Sociobiology
Jessica Tate &
Michael Misra
1929 - Current
Edward Wilson- Sociobiology and
Evolutionary Theory
• Most influential social thinker in the field of sociobiology
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Harvard professor for four decades
Has won two Pulitzer prizes
Father of biodiversity
Primarily a biologist and most of his work has been involved with
the examination of the social structure of ants
– He founded the field of sociobiology, a science that connects
biology to human social behavior
– Wilson’s contention that social behaviors have genetic
components has changed the study of human behavior and
generated plenty of controversy
– In 1996, twenty-five Most Influential Americans according to
Time magazine and has been identified as one of the 100 most
influential scientists of all time
Influences
• Ernst Mayr and his book Systematics and
the Origin of Species
– It was Wilson’s “bible.”
– Mayr strengthened Wilson’s attraction to the
study of biology and evolutionary sciences.
– When Wilson was attacked by media and
other colleagues for his sociobiological ideas,
Mayr was one of the few people who publicly
defended him and his studies.
New Direction
• Wilson argued
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role of learning was grossly overestimated by B.F. Skinner
(behaviorist)
– we must now press on in a new direction
• Sociobiologists
– “The human race is a product of evolution and that vast quantities of
information are passed on by our genes. It follows that genes as well
as environment play a role in society and that behavior has a
biological base” (Wallace and Wolf, 1999:383).
• Sociobiologists are not just genetic determinists who
believe that all human behaviors are rigidly controlled by
genes.
– Instead they argue that biological factors and genetic
influences place limits on the range of possible behaviors
(Wallace and Wolf, 1999).
Biological Reductionsim
• “The tendency to explain social
phenomena in terms of biological
causes such as physiology or
genes” (Kornblum, 1991:102).
– Specific genes cause specific
behaviors
• Ex. A specific gene causes criminal
behaviors
• Ex. A specific genes causes someone to
drink alcohol
Key concepts to understanding Wilson’s
Biological Theories
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Society- group of individuals belonging to the same species and organized
cooperatively. (reciprocal, cooperative communication)
Aggregation- a group of individuals of the same species, comprising more than just
a mated pair or a family, gathered in the same place but not internally organized or
engaged in cooperative behavior.
Colony-society of organisms which are highly integrated
Individual- any physically distinct organism
Group- a set of organisms belonging to the same species that remain together for
any period of time while interacting with one another to a much greater degree than
with organisms of other species
Population- a set of organisms belonging to the same species that occupy a clearly
delimited area at the same time.
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A species is a population or a set of populations within with the individuals are capable of
freely interbreeding under natural conditions.
Communication- action on the part of one organism or cell that alters adaptively the
probability pattern of behavior in another organism or cell
Coordination- interaction among units of a group so that the overall
efforts of the group is divided among the units without leadership being assumed by
any one of them
Hierarchy- the dominance of one member of a group over another
Regulation-the maintenance of one or more physical or biological variables at a
constant level.
Social Insects
• Ants, termites, and the highly organized bees and wasps
– These insects can be distinguished as a group by their
common possession of three traits
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Individuals of the same
species cooperate in caring for
the young
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There is a reproductive
division of labor
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Overlap of at least two generations
in life stages capable of
contributing to colony labor
(offspring assist parents)
Selfish Genes
• Not consciously selfish.
– Race goes on to those who behave in
ways that promote interests of their
genes.
• Thus the genes that are still in the race will
reproduce and for the other genes they are
no longer in the race and will not
reproduce.
Kin Selection
• Kin selection is an evolutionary
theory that proposes that people are
more likely to help those who are
blood relatives because it will
increase the odds of transferring
genes to future generations.
Altruism
• Members of families generally watch
out for one another and assist in
raising and nurturing the next
generation
– Primary behaviors of altruism
Thwarting of predators
Cooperative breeding
Food sharing (most altruistic)
Sociobiology &
the Human Species
• Biologists refer to such a lack of competition from other
species as ecological release
• Humans inherit a tendency to attain behavioral and social
structure. This inclination is shared by the human
population and can therefore be called human nature.
• Humans have free will and free choice, but the channels of
psychological development are imbedded very deep in
human genes.
• Understanding of the evolution of social behavior depends
on a full understanding of the population information,
including population growth rate, and the genetic structure
of the population
Controversy with Sociobiology
• When applied to human societies, sociobiology has
drawn severe criticism from both social scientists and
biologists (Kornblum, 1991:102)
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“Several critics said that Sociobiology would have been a great
book if it had not added the final chapter, the one on human
beings.”
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Marxists attacked sociobiology
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Social scientists wished he had never entered “their” domain
Just as the nature of ants creates colonies of queens, drones, workers,
and slaves, the nature of humans creates racism, sexism, patriotism,
wars, religion, and class exploitation. Wilson used this "revelation" to
argue that efforts to fight against racism, sexism, and imperialism go
against human nature and are thus exceedingly difficult, and to claim
that communism is unscientific and cannot work
Wilson believed social scientists misunderstood the context of
sociobiology
UPDATED definition of sociobiology “the systematic study of the
biological basis of all forms of social behavior, including sexual and
parental behavior, in all kinds of organisms including humans”
Sociologists
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View sociobiology as an
attempt “to legitimate aspects •
of human societies that people
wish to reform and to set limits
on how far you can change or
perfect people.
