Table of Contents

1. Introduction and History

2. Definitions and Examples

3. Critics of Sociobiology

4. Relevant Links

5. References

Introduction and History

Sociobiology is a controversial field that studies how natural selection, previously used only to explain the evolution of physical characteristics, shapes behavior in animals and humans. The theory has contributed to the understanding of certain evolutionary traits in the animal world, such as how instinctive parental behaviors of animals are determined in part by the need to ensure survival of offspring. A related aspect of sociobiology deals with altruistic behaviors in general. In a theory called kin selection, animals that behave altruistically would have their genes passed on by helping relatives who share their genes survive to reproduce, just as they would by producing offspring of their own.

The theory first gained attention when Edward O.Wilson of Harvard published Sociobiology (1975); it became controversial when he proposed extending the theory to explain human social behavior and psychological patterns. Critics charged that this application of sociobiology was a form of genetic determinism and that it failed to take into account the complexity of human behavior and the impact of the environment on human development.
For a review of Wilson's Book: Click here! Or to buy Wilson's book: Click here!

Edward O. Wilson

However the roots of sociobiology are older. See Pre-Wilson Sociobiology Information

Scientists have recently discovered individual genes in laboratory worms that influence social behavior, such as gregarious feeding habits. Continued research of this kind, into what has been called the "molecular biology of social behavior, is likely to provide new insights into sociobiology.

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Definitions and Examples

---- An Encyclopaedia Britannica Definition of Sociobiology.

---- C. George Boeree outlines examples of Sociobiology:

Some main points:


1. There are certain patterns of behavior found in most, if not all, animals, involving the promotion of oneself, the search for status or raw power, epitomized in aggression. Let's call this the assertive instinct.

2. There are other patterns of behavior found in, it seems, somewhat fewer species, involving care for someone other than oneself, epitomized in a mother's care for her babies. Let's call this the nurturant instinct.


We should find healthiness attractive and, conversely, illness unattractive. We should find "perfect" features attractive, and deformities unattractive. We should find vitality, strength, vigor attractive. We should find "averageness" attractive -not too short, not too tall, not too fat, not too thin.... Quasimodo, for all his decency, had a hard time getting dates.

We are also attracted to certain people for less "logical" reasons, such as the degree to which they have strong masculine or feminine physical -- and behavioral -- characteristics. Women prefer men who are taller, with broad shoulders, a square jaw.... Men prefer women who are shorter than themselves, softer, rounder....

"Males tend to be selected for salesmanship; females for sales resistance." Females have a great deal invested in any act of copulation: the limited number of offspring she can carry, the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, the increased nutritional requirements, the danger from predators...all serve to make the choice of a mate an important consideration. Males, on the other hand, can and do walk away from the consequences of copulation.

Sociobiologists suggest that, while men find youth and physical form most attractive, women tend to look for indications of success, solvency, savoir-faire. It might not just be a cultural fluke that men bring flowers and candies, pay for dinner, and so forth.

Further evidence based on Waist to Hip ratios supports this.

Females "know" their children are theirs; males never know for sure. Genetically, it matters less if males "sow wild oats" or have many mates or are unfaithful. And, sure enough, most cultures are harder on women than men when it comes to adultery. In most cultures, in fact, it is the woman who moves into the husband's family (virilocality) -- as if to keep track of her comings and goings.

From our culture's romantic view of love and marriage, it is interesting to note that in most cultures a failure to consummate a marriage is grounds for divorce or annulment. In our own culture, infertility and impotence are frequent causes of divorce. It seems reproduction is more important than we like to admit.


Sociobiologists go on to predict that mothers will care for their children more than fathers (they have more invested in them, and are more certain of their maternity); that older mothers will care more than younger mothers (they have fewer chances of further procreation); that we will be more solicitous of our children when we have few (or only one!) than when we have many; that we will increase our concern for our children as they get older (they have demonstrated their survival potential); and that we will tend to push our children into marriage and children of their own.


Care -- helping behavior -- is likely when it involves our children, parents, spouses, or other close relations. It is less and less likely when it involves cousins or unrelated neighbors. It is so unusual when it involves strangers or distant people of other cultures and races that we recall one story -- the good Samaritan -- nearly 2000 years after the fact.

Sociobiologists predict that helping decreases with kinship distance. In fact, it should occur only when the sacrifice you make is outweighed by the advantage that sacrifice provides the genes you share with those relations. The geneticist J. B. S. Haldane supposedly once put it this way: "I'd gladly give my life for three of my brothers, five of my nephews, nine of my cousins...." This is called kin selection. Altruism based on genetic selfishness!

