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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.
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on July 8, 2000
I have felt for years that this is probably the best single reference on behavioural ecology up through 1975 & actively seek out used copies to give my students, so it is nice to see a relatively cheap re-print. SOCIOBIOLOGY has a massive Lit. Cited (up to date of original publication) and contains all the really useful bits of Wilson & Bossert's very useful PRIMER OF POPULATION BIOLOGY. It also has some lovely examples of pioneering studies in behavioural ecology that in some cases have been taken to very exciting "next levels" over the past quarter century & in other cases still lie fallow. Wilson's style is readable and I still feel that this book makes a good foundation block for a personal library, but it is essential that one gets more recent stuff as well, including both the critics and the elaborators. This is the beginning only.
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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.
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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. 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 and an Adjunct Fellow of the Hudson Institute.
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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.
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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.
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Edward Osborne Wilson (born 1929) is an American biologist, researcher, theorist, naturalist and author [he is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction]. He wrote in the Preface to this [1980] Abridged Edition, "Modern sociobiology is being created by gifted investigators who work primarily in population biology, [and] zoology... Because my training and research experience were fortuitously in the first two subjects... I decided to learn enough about vertebrates to attempt a new general summary. The result was Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975. The book met with substantial critical success... However, its large size... and necessarily high cost prevented it from reaching much of the large audience of lay readers and students who have become interested in sociobiology ... In the present version... I have trimmed the text down... This shortened version is intended to serve both as a textbook and a semi-popular general account of sociobiology. Because of the unusual amount of interest and commentary it has generated, I have left the final chapter on human social behavior... virtually intact." (Pg. v)

He says, "Sociobiology is defined as the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." (Pg. 10) He states, "These prime movers of social evolution can be divided into two broad categories of very diverse phenomena: phylogenetic inertia and ecological pressure." (Pg. 20)

He states in the first chapter, "This brings us to the central theoretical problem of sociobiology: how can altruism, which by definition reduces personal fitness, possibly evolve by natural selection? The answer is kinship: if the genes causing the altruism are shared by two organisms because of common descent, and if the altruistic act by one organism increases the joint contribution of these genes to the next generation, the propensity to altruism will spread through the gene pool. This occurs even though the altruist makes less of a solitary contribution to the gene pool as the price of its own solitary act." (Pg. 3)

He suggests, "social evolution is constrained and shaped by the necessities of sexual reproduction and not promoted by it. Courtship and sexual bonding are devices for overriding the antagonism that arises automatically from genetic differences induced by sexual reproduction." (Pg. 156) He argues, "There also exist several general conditions that promote polygamy still further. They include (1) local or seasonal superabundances of food, which permits the female to raise the young on her own and the male to go off in search of additional females; (2) the risk of heavy predation, which makes it advantageous for the family to divide; (3) and the existence of precocial young, which requires less parental care." (Pg. 165)

He suggests, "If there is any truth to this theory of innate moral pluralism, the requirement for an evolutionary approach to ethics is self-evident. It should also be clear that no single set of moral standards can be applied to all human populations, let alone all sex-age classes within each population. To impose a uniform code is therefore to create complex, intractable moral dilemmas---these, of course, are the current condition of mankind." (Pg. 288)

This is an excellent abridgement of Wilson's larger book, and will be very helpful to those wanting to get an idea of the field, without spending so much time reading the fuller book.
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on March 18, 2014
What Joseph Campbell is to theology and myths, Edward O. Wilson is to social issues and the biology of societies. I acquired this work some time ago and finally over the past 14 months I managed to complete it. This is more than a text it is an assurance that great minds have come to our attention and should never be ignored. Sociobiology is a massive work that helps us all to appreciate the social values and of "All God's Creatures." If I had grandchildren, they'd damn well read this !
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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.
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on May 8, 2016
Sociobiology – 'The Field That Dare Not Speak its Name’?
The reception of Edward O Wilson’s 'Sociobiology: the New Synthesis’ has, since its first publication, been divided. Among researchers in animal behaviour and related areas of biology, the reception was almost unanimously laudatory. Indeed, my '25th anniversary edition’ proudly proclaims on the back-cover that it was voted by officers and fellows of the Animal behaviour Society as the most important ever book on animal behaviour, supplanting even Darwin’s 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Other Animals’.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the university campus, in social science departments, the reception was, with few exceptions, overwhelmingly hostile. Indeed, 'sociobiology’ became something of a dirty word in the social sciences, and, indeed, ultimately throughout the academy, to such an extent that the word fell into disuse (save as a term of abuse) and was replaced by largely synonymous euphemisms such as 'Behavioural Ecology’ and ‘evolutionary psychology’.

