggregate necessary for its survival. Social development would itself, like that of animal species, be the product of adaptation to environmental conditions. Thus, the most civilized countries would have appeared where the heat of the day exists without being too excessive and where evaporation can occur by promoting molecular changes, which would explain why humid regions do not coincide with highly developed societies (p 30-33). Inter-societal differences arise only from the special circumstances of the environment, but primitive man and inferior races are nevertheless considered fundamentally emotional and impulsive although more resistant to pain, indolent and apathetic than civilized ones (pp. 79-87). For Spencer, all differences are natural, and history does not intervene ; It is therefore logical to find similarities between primitives and monkeys. Since the development of an individual reproduces the stages of the evolution of the species, "the contrast observed among us between child and adult is indirect evidence that primitive man differed from man of a later epoch" (p. 86). As we see, the naturalization of reasoning is absolute and from the organic we pass to the social-historical without the slightest hesitation. It is only through the virtue of "combined” and rational actions that a cultural substratum is added to the natural conditions of the existence of human societies in order to explain the appearance of complex languages, religion, ethics and aesthetics. But even at this level of reasoning, Spencer still evokes the necessities of the species and the requirement of scientific distinction to be preserved between verbal justifications and objective functions relating to the facts of culture (p. 589)... Spencer’s absolute functionalism dehistoricises and desymbolizes humanity. Compared to that of Auguste Comte, Spencer’s sociobiology is franker and more direct, but their difference is of degree, not of nature. It would be unwise to believe that, despite their opposing ideology in many respects, deep disagreements would separate these two authors. The appendix "fetishism" of Spencer’s sociological work provides us with proof of their common sociobiology. The passage in question deserves to be quoted in extenso, at least its beginning : "I believe that Auguste Comte expressed the opinion that superior animals have fetishistic conceptions. Naturally, I cannot share this idea, since I maintain, and I believe I have good reasons for doing so, that fetishism is not a primitive belief but a derived belief. Nevertheless, I believe that the conduct of intelligent animals sheds light on the genesis of fetishism. I myself have observed facts on two dogs that can serve as an example." This excerpt, of which the zoologist Lorenz could just as easily be the author, is extended by descriptions in which Spencer evokes "a kind of smile or sneer," then an "act of propitiation" of the same generic dog to conclude with the idea that it is an "analogous state of mind that leads the savage to certain fetishistic observances" (pp. 595-96). As can be seen, the controversy lies not in the possible fear of anthropomorphism, which does not exist in both authors, but in the degree of evolution necessary for the appearance of fetishism. The most interesting thing for us here is that the two philosophers finally agree that this religious disposition exists in animals. Moreover, an author like Espinas brings them together, despite their differences, in what could be called the birth certificate of sociobiology.

Darwin’s anthropobiology and Espinas’ totalizing synthesis

It should be remembered that Darwin himself participated in the construction of sociobiology by evoking humans and social behaviors far beyond the limits of biology. Even if he owes a lot to Spencer in this area, he keeps a particular style and approaches the territory of man, as a biologist, with a very clearly imperialist project against the SHS. A quick reference to some lesser-known works than The Origin of Species will show this. In addition to the contemptuous remarks about primitive Africans, considered less enviable as ancestors than apes (1871, 740), Darwin passed from biology to the human and social sciences without epistemological concern. This crossing is done almost only in one direction, that of the biological to the social, even if it envisages possible voluntary acquisitions turning into habits transmitted later. Thus, the musical emotion that generates a thrill or laughter is produced (Darwin quotes Spencer in this regard, as often) by "5 influxes of nervous force", not directed by motivation. The same is true of fury, which is said to be due above all to "the direct action of the sensory system subjected to excitation" (1872, 92, 18, 101). It is understandable that the biologist Darwin explains the physiological phenomena that occur during a chill, pleasure or anger : this is his job. But to stop there in the explanation and evoke only the organic or physiological vectors and the consequences of the same order (bristling of hair, reddening, etc.), in the case of human beings, is to confuse the cause and the organic manifestation of the phenomenon. However, we know that nothing is more socially and culturally structured than human emotions, as well as the senses (Le Breton, 2006). No symbolic cause is ever advanced by Darwin to explain human emotions. He may evoke birds or monkeys singing and the nuptial dances of animals, but that does not justify in any way the proximity with humans and their relationship to art. Resemblance has never been a sufficient scientific criterion to explain anything, even if many organic manifestations or certain physiological behaviors can have animal origins6... However, the interspecific analogies of Darwin and Spencer have become very common, and this process, as we shall see later, has spread significantly today. At a time when Spencer’s work was gaining notoriety as it spread, Espinas, who was with Comte another inspiration for Durkheim, published an important book at the heart of the problem at hand. It should be noted that the book Animal Societies (1877) begins by posing very precisely the question of rationality or confusions carried by the comparison of humanity / animality. But we also find from the outset the concepts not