This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 08 table of contents.


In 1975, a Harvard biologist who specialized in the study of ants—Edward O. Wilson—proposed a new discipline to be called sociobiology. It would focus on the biological and evolutionary underpinnings of social behavior. Wilson wrote a book titled Sociobiology in which he proposed genetic explanations of many human social behaviors.

Wilson's book, and his proposed field of study, was immediately attacked by social scientists, including psychologists. Critics like anthropologist Sherry L. Washburn (1978) argued that Wilson's ideas were oversimplified and dangerous.

What was sociobiology supposed to be? What was Washburn's objection to sociobiology?

Postulating genes to account for behaviors is a major feature of the application of sociobiology to the interpretation of human behaviors. For example, in the last chapter of Sociobiology (Wilson, 1975), genes are postulated to account for more than 25 behavioral situations. There are conformer genes, genes for flexibility, genes predisposing to cultural differences...

... The logic [used by sociologists] is that there must be altruistic genes to account for altruistic acts-just as we learned many years ago that if there are criminal acts there must be criminal genes.

Washburn was alluding to the dark days of eugenics, a pre-WW II theory that was embraced by the Nazis and used to justify the extermination of "undesirable elements" such as criminals, Jews, homosexuals, and mentally retarded people…all on the assumption that they were genetically inferior.

Eugenics first proposed in the 1880s by Sir Francis Galton and was a straightforward but simple-minded extrapolation of Darwinian "survival of the fittest" ideas to the human race. Lack of fitness was equated with criminality, deviance from social norms, and race mixing. For a time, eugenics was endorsed at the highest levels of the British and U.S. governments, by people like Winston Churchill in Britain and President Calvin Coolidge in the United States. Washburn's reference to "criminal genes" in her critique of sociobiology was a reference to eugenics. The Nazi horrors illustrated where such a logic could lead.

What was eugenics and how did it relate to objections against sociobiology?

Related issues still arouse passion in the modern world. In 2007, the Surgeon General of the United States recommended that all pregnant women receive a simple new test for Down Syndrome. Parents of children with Down Syndrome, as well as adults with Down Syndrome, immediately protested that this amounted to a proposal for genocide, because many women would elect to terminate a pregnancy if a fetus tested postitive for Down Syndrome. Members of online discussion groups for autism and Asperger's Syndrome have similar reactions to proposals for genetic detection of autism, and the possibilty of identifying a gene for congenital deafness raises similar fears in the deaf community. Issues like this will not go away soon, because genetic testing is likely to become more precise in the future.

Ullica Segerstrike (2000) chronicled the "science wars" over sociobiology. She started as a critic of sociobiology in the 1970s, taking the side of many prominent scientists such as Washburn. Segerstrike did her doctoral thesis on the sociobiology controversy and continued to follow it over the following decades, attending scientific meetings and reading journal articles. After twenty-five years, Segerstrike concluded that, contrary to her expectations, the sociobiological perspective had "won." It had stimulated the formation of professional societies and journals reporting thousands of research programs, and its premises about the evolutionary roots of social behavior in humans were becoming widely accepted on the basis of sound research.

A major problem with Wilson's presentation of sociobiology was his tendency to refer in a shorthand way to "the gene" for a very specific trait or behavior. Not only Wilson but the whole field of genetics suffered from oversimplified public presentations of genetic research.

What problem did Wilson share with "the whole field of genetics"?

Over the last two decades, for example, there has been a steady stream of news about researchers discovering "the gene" that links people to diabetes, Alzheimer's, obesity, schizophrenia, depression and many other afflictions.

Yet most of those hard-wired gene-disease links—as many as 95 percent of them, according to one British study published in 2003— don't hold up to closer scrutiny. Instead, follow-up studies find that if there is any measurable genetic link to these common diseases, it results from the more complex interactions of many genes with one another, as well as with the environment. (Caruso, 2007)

If you examine that statement carefully, it does not say that 95% of the gene-disease links are false; it says that things always turn out to be more complex than implied by the headlines. True research findings of subtle genetic influences lead to falsely simplistic news reports implying that a single stretch of DNA is causing something to happen. Genetic influences are seldom that direct.

However, evolution does have an impact on the brain and behavior, including social behavior. The evolutionary perspective on social behavior is now taken for granted by most psychologists, and the field of evolutionary psychology is thriving. Only the label "sociobiology" itself became unpopular. In 1997 the journal Ethology and Sociobiology changed its name to Evolution and Human Behavior. Edward O. Wilson accused them of intellectual cowardice.

Wilson himself remained influential among psychologists. In 1999 he was the keynote speaker at the American Psychological Association convention a few months before New Years Day 2000. The convention addressed future trends, and it is no coincidence Wilson played a prominent role. He discussed his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), which urged the integration of all natural sciences, including biology, ethology, and psychology.

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