Sociobiology thus became 'the field that dare not speak its name’.

Similarly, within the social sciences, even those researchers whose work carried on sociobiological approach in all but name (i.e. the self-styled 'evolutionary psychologists' and 'human behavioural ecologists’) almost invariably played down the extent of their debt to Wilson himself.

Thus, works on evolutionary psychology as often as not begin with disclaimers to the effect that the sociobiology of Wilson was, of course, crude and simplistic, and that their own approach is, of course, infinitely more sophisticated. Indeed, reading some recent works on evolutionary psychology, one could be forgiven for thinking that Darwinian approaches to understanding human behaviour began around 1989 with Tooby and Cosmides.

Defining Sociobiology
What then does the word sociobiology mean?

The task of defining the term 'sociobiology’ is made more difficult by the fact that, as we have seen, the term has, as we have seen, largely been abandoned by sociobiologists themselves. To the extent the term is still widely used today, it is usually employed as a derisive (and rather indiscriminate) term of abuse for any theory of human behaviour which is perceived as placing too great a weight on hereditary factors, including many areas of research only tangentially connected with sociobiology in its original sense (e.g. behaviour genetics).

The term sociobiology was not Wilson’s own coinage. However, Wilson was responsible for popularising it (or, perhaps, in the long-term, 'un-popularising’ it, given that, as we have seen, the term has largely fallen into disuse).

Wilson himself defined 'sociobiology’ as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour” (p4; p595).

Wilson can be forgiven for seeking to define the field of study in whose genesis he played such an important role in as broad terms as possible. However, as the term was understood by others, and indeed applied by Wilson himself, sociobiology came to be associated in particular with evolutionary/functional explanations for behaviour (i.e. one of Tinbergen’s famed Four Questions) rather than “the biological basis” of behaviour more generally.

Thus, the hormonal, neuroscientific, or genetic causes of behaviour are just as surely part of “the biological basis of behaviour” as are evolutionary explanations for behaviours. However, these lie outside the scope of sociobiology.

Instead, 'sociobiology’ focuses on the question of why certain behaviours evolved, and the evolutionary function they serve in maximising the inclusive fitness or reproductive success of the organism. The study of the proximate causes of behaviour (whether hormonal, neuroscientific, or genetic) are usually studied by different researchers, although in recent years there has been something of a synthesis.

Indeed, Wilson recognised as much when he observed how that “behavioral biology… is now emerging as two distinct disciplines centered on neurophysiology and on sociobiology” (p6).

In another sense, however, Wilson’s definition of the field was too narrow. Behavioural ecologists have come to study all forms of behaviour, not just 'social behaviour’ and there is no real division between those researchers studying the evolutionary function of social behaviours and those studying the evolutionary function of non-social behaviours. Thus, 'optimal foraging theory’ is a major subfield within behavioural ecology, the successor field to sociobiology, yet feeding behaviour may be 'social' in only the broadest sense.

Indeed, not just behaviour, but even some aspects of an organism’s physiology came to be regarded as within the purview of 'sociobiology’ (e.g. the evolution of the peacock’s tail).

A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read
'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ was a massive tome, numbering almost 700 pages.

As Wilson proudly proclaims in his glossary, 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ was “written with the broadest possible audience in mind and most of it can be read with full understanding by any intelligent person whether or not he or she has had any formal training in science” (p577). One suspects, however, that the size of the work was enough to put off most such readers long before they reached p577 where these words appear.

Indeed, I suspect that the size of the book was a factor in explaining the almost universally hostile reception sociobiology received among social scientists. Since the book was so mammoth, the vast majority of social scientists had neither the time nor the inclination to actually read it for themselves. Instead, their entire knowledge of the field was filtered through to them via the critiques of other social scientists, themselves overwhelmingly hostile to sociobiology, who presented a straw man caricature of what sociobiology actually represented. The fact that the field was so obviously misguided (as indeed it often was in the caricatured form it was presented to them) gave them a further reason not to bother wading through its 700 or so pages, especially since the vast majority seemed to be concerned with the behaviour of species other than humans, and hence, as they saw it, of little relevance to their own work.