only of social organization but also of association or collective consciousness to deal with (and as) facts of nature. In a long historical introduction, mainly devoted to the examination of the theses of philosophy, Espinas takes a clear position for the Aristotelian approach, which he summarizes and updates by comparing society to a living being having the same characteristics of heterogeneity as its constituent parts, a difference that "is the condition of their contribution" (p. 19). By referring to the doctrines of the 17th century conceiving, on the contrary, the social as sedimented, the dead, the artificial, he links them only to theories of contract and to an individualism which, in his eyes, is opposed to Montesquieu considered as anchoring his sociology in the facts of nature. Similarly, if he sees (rightly we must note, especially for the former) in Rousseau and Kant the pinnacle of "the theory that elevates society above nature" it is also to designate its essential weakness because "it borrows nothing from experience to constitute itself" (p. 39). By defending an empiricist posture, the importance of the fact assimilated to experience, Espinas relates society to an instinctive reason that precedes laws, man to nature, which leads him to the most significant comparative sentences, such as "the web of the weaver is as natural as that of the spider", and to consider linguistics as the first of the historical sciences founding social organicism and even the "social science in shortened form", that is, biology (pp. 47, 52, 65). For this discipline, every individual is a society or a compound of living beings, whose individuality depends on this composition, comprising an indeterminate number of degrees. He then takes up Haeckel’s metaphors comparing cells to the citizens of a state and7 those of zoologists studying insect or mammal communities as societies, constructing "animal sociologies" to arrive, after integrating Comte and Spencer, at his fundamental Darwinian conclusion (p. 107) : "there is nothing outside nature". This leads Espinas, in the conclusion of this work opening the way to all Darwinians thereafter, to deny the specificity of institutional facts or to base their essence in organic impulses and the weight of instinct. It is among the Durkheimians, who will best defend an institutionalist and historical vision of social development rooted in the symbolic, that the reference to Darwinian Espinas and Spencer turns into the most flagrant contradiction. Nevertheless, in this same school and already in Durkheim, many arguments make it possible to establish a resistance to sociobiology. Paradoxically, the way in which evolutionary ideology totals their partial contributions historically goes – this is what can be called the magic of the social fact – in the direction of strengthening social evolutionism as a declination of biological evolution. Bouglé also noted that the followers of evolutionism "are naturally inclined to identify evolution with perfection" ; He relativized (1904, 211) the Darwinian idea of always happy variations of the transformations brought about by competition and he qualified Social Darwinism as "abusive transpositions of ideas on a pyramid of equivocations" (1904, 250). Let’s summarize. What is illegitimate, at the scientific level, is not that biologists describe physiological phenomena in living beings but that, dealing with cultural and social facts, they systematically omit cultural and social factors, that they consider the notion of anthropological rupture as senseless, and experience as the only technique of empirical validation. What may, at the limit, remain understandable for NLS researchers is transformed into a culture dominated by SHS researchers who mimic the former. When Durkheim wrote that the sociologist must explain social facts only by other social facts, this rule was at least intended to preserve our field of this type of practice. He was not the first, moreover, to defend this deliberately anthropocentric posture which is the only truly anthropologically viable one.

The non-creationist precursors of anthropological rupture
and their oblivion by sociobiology

The anthropological posture must be summarized here and now if we want to understand its implications in empirical research protocols in sociology. Many authors could be summoned to help us draw the limits of the field but, for lack of space, we focus here only on a few important figures useful to us, that is to say texts evoking the question of animality-humanity relations. Let us quote above all Rousseau. Although he wrote that "The wild man (...) will begin [therefore] with the purely animal functions : to see and feel will be his first state, which will be common to him with all animals", he is one of the first, against Voltaire, to say explicitly that the ape is not a variety of man, not only because he is deprived of the faculty of speaking, but "above all because one is sure that his species has no that faculty of perfecting itself which is the specific character of the human species" ( 1762, 413-415). How can such a simple and concretely verified idea still be forgotten today ? Even if some of his statements are apparently contradictory, Rousseau’s position, starting from his idea of a "state of nature" designating a pre-human being not yet truly socialized, clearly manifests a rupture between nature and culture. But the idea of the wild man animal remains ambiguous. The doubt (of that time) remaining on the human pseudo-identity of the orangutans and then of the colonized savages is that of the entire classical age and of an episteme characterized by a structural and historical continuity of the Being that will make the breeding ground of continuism and will favor the advent of a linear evolutionism. In this respect, we can only follow Lévi-Strauss or Gossiaux (1993, 265) when they consider that Rousseau was one of the clearest authors in affirming a specificity of the human as a product of a culture and institutional sedimentation. Updating Rousseau, we can say that to define the human being from criteria used to describe natural processes, is to naturalize social facts and therefore not only renounce what constitutes the central vocation of sociology – institutions and the relationship to institutions – but