Sociobiology is a fairly recent development in biological thought that goes back to the 1940s. It made the headlines with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), which stresses both heredity and environment in species development.
During the 1970s there was an unspoken agreement in some areas of the Humanities that human beings were capable of anything, being born with a proverbial “blank slate” instead of with genetic variations. Many academics and activists, alike, believed we are all born the same, and that our environment shapes us. So, improve the environment, and we improve the species. All very simple.
However, more recent research into genetics suggests it’s not quite that simple. Today, most researchers embrace a “nature/nurture” paradigm.¹ But in the 1970s, Wilson questioned the idea of the blank slate and was physically attacked for doing so, along with facing much vocal criticism from professors and organized protest from activists.²
Sociobiology looks at social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. It has sparked debate over the well-documented altruistic behavior of some individual organisms. In a nutshell, altruistic individuals sacrifice their own fitness for that of another individual within the species, even to the point of death. Instead of accounting for this in the traditional way (as a sacrifice for the group), sociobiology believes the organism is genetically programmed to make a sacrifice that maximizes net benefit, even if the individual organism, itself, does not receive that benefit.
From an evolutionary standpoint, organisms are said to be biologically programmed to carry and reproduce genes. Some say the altruistic individual is behaving “selfishly'”(concerned with replicating its genes) because it seeks to transmit the highly similar genes of its kin. Complicated arguments have arisen to defend this view in light of the equally complicated realities of animal behavior.
Critics say that sociobiology reveals a selective use of data; they also question the inference of an abstract yet innate principle in which genes mechanistically reproduce themselves. Another critique of sociobiology centers on its generalizing from the insect and animal to the human world, a method that many would probably find interesting but limiting.
E. O. Wilson’s research and pedagogical methods sometimes leave something to be desired. In the animation above, we see him holding a living ant in a pair of pliers. He continues to forcibly probe the dying ant in order to squeeze liquid from its abdomen. This seems to be pretty strange and cruel behavior from an adult claiming to be fascinated by the ant world. For more incongruous images, see https://epages.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/saving-the-earth-with-unsavory-science/.
In a recent PBS video, Wilson likens an Alabama football game to an insect war, saying that the fanaticism and wild emotion of sport spectacles reveals a genetic desire to fight, kill and be victorious.
¹ Most still tend to ignore the possibility of “spiritual” factors, but that’s beyond the scope of this entry.
² We find a similar kind of “knee-jerk” reaction to anyone who now questions the idea of climate change from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Most are convinced it’s a net negative. Simply questioning this assertion usually makes the sparks fly. See for instance, the ludicrous combination of scientism and dogmatism on this topic at http://community.davidbowie.com.