For example, 'Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology’, in its entry for “sociobiology”, after a brief and rather inaccurate description of the field, concludes by presenting a reading list for those readers interesting in learning more about the approach. This amounts to a grand total of three books, the first apparently a feminist critique of the field, the second Marshall Sahlins’ short and wholly discredited critique, 'The Use and Abuse of Biology' (a pamphlet rather than a book) and the third 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself, in all its 700 page glory (Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology: p298). No prizes for guessing which of the three books the vast majority of students/researchers consulting this reference work opted to skip over when researching the topic for themselves.

It is thus a fair bet that the vast majority of social scientists, including some of those who criticised the field, and certainly the vast majority of the social scientists who read these critiques and accepted their conclusions uncritically, never actually got around to reading the book for themselves, at least not in all its entirety.

As a result, 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis' became (at least among social scientists and the educated public) a book much read about, but rarely actually read – and, like other books that fall into this category (e.g. the Bible and 'The Bell Curve'), various myths have emerged regarding its contents that are quite contradicted when one actually takes the time to read it for oneself.

The Many Myths of Sociobiology
Perhaps the foremost myth is that sociobiology was primarily a theory of human behaviour. In fact, Sociobiology was, first and foremost, a theoretical approach to understanding animal behaviour. Applying sociobiological theory to humans was something of an afterthought.

This is connected to the second myth – namely, that sociobiology was Wilson’s own theory. In fact, rather than a single theory, sociobiology is better viewed as a particular approach to a field of study, the field in question being animal behaviour.

Moreover, far from being Wilson’s own theory, the major advances in the understanding of animal behaviour that gave rise to what came to be referred to as 'sociobiology’ were made in the main by figures other than Wilson himself. It was William Hamilton who first formulated 'inclusive fitness theory' (which came to be known as 'kin selection’), George C Williams who was largely responsible for the displacement of group-selection in favour of a new focus on the gene as the unit of selection, while Robert Trivers was responsible for such theories such as reciprocal altruism, parent-offspring conflict and differential parental investment theory.

Instead, Wilson’s key role was to bring the various strands of the emerging field together, give it a name and, in the process, take more than his fair share of the resulting flak.

Thus, far from being a maverick theory of a single individual, what came to be known as 'sociobiology’ was, if not based on accepted biological theory at the time of publication, then at least based on biological theory that came to be recognised as mainstream within a few years of its publication.

Controversy attached almost exclusively to the application of these same principles to explain human behaviour.

Reductionism vs Holism
Among the most familiar charges levelled against Wilson by his opponents within academia, and by contemporary opponents of Darwinian approaches to understanding human behaviour, alongside the familiar and time-worn charges of 'biological determinism’ and 'genetic determinism’, is that sociobiology is inherently 'reductionist’.

It is therefore something of a surprise to find among the first pages of 'Sociobiology' Wilson defending an 'holistic approach’, as represented by sociobiology itself, in opposition to what he terms “the triumphant reductionism of molecular biology” (p7).

This passage is particularly surprising for anyone who has read Wilson’s more recent work 'Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge', where he launches a trenchant, unapologetic and wholly convincing defence of “reductionism” as, not only “the cutting edge of science… breaking down nature into its constituent components” but moreover “the primary and essential activity of science” and hence at the very heart of the scientific method (Consilience: p59). Thus, Wilson concludes, “the love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science” (Ibid.).

Of course, this is all a matter of how one defines one’s terms, and reductionism, however defined, is a matter of degree. Philosopher Daniel Dennett distinguishes what he calls “greedy reductionism”, which attempts to oversimplify the world, from “good reductionism”, which attempts to understand it in all its complexity.

Conversely, many defenders of a holistic approach within the humanities, social sciences and among public intellectuals seem, in my experience, to be defending a vague wishy-washy, untestable and frankly anti-scientific obscurantism, whereby any attempt to explain behaviour in terms of causes and effects is dismissed as 'reductionism’.

Wilson’s writing with regard to these topics must be understood as responses, not to the controversies engendered by the works in which these words appeared, but rather the controversies that preceded them.