also degrade some humans to the rank of structural inferiority by taking social domination for a natural superiority. Thus, the Savages, considered closer to animality, Blacks, Delinquents, Workers, Women, Jews and Inhabitants of "developing" countries have been stigmatized, under the guise of scientificity, as a degraded or regressive form of humanity. The process is always the same in reasoning : we establish a historical and prehistoric continuity, coupled with an animality-humanity continuism that precedes it and we can classify beings in this continuum, these socially dominated categories being always located in intermediate position between the ape and the male human being. Craniometry (or phrenology) was one of the main methods used by the authors to try to empirically validate these amalgams. But prehistorians like Gould (1980) but also, long before him, a sociologist like Bouglé, denounced its aporia. Bouglé, despite some dithering, was one of the first (perhaps the first) to break with the biological anthropology of his time by specifying that phrenology could not be used to determine levels of development, if only because one cannot confuse cranial volume and intelligence, let alone intelligence and level of social development. In his Essai sur le régime des castes (1908), Bouglé already distanced himself from anthropometry. He later wrote (1925) : "Broca had asserted that the volume of skulls increases with civilization ; but after more observations, his law is denied." Fifty years after him, the biologist Gould wrote a famous book (1980) by systematizing the old idea of Bouglé and the biological law of correlation of organs which imposes the disaggregation of series to establish relevant comparisons. At equal size, there are no longer differences in cranial volume between blacks and whites, between women and men, or between Europeans and the rest of the world. Moreover, this cranial volume has very little impact on human intelligence and abilities, whereas this criterion is still considered central to hominization today. However, this criterion, considered decisive, is also a determined phenomenon, as Leroi-Gourhan and Ruffié (1976) have demonstrated. Many anatomical or physiological mutations of the human being are the product of its specific activity : its culture shapes its nature, which is largely the consequence of a history of which he/she is the (active) subject, and the growing size of its brain is the result of its activity, not its nature. The sociologist breaks with his dominated culture with regard to biology by seeking social criteria of analysis ; this is how Bouglé "plays" Lamarck (probably the most sociologist of naturalists, and reader of Rousseau) against Darwin, the relative discontinuity that introduces each acquired character against the background continuity that brings humans closer to protozoa : by showing that new or renewed variations with each generation prevent us from appreciating what is fixed in the permanent work of heredity. This argument can be extended. That we are mammals, as evolutionists tirelessly remind us, is beyond doubt. But some biologists seem to forget that we are also made up of tissues made of molecules. However, the truly scientific posture requires us not to stop there. The atoms of all kinds that make up our molecules incorporate electrons and other elementary particles of matter, etc. To make evolution begin or stop at a certain stage is reasonable only within the framework of a specific discipline with its more or less legitimate boundaries from the point of view of the laws of nature. In this respect, the SHS have theirs and they are not those of the NLSs. However, attempts to explain human behavior and social facts from biological factors (instincts or genes) are now more and more numerous and Lorenz is no stranger to the phenomenon. Konrad Lorenz, especially some of his works8, is considered the (re)founder of ethological biology. To paraphrase a formula of Habermas, we could say that ethology has claims to universality since it seeks more and more to explain human behavior by observing animals. In this respect, Konrad Lorenz’ books (which some have considered close to the extreme right9), manifest a clear attempt to colonize socio-anthropology by biology. Yet institutionalist sociologists had clearly formulated the fundamental anthropological difference. It is historical sedimentation, what Simmel (1900) called "objective culture", which sociologically defines the essence of the human. Let us recall that for Durkheim (1902-1911, 57) "If man has been able to go beyond the stage at which animals have stopped, it is (...) especially since the products of the work of one generation are not lost to the one that follows" and that Mauss (1939-47, 34), for his part, had formulated his humanist position of principle in another way, more directly, contrary to paleo-anthropology and inserted into the background of prehistoric anthropology, since he assured that : "as soon as there is man, there’s a tool." Far from living in the mode of animality (to which we cannot assimilate the physiological functioning of the body), the Paleolithic human is already totally part of the artistic, technological or religious culture. By giving this empirically verifiable criterion over the very long term – unlike religious feeling or language, criteria that Mauss would no doubt have preferred – it is not a question of fetishizing the tool in the context of a technological determinism but of suggesting an ancient material proof of access to the symbolic. The difficulty faced by SHS in the face of NLSs probably stems from the insufficient robustness of the tool concept. Despite the very relevant work of his past student, Leroi-Gourhan, the criterion tool as a simple artifact lends itself to the diversions, even perversions, of meaning that we are witnessing today, a misinterpretation that could also be considered, more positively, as a test of the limits of SHS by the NLS, basically as a service rendered by the latter to the former by forcing them to be more precise and rigorous... In order to truly designate the ability to symbolize by using a material criterion, it is not enough to evoke the "manufacture" or the operation of voluntary transformation of matter, as proposed by Leroi-Gourhan (1964, 108, 117). This criterion is necessary but insufficient. It is necessary to go to the end of the reasoning by specifying that the tool must be transitive, as are human tools, that is to say, be manufactured for use to produce something else. This is the difference between an instrument (sharp, punching, smoothing or scraping, burrowing, hooking, etc.) whose use directly makes it possible to achieve its ends in the relationship with the environment and a tool that we know will serve again10. This capacity goes beyond the temporal projection (the reverse of the ability to memorize) to which many animal species have perfect access but constitutes the condition of institutional sedimentation. A renowned biologist such as Ruffié (1976, 249) defended this principle, citing the Australopithecines conserving objects, which demonstrates in his eyes their ability to predict ; he also specifies (p. 292) that hominization occurred suddenly, in a way as a rupture in the sense of temporal acceleration given to the term by Gras (1979). Knowledge can be transmitted, as can the use of an instrument intended to satisfy an immediate need, both in humans and in certain animal species. But this is precisely purely instrumental behavior, either educational (some mammals) or inscribed in the genes (ants) and does not institute anything "supernatural" to use Durkheim’s term. This is not an abusive condition laid down there to push back the limits of a border by falling back on purely anthropogenic arguments and sinking into nonsense by absolute incomparability11, but a logical requirement all the more discriminating since nothing physiologically or because of the living environment would prevent certain animal species from proceeding in this way if they were able to symbolically establish their world. The most rudimentary human societies have manufactured and preserved tools (as well as knowledge, legends, words, so many institutions that do not leave very old material traces and therefore evidence), which allowed them to exist and perpetuate themselves as such by accumulating new creations and consequently making their history. No species or herd animal collectivity has ever done so, until proven otherwise. The minimum but essential condition for access to unnatural history, and therefore to the sedimenting symbolism, is this creative transitivity that cannot be reduced to foresight. Finally, it should be noted that it is not an attribute of individuals (animals or humans), even if individual skills are necessary and accompany the process of institutionalization. This capacity is collective insofar as it requires preconditions, already there at the birth of this or that individual, to create from them. This is why only thought can experience evolutionary continuities – a non-ideological meaning of the word progress – by accumulation of knowledge. The technological materialization of this thought is perceived by the possible improvement of techniques. The accumulation and increasing knowledge are the basis of the properly human world. However, naturalism refuses to reason in terms of “institution” (both externalized and internalized). The notion is absent in Darwin and exceptional in Spencer ; it is present in Comte, it is never used to distinguish animality (with a very "limited" social development according to him) from a humanity that alone has a history. Paradoxically and conversely, nowadays, many authors claim that there is cultural transmission and even that there are institutions in animals. "Primate culture" is frequently evoked from incongruous examples of calling "tools" sometimes considered "complex" objects such as sticks, straws or stones used as strikers by some monkeys. A whole literature12 on animal morality or ethics participates in the return of the naturalization of social facts for example – the French press recently mentioned it but the subject is old – by ensuring that there would be a "gene of fidelity", just as the adornments of women would increase as they approach ovulation (like the pink swelling of the butt of female chimpanzees). We owe these ideas to Wright (1994). The latter also wishes to unify the social sciences, in particular the "behaviorist ecologists, Darwinian anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists or psychiatrists" using the Darwinian paradigm and the "rediscovery of human nature". At about the same time, the proponent of Tarde and the epidemiology of culture, Sperber (1996, pp. 135, 141) states that "culture is the precipitate of communication and cognition" and that it is the brain mechanisms that make humans cultural animals. More recently, taking up the work of the utilitarian Singer, Jeangène Vilmer (2008, 72) proposes an "animal ethics" that melts interest in the great whole of nature by amalgamating humans and animals : "Interests are equal (...) Those of blacks are worth those of whites, those of women are worth those of men, those of nonhuman animals are worth those of human animals. The interests of the mouse are worth those of man."13 The work of Guille-Escuret (1994), Lestel (2001 ), but also Picq (2003) are characteristic in this respect. It is above all from a double direction, ethology and paleontology, that these incursions come, to which are added the arguments of geneticists on the DNA of "primate cousins", so close to ours, as if genetic proximity could, as an argument, have any value when it comes to establishing cultural and historical differences. The gene is also considered to be determinative and not culturally determined. There is even, according to some geneticists, a gene for religiosity14 : researchers publishing in the journal Nature had announced with a bang some time ago to have discovered the gene for school failure... The suspicion of an epistemologically crucial difference between correlation and causation does not seem to touch some researchers ; unless media amplification and the logic of the communication market are plausible explanations for the phenomenon. Note also and above all the association of biology specialties and their cohesion in the face of anthropology : a paleontologist can use genetic as well as ethological arguments. If the media amply convey this simplification of social facts, it would be wrong to reduce the problem to the media issue.
