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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition New edition Edition

4.8 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674002357
ISBN-10: 0674002350
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; New edition edition (March 4, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674002350
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674002357
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 1.5 x 9.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #263,605 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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?
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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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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.
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