on January 12, 2005
Dr. Wilson's "Sociobiology," together with "The Insect Societies" and "On Human Nature" (that three volume set is essential to any thinking man's library) is sufficient to challenge and focus any perspective on Evolution and Society. These volumes, even after 30 yrs., simply do not allow themselves to be ignored. Someone without both concentration and some technical background will have a tough time with "Sociobiology." Dr. Wilson presents a very detailed argument, quite reminescent of "Insect Societies." That said, the writing style is engaging and clearly directed at the non-professional reader. The Point: I gave copies of all three volumes to my children when they left home for the university.
on April 2, 2004
Having been a science major, this book at times reminded me of reading a biology textbook. At other times though, the author does use his literary skills and story telling ability and keeping things humourous; especially when he tells of the murder, deception, treachery, intrigue and chemical warfare of his beloved ants.
There is A LOT of theory in this book. He will typically describe an organisms behavior or behavioral trends and then desrcibe the competing hypothoses for these trends, phenomena or divergance from these typical trends.
Like I said though, this book is technical. Don't attempt reading it unless you have completed 2 courses of undergrad biology and calculus, as well as chemisty (most of the chemicals used by ants and the like involve simple organic compounds I was a chem major myself.)
In other words, this is not like On Human Nature or Journey to the Ants: This is more like a 3rd or 4th year advanced biology course textbook.
on June 9, 2000
Sociobiology at Age 25 by Steve Sailer National Review 6/19/2000
Great fiction does not grow obsolete. Nor in it's own way does great propaganda. In contrast, truly important scientific books render themselves obsolete by opening new fields for subsequent scholars to elaborate. Edward O. Wilson's 1975 landmark Sociobiology, which introduced neo-Darwinism to the public--and which has now been reissued to mark its 25th anniversary--is just such a book. Vast yet coherent, Sociobiology demonstrated in rigorous detail how Darwinian selection molded the various ways in which all animals--from the lowly corals to the social insects to the highest primates--compete and cooperate with others of their own species.
Outraging the leftists who dominated academia, Wilson suggested numerous analogies between animal and human societies. While men have drawn such parallels since long before Aesop, Wilson's command of natural history and the power of neo-Darwinian theory in unifying this vast body of knowledge lent credibility to his grand ambition to reduce social science to a branch of biology, just as, Wilson argued, biology could ultimately be reduced to chemistry and chemistry to physics. .
Tom Wolfe has lauded Wilson as "the new Darwin," but that's somewhat overstating the case. Wilson is more the workaholic synthesist who brought to wide awareness the insights of even more original but lesser-known sociobiologists like the manic-depressive Robert Trivers and the late English genius William D. Hamilton. It was Hamilton who launched the neo-Darwinian era in 1964 with his theory of "kin selection," which mathematically answered a question that had long nagged Darwin: Why do social creatures, whether ants or humans, tend to be nepotistic? Why do we sacrifice for our children and even for our more distant relatives? Hamilton showed that acting altruistically toward your kin can be in your genes' self-interest even when it's not in your own. Richard Dawkins, another sociobiologist inspired by Hamilton, popularized this insight in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene.
Only the last of Sociobiology's 26 chapters is devoted solely to human societies, yet it blazed a trail that many others followed. In recent years, this genre has become wildly popular with readers of serious nonfiction books. Amazon.com lists 416 titles under "sociobiology" and 1,218 under "human evolution." While Wilson's archenemy, the Marxist media hound Stephen Jay Gould, has largely been reduced to negativity and obfuscation, many others have responded gallantly to Sociobiology's challenge. Among the most enjoyable introductions to neo-Darwinism are The Third Chimpanzee by the bracing Jared Diamond and How the Mind Works by the entertaining Steven Pinker. Matt Ridley's Thatcherite perspective adds rigor to The Red Queen and The Origin of Virtue. Robert Wright's neoliberal The Moral Animal is a good read but sometimes tries to make Darwinism sound like a beta release of Clintonism.
Despite the success of neo-Darwinism in answering some fundamental questions about human behavior and in attracting many of the best minds of our time, it has not been terribly popular with either left or right. Ironically, while the religious right futilely attacks Darwin's theory of what we evolved from, the left clamps down upon Darwin's theory of what we evolved to. The left has long denounced sociobiological research for validating what conservatives have assumed all along: that human nature--with its sex differences and its stress on individual, family, and ethnic self-interest--is an innate heritage, not a blank slate that can be wiped clean by speech codes, sensitivity workshops, and re-education camps.
