Sociobiology is the study of the extent to which natural selection might affect population-level social and cultural norms and behaviors.
In 1859, Darwin published his theory of evolution that described how inherited changes in living forms (morphology) and function (physiology) provide either advantages or disadvantages for the reproductive success of individuals. In turn, individual forms and functions affect behaviors that lead to complex social structures and cultures that are, in this sense, inherited.
Since ants do not teach their young ones how to form and maintain social structure, we may justifiably deduce that their social structure is inherited. Out of his study of ants, entomologist Edward O. Wilson conceived the idea that non-insect species might also transfer highly developed social organization and divisions of labor to some degree. To what degree might mammals, including humans, also inherit sociability, social structures, and the foundation of culture?
A study of social heritability requires at least the disciplines of biology and psychology to disentangle the contributions of nature versus nurture to social organization. Over the nature-nurture tension, scientists and scholars argued and condemned one another throughout the 1960s. Finally, in 1975, a new field of sociobiology was born with the publication of Wilson’s book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Wilson 1975).
When published, Sociobiology immediately unleashed controversy. It seemed to suggest social determinism – that humans were born into fixed social roles. Sociobiology was also blamed for justifying eugenics, denying human social mobility, and diminishing the role of nurture against the more powerful in development adaptation, and evolution. Marxists condemned sociobiology as maintaining the status quo of societal inequality (Alcock 2001). Yet, paradoxically, sociobiology was seen to support Marxist collectivism over personal expression.
The cultural milieu of 1970s America was particularly inhospitable to sociobiology. After three decades of the Vietnam War, mistrust of institutions was at an all-time high. Baby boomers, the largest and best-educated generation in US history, were busy exploring vitalism, essentialism, human potential, self-expression, and personal wholeness. Personal and professional attacks on Wilson escalated from all quarters, including from fellow evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould. Controversies of the 1960’s and 1970’s of that time continue to conjure a distrust for sociobiology today. Even so, today heritable behavior and social structure are universally accepted as being key features of evolutionary theory.
The Problem of Altruism
By 1960, Darwin’s theory of evolution had been around for just over a century, but a science of evolution – data gathered to test hypotheses – was still nonexistent. As a result, descriptions and predictions remained matters of belief and opinion.
One seeming invalidating threat to the theory was the phenomenon of altruism. A genetic-linked altruism – members of a species sacrificing longevity and reproductive opportunities for the benefit of the whole species – should be “bred out” of the gene pool within only a few generations, according to the strictest interpretation of natural selection. One or few individuals caring for non-familial members of the same species directly contradicts natural selection through survival of the fittest.
Darwin himself had once planted the seeds of his theory’s destruction by conceding that widespread and persistent altruism would disprove evolution. By 1962, well-respected biologists V.C. Wynne-Edwards (1962) and George Williams (1966) agreed that the theory of evolution was either completely wrong or required serious revision. Most thought leaders of the time fell in line with them.
The Tinbergen Framework
In 1963, animal behavior scientist (ethologist) Niko Tinbergen published a framework for studying behavior (Tinbergen 1963) by updating Aristotle’s fourth-century BCE four causes of being: material, formal, efficient, and final. Tinbergen’s framework identified the gaps in evolutionary science.
By contrast, phylogeny and adaptive value are ultimate questions – end results of the proximate causes. Ultimate questions refer to the application of structure, not their relative importance. For example, morphological change of a bird beak that enhances feeding will disrupt social structure by granting advantages in the competition for resources and redirect predator behavior, social standing, and survival strategies.
Sociobiology Completed the Tinbergen Model
Altruism was thus not an objection to evolutionary theory but rather was missing from the complete model required for valid scientific testing (Popper 1959/2002) of complex biological systems (Menke and Skrepnek 2009).
Actually, altruism fit the empty adaptive value quadrant to complete Tinbergen’s matrix. Altruism protects the survival of the species at the expense of individual survival resources. Today, the conclusion seems inevitable and obvious. Yet, before 1975, altruism threatened to invalidate one of humankind’s greatest intellectual accomplishments. Wilson’s book explained that altruism had a fundamental adaptive role in species survival. From that foundation, evolutionary theory could flourish as a set of testable notions. Wilson had laid the foundation for the first book on evolutionary psychology (Symons 1979), followed in 1992 by The Adapted Mind (Cosmides and Tooby 1992) that exposed the deep flaws in social science methodology’s emphasis on nurture over nature.
Sociobiology eventually incorporated the fields of biology, genetics, and neurobiology, alongside the original comparative and physiological psychologies (Alcock 2001). Indeed, E. O. Wilson predicted that the study of behavior would one day bridge cellular and population biology. After a rough start, sociobiology succeeded in forwarding the genetic bases of social and cultural behavior (Alcock 2001).
- Alcock, J. (2001). The triumph of sociobiology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19–136). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.Google Scholar
- Menke, J. M., &, Skrepnek, G. H. (2009). Complexity. In: Kattan M, ed. Encyclopedia of Medical Decision Making. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications, 144–149.Google Scholar
- Popper, K. (1959/2002). The logic of scientific discovery. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 1963(20), 410–433. Retrieved from http://www.esf.edu/efb/faculty/documents/tinbergen1963onethology.pdf.Google Scholar
- Williams G. C. (1966). Adaptation and natural selection: a critique of some current evolutionary thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology the new synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Wynne-Edwards, V. C. (1962). Animal dispersion in relation to social behavior. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.Google Scholar