Sociobiology is the “systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behaviour including sexual and parental behaviour, in all kinds of organisms, including humans”1. It stems from earlier evolutionary theories such as Darwinism. This theory has been praised by many for bridging the gap between natural science and social science, However it has also been criticised by some for many different reasons one of which being its linking of animal behaviour and human behaviour particularly as it uses the same terminology to describe phenomena across the different species.
Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin are just two evolutionary biologists whose theories are considered to have been the starting point for the sociobiology theory. Charles Darwin in particular is seen as the starting point of the theory of genetic evolution and of what he called natural selection. During his work he established that all species have descended over time from a common ancestry and that the changes that have developed come from a process of natural selection where stronger traits are passed on and the weaker traits die out. Richard Dawkins followed the same theory and popularized this gene-centered view of evolution.
Edward Wilson was one of the earliest proponents of the sociobiology theory. He followed on from earlier evolutionary biologists and believed that every aspect of human beings could be explained through biology and that the idea of free will was merely an illusion. He believed that genetics are more influential to an individual than culture or society; a view he was harshly criticised for; mainly for it’s dismissal of free will and cultural influence. Wilson firstly used sociobiology and evolutionary theories to explain the behaviour of social insects and then to understand the social behaviour of other animals including human beings.
Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins are two of the most famous evolutionary biologists that argue for a gene-centered view of evolution. Darwin proposed his theory of natural selection which he believed was the key mechanism of evolution and is where certain traits become more or less popular in a species due to the effects that trait has on the survival or reproduction of the individual. As the variety of genes in a particular species makes it easier for particular individuals to survive and reproduce which means certain genes and therefore traits and aspect of the species become more popular in the population as it’s a stronger trait in that particular environment. For example, the peppered moths exists in both light and dark environments in the UK, however during the industrial revolution the dark peppered moth become the more prominent of the two as the trees that the moths rest in became darkened by the soot which gave the dark coloured moths an advantage over there predators and led to them having a greater chance of survival and in just a few generations the majority of moths were dark. Richard Dawkins followed a similar view and is most known for his popularization of the gene-centered view of evolution particularly in his book “The Selfish Gene” where he described the starting of living species as merely survival machines which were “passive receptacles for the genes providing little more than walls to protect them from the chemical warfare of their rivals and the ravages of accidental molecular bombardment”2. He believed that the different stands of types of species such as plants and animals had then branched out from this common ancestry to become their own species but that they were still a collection of particular genes and this is what makes them what they are and in effect is what humans what we are, the only different according to Dawkins between us and other species is our genes. However theses theories have been criticised by many particularly for it’s emphasis on individuals human beings and all other living beings being merely carriers of our genetic make-up, which some took as an insult implying that humans are brainwashed by consciously self-concerned genes. Both Darwin and Dawkins put forward the view that human beings have developed over the years and that this is through genetic changes and a process of natural selection. They both worked to prove that human beings are merely shells for our genes, and that it’s these that make us what we are, a view that Wilson then extended into the sociobiology theory.
Wilson as earlier said was one of the earliest proponents of the sociobiology theory, and many believe founded sociobiology as a new scientific field. He accepted that there is a certain amount of cultural influence placed on human beings but believed that genetics have a larger influence and can explain most aspects of human beings both physical and behavioural. Many of these aspects of human beings have changed over the years and one example he gave was the human skeleton as he said; “His erect posture and wholly bipedal locomotion are not even approached in other primates that occasionally walk on their hind legs, including the gorilla and chimpanzee. The skeleton has been profoundly modified to accommodate the change”3. Wilson said these changes were due to kin select and the changing and altering of humans genetic make up as certain traits and aspects have been chosen over weaker aspects which has led to them dying out. Wilson believed that ethics should be a biological matter and not be a matter for philosophers to discuss, at least temporarily. As as George Breur pointed out if Wilson is correct “Might not a person too who believes that he or she is deciding freely in reality be merely following instinct”4, Wilson thought so and believed that social behaviour of human beings were instinct and a part of our genes, one example of this he gave was what he called reciprocal altruism. Sharing is a trait very rare among animals and humans are believed to be the only group which has this trait and it is one of the strongest social traits and the reason why human beings have an economy as Wilson explained; “His high intelligence and symbolising ability makes true barter possible. Intelligence also permits the exchanges to be stretched out in time, converting them into acts of reciprocal altruism”5. This was not the only difference between animals and human beings that Wilson made, he also pointed out that channels of human mental development are circuitous and variable unlike animal genes which specify a single trait. This means human genes prescribe the capacity to develop a certain array of traits. He explained how in certain traits the array is limited and can be altered only be strenuous training whereas in others the array is vast and the outcome can be easily influence. An example he gave of a restricted behaviour is handedness in his book “On Human Nature” he said; “Each person is biologically predisposed to be either left- or right-handed”6. Therefore the genetic-make up of an individual predetermines what traits they have and how far they can develop these traits. Wilson believed that by considering the accomplishments of human beings over the years, and how much human beings have changed it shows a social world too complex to be constructed by a random learning process in one individuals lifetime, instead as human beings have changed so has our genetic make-up and it is this that has been passed onto offspring and has led to human beings permanently changing over the years. However although many people have praised Wilson’s theory he has been criticised much in the same way as Darwin and Dawkins, and one of the main criticisms of his theory is that he relies too much on kin selection and does not give enough consideration to other possible explanations for human development. He has also been criticised for his dismissal of free will and for overlooking the influence that culture and society has on an individual. It’s his dismissal of the free will that he has been particularly criticised for as this also brings into question morality, and whether or not a person has a choice in what they do and in turn can they be held to blame for what they do.
With the evidence of the development of human beings both physically and behaviourally it is clear that human beings are essentially their genetic make up. Our genes are what makes us who we are as human beings as they define what traits we have and how far we can develop said traits and with many it is hard to go again these predetermined limits without strenuous training. Using Darwin’s theory of evolution it can be seen how particular traits have developed over the years and weaker traits have disappeared, which means the genetic make up of human beings has developed and changed which explains how human beings themselves have changed so drastically over the years, a change which is hard to explain through culture alone and which defies self analysis.
George Breur, Sociobiology and the Human Dimension (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989)
Edward Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1977)
Edward Wilson, “What is Sociobiology?” in Sociobiology and Human Nature (Josey-Bass
Publishers, California, 1978)
Edward Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard University Press, London, 1978)
1Edward Wilson, “What is Sociobiology?” in Sociobiology and Human Nature (Josey-Bass Publishers, California, 1978) p 2
2Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989) p 46
3Edward Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1977) p 547
4George Breur, Sociobiology and the Human Dimension (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982) p 228
5Edward Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1977) p
6Edward Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard University Press, London, 1978) p 57