Biological Theory

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 52–68 | Cite as

Task Allocation and the Logic of Research Questions: How Ants Challenge Human Sociobiology

  • Ryan KetchamEmail author
Original Article


After biologist Deborah Gordon made a series of experimental discoveries in the 1980s, she argued that a change in terminology regarding the division of labor among castes of specialists was needed. Gordon’s investigations of the interactive effects of ants in colonies led her to believe that the established approach Edward O. Wilson had pioneered was biased in a way that made some alternative candidate adaptive explanations invisible. Gordon argued that this was because the term “division of labor” implied a division among specialists that was unwarranted, and proposed “task allocation” as a better description that did not bias research against the alternative causes she had discovered. Gordon’s empirical findings and theoretical proposals also vindicate the initial critics of Wilson’s human sociobiology who have been dismissed as political radicals, but her proposals have been widely misunderstood by many contemporary behavioral ecologists. The terminological and methodological confusions rampant in contemporary discourse can be clarified by applying a framework developed by Elisabeth Lloyd involving an analysis of the constraints imposed by different research questions. Applying this framework will show how the methodological problems involving description raised by the initial critics of Wilson’s human sociobiology extended to his analysis of ants, indicating that they were not challenging Wilson’s naturalistic approach to the study of human evolution, but rather his methods. It will also show how confusion over how Gordon’s proposed research questions have been conflated with the possible answers she has argued ought to be investigated. This in turn will clarify contemporary disputes over her proposal to abandon the term “division of labor.”


Adaptationism Caste Division of labor Logic of research questions Proximate Response threshold Sociobiology Task allocation Ultimate 



I would especially like to thank Elisabeth Lloyd, Deborah Gordon, Michael Wade, and Colin Allen for all their insightful suggestions, and Rick Gawne, whose critical comments have been extremely helpful.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History and Philosophy of Science and MedicineIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA

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