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Sociobiology is a branch of biology and also sociology that attempts to throw light upon behavior in both human and non-human societies in terms of evolutionary advantage or strategy. It uses techniques from ethology, evolution, sociology, and population genetics. Within the study of humans, Sociobiology is closely linked to the field of evolutionary psychology.

The term "sociobiology" was coined by E. O. Wilson in 1975 with the publication of his famous book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Sociobiology attempts to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind social behaviors such as altruism, aggression, and nurturance. Wilson's book sparked one of the greatest scientific controversies of the 20th century.


Sociobiological theory

Sociobiologists believe that animal or human behaviour cannot be satifactorily explained entirely by "cultural" or "environmental" factors alone. They contend that in order to fully understand behaviour, it must be analyzed with some focus on its evolutionary origins. If Darwin's theory of natural selection is accepted, then inherited behavioural mechanisms that allowed an organism a greater chance of surviving and/or reproducing would be more likely to survive in present organisms. Many biologists accept that these sorts of behaviours are present in animal species. However, there is a great deal of controversy over the application of evolutionary models to human beings.

Sociobiologists are often interested in instinctive, or intuitive behaviour. They are interested in explaining the similarities, rather than the differences, between cultures. They are interested in how behaviours that are often taken for granted can be explained logically by examining selection pressures in the history of a species.

Individual genetic advantage fails to explain many social behaviours. However, genetic evolution appears to act on social groups. The mechanisms responsible for selection in groups are statistical and can be harder to grasp than those that determine individual selection. The analytical processes of sociobiology use paradigms and population statistics similar to actuarial analyses of the insurance industry or game theory.

Anthropologist Colin Turnbull found another supporting example (described in The Mountain People, 1972) about an African tribe, the "Ik," which he said so lacked altruism that the society lost battles with neighboring tribes. His controversial conclusions raised responses among anthropologists and journalists.

E.O. Wilson demonstrated through logic that altruists must reproduce their own altruistic genetic traits for altruism to survive. When altruists lavish their resources on nonaltruists at the expense of their own kind, the altruists tend to die out and the others tend to grow. In other words, altruists must practice the ethic that "charity begins at home."

An important concept in sociobiology is that temperamental traits within a gene pool and between gene pools exist in an ecological balance. Just as an expansion of a sheep population might encourage the expansion of a wolf population, an expansion of altruistic traits within a gene pool may also encourage the expansion of individuals with dependent traits.


The application of sociobiology to humans was immediately controversial. Many people, such as Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin feared that sociobiology was biologicially determinist. They feared that it would be used, as similar ideas had been in the past, to justify the status quo, entrench ruling elites, and legitimize authoritarian political programmes. They referred to social Darwinism and eugenics of the early 20th century, and to other more recent ideas, such as the IQ controversy of the early 1970s as cautionary tales in the use of evolutionary principles as applied to human society. They believed that Wilson was committing the naturalistic fallacy. Several academics opposed to Wilson's sociobiology created "The Sociobiology Study Group" to counter his ideas.

Other critics believed that Wilson's theories, as well as the works of subsequent admirers were not supported scientifically. Objections were raised to many of the ethnocentric assumptions of early sociobiology and to the sampling and mathematical methods used in forming conclusions. Many of the sloppier early conclusions were attacked. Sociobiologists were accused of being "super" adaptationists, believing that every aspect of morphology and behaviour must necessarily be an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation. Philosophical debates about the nature of scientific truth and the applicability of any human reason to a subject so complex as human behaviour, considering past failures, raged. Furthermore, from a philosophical standpoint, science is distinguished from other pseudo-sciences, such as alchemy or astrology, by the falsifiability of new scientific theories. Critics believe that proponents of sociobiology do not allow their theories to be falsifiable, rendering it a pseudo-science.

Wilson and his admirers countered these criticisms by denying that Wilson had a political agenda, still less a right wing one. They pointed out that Wilson had personally adopted a number of liberal political stances and had attracted progressive sympathy for his outspoken environmentalism. They argued that as scientists they had a duty to uncover the "truth" whether that was politically correct or not. They argued that sociobiology does not necessarily lead to any particular political ideology as many critics implied. Many subsequent sociobiologists such as Robert Wright and Anne Campbell have used sociobiology to argue quite separate points. Noam Chomsky surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals need to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society. They needed to know what human needs were in order to build a better society.

Wilson's defenders also claimed that the critics had greatly overstated the degree of his biological determinism. Wilson's claims that he had never meant to imply what ought to be, only what is the case are supported by his writings, which are descriptive, not prescriptive.