Not that the left hasn't tried: Stalin shipped his Darwinists to the Gulag. In the politically correct West, evolution-oriented scientists haven't been murdered. Yet Wilson had a bucket of ice water poured on his head, IQ scientist Arthur Jensen needed a bodyguard, the police investigated racial difference scholar J.P. Rushton for six months, the U. of Edinburgh fired IQ researcher Chris Brand despite 26 years of tenure, and a mob of protestors beat up Hans Eysenck, Britain's most prominent psychologist.
Wilson's orthodox Darwinian sociobiology made it countless enemies in academia. Centrist anthropologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides accordingly re-launched sociobiology under the neutral name of "evolutionary psychology." Pronouncing themselves the truest True Believers in equality, Tooby & Cosmides portrayed human nature as almost monolithically uniform, and proclaimed that evolutionary psychology should only study human similarities.
But while egalitarianism served as a useful cover story for infiltrating neo-Darwinism into academia, it proved a largely useless methodology for learning about humanity. Why? Because knowledge consists of contrasts. To learn much about human nature, we need to look for patterns of similarities and differences among humans. Ironically, therefore, evolutionary psychology has become primarily the study of sex differences.
You might think that conservatives would give sociobiology a sympathetic hearing, if only because anything Steven Jay Gould abhors can't be all bad. And, indeed, many rightwing heavyweights like James Q. Wilson (The Moral Sense), Francis Fukuyama (The Great Disruption), and Charles Murray ("Deeper into the Brain," NR, January 24, 2000) have increasingly built their worldviews upon a Darwinian plinth. Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full is The Great Human Biodiversity Novel.
This is a natural evolution for American conservatism. After all, Darwin himself was crucially inspired by the free market economics of conservative icon Adam Smith. And as Pope John Paul II's endorsement of Darwinism demonstrated, the theory of natural selection is reasonably compatible with the main creeds in the Judeo-Christian tradition, except for the kind of ultra-literalist fundamentalism that makes a fetish out of the universe being created in 4004 B.C.
Having shot itself in the foot over Galileo, the Roman Catholic has wisely learned not to bet its prestige on one side of a scientific controversy. Science works best with theories that are falsifiable, religion with beliefs that aren't. Creationism, an extremely easily falsified theory, just makes religion in general look stupid. Similarly, when conservatives are excessively solicitous of the feelings of Creationists, they end up looking dim, too. Worse, anti-Darwinism keeps conservatives from noticing that neo-Darwinian science is corroborating and extending much of the conservative world-view. It's time to wake up and realize: we're winning. # # #
Steve Sailer is a columnist for VDARE.com and an Adjunct Fellow of the Hudson Institute.
on June 21, 2010
This book is, to my mind, the most important single book on social behavior in animals and humans, edging out Darwin's The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), as well as Maynard Smith's Evolution and the Theory of Games (1982). Only 30 of the book's 575 pages are devoted to Homo sapiens, but this is the part I am interested in, and the part I will discuss in this review.
I recently reread Wilson's Sociobiology because I had only a vague memory of what exactly he said about human sociobiology, but numerous writers alluded to the crudeness and inaccuracy of Wilson's analysis. It is well known that Wilson's sociobiology of our species was bitterly critiqued by liberals and Marxists for its "reductionism," and "biological determinism." It is well known that sociobiology has shed these criticisms in recent years, but some have alleged that the radical's critique of Wilson's early contribution to human sociobiology is, regretfully, well-deserved.
To my surprise, upon rereading I found this charge to be quite without merit. We may know much more about human sociobiology today than a third of a century ago, but Wilson's general exposition is virtually flawless. Wilson's central point is that human genetic development has created a species that enjoys a plasticity of social organization orders of magnitude more flexible than that of other species. Human genes, so to speak, liberate us for a panorama of cultural life-worlds. Reductionist this is not. Genetic determinist this is not. Wilson speculates that genes promoting flexibility in social behavior are strongly selected on the individual level, but he follows Darwin in speculating that group selection may have been important in making us who we are.