Researchers from prestigious organizations do spread these types of messages. In a recent book (2004), devoted to social cohesion – note the audacity that pushes not only the author but also the publisher to allow himself this colonization enterprise whose symmetric would consist for a sociologist to claim to explain fluid mechanics or the course of celestial bodies using his theoretical models – and published by a prestigious publisher disseminating the writings of biology, the physicist Roehner gives examples of "social cement" or "backbone" of the social body based on "behaviors and reactions already well rooted in populations", that is to say related to their external and internal environment, and the form and nature of the group. In the book, analogies between human beings and schools of sardines or the atoms of an iron block facing a predator or an external shock, abound.
In any case, the argument of genetic proximity between primates has no more socio-anthropological value than our arguments on the symbolic or historical have value in the protocols of biology... In this case, it is up to socio-anthropologists (below the criticism of an overhanging epistemological nature) to establish the criteria for the validity of the statements of their discipline. Finally, we can make several reminders and try to put forward some avenues for a deepening in this perspective.

The point of view of a non-biological anthropology
Unless one adopts a philosophical point of view, the socio-anthropological posture that imposes itself on the reading of the Durkheimians, is the necessarily anthropocentric posture that establishes a radical qualitative difference between humanity and animality. Without this anti-sociobiological differentiation, there can be no field proper to anthropological sociology. This means defining what is properly human. For Durkheimians, it is institutions, as symbolic creations sedimented by social history and as sets of permanent innovations. Social memory in humans is external, not incorporated into genes as in animals.

The vectors of the colonization of the "territory of man"

It seems to us that the territory of Man must be defended from two points of view, diachronic and synchronic, because it is from these two points of view that it is threatened today. To extend these war metaphors – it is indeed a territorial conflict – we can say that the weapons of the NLSs are based on the processes or vectors that are amalgam, germinative temporality, and the environment ; the scientistic context of the whole favoring this colonization. There are therefore analog, dynamic and topical reasoning that favors the colonization of SHS by NLSs. Concretely, the figures of the analogy are multiple and take the path of interspecific comparison (ethology) or intra-specific : trans-historical and transcultural comparatism (in paleontology and prehistory) that would justify a single evolutionary lineage, which refers to time15. But, if contemporary experimentation with ancient tools allows fertile deductions (for example, indulging in the cutting of bifaces, throwing by propellant or the manufacture of huts out of bones allows objective observations and thus to increase knowledge on a strengthened ground), such a comparison is foolish regarding the behavior of animals, no animal having ever produced anything comparable to the oldest human artifacts. Moreover, ethology often conflates animal activities belonging to various species without asking whether these heterogeneous examples justify a rapprochement with humans16. These totalizations have to do with amalgamation ; they constitute weak arguments and an implicit admission of animal limitations (which one would like to compensate for by the number and effect of accumulation of evidence) because it is the association of capacities that distinguishes the most human and animal in quantitative terms and no longer only qualitatively. A basic ability found in humans, or a specific skill may exist in some animals ; but the problem we are dealing with here does not concern cervical possibilities, this way of reasoning does not fall within the scope of SHS. The figures of germinative temporality are used in paleontology and genetics to justify evolutionary morphological changes. The dynamics of social change are replaced by those of natural evolution. What changes is only explained by what by what is before and therefore was already there in germ : no ruptures, no political decisions. This is a common form of finalism also in SHS. But time can also be a pure "milieu" – with complex arborescences, dead-end paths or regressions – where facts become reality which time does not determine as such or that it does not shelter when the human capacities to participate in their history are accepted, as shown by authors as different as Aron (1938) and Gurvitch (1957).
Finally, the support on the generic idea of environment involves the use of the environment or physiology. Ecology and neurophysiology (which can be extended to neuropsychology) often assimilate what happens via the environment, either environmental or cervical, as generated by elements of this environment. However, the causes can be exogenous. It is not because the brain intervenes in the act of thinking that human thought has its exclusive seat there : without knowledge, without internalized cultural models, without external institutions, cervical activity would be without factors and without objectives other than the management of pure organic life.
By working only on the brain and its bodily ramifications, some neurobiologists forget that the brain is only a reflexive vector with the ability to create but always relying on external elements. This socio-anthropological evidence also concerns physical environments, often more related to contexts, to be considered as (more or less) restrictive, than as ecological determinants of social facts. In summary, the topical conditions of the environment or brain (what some call the external or internal nature) of man are not enough to explain its dynamics and even less its symbolism.
