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Sociobiology is a branch of biology that attempts to explain animal behavior and social structures in terms of evolutionary advantage or strategy. It uses techniques from ethology, evolution and population genetics.

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 do not believe that animal or human behaviour can be explained entirely by "cultural" or "environmental" factors. They believe that in order to fully understand behaviour it must be analyzed with some focus on its evolutionary origins. If Darwin's theory of evolution is accepted, then evolved behavioural mechanisms that allowed an organism a greater chance of surviving and 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 the 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 behaviors. 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.

A vivid example of altruism is when a serviceman throws himself onto a hand grenade to save his buddies. A genetic trait encouranging this "altruism" may help his society expand its gene pool at the expense of societies that lack this trait. So, this genetic trait will survive and increase even though it destroys individuals

Colin Turnbull found another supporting example (described in The Mountain People) about an African tribe, the "Ik," which he said so lacked altruism that the society lost battles with neighboring tribes.

E.O. Wilson proved 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.

Also, temperamental traits may be shaped by the physical environment, and these can select the possible social structures. For example, some researchers claim that human groups evolved in the Earth's frost-zones have significantly more cerebral folding and a higher ratio of frontal lobe to anterior lobe brain mass, relative to groups evolved in temperate or tropical zones. These researchers claim that these characteristics correlate with abstract intelligence. The theory is that these areas demanded more technological adaptiveness to survive cruel winters. Thus groups with ancestry from these areas may accept more abstract forms of social institutions. A simple counterargument to this rationale is that the ecosystems in warmer climates are more diverse and complex than in colder ones, and similar technological adaptiveness would be just as useful for the people there to fully exploit the thousands of species of plants and animals they come into contact with.

In fact, there is no empiric evidence of superior technical capabilities of people from northernmost areas, as many inventions crucial to the development of complex societies, such as agriculture, writing, metallurgy, wheel, gunpowder etc., originated in warm or hot climates, as did the complex societies themselves. The peoples living in colder climates have adopted all these technologies from warmer parts of the world, and all the arctic peoples, such as the Inuit and Native Americans of the arctic, who, according to this theory, should be the most adapted to make technical inventions and build complex societies, remained both technically and socially at simple stages until modern times when they became into contact with southern cultures.

It has been suggested, for example by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, that the environmental constraints affecting the development of mental abilities of individuals and the evolution of culture are fundamentally different. By these theories the evolution of technology and societies can be better explained by the overall ecology and geography of the different parts of the world than by individual properties of the humans which the societies in those areas consisted of.


The application of sociobiology to humans was immediately controversial. Many people, such as Stephen Jay Gould, and R.C 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 informing conclusions. Many of the sloppier early conslusions were attacked. Sociobiologists were accused of being "super" adaptationistss, 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 behviour, considering past failures, raged.

Wilson and his admirers countered these criticisms by saying that Wilson had no political agenda, and if he had one it was certainly not authoritarian. (Wilson is an outspoken environmentalist.) 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 Robert Wright and Anne Campbell have used sociobiology to argue quite separate points. Noam Chomsky suprised 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.

His defenders also claimed that the critics had greatly overstated the degree of Wilson's biological determinism. Wilson claimed he had never meant to imply that what is, ought to be.

Science and Sociobiology

Twin studies suggest that behavioral 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 behavior is first explained as a sociobiological hypothesis by finding an evolutionarily stable strategy that matches the observed behavior. 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 favor.

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. Usual political argument is, that even if racism was adaptive, it 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 critism 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 above mentioned theories of adaptive nature of racism. Also, it is widely known in scientific community that when certain outcome of reseach is expected or preferred by the researchers, they 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.

Well-known sociobiologists:

Related articles and books: External references:
  1. The Sociobiology of Sociopathy, Mealey, 1995
  2. Speak, Darwinists! Interviews with leading sociobiologists.