Sociologists argue that human
beings are essentially a
creature of cultural norms, and
biological universals extend no
further than basic activities
such as eating, excreting, and
sleeping
– Cultures are too diverse and
biology cannot explain much
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Sociologists recognize that
genes determine certain
characteristics such as skin
and eye color but do NOT
determine human behavior.
Sociobiologists
Wilson did recognize that
social sciences are far
more complex than the
hard science, but that
social scientists attempt
to oversimplify their
theories by basing them
on common sense, and
ignoring the findings of
psychology and biology.
– Argued that social
scientists have paid little
attention to the
foundations of human
nature
Biophilia and Biodiversity
• Biophilia- innately emotional
affiliation of human beings to other
living organisms
– Little evidence in support of biophilia
• Biodiversity- undisputed reality
Wilson’s Three Truths
• 1.) humanity is ultimately the product
of biological evolution
• 2.) diversity of life is the cradle and
greatest natural heritage of the
human species
• 3.) philosophy and religion make
little sense without taking into
account these first to concepts
Consilience
• Overwhelming criticism of Wilson is directed at
his reductionist attitude when explaining human
behavior
• Consilience means “jumping together” of
knowledge by linking the facts and fact-based
theory across disciplines to create a common
groundwork of explanation
– This means that social scientists are to abandon their
approach to the study of human behavior and embrace
the idea used by natural scientists: that specific genes
cause certain behaviors.
– Wilson believed that if sociology allows for the impact
of genes on behavior, a more valid scientific theory can
be created.
Evolutionary Theory
• Sociobiology falls within the
framework of evolutionary theoretical
thought
• Spencer made connections with
biology and sociology with the term
“survival of the fittest.”
– However focus was on culture not a
genetic emphasis
• Durkheim rejected biological
explanations of social behavior
Contemporary Sociobiology
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Everyday behaviors related to religion and morality are all said to stem
from our genes.
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Pierre van den Berghe- argues that the very reasons humans are “social”
is that we find sociability advantageous in reproducing and guaranteeing
the survival of our species
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Organisms help one another increase the likelihood of the survival of their
species
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Richard Machalek- all species are obviously quite distinctive, but that all
species confront the same basic problems of organizational structure and
regulation needed to guarantee survival
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Gerhard Lenski- argued that human society is influenced by biological
evolution, where genetic information is transmitted through he
reproduction of new organisms
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J. Richard Udry- gender differences have biological roots: women are
better suited to certain behaviors than are males, and vice versa.
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He is committed to integrating biological variables in the social sciences
Relevancy
• The question is whether human
behavior is a result of genetics
(nature), or the social environment
and the social learning process
(nurture), or some combination of
both?
– Sociologists = nurture
– Sociobioloists = nature
Examples of controversy of
Sociobiologists vs Sociologists
• Is alcoholism a disease?
– Sociobiologists- If it is a disease, then a gene is
responsible for someone being labeled an alcoholic
• Number of people in US still insist that alcoholism is a
disease caused by a unidentified gene
– Not enough evidence to prove
– Sociologists- it is the social environment that
individuals learn to drink, and how drinking is
reinforced will dictate whether the drinking behavior
continues or not.
• Wilson believes that racism, sexism, ageism, are
caused by genes and not learned by social
environment
– In response, Sociologists believe that values,
languages, attitudes, and culture are all learned
phenomena
Importance & Contributions
• Importance on human society and about future
humanity
• Wilson argued that humans should respect the
environment and the diverse species within it
• He believes that the next great period of
extinction is pending, and this time it will be due
to not some environmental catastrophe, but to
the actions of human beings
Limitations
• Wilson’s version of sociobiology is fatally flawed
in its most basic methods
• Comparison and inference patterns between
highly diverse animal species.
Contemporary Examples
• Barnes et al.
Contemporary Examples
• “Throughout the past 30 or 40 years most
criminologists couldn’t say the word ‘genetics’
without spitting,” Terrie E. Moffit, a behavioral
scientist at Duke University, said. “Today the most
compelling modern theories of crime and violence
weave social and biological themes together.”
• Researchers estimate that at least 100 studies
have shown that genes play a role in crimes.
Contemporary Examples
• Everyone in the field agrees there is no “crime
gene.” What most researchers are looking for are
inherited traits that are linked to aggression and
antisocial behaviors, which may in turn lead to
violent crime. Don’t expect anyone to discover
how someone’s DNA might identify the next
Bernard L. Madoff.
• And that is precisely the problem, said Troy
Duster, a professor of sociology and bioethics at
New York University, who argues that studies
examine not the remorseless and rapacious
behavior of the rich and powerful, but the behavior
of disadvantaged minorities. “
Contemporary Examples
• Everyone in the field agrees there is no “crime
gene.” What most researchers are looking for are
inherited traits that are linked to aggression and
antisocial behaviors, which may in turn lead to
violent crime. Don’t expect anyone to discover
how someone’s DNA might identify the next
Bernard L. Madoff.
• And that is precisely the problem, said Troy
Duster, a professor of sociology and bioethics at
New York University, who argues that studies
examine not the remorseless and rapacious
behavior of the rich and powerful, but the behavior
of disadvantaged minorities. “
Contemporary Examples
• But a predisposition is not destiny. “Knowing
something is inherited does not IN ANY WAY tell
us anything about whether changing the
environment will improve it,” Ms. Moffitt wrote in
an e-mail. “For example, self-control is a lot like
height, it varies widely in the human population,
and it is highly heritable, but if an effective
intervention such as better nutrition is applied to
the whole population, then everyone gets taller
than the last generation.”
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DNA - Department of Sociology