To be a socio-anthropologist today is therefore not to define the human being as a mammal, composed of hydrogen and oxygen at 80%, or as a set of atoms and electrons (which biologists, chemists and physicists respectively do, rightly so because we are objectively all this but we will leave them these definitions that belong to them) but as being able to symbolize and to fix these symbolizations historically, as Durkheim already said. In a text devoted to the materialist conception of history (1897, 248-49), he criticizes political and social Darwinism : "This simply consists in explaining the future of institutions by the principles and concepts that suffice to explain the zoological future. (...) This simplistic philosophy is thus accounted for by social evolution by causes that have nothing social, namely by the needs and appetites that are already found in animality. He goes on to say that "history does not have to go back to this hypothetical epoch, of which we cannot at present make any empirical representation. It begins only when a supernatural environment is given, however elementary it may be, for only then do social phenomena begin to appear." In another text from 1911, he specifies the symbolic specificity of the human : "Between man and animal there are, from the anatomical, physiological and psychological point of view, only differences of degrees ; And yet man has an eminent moral dignity, the animal has none. In relation to values, there is therefore an abyss between them. »
The social is therefore the artificial, the symbolic, the instituted ; in no way what is only organized biologically. It is only by evacuating the organicism of the 19th century, linked to the dominated culture of sociologists of the time in relation to biology, that sociology truly becomes itself : its proper object is the institutional domain. It is precisely because knowledge is part of a culture, that is external to individuals, that a human work is necessarily specific. What is the nature of the "unfathomable abyss" that distinguishes, according to Leroi-Gouhran, the act of making by the first humans from the logical sequences to which the most intelligent animals can indulge ? Competence is external in humans, materialized in the object and in the codes that interindividual learning is not enough to preserve, or to retain. Like a legend, a belief or an aesthetic representation, a typically human knowledge exists in the collective memory, in a defracted state. This is what distinguishes the human symbol from the elementary, partial and non-sedimented forms of animal "symbolism" (memory, education, immediate temporal projection, strategies, etc.).
This socio-anthropological position of principle is now contested not only by the NLS but also within the SHS itself. We will give here only one example among the most paradoxical since it concerns an author wishing to be part of the Maussian tradition of the French School of Sociology. In a recent article (Caillé, 2008), one of the main French representatives of anti-utilitarianism relies on "recent discoveries in ethology and neurobiology" to show that, from the theses of Darwin and those of the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson or Dawkins about his "egoistic gene", to recent results of NLS, the animal world knows calculus, intra-specific violence and interest as well as altruistic behaviors.
If we can, in fact, only note the existence of actions comparable to utilitarian strategies in animal species with the most acquired skills (mammals such as elephants or dolphins and some primates), to say that the altruistic behavior of animals is the result of recent discoveries is to forget a whole part of the history of thought. Indeed, Espinas (as we have seen above), Durkheim (1893, 173-74) or Bouglé, but also authors such as Fouillée (1905, pp. 201-206) when he defends a "biological morality", or evolutionist anarchists such as Reclus (1898) or
Kropotkine (1902) in his work on mutual aid, self-help, and many others, have insisted on this point. But basing altruism in nature was also common among utilitarians such as Mill (1861-63, p.134), who defined concern for defense of others and inter-human sympathy as instincts. The idea of natural empathy or animal solidarity is therefore very old but the rediscovery, through the various recent examples of ethological work which I have given, of this principle is a double-edged sword because it is then the concept of institution that is fundamentally questioned.
For Caillé (pp. 215, 205-207), who finally takes up holistic sociobiological reasoning by confusing animals and humans in the common magma of "interactions of individuals" or "acquired social competence", delousing is part of "the alliance and of the instituted social relationship" and Darwin would have said "finally already everything in 1838" (p. 220)... Would the gift, as a guarantor of social cohesion, therefore be natural to its principle ? This is the opposite of the "Durkheimaussian" message, which is nevertheless displayed, and even in a process of construction, under the guise of anti-utilitarianism, of an anti-socio-anthropology.
However, there is no shortage of arguments in favour of a human cultural specificity, including among those who have come closest to biology or who belong to this discipline. As Morin (1973, 2001) expresses it in a beautiful, deliberately paradoxical formulation, "human nature" is its culture, its history sedimenting symbolic forms. This is why Neanderthals, considered genetically as a species distinct from ours in biology, belong to the same human race for the socio-anthropologist and nothing differentiates them from other human beings from the point of view of their ability to institute their world and therefore to distinguish themselves radically from any form of animality. In the same way as polygenism, the persistent belief that there are different human races, is not scientifically validated in biology, the biological multi-speciesism separating human species has no socio-anthropological meaning or validity. The biologist Ruffié even indicated that, on the contrary, humans have stopped the course of biological evolution by diversification (cf. 1976, pp. 253, 258). It is enough to think in terms of institutions to establish an anthropological homology among all human beings, without hierarchy, and to stop confusing animality and humanity. Evoking sets of institutional creations to explain history is probably the best parade that reason can oppose to creationism that rejects biological evolutionism on the basis of unscientific criteria. It is still necessary, for this, to renounce the animalization of man and to calmly take stock of the excesses of social Darwinism.