(MacDonald 1998) argues the leading opponents of sociobiology and genetic behavior research self-identified as ethnically Jewish, which created a scientific conflict of interest in their opposition to sociobiology and genetic behavior research due to fears that these fields could give rise to anti-Semitism. The connection between sociobiology and anti-Semitism is argued in (Lerner 1992) for which Lewontin wrote the foreword. MacDonald says of this book:

In the preface, Lerner cites as intellectual influences virtually the entire list of predominantly Jewish developmental psychobiologists and anti-sociobiologists mentioned above, including Gottleib, Gould, Kamin, Lewontin, Rose, Schneirla (who was not Jewish), and Tobach.

Science and sociobiology

Twin studies suggest that behavioural traits such as creativity, extroversion and aggressiveness are between 45% to 75% genetic. Intelligence is said by some to be about 80% genetic after one matures. Others, such as R. C Lewontin, reject the idea of 'dividing' environment and heredity in such an artificial way.

Here's how scientific sociobiology usually proceeds: A social behaviour is first explained as a sociobiological hypothesis by finding an evolutionarily stable strategy that matches the observed behaviour. Stability can be difficult to prove, but usually, a well-formed strategy will predict gene frequencies. The hypothesis can be confirmed by establishing a correlation between the gene frequencies predicted by the strategy, and those expressed in a population. Measurement of genes and gene-frequencies can also be problematic, because a simple statistical correlation can be open to charges of circularity. Circularity can occur if the measurement of gene frequency indirectly uses the same measurements that describe the strategy. Though difficult, this overall process finds favour.

As a successful example, altruism between social insects and litter-mates was first satisfactorily explained by these means, and it was correlated to the degree of genome shared by the altruists, as predicted. Another successful example was a quantitative description of infanticide by male harem-mating animals when the alpha male is displaced. Female infanticide and fetal resorption are active areas of study. In general, females with more bearing opportunities may value offspring less. Also, females may arrange bearing opportunities to maximize the food and protection from mates.

Criminality is actively under study, but extremely controversial. There are persuasive arguments that in some uncivilized environments criminal behavior might be adaptive [1]. Some authorities say that capital punishment may be the traditional way to weed criminal traits from the gene pool.

Some types of sociobiological results could justify mass oppression of innocent human beings. Most people therefore find them very suspect. For example, Dr. Norman Hall wrote an article "Zoological Subspecies in Man" (Mankind Quarterly, 1960) that argued that "racism" actually exists in most mammalian species, because racial groups within mammalian species (such as moose, rats, and reindeer) tend to compete for space and fight rather than mate and form offspring. Hence, "racism" could have an instinctive component in humans as well as other mammalian species. Further, Sir Arthur Keith (in A New Theory of Evolution) said that "racism" could be adaptive because it enables groups with superior genetic characteristics to inbreed and preserve genetic advantages. If these arguments are right, racism might be adaptive.

Such theories are bound to draw fire, both on political and scientific grounds. The usual political argument is that even if racism were adaptive, that still wouldn't make it ethically acceptable, because the ethical considerations should be based on the harm racism causes for those who are the target of it. Scientific criticism of this kind of research usually centers on pointing out that these theories often include only those aspects of the processes they are dealing with which can best be used to come to "politically preferred" conclusions. For example, including the complete genetic dynamics of in- and outbreeding might lead to completely different conclusions in the above-mentioned theories of the adaptive nature of racism. Also, it is widely known in the scientific community that when a certain outcome of research is expected or preferred by the researchers, researchers are often likely to subconsciously incorpororate the bias into their interpretation of the results. Therefore, any research which has serious political implications should be met with rigorous criticism, and not least by the researchers themselves. In other words, in order to make good science, it would be necessary for the scientists themselves to be highly aware and critical of their own biases, and this kind of self-criticism is often conspiciously absent from these controversial studies.

Sociobiology must be distinguished from memetics. In sociobiology the evolving entities are genes, while in memetics they are memes. Sociobiology is concerned with the biological basis of human behaviours, while memetics treats humans as products not only of biological evolution, but of cultural evolution also.

See also

Well-known sociobiologists:


  • "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis" by Dr. Edward Wilson;
  • "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker
  • "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins
  • p.20-48
  • Richard M. Lerner (1992). Final Solutions: Biology, Prejudice, and Genocide. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-00793-1.

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Last updated: 10-15-2005 07:08:56
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