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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is a landmark 1975 book by E. O. Wilson, which started the sociobiology discussion, one of the great scientific controversies in biology of the 20th century. Wilson introduced the term sociobiology as an attempt to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind social behaviors such as altruism, aggression, and nurturance.

E.O. Wilson was a respected member of the biology department at Harvard University, who had worked for some time, mostly on ants. He was fascinated by their society and how it functioned. He and his mentor, C.M. Carpenter, believed there was much to be learned from a scientific examination of animal societies, and that there was no logical reason short of religious superstition to exclude human society from that study. In 1975 he published the book, dealing almost exclusively with animal societies. He was roundly praised for his work on this part of his book. However, the final two chapters deal with human society, and this is where he got into trouble.

Initial reviews in the popular press, such as the New York Times Book Review, and even People magazine, and Reader's Digest, were quite positive about Wilson’s book. However, a large portion of the academic community was strongly opposed to the very concept of sociobiology because of the prevailing Marxist feeling in academia at the time. The very name, sociobiology, was bound to upset many, reminiscent as it was of Nazi Sozialbiologie. Quickly, a group of skeptical scientists in the Boston area formed a group called the Sociobiology Study Group. The group was composed almost exclusively of “left-wing” or “progressive” professors and students. They wanted to highlight the political dangers of an idea like sociobiology to an apparently unwary public.

Among these scientists were Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin who would become some of the most prominent critics of sociobiology and its successors. They immediately charged Wilson, in no uncertain terms, of being a racist biological determinist and an apologist for the powerful elements of society benefitting from the state of capitalism at the time. Lewontin, for example, says,

“Sociobiology is a reductionist, biological determinist explanation of human existence. Its adherents claim, first, that the details of present and past social arrangements are the inevitable manifestations of the specific action of genes... The general appeal of sociobiology is in its legitimation of the status quo.”

Others, such as Gould, did not accuse Wilson of anything, but sharply condemned his theory saying, “biological determinism has always been used to defend existing social arrangements as biologically inevitable... This usage is quite out of the control of individual scientists who propose deterministic theories for a host of reasons, often benevolent.”

Wilson was quite taken aback. He had apparently not expected this sort of political attack, much to the astonishment of his critics. He wrote that “the political objections forcefully made by the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People in particular took me by surprise.” He had been unaware of the details Marxist thought, and had not considered his paper relevant to that sort of political analysis. He had thought it would be controversial, but not in such an overtly political way. He was highly annoyed with his critics for “blind-siding” him. He objected that no one had made him aware of their feelings while he was writing his book, even though several of them, Gould and Lewontin included, were well aware of his project. Furthermore, he was angered because he felt that the critics were being hysterical and misrepresenting his position. He rejected the charge that his theory was biologically deterministic, and pointed to several passages in articles he had written which he claimed had already addressed their political concerns, for example,

"The moment has come to stress that there is a dangerous trap in sociobiology, one which can be avoided only by constant vigilance. The trap is the naturalistic fallacy of ethics which uncritically concludes that what is, should be. The ‘what is’ in human nature is to a large extent the heritage of a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer existence. When any genetic bias is demonstrated, it cannot be used to justify a continuing practice in present and future societies."

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