Biology 103
2000 Second Web Report
On Serendip

All Things Explained: A look into sociobiology

Susanna Jones

"Science offers the boldest metaphysics of the age: the faith that if we dream, press to discover, explain, and dream again, thereby plunging repeatedly into new terrain, the world will somehow become clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe, and the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense." Edward O. Wilson

Just by flipping through the pages of a newspaper or watching the local news, it becomes obvious how great an impact science has on our current thinking. The media has become a showroom for scientific exploits; we hear about gene discoveries, we have a newfound reverence for the ER room, we have ten drug options for every ailment. Science has become the authority on everything from illness to the environment. When the time comes to write a paper for a biology class, the problem isn't what to write about, it is what not to write about. With this in mind, it is not surprising that anyone with a romantic spirit, an affinity for magic, and a secret desire to believe in the X Files, has difficulty accepting that the intricacies of the world can be explained away by science. Is there such a thing as the unknown, or is everything just waiting to be scientifically identified?

Frustrated and a little angry at science for stripping life of some of its mystical beauty, I set out with the broad task of searching the web for an arbitrary paper topic for a science class assignment. After a professor casually mentioned the work of renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson, I decided to enter his name into the computer and see what I would discover. The results not only provided me with a paper topic, but they also helped me come to terms with some of my pent up resentment for the omnipotent field of science/biology.

Edward O. Wilson is the father of sociobiology, a discipline which fuses the concepts of culture and society with the theories of biology (evolution, genetics, etc.). At first glance, sociobiology is horrifying, especially to an anthropology student or a feminist; the discipline makes claims like, warfare is innate, men and women have clear-cut biological differences, and religion can be reduced to evolutionary principals. Wilson contends that only when we accept that all questions can be traced back to science will we have an understanding of the world around us. In this paper I will briefly examine some of these claims in an attempt to ascertain whether or not sociobiology holds any merit, whether or not the media should be concentrating so heavily on science and its effects on the modern world.

WARFARE AND AGGRESSION: The selfish and violent "genes"

Why does warfare dominate modern human history? For centuries, theorists have been trying to explain why humans wage war on other humans. Hobbes explained that humans were by nature violent brutes; evolutionists thought humans' violent disposition was a product of the sexual division of labor of our Australopithecine ancestors in which case men bonded over hunting and warfare. The consensus seemed to be that warfare and aggression were not cultural or learned traits, but that they were innate. From an evolutionary standpoint, however, this theory does not coincide with evolution through natural selection. Why would we wage war when war depleted our best men? Also, what of those people who are nonviolent or genuinely seem to care about people by practicing altruism? (1)

Wilson borrows aspects of these theories and questions in order to propose the sociobiological explanation. Wilson argues that human populations have a natural tendency to close its doors to outside groups and display enmity towards them, in order to create loyalty and supremacy amongst the group; he uses the terms "ethnocentricity" and "xenophobia" to describe these qualities. War is an attempt to preserve a group, to further its survival. When stimulated, humans have a naturally aggressive response (a possible stimulant could be the competition for resources). (1)

To explain altruism, Wilson writes, "Compassion is selective and often ultimately self-serving." The person who risks his life for the group is really just trying to protect his gene pool. As another example, Wilson mentions the Buddhist who "earns points towards a better personal life by performing generous acts." Therefore sociobiology claims that humans have a genetic predisposition to aggression and egocentricity, all rooted in the old notion "survival of the fittest." Those who look out for themselves will live the longest. (1)

Although I have only provided a very brief summary of sociobiology's theory on war, one can easily comprehend why when Wilson's ideas were published, dissenters immediately arose. The theories seem to suggest that humans have the predisposition to be violent, selfish, racist, killers. The theories place emphasis on the role of men in society and speak little about women. I found that some ideas in Wilson's book, On Human Nature, use shaky anthropological discourses to support his arguments (such as generalizations made about particular tribes such as the !Kung or Yanomami).


Professor of psychology C. George Boeree writes about attraction from a sociobiological perspective: "We should be sexually attracted to others whose characteristics would maximize our genetic success, that is, would give us many healthy, long-lived, fertile children" (2). Boeree continues to explain why men and women are attracted to one another on the basis of successful reproduction. (2)

In Wilson's On Human Nature, he addresses the other component of sex: pleasure. Human females are distinct in that they lack the estrus, or period of heat: "Women remain sexually receptive, with little variation in the capacity to respond, throughout the menstrual cycle." Wilson explains that sexual responsiveness has become nearly continuous because it facilitates bonding. Bonding is a Darwinian advantage that binds members of a group together, thus prolonging its survival. Frequent sex therefore is not only advantageous in relation to reproduction but also because it creates bonds in the group. Pleasure in sex can form strong and/or long-term relationships between individuals. (information and quote from On Human Nature, by Edward O. Wilson)


In addition to war and sex, sociobiology attempts to define such human issues as religion and hope with biological terminology and ideas. Most explanations are founded on the basis that genetics and evolutionary adaptations account for nearly all human and societal manifestations.

Not only can sociobiology explain the world, but Wilson contends that it can save the world as well. He believes: "The key to unification is consilience...literally a 'jumping together' of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation" (3).

Wilson believes that natural science can link all other disciplines together. Sociobiology is a reflection of this in that it attempts to bring the elements of both natural and social sciences together. If everyone were to have a fundamental understanding of science, there would be revolution and enlightenment; people would change, public policy would change. We would have the knowledge needed to see the world as it is, to understand why people act the way they do. In an interview, Wilson says: "All that sociobiology can do, in my opinion, is to tell us more about where we came from, what we've got, what our predispositions are, as an aid in the cost-benefit analysis that goes into any discussion of our future goals. That's what a large part of politics and social planning is all about: what our goals are, what we want to achieve beyond mere survival" (4).


By reducing love, religion, racism, etc, to the laws of science, sociobiology seems to undervalue the importance of the sacred and overlook personal agency. But a point that Wilson makes repeatedly is that sociobiology does not attempt to lay out a moral foreground, to claim that warfare and racism are acceptable because they are innate to human beings. If we are aware of our predispositions, then we can try to overcome them. If anything were to lead to world peace, it would probably be consilience.

Of course, like all disciplines, sociobiology has flaws, it is dangerous for any discipline to make such homogenizing statements; but I think it is grounded in something quite revolutionary and promising. Initially, I thought Wilson was merely making sweeping generalizations. I understood why after the publication of his first book, students at Harvard petitioned to have him fired. And aside from the fact that he deals harsh blows to liberal educations (because they do not properly incorporate science), there is beauty and validity in his arguments. If the theories of sociobiology and consilience were to spread, the challenges would be to use the knowledge to improve the world and to somehow find beauty and magic alongside the presence of science.

WWW Sources

1)"The Origin of War: Biological and Anthropological Theories, by Doyne Dawson, This is an article from the journal, History and Theory. It was retrieved from the Wilson Index off the Bryn Mawr Library homepage

2)Sociobiology, This page is off the Shippensburg University homepage

3)Back from Chaos by Edward O. Wilson, This page is off the site called: The World, A Public Information Utility

4)E.O. Wilson: Genetic Destiny, This page is off the site called: Omni

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