Thus, just as Wilson’s defence of reductionism in 'Concilience’ was a belated response to the 'sociobiology debates’ of the 70s and 80s in which the charge of reductionism was wielded indiscriminately by the opponents of sociobiology, so Wilson’s defence of holism in 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself must be understood in the context, not of the controversies that followed publication of this work (which Wilson was unable to foresee) but those which preceded it.

Thus Wilson’s defence of holism in 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis' must be seen in the context of an earlier academic controversy, albeit one that never spread beyond academia itself in the same way that the so-called 'sociobiology debates’ were to do and which may therefore be less familiar to the educated public, but which was, in some respects, at least within the walls of Harvard itself, just as fiercely fought over.

In particular, certain molecular biologists at Harvard, and perhaps elsewhere, led by the brilliant yet belligerent molecular biologist James Watson, had come to the opinion that molecular biology was to be the only biology, and that traditional biology, fieldwork and experiments were positively passé. This controversy also had a personal element, with Wilson and Watson having an intense personal rivalry and dislike for one another (see Wilson’s biography 'Naturalist').

Thus, in his follow-up book, Wilson contends, “raw reduction is only half the scientific process… the remainder consist[ing] of the reconstruction of complexity by an expanding synthesis under the control if laws newly demonstrated by analysis… reveal[ing] the existence of novel emergent phenomena” ('On Human Nature': p11). It is in this sense, and in contrast to the reductionism of molecular biology, that Wilson saw sociobiology as holistic.

Group Selectionist?
One of the key theoretical breakthroughs that formed the basis for what came to be known as sociobiology was the discrediting of group-selectionism, at least in its cruder forms.

A focus the individual, or even the gene, as the primary or only level of selection, came to be viewed as an integral component of the sociobiological worldview. Indeed, it was once debated on the pages of the newsletter of the European Sociobiological Society whether one could truly be both a sociobiologist and a group-selectionist (Price 1996).

It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that the author of 'Sociobiology’, responsible for christening the emerging field, was himself something of a group-selectionist. Wilson has recently 'come out’ as a group-selectionist in a paper concerning the evolution of eusociality in ants (Nowak et al 2010). However, reading 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ leads one to suspect that Wilson had been a closet, or indeed a semi-out, group-selectionist all along.

Certainly, Wilson repeats the familiar arguments against group-selectionism first articulated by George C Williams, and later popularised by Richard Dawkins. However, although he offers no rebuttal, this does not prevent him from invoking, or at least proposing, group-selectionist explanations for behaviours in the remainder of the book.

At any rate, it is clear that, unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, Wilson did not view group-selectionism as a terminally discredited theory.

Vaunting Ambition?
Much of 'Sociobiology: the New Synthesis’ reads like a textbook. I see some other reviewers/commenters here on amazon have said that this is because it is a textbook. However, Wilson’s intention was far more ambitious than simply to author an undergraduate textbook on animal behaviour that would be out of date within a few years of publication, and which certainly wouldn’t be worth reading (or reviewing) by anyone some forty years later as I sit down to write this review.

This is apparent from the very first paragraphs of the book, where, in a chapter provocatively entitled 'The Morality of the Gene’, he challenges the assertion of philosopher Albert Camus that the only serious philosophical question is suicide, and in the process proposes to found the entire field of moral philosophy, and possibly epistemology too, on the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Indeed, the scale of Wilson’s ambition can hardly be exaggerated. He sought nothing less than to synthesize the entire field of animal behaviour under the rubric of 'sociobiology’ and in the process produce a 'New Synthesis’, by analogy with the so-called 'modern synthesis’ of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics which laid the basis for the entire modern science of biology.

Then, having done no less than redefine and place on a new basis the entire field known as animal behaviour, he also decided, in a final chapter – and apparently as something of an afterthought – to add human behaviour to this synthesis.

This meant not just providing a new theoretical foundation for a single subfield within biology (i.e. animal behaviour), but for several whole disciplines, from psychology to anthropology and sociology.

Oh yeah, and moral philosophy and perhaps epistemology too. I forgot to mention that.

In a sense, therefore, the academic furore that greeted the publication of was hardly surprising and reflected nothing less than an academic turf-war between social scientists and biologists, in view of the 'vaulting ambition’ of the latter.

It was the final chapter of 'Sociobiology’ that was to attract a disproportionate share of the controversy. Here, again, misconceptions abound.

Firstly, it is not true that Wilson only extended his analysis to humans in his final chapter. In fact, he discussed the possible application of sociobiological theory to humans several times in earlier chapters.

