ON JANUARY 4, 1860 Charles Darwin wrote to a friend: "I have received in a Manchester newspaper rather a good squib, showing that I have proved 'might is right' and therefore Napolean is right, and every cheating tradesman is also right."

More than a century later, attempts to apply Darwin's theory to the larger social order continue unabated. Evolution, rather than being simply a scientific explanation for our origins, has "progressed" to the status of a modern myth.

In place of original sin we now have the doctrine of "the beast in man": our inherent tendency towards aggression inherited from our "killer ape" ancestors. In place of the Biblical account of creation, we have scenarios of how the first human appeared on earth in the form of an advanced primate. There is also a place for the devil in evolutionary theory. "Our descent, then, is the origin of our evil passions!" wrote Darwin in his notebooks. "The Devil under the form of Baboon is our grandfather."

Our mythologizing of evolution has even resulted in courtroom confrontations. Fifty-six years after the Scopes "monkey trial," we witnessed, earlier this year in Seagraves vs. the State of California , an effort on the part of the Creation-Science Research Center to have evolution defined as a "secular religion."

But while evolution may be a religion to some people, to others it's nothing less than a dangerous heresy:

"This monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornotherapy, pollution, poisoning, and proliferation of crimes of all types," commented a state judge on the subject of the Segraves case.

Genes, Mind, and Culture successfully avoids both hysteria and extravagant claims about evolution. It presents a powerful, compelling and vigorously reasoned "attempt to trace development all the way from genes through the mind to culture." The authors are Charles J. Lumsden, a physicist, and Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (On Human Nature , 1979) and biologist with a special interest in evolution and social systems.

The "central piece" of the Lumsden-Wilson argument concerns the development of the individual human mind. They cite a vast amount of research refuting the traditional view that the mind develops principally as a result of environmental influences. According to these authors, the mind develops in accordance with a series of biological "constraints."

The infant, for instance, is born with the capacity to differentiate color, discriminate background noise from pure tone, even recognize and prefer the human face over all competing visual stimuli. These capacities aren't taught but, instead, are "hard wired" within the human brain as "genetically determined procedures that direct the assembly of the mind."

Further along occur more complex behaviors which are "under the control of genetically determined core rules of cognition and decision." Mother-infant bonding; non-verbal communication; phobias; incest avoidant behaviors; the selection of certain symbols and metaphors -- all occur, say Lumsden and Wilson, according to a series of "rules."

"Because of these rules, the mind is a system that tends to organize itself into certain forms in preference to others, while the combined action of many minds seems to lead to the emergence of patterns of culture that are statistically predictable."

In short, our genes predispose our brains towards certain behaviors which, in the aggregate, create culture. The behavior of different individuals within the culture, in turn, determines their survivorship and reproductive capacity. Over all, "no sharp line can be drawn between genetic and cultural evolution"; hence, Lumsden and Wilson's term, "coevolution."

The implications of coevolution extend far beyond the transformation of a scientific theory into an explanation for why cultures develop as they do. No less is at stake than our understanding of human history.

Marxism, for instance, explains historical change in terms of economic process and class struggle -- both environmental variables capable of sudden, even revolutionary, modification. Followers of Marx have, for the most part, developed an image of human nature that is biologically unstructured and which places the principal emphasis on social and envirommental forces. To Lumsden and Wilson this view is contradicted by "the discovery of rich structure in the operation of the brain and in the development of social behavior, much of which has little to do with external socioeconomic forces."

To these authors, a Marxist version of, say, genetics, developmental psychology, or ethology is impossible in the absence of a biological underpinning capable of explaining individual and, ultimately, cultural development.

"In our opinion, the key error of Marxism as a scientific theory of history is its tendency to conceive of human nature as relatively unstructured and largely or wholly the product of external socioeconomic forces."

Genes, Mind, and Culture can be guaranteed to stir up a spirited controversy among those who equate any biological constraints on human potential as a limitation on our "freedom." Nor is the matter of purely academic interest. Emotions run deep on this subject as Wilson can personally attest. At a scientific meeting here in Washington several years ago, Wilson encountered a group of "students" who responded to his "biologizing" of social sciences by emptying a pitcher of icy water over his head!

In The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, philosopher Peter Singer achieves with skill and humor what Wilson's attackers could only clumsily attempt with their ice water assault. His analysis is a "dash of cold water" to Wilson's claim that absolutely everything can be explained according to sociobiology. Singer, in the style of a master chess tactician, directs his forces on his opponents' weakest flank: sociobiology's failure to account for individual human values and ethics.

"No science is ever going to discover ethical premises inherent in our biological nature, because ethical premises are not the kind of thinking discovered by scientific investigation. We do not find our ethical premises in our biological nature, or under cabbages either. We choose them."

A little further along, Singer makes his most telling point: that our individual freedom and survival may depend as much on our contrariness as on anything we can learn about either the human brain or culture.

"Explanations of what ethics is, whether anthropological or sociobiological, cannot tell me what I ought to do because I am not bound to follow the conventions of my society, or to foster the survival of my genes."

Singer's book serves as a moderating influence on Lumsden's and Wilson's overestimation of the importance of processes over which we have little personal control. Rather than concentrating on biological "constraints," Singer urges us to formulate, via our capacity for reason, "a rational challenge to blind evolution." Singer makes a good case that in the final analysis it is human reason that will provide the best guarantee against us ever becoming "the slaves of our genes."