- Paperback: 720 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press; 2 edition (March 4, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674002350
- ISBN-13: 978-0674002357
- Product Dimensions: 10 x 1.5 x 10 inches
- Shipping Weight: 3.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 39 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #283,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition 2nd Edition
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E.O. Wilson defines sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior," the central theoretical problem of which is the question of how behaviors that seemingly contradict the principles of natural selection, such as altruism, can develop. Sociobiology: A New Synthesis, Wilson's first attempt to outline the new field of study, was first published in 1975 and called for a fairly revolutionary update to the so-called Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology. Sociobiology as a new field of study demanded the active inclusion of sociology, the social sciences, and the humanities in evolutionary theory. Often criticized for its apparent message of "biological destiny," Sociobiology set the stage for such controversial works as Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and Wilson's own Consilience.
Sociobiology defines such concepts as society, individual, population, communication, and regulation. It attempts to explain, biologically, why groups of animals behave the way they do when finding food or shelter, confronting enemies, or getting along with one another. Wilson seeks to explain how group selection, altruism, hierarchies, and sexual selection work in populations of animals, and to identify evolutionary trends and sociobiological characteristics of all animal groups, up to and including man. The insect sections of the books are particularly interesting, given Wilson's status as the world's most famous entomologist.
It is fair to say that as an ecological strategy eusociality has been overwhelmingly successful. It is useful to think of an insect colony as a diffuse organism, weighing anywhere from less than a gram to as much as a kilogram and possessing from about a hundred to a million or more tiny mouths.
It's when Wilson starts talking about human beings that the furor starts. Feminists have been among the strongest critics of the work, arguing that humans are not slaves to a biological destiny, forever locked in "primitive" behavior patterns without the ability to reason past our biochemical nature. Like The Origin of Species, Sociobiology has forced many biologists and social scientists to reassess their most cherished notions of how life works. --Therese Littleton
It's been 25 years since E. O. Wilson wrote Sociobiology, naming a new science and starting it off with a bang--and a firestorm of protest. "Nurture!" and "Nature!" came the cries from every corner of the academic world, as the book became a causus belli for sociologists, feminists, human geneticists, and psychologists. (Mary Ellen Curtin amazon.com)
This book enthralls and enchants...If you have this book...you can begin getting your mind ready for the illuminations about human society. (Lewis Thomas Harper's)
Rarely has the world been provided with such a splendid stepping stone for an exciting future of a new science. (John Tyler Bonner Scientific American)
Its contents do indeed provide a new synthesis, of wide perspective and great authority...Wilson's plain uncluttered prose is a treat to read, his logic is rigorous, his arguments are lucid. (V. C. Wymne-Edwards Nature)
This book will stand as a landmark in the comparative study of social behavior. (Quarterly Review of Biology)
Sociobiology is an excellent book, full of extraordinary insights, and replete with the beauty and poetry of the animal kingdom. (Times Literary Supplement)
It is impossible to leave Wilson's book without having one's sense of life permanently and dramatically widened. (Fred Hapgood The Atlantic)
Sociobiology explores the possibility that animal social behaviour--group living, kinship, attraction and mating, reciprocity and sharing, cooperation, conflict, and cheating, to name just the most familiar--has a genetic basis and can be shaped by natural selection: genes can be shaped by natural selection: genes can code for social behaviours in the same way that they code for body parts such as hands, hooves, eyes, antlers and ears. But, in an audacious final chapter, Wilson extended the analysis to humans: biology had grabbed our kinship, cooperation, mate preferences and the rest. Some branded Wilson and his ideas fascist, others as racist or guilty of genetic determinism. They are none of these things and, two Pulitzer Prizes later, Wilson has been vindicated...Wilson's Sociobiology laid the foundations for a lifetime of meditations. (Mark Pagel Times Higher Education Supplement)
Sociobiology, a new concept, is one with extraordinary potential value for understanding and explaining human behavior. (Practical Psychology)
A towering theoretical achievement of exceptional elegance...Like most great books, Sociobiology is unpedantic, lucid, and eminently accessible. (Pierre L. van den Berghe Contemporary Sociology)
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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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