Often this was at the end of a chapter. For example, his chapter on “Roles and Castes” closes with a discussion of “Roles in Human Societies”. Similarly, the final subsection of his chapter on “Aggression” is entitled “Human Aggression”.

Other times, humans get a mention in mid-chapter, as in chapter fifteen on 'Sex and Society', where Wilson discusses the association between adultery, cuckoldry and violent retribution in human societies, and rightly prophesizes that “the implications for the study of humans” of Trivers’ theory of differential parental investment “are potentially great” (p327).

Another misconception is that, while he may not have founded the approach that came to be known as sociobiology, it was Wilson who courted controversy, and bore most of the flak, because he was the first biologist brave, foolish, ambitious, farsighted or naïve enough to apply sociobiological theory to humans.

Actually, this is untrue. For example, a large part of Robert Trivers’ seminal paper on reciprocal altruism published in 1971 dealt with specifically human moral emotions, such as guilt, gratitude and moralistic anger (Trivers 1971).

(It is curious that, although in his chapter dealing with humans, Wilson includes a subsection on reciprocal altruism, this focuses exclusively on exchanges of the sort studied by economists, rather than the subtler reciprocity underlying friendship: p551-3)

However, Trivers’ work was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and therefore presumably never came to the attention of any of the social scientists largely responsible for the furore over sociobiology. This is perhaps unfortunate since Trivers, unlike the unfortunate Wilson, had impeccable left-wing credentials, which may have deflected some of the overtly politicized criticism (and pitchers of water) later directed at Wilson.

Human Sociobiology
However, returning to Wilson’s final chapter a few decades after it was first penned, it is, I feel, rather disappointing.

One wants to like it. After all, so much of the criticism directed at it was unfair, the harassment targeted of its author bordered on persecution (e.g. the famous pitcher of water incident; exhortations from student groups to “bring noisemakers” to deliberately disrupt his speaking engagements: 'The Moral Animal': illustration p341), and the theoretical approach that followed in its stead, namely evolutionary psychology, is well on the way to revolutionizing the social sciences.

Inevitably, any scientific textbook will be outdated when read some forty years later. However, while this is true for the book as a whole, it seems to be especially true of this last chapter, the substance of which bears little similarity to the contents of modern textbooks on evolutionary psychology.

This is perhaps inevitable. While the application of sociobiological theory to the behaviour of non-human animals was well under way several years before Wilson published ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, the application of sociobiological theory to humans remained very much in its infancy.

From Sociobiology to Evolutionary Psychology
However, while the specific substance of Wilson’s final chapter is dated, the general approach seems spot on.

Indeed, even some of the theoretical advances claimed by evolutionary psychologists as their own were anticipated by Wilson. Thus, he recognises “one of the key questions” in human sociobiology as “to what extent the biogram represents an adaptation to modern cultural life and to what extent it is a phylogenetic vestige” (p458), hence anticipating the key evolutionary psychological concept of the 'Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness' or 'EEA'.

In his final chapter, Wilson proposes to look at human behaviour from the detached and disinterested perspective of a “zoologist… from another planet”, and concludes, “in this macroscopic view the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology” (p547). Thus, for Wilson “sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis” (p4).

After all, the idea that the behaviour of a single species, namely humans, is somehow alone immune from the forces of natural selection and principles of general biology, to such an extent that it must be studied in entirely different university faculties and by entirely different researchers, the vast majority with little or no knowledge of the principles employed by, nor the findings of, researchers specializing in the study of the behaviour and social structures in every other species on the planet, reflects an indefensible anthropocentrism.

If humans are a product of natural selection, then human behaviour and psychology, just as much as human physiology and the physiology and behaviour of all non-human species must also be a product of natural selection, and, like them, bear the hallmarks of adaptive design. The so-called 'Standard Social Science Model' of human nature is simply untenable. Not only does research not support it, but, purely on theoretical grounds, such a human nature would never have evolved in the first place.

Nevertheless, his reputation for outspokenness notwithstanding, Wilson himself urges caution, admitting “whether the social sciences can be truly biologicized in this fashion remains to be seen” (p4). The evidence of the ensuing forty years suggests, in my view, that the social sciences can indeed be, and are well on the way to being, 'biologicized’. The only stumbling block has proven to be social scientists themselves, who have, in many cases, proven resistant.