Some examples of socio-anthropological reasoning

To pray in the secrecy of one’s intimacy, to indulge in a routine act of charity, to manifest a political opposition to a type of organization of production by saving materials or energies and avoiding polluting in each ordinary activity, etc., correspond to real imaginaries having nothing in common with the fact (moreover rational) of foreseeing that it will be necessary to take the keys of one’s home to go down to buy bread for the next meal. We differ here from Schütz (1943-59) who amalgamates the two types of mental operations. The first refers to the symbolic, whose "seat" is social, extracorporeal, while the second relates to images whose only possible seat is the own body, the brain of the individual. One will remain in consciousness after the realization of the activities related to it while the other will disappear, by definition, from thought with and by the realization of the act itself. This permanence of symbols as they defract and refract in personal consciousnesses, in the face of the evanescence of images related to purely individual projects or aims and disappearing with the very realization of the act that had motivated them, makes it possible to define the dividing line between the two forms, institutional / personal of the imaginary in ordinary life. It is therefore appropriate to reserve the term imaginary for the realm of the symbolic and to use that of imagined act corresponding to personal dispositions to evoke individual aims and plans (Juan, 1995 and 1999). The first is characteristic of humans alone ; The second is common to all mammals and some other animal species (octopus and geese or crows for example according to ethologists). The first form of the imaginary is properly human because it corresponds to a instituted symbolicity outside beings and their immediate relations ; the collective memory that preserves it is external, including hovering in the myths and legends of an oral culture. To the second form of symbolicity that we will call sequential and logical intelligence can access many animals with their instruments ; it does not necessarily assume the existence of a historically instituted society. Taking a stone from the ground to break a nut, or grabbing a branch or straw to access food otherwise inaccessible (which monkeys know how to do very well, including in nature) for example belongs to this form of intelligence. Here we hold a fundamental anthropological difference that is not only a "shift" (Guille-Escuret, 1994) ; it is an absolute qualitative partition that also distinguishes us from highly organized gregarious insects that carry out specialized tasks by genera (ants, termites, etc.). This anthropological rupture does not preclude the observation of very objective physiological identities and similarities in terms of skills that can be treated in terms of continuity. Thus, Descola (2006, 252) shows that "the cognitive differences between humans and animals are now only of degree", which does not prevent him from writing that "it is indeed reflexive consciousness, subjectivity, the power to signify, the mastery of symbols" that constitute the fundamental distinction between humans and non-humans (p. 243). In other words, if cognitive abilities and certain interactions are similar on both sides, everything symbolic remains specifically human. A biface of several hundreds, thousands of years BC, requires knowledge of the places, sometimes distant, where to find the right stones (whereas animals rather look for what they need in their immediate environment, with the exception of some mammals). Then, the strike that detaches the fragment to be taken away, then the careful cutting. Once the tip is obtained, it will be associated with another sequence of manufacturing projects, that of the spear. Let’s move on to the sequence of the thruster which is still exogenous to the previous two. It is this transitivity of rank two or "multitransitivity" and this association of distinct instruments and tools that is typically human because it presupposes an instituted knowledge, which cannot be entirely transmitted in the educational interaction that some animals know. It was this association who made the individualist Tarde (1898, 122) – a paradoxical author criticizing evolutionism but remaining within the framework of organicism – hold an institutionalist reasoning in that technical innovations contain each other and accumulate : the invention of the chariot, the iron, the steam motive power, the piston, the rail, although appearing foreign to each other, have "solidarized in that of the locomotive". Even if, it seems, Neanderthals differ genetically from the "Homo-sapiens" and would be our strain, we cannot accept such a partition that must be left to geneticist biologists. Because Neanderthals have all the distinctive characteristics of the human being and are "endowed with reason", as prehistorians have abundantly demonstrated.