Reciprocal altruism: some animals help any member of their on species, with the instinctual "understanding" that they may be the beneficiaries the next time they need help themselves. It has been suggested that people engage in a more sophisticated form of reciprocal altruism, shared only with a few of the more advanced creatures of the world. Here you would be willing to sacrifice for someone else if it is understood that that specific other will do the same for you, or reciprocate in some other way, "tit for tat." Clearly, this requires the ability to recognize individuals and to recall debts!


Aggression is found most often in circumstances of competition over a resource. This resource must be important for "fitness," that is, relevant to one's individual or reproductive success. Further, it must be restricted in abundance: Animals do not, for example, compete for air, but may for water, food, nesting areas, and mates.

Aggression in Human Beings

Sociobiologists predict that animals that are poorly equipped for aggression are unlikely to have developed surrender signals. Man, they say, is one of these creatures. But we developed technology, including a technology of destruction, and this technology "evolved" much too quickly for our biological evolution to provide us with compensating restraints on aggression. Experience tells us that guns are more dangerous than knives, though both are efficient killing machines, because a gun is faster and provides us with less time to consider our act rationally -- the only restraint left us.

Another problem is that we humans live not just in the "real" world, but in a symbolic world as well. A lion gets aggressive about something here-and-now. People get aggressive about things that happened long ago, things that they think will happen some day in the future, or things that they've been told is happening. Likewise, a lion gets angry about pretty physical things. Calling him a name won't bother him a bit.

A lion gets angry about something that happens to him personally. We get angry about things that happen to our cars, our houses, our communities, our nations, our religious establishments, and so on. We have extended our "ego's" way beyond our selves and our loved ones to all sorts of symbolic things. The response to flag burning is only the latest example.

We can be frustrated when an on-going behavior is interrupted (trying tripping someone); we can be frustrated by a delay of goal achievement (cut in front of someone on line at the supermarket); or we can be frustrated by the disruption of ordinary behavior patterns (cause me to forego my morning coffee). We are flexible creatures. But the frustration must be experienced as unjust or as a sign of rejection for it to lead to aggression.

(Notes from C. George Boeree .)

Steve Schlarb has some interesting points to make about 'Sociobiology and Human Concepts'.

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Critics of Sociobiology

Philip Kitcher has some strong views on Sociobiology. These views however are also critiqued. R.C. Lewontin states that sociobiology takes the scientific theory of evolution and mutates it into a pseudoscience. Strong stuff!

Kitcher's views are that the basis of sociobiology is not reasonable and that the theories used are misleading and do not take into account other strong evidence against sociobiology.

Tom Bethell puts forward an extensive argument in "Against Sociobiology". He argues that the specific evolutionary basis of sociobiology is not believable ie that Darwinism is untrue. He outlines the controversy surrounding the release of Edward Wilson's writing, and the various leaders of opposition to sociobiology.

A Christian point of view on sociobiology is taken by Raymond Bohlin of Probe Ministries in his writing "Sociobiology: Evolution, Genes and Morality". He says "Sociobiology explores the biological basis of all social behavior, including morality. You should care because sociobiologists are claiming that all moral and religious systems, including Christianity, exist simply because they help promote the survival and reproduction of the group. These sociobiologists, otherwise known as evolutionary ethicists, claim to be able to explain the existence of every major world religion or belief system, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and even Marxism and secular humanism, in terms of natural selection and evolution".

This of course is a problem as these religions are based around Creationism! Bohlin puts forward two paradoxes, four foundational principles of sociobiology, and then goes on to suggest some common ground Christianity and Sociobiology. These are all supported by Scripture references. Another paper referenced in his current work is Raymond Bohlin's "Sociobiology: Cloned from the Gene Cult" - this would make interesting reading!

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Relevant Links

---- has an extensive list of relative material to sociobiology

---- International Sociobiology Institute who are "dedicated to the understanding of human behavior in an evolutionary context."

---- Sociobiology Sanitized, a paper by Val Dusek on evolutionary psychology and gene selection.

---- A page of links to related sites

---- Research done at Oxford University using Sociobiological principles

---- Research done at University of St. Andrews

---- An interview with Edward O. Wilson

---- Wilson's Ladder, the basic principles that sociobiology is based upon

---- Original scientific papers on the subject

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Bronwyn Wildbore
175202 Assignment 2, 2001