From Sociobiology to Philosophy
Even more controversial than Wilson’s forays into the domain of the social sciences were his forays into philosophy. These are limited to a few paragraphs in his opening and closing chapters. However, these paragraphs were among the most widely quoted, and criticised, in the entire book.

Here, not only were philosophers and opponents of sociobiology indignant, but even the few biologists, psychologists and anthropologists to courageously take up the gauntlet of applying sociobiological theory to humans were nevertheless keen to disassociate themselves from these in particular of Wilson’s words.

In proposing to reconstruct moral philosophy on the basis of biology, Wilson was widely accused of violating the so-called 'naturalistic fallacy', whereby values are derived from facts.

Far from making common cause with Wilson, most modern evolutionary psychologists are only too keen to recognise the sacrosanct inviolability of the 'is–ought divide’, not least because it provided them with carte blanche to investigate the possible evolutionary functions of such morally questionable (or indeed morally repugnant) behaviours as rape,child abuse and homicide, without laying themselves open to the charge that they were thereby presenting a moral defence of the behaviours in question.

Certainly, if a behaviour is natural, this does not mean it is right, any more than the fact that dying of tuberculosis is 'natural' means that it is morally wrong to treat smallpox with such 'unnatural' remedies as vaccination or antibiotics.

However, if it is inappropriate to derive moral values from facts, this begs the question of where moral values can legitimately be derived from. If moral injunctions cannot be derived from facts, then it appears they can only be derived from other moral statements. How then are our ultimate moral principles, from which other moral principles are derived, to be justified? Are they simply to be taken on faith?

Wilson has therefore controversially concluded, “the posing of the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy” ('Consilience': p273).

His point in 'Sociobiology’ is that, in arguing about the appropriateness of different moral codes (e.g. utilitarianism vs Kantianism), moral philosophers, whether they are aware of it or not, consult “the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain” (p3). Yet these same moral philosophers largely take these moral intuitions for granted and seem unaware of where they have come from. They therefore treat the brain as a “black box” rather than as a biological entity and product of evolution the nature of which is the subject of scientific study (p562).

The philosophical implications of recognising that moral intuitions are themselves a product of the evolutionary process have recently been investigated by various biologists, psychologists and philosophers, not least Wilson himself in collaboration with philosopher Michael Ruse (Ruse & Wilson 1986).

Meanwhile, the same applies to the other major subfield of philosophy, namely epistemology, to which Wilson devotes only a single parenthesis (p3). What humans are capable of knowing is itself a product of the structure of the brain, which is itself a product of natural selection. Thus, epistemology no less than ethics must be 'biologicized' (see Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously).

Worth Reading Today?
So is 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ worth reading today? This depends what it is you want from the book.

At almost 700 pages, reading 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is no idle investment of time.

Wilson is a wonderful writer with the unusual honour for a working scientist of being a twice Pulitzer-Prize winner. However, excepting a few parts of the first and final chapters, 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is largely written in the style of a textbook, and is not a book one is likely to read for its literary merits alone.

As a textbook, 'Sociobiology’ is obviously dated, as is inevitable for a book published some forty years ago.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a true science is the speed at which cutting-edge work becomes obsolete.

Religious believers still cite holy books written thousands of years ago, and adherents of pseudo-sciences such as psychoanalysis and Marxism still paw over the words of Freud and Marx. However, the scientific method is a cumulative process that allows theories to be falsified and supplanted and is no respecter of persons. Thus, works of science go out of date almost as fast as they are published.

The speed with which Wilson’s work was rendered obsolete is therefore a marker of the success of the sociobiological research project which it helped inspire.

If you want a textbook summary of the latest research in sociobiology, I would instead recommend the latest edition of Alcock’s Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach or Krebs and Davies' An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology; or, if your primary interest is human behaviour, the latest edition of David Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind.

The continued value of 'Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is its importance as a landmark in the history of biology, social science, and human thought. Its value today is in the field, not of Science, but History of Science.

Nowak et al (2010) 'The evolution of eusociality' Nature 466:1057–1062.
Price (1996) 'In Defence of Group Selection’, European Sociobiological Society Newsletter No. 42 October 1996
Ruse & Wilson 1986 'Moral Philosophy as Applied Science', Philosophy 61(236):173-192
Trivers (1971). 'The evolution of reciprocal altruism'. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57
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