Let us repeat that the criteria of socio-anthropology are not those of genetics and that its unity requires bringing together all categories of humans who have existed in time and space, without exclusion of any kind. So let’s talk not about species but about human kind (in the generic, non-biological sense of the word gender) or about the anthropological unity of a biologically plural humanity, quite simply. Moreover, for a de-ideologized and radical evolutionism, all human branches are attached to the same strain which differs, at a certain moment in prehistory, from the common trunk with apes. Without entering the debates of paleontologists, our one and only criterion for defining this temporal limit of our field, of the beginning of humanity in accordance with the idea of rupture, is what could prove an instituted symbolicity. In this respect, the application of the Maussian principle of equating man with the tool has become insufficient. We know that the first tools found near hominids date back more or less 2.7 million years. Were they simply picked up, as some monkeys do, which would still be a simple sequential symbolicity ? The fact that we found several of this period and about the same form could encourage us to humanize them but as long as we can not prove the transitivity character of a tool used to manufacture others, a fortiori its multitransitive composite properties assuming combinations (later, spear thrusters, bows with arrows), it is difficult to prove its institutional, and therefore human, character. However, chopping tools found in Africa in several places are considered to be the first bifaces made by percussion and date back more than two million years. But monkeys can use several combined objects for their practical operations (according to Pascal Picq), but not make, in nature, tools in the sense given above which is distinct from the instrument. Some prehistorians then evoke human proximity by the composite character of stones found, imprudently named tools under the pretext that they are used... Let us return one last time to this important point. What are the animal sequences and the properly human combinations or transitivities ? The oldest chopping tool was made using found objects and then it has been preserved. The most complex animal sequence involving objects is limited to combining found elements to work directly a fruit or nut also found or let us repeat, to extract (twigs), and not only in mammals, but also in birds. We can even go so far as to consider that chimpanzees make instruments : twigs by removing (with their fingers or lips) the leaves of a broken branch, which is therefore chosen. The sequence of operations manifests a logical sequence, a reasoning, moreover, attested by all kinds of experimental situations of logical intelligence exercises carried out in the laboratory. But no symbolic transitivity or preservation of externalities appears there. No symbolic transitivity because the animal never uses a tool made to make another : these are instruments in the best case. Moreover, in the animal world, there is no conservation of collective memory outside of direct educational learning and genetic baggage, because the animal throws away its instrument after use to possibly make others next time, depending on the circumstances.
What is institutional and therefore human is the combination of symbolic transitivity and collective memory preservation. Even if only one of these two characters is usually enough to distinguish the human from the animal, it is their combination that creates an institution as a symbolic whole sedimented by history. Outsourced knowledge remains outside the body or the educational relationship ; it is therefore not reducible to a cognitive fact or a conative skill. This is why the arguments of NLSs (or some Darwinian psychologists) in terms of animal abilities or behaviors are most often irrelevant. For the socio-anthropologist, the institution is this transitive symbolism preserved by the collective memory, therefore historically sedimented. With the chopping-tools, the homo-habilis already accessed, more than 2.5 million years ago, these two functions while no animal has ever done it naturally.


While some animals use instruments, they do not make any tools to produce objects ; they cannot therefore institute their world, even if we know that certain modes of communication are complex in certain animal species, especially aquatic ones. By making and preserving their tools, humans accelerate the process of accumulating their "protocols of ordinary life", in particular by improving their food energy efficiency and thus make their brain get bigger ; this will promote higher levels of complexity and symbolicity, for example in Neanderthals, several hundred thousand years BC, who knows religious or aesthetic practices and makes complex tools, long before Homo-sapiens. It is therefore the human who has modified his brain himself by making it grow (whereas monkeys have not done so for two or three million years) ; No natural evolution in this totally cultural fact whose consequence is observed at the physiological level. Humans historically produce their internal nature – including genetic, otherwise we cannot explain the recent acceleration of the production of new genes in humans (which biologists have demonstrated) – and their external nature, that is to say their environment, which they largely destroy, moreover and well before the advent of industrial capitalism, by all kinds of artificializations. The animal is acted by its nature (its instincts), even if it can add educational snippets and logical reasoning to this instinct, and adapts to its environment, even if it can also destroy it (locusts or elephants can ransack a forest) but without artificializations. It is precisely as fully human and on the base of his anthropocentric posture that Man can protect endangered animals, defend ecology, not from an ambiguous zoophilia with often religious accents (neo-animism of the most radical movements for the defense of animals). By rejecting the symbolism and autonomy of institutional sediments against the organic or the natural, social Darwinism or sociobiology simply deny all the epistemological foundations of socio-anthropology.

These few considerations allowed us to draw a clear boundary between the five above mentioned biologies and socio-anthropology. They constitute the resources of a decolonization of SHS, the only condition for establishing serene relations of interdisciplinary studies between our disciplines and the NLS. This interdisciplinarity of equals is necessary at a time when humanity is accelerating its destruction of the very conditions of life despite a planetary awareness that remains largely at the level of words and principles. Conversely, naturalizing social facts leads to the disempowerment of humans and the depoliticization of many problems, especially those related to biodiversity.
Reforming evolutionism in a realistic way in order to build a socio-anthropology finally freed from biology is an essential task that falls to all SHS and that makes it possible to distinguish, for example, historical anthropology17 from biological paleontology. In humanity, unlike animality or vegetability subject to continuities, the essential is symbolic and out of immediacy, in a history punctuated by ruptures. Between the first anthropological rupture with animality and the second great historical break of the Neolithic, it took nearly three million years. Since then, the ruptures follow one another at an accelerating pace because the historicity of humanity is increasing. To leave sociobiology is to think about ruptures, to seek political decisions but also the strategies of actors who have instituted or prevented this or that choice of society alongside the logics and linear or continuous mechanisms that exist otherwise. But that’s a whole other story...

Salvador JUAN (Professor Emeritus at the University of Caen-Normandie)


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"A similar version of this text was published in :

L’Homme & la Société 2011/3 (n° 181), pages 33 to 48"