The Triumph of Sociobiology

The Triumph of Sociobiology

The Triumph of Sociobiology

The Triumph of Sociobiology

Synopsis

In The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock reviews the controversy that has surrounded evolutionary studies of human social behavior following the 1975 publication of E.O. Wilson's classic, Sociobiology, The New Synthesis. Denounced vehemently as an "ideology" that has justified social evils and inequalities, sociobiology has survived the assault. Twenty-five years after the field was named by Wilson, the approach he championed has successfully demonstrated its value in the study of animal behavior, including the behavior of our own species. Yet, misconceptions remain--to our disadvantage. In this straight-forward, objective approach to the sociobiology debate, noted animal behaviorist John Alcock illuminates how sociobiologists study behavior in all species. He confronts the chief scientific and ideological objections head on, with a compelling analysis of case histories that involve such topics as sexual jealousy, beauty, gender difference, parent-offspring relations, and rape. In so doing, he shows that sociobiology provides the most satisfactory scientific analysis of social behavior available today. Alcock challenges the notion that sociobiology depends on genetic determinism while showing the shortcoming of competing approaches that rely on cultural or environmental determinism. He also presents the practical applications of sociobiology and the progress sociobiological research has made in the search for a more complete understanding of human activities. His reminder that "natural" behavior is not "moral" behavior should quiet opponents fearing misapplication of evolutionary theory to our species. The key misconceptions about this evolutionary field are dissected one by one as the author shows why sociobiologists have had so much success in explaining the puzzling and fascinating social behavior of nonhuman animals and humans alike.

Excerpt

On 15 February 1978, a young woman carefully poured a pitcher of ice water onto the head of Edward O. Wilson while he sat waiting to address an audience at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. a band of accomplices joined their pitcher-pouring confederate on stage to wave placards and chant, “Wilson, you're all wet.” After repeating this modest witticism for a few minutes, Wilson's assailants left the field to their victim, who dried himself as best he could with a paper towel and then delivered his talk without further interruption [345].

In a world characterized by much more exciting and dramatic violence, this brief aquatic and acoustical assault was nevertheless moderately newsworthy because of its setting—a scientific get-together—and its target—a Harvard professor. Academics are a contentious group and academic arguments can get loud and nasty on occasion, but physical confrontations are rare. Even if fights were fairly common in scientific meetings, Wilson would hardly interest anyone fond of hand-to-hand combat. He is a world authority on ants and the other social insects, a tall, thin person with a passion for entomology, not fisticuffs. By his own account, he was utterly surprised to have achieved the kind of notoriety that evidently inspired his band of youthful opponents [345].

But Wilson is also known as the “inventor” of sociobiology, having published a book of coffee table dimensions in 1975 entitled Sociobiology: the New Synthesis [343]. in the interval between the book's appearance and the aaas meeting, a group of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard University did some publishing of their own. Richard Lewontin, a leading geneticist, and Stephen Jay Gould, just beginning his own rise to fame and fortune as a writer on matters evolutionary, were among the authors of a manifesto printed in the New York Review of Books [16]. They did not send their critique to Wilson prior to its publication but instead let him, a member of their own department, learn about it indirectly—not the most collegial of actions. in their broadsheet, Lewontin, Gould, and fellow co-signers declared that Wilson had produced a theory that could be used to justify the political status quo and . . .

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