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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

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Title: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis  
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Subject: Ethology, Evolutionary psychology, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Sociobiology, Kin selection, Steven Rose, List of important publications in psychology, Elaine Morgan (writer), Sociocultural evolution
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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis
Author Edward O. Wilson
Subject Sociobiology
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date
Pages 697
OCLC 42289674
591.56 21
LC Class QL775 .W54 2000
Preceded by The Insect Societies
Followed by On Human Nature

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is a book by E. O. Wilson that helped start the sociobiology debate, one of the great scientific controversies in biology of the 20th century (see Criticism of evolutionary psychology). Wilson popularized the term "sociobiology" as an attempt to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind social behaviors such as altruism, aggression, and nurturance. The fundamental principle guiding sociobiology is that an organism's evolutionary success is measured by the extent to which its genes are represented in the next generation.[1]

The book was first published in 1975, then reprinted in 1976. A twenty-fifth anniversary edition was published in 2000 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


The application of sociobiology to humans was immediately controversial. Some people, such as Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin contended that sociobiology was biologicially determinist. They argued that it would be used, as similar ideas had been in the past, to justify the status quo, entrench ruling elites, and legitimize authoritarian political programmes. They referred to social darwinism and eugenics of the early 20th century, and to other more recent ideas, such as the IQ controversy of the early 1970s as cautionary tales in the use of evolutionary principles as applied to human society. They believed that Wilson was committing the naturalistic fallacy. Several academics opposed to Wilson's sociobiology created the Sociobiology Study Group to counter his ideas.

Other critics believed that Wilson's theories, as well as the works of subsequent admirers were not supported scientifically. Objections were raised to many of the ethnocentric assumptions of early sociobiology and to the sampling and mathematical methods used in informing conclusions. Many of the sloppier early conclusions were attacked. Sociobiologists were accused of being "super" adaptationists, or panadaptationist, i.e. believing that every aspect of morphology and behaviour must necessarily be an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation. Philosophical debates about the nature of scientific truth and the applicability of any human reason to a subject so complex as human behaviour, considering past failures, raged.

Wilson and his admirers countered these criticisms by saying that Wilson had no political agenda, and if he had one it was certainly not authoritarian, citing Wilson's environmentalism in particular. They argued that they as scientists had a duty to uncover the truth whether that was politically correct or not. Furthermore, a significant number of biologists argued that sociobiology does not necessarily lead to any particular political ideology as many critics implied. Many subsequent sociobiologists such Robert Wright and Anne Cambpell have used sociobiology to argue quite separate points. Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political scientist, surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals need to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society, claiming that leaders should know what human needs were in order to build a better society.

His defenders also claimed that the critics had greatly overstated the degree of Wilson's biological determinism. Wilson claimed he had never meant to imply that what is biologically true should not necessary guide human interaction or policy.

An extensive account of the controversy around the book was published 25 years later, largely supporting Wilson's views.[2]


  1. ^ Nature,Sociobiology: a new synthesis and an old quarrel,by May,Robert M, 04/1976, Volume 260, Issue 5550, pp. 390 - 392, ISSN 0028-0836
  2. ^ Segerstrale, Ullica Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond Oxford University Press (2000) ISBN 0-19-850505-1

External links

  • Sociobiology: The New Synthesis 1975, Harvard University Press, (Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, 2000 ISBN 0-674-00089-7)
  • Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology: by Edward O. Wilson
  • Sociobiology: The Art of Storytelling: by Stephen Jay Gould
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