Of course, Wilson decisively rejects the "tabula rasa" view that the human mind can be successfully indoctrinated into any arbitrary cultural system (the devout wish of the social engineers of the political left and right)."Although the genes have given away most of their sovereignty," he asserts, "they maintain a certain amount of influence in at least the behavioral qualities that underlie variations between cultures. Moderately high heritability has been documented in introversion-extroversion measures... neuroticism... depression, and the tendency toward certain forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia." (p. 550) Wilson suggest that the field of "anthropological genetics" could lead us to a valid model of the biological foundations of human nature. Wilson describes two widely disparate methods of anthropological genetics. The first uses laboratory experiments to identify the individual units of human behavior, for instance Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs and George Homans' behavioral moral theory. The second is phylogenetic analysis, in which we compare and contrast humans with other related species. At the time Sociobiology was written, this method was popularized by Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, and others. Wilson is (rightly) skeptical of this body of research, preferring to derive genetic predispositions by establishing "the lowest taxonomic level at which each character shows significant intertaxon variation." (p. 551)
"Human societies have effloresced to levels of extreme complexity because their members have the intelligence and flexibility to play role of virtually any degree of specification, and to switch them as the occasion demands." (p554) In sociological theory, Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons had developed socialization theories in which individuals internalize social norms, and thus become "indoctrinated" with values that lead them to behave prosocially even when it is not in their material interest to do so. Wilson attributes this idea to Campbell (1972), and discusses the possibility that group selection is involved in this sophisticated aspect of human psychology. This, of course, has become a major theme in contemporary sociobiology.
"Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility," says Wilson, "that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized." (p. 562) Wilson's discussion of this issue is incisive and nuanced. Today we would say simply that human ethics is a central aspect of human evolution, and that morality is the product of a gene-culture coevolutionary dynamic that must be studied in a purely scientific manner. Wilson clearly understands that human culture sets the stage for human genetic evolution just as much as the converse.
In sum, I could find no hint of the reductionism and biological determinism that critiques have charged permeates Wilson's treatment of human sociality. Rather, I find a sophisticated and nuanced analysis that includes most of the theoretical tools that were to be developed over the succeeding four decades. Wilson's judgment here is deeply moderate and considered, leading me to believe that his bitter critics simply recoiled at the reasonable suggestion that there are biological foundations to human behavior and morality, and hence limits to the extent that humans can be indoctrinated into extreme anti-humanistic ideologies. The true enemies of human freedom are those who yearn for a system of totalizing culture that is capable of eliminating individual will and reducing people to cogsS in an immense social machine. Probably such enemies of freedom cannot succeed in the long run, but they certainly have the capacity to ruin the lives of millions in the attempt.
on May 26, 2002
Wilson really is one of the "twentieth centuries greatest thinkers." This is a dense and demanding publication requiring a scientifically literate audience. It covers basic concepts from altruism, selfishness, and spite; including communication, aggression, social roles, sex, and parenting from "invertebrates" to vertebrates.
Now, in 2007, this is really more of a 'classic'. For intro students, I'd first recommend getting your footing with "Animal Behavior" by Alcock, and *then progressing into more technically written publications like this one.
on April 2, 2000
The `new' edition of Sociobiology could not be more of a disappointment. The original version (1975) remains a landmark work and it's importance both to biology and to social science can hardly be exaggerated. The theoretical framework and the masterful scholarship contained in the original are nothing short of astonishing. Which makes the silver edition all the more a travesty. For a literary work it would be permissible to republish a work in its original form. This is not the case for a work of science. The original work touches on practically every subject of relevance to biology. And since it's publication advances have been made on every single front. And yet the work has not been updated. The last chapter on humans and their role in the world of sociobiology was at once the most controversial and least well supported of the entire book. Since 1975 the work on human sociobiology has been proceeding at a brisk pace, generating, not only books, research articles and edited tomes but whole journals dedicated to the topic. The inclusion of such research would greatly enhance not only the work itself but also the standing of sociobiology as a viable framework for understanding human behavior. Lamentably, all new research has been wantonly excluded. It is simply scandalous to republish the work, essentially unaltered from the original under the misguided denotation of `new'. In science 25 years is an eternity. Republishing this work is not like releasing a second edition of The Selfish Gene or The Descent of Man unaltered. It is more like releasing an encyclopedia 25 years later without making any updates whatsoever. What was once a splendid work, now re-released turns out looking, cliched, trite and unforgivably out-dated. As far as I can see, the only reason to publish a work on science is to promote new knowledge and this edition can make no such claim. Interested readers would do just as well to save their money and buy an old edition of Sociobiology for a quarter of the price.