Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’: A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read

Edward O Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis Cambridge: Belknap, Harvard 1975

Sociobiology – The Field That Dare Not Speak its Name? 

From its first publication in 1975, the reception accorded Edward O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ has been divided. 

On the one hand, among biologists, especially those specialist in the fields of ethology, zoology and animal behaviour, the reception was almost universally laudatory. Indeed, my 25th Anniversary Edition even proudly proclaims on the cover that it was voted by officers and fellows of the Animal Behavior Society as the most important ever book on animal behaviour, supplanting even Darwin’s own seminal On The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals

However, on the other side of the university campus, in social science departments, the reaction was very different. 

Indeed, the hostility that the book provoked was such that ‘sociobiology’ became almost a dirty word in the social sciences, and ultimately throughout the academy, to such an extent that ultimately the term fell into disuse (save as a term of abuse) and was replaced by largely synonymous euphemisms like behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology.[1]

Sociobiology thus became, in academia, ‘the field that dare not speak its name’. 

Similarly, within the social sciences, even those researchers whose work carried on the sociobiological approach in all but name almost always played down the extent of their debt to Wilson himself. 

Thus, books on evolutionary psychology typically begin with disclaimers acknowledging that the sociobiology of Wilson was, of course, crude and simplistic, and that their own approach is, of course, infinitely more sophisticated. 

Indeed, reading some recent works on evolutionary psychology, one could be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary approaches to understanding human behaviour began around 1989 with the work of Tooby and Cosmides

Defining the Field 

What then does the word ‘sociobiology’ mean? 

Today, as I have mentioned, the term has largely fallen into disuse, save among certain social scientists who seem to employ it as a rather indiscriminate term of abuse for any theory of human behaviour that they perceive as placing too great a weight on hereditary or biological factors, including many areas of research only tangentially connected to with sociobiology as Wilson originally conceived of it (e.g. behavioral genetics).[2]

The term ‘sociobiology’ was not Wilson’s own coinage. It had occasionally been used by biologists before, albeit rarely. However, Wilson was responsible for popularizing – and perhaps, in the long-term, ultimately unpopularizing it too, since, as we have seen, the term has largely fallen into disuse.[3] 

Wilson himself defined ‘sociobiology’ as: 

The systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior” (p4; p595). 

However, as the term was understood by other biologists, and indeed applied by Wilson himself, sociobiology came to be construed more narrowly. Thus, it was associated in particular with the question of why behaviours evolved and the evolutionary function they serve in promoting the reproductive success of the organism (i.e. just one of Tinbergen’s Four Questions). 

The hormonal, neuroscientific, or genetic causes of behaviours are just as much a part of “the biological basis of behavior” as are the ultimate evolutionary functions of behaviour. However, these lie outside of scope of sociobiology as the term was usually understood. 

Indeed, Wilson himself admitted as much, writing in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself of how: 

Behavioral biology… is now emerging as two distinct disciplines centered on neurophysiology and… sociobiology” (p6). 

Yet, in another sense, Wilson’s definition of the field was also too narrow. 

Thus, behavioural ecologists have come to study all forms of behaviour, not just social behaviour.  

For example, optimal foraging theory is a major subfield within behavioural ecology (the successor field to sociobiology), but concerns feeding behaviour, which may be an entirely solitary, non-social activity. 

Indeed, even some aspects of an organism’s physiology (as distinct from behaviour) have come to be seen as within the purview of sociobiology (e.g. the evolution of the peacock’s tail). 

A Book Much Read About, But Rarely Actually Read 

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ was a massive tome, numbering almost 700 pages. 

As Wilson proudly proclaims in his glossary, it was: 

Written with the broadest possible audience in mind and most of it can be read with full understanding by any intelligent person whether or not he or she has had any formal training in science” (p577). 

Unfortunately, however, the sheer size of the work alone was probably enough to deter most such readers long before they reached p577 where these words appear. 

Indeed, I suspect the very size of the book was a factor in explaining the almost universally hostile reception that the book received among social scientists. 

In short, the book was so large that the vast majority of social scientists had neither the time nor the inclination to actually read it for themselves, especially since a cursory flick through its pages showed that the vast majority of them seemed to be concerned with the behaviour of species other than humans, and hence, as they saw it, of little relevance to their own work. 

Instead, therefore, their entire knowledge of the sociobiology was filtered through to them via the critiques of the approach authored by other social scientists, themselves mostly hostile to sociobiology, who presented a straw man caricature of what sociobiology actually represented. 

Indeed, the caricature of sociobiology presented by these authors is so distorted that, reading some of these critiques, one often gets the impression that included among those social scientists not bothering to read the book for themselves were most of the social scientists nevertheless taking it upon themselves to write critiques of it. 

Meanwhile, the fact that the field was so obviously misguided (as indeed it often was in the caricatured form presented in the critiques) gave most social scientists yet another reason not to bother wading through its 700 or so pages for themselves. 

As a result, among sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, public intellectuals, and other such ‘professional damned fools’, as well as the wider the semi-educated, reading public, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ became a book much read about – but rarely actually read (at least in full). 

As a consequence, as with other books falling into this category (e.g. the Bible and The Bell Curve) many myths have emerged regarding its contents which are quite contradicted on actually taking the time to read it for oneself. 

The Many Myths of Sociobiology 

Perhaps the foremost myth is that sociobiology was primarily a theory of human behaviour. In fact, as is revealed by even a cursory flick through the pages of Wilson’s book, sociobiology was, first and foremost, a theoretical approach to understanding animal behaviour. 

Indeed, Wilson’s decision to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans as well was, it seems, almost something of an afterthought, and necessitated by his desire to provide a comprehensive overview of the behaviour of all social animals, humans included. 
This is connected to the second myth – namely, that sociobiology was Wilson’s own theory. In fact, rather than a single theory, sociobiology is better viewed as a particular approach to a field of study, the field in question being animal behaviour. 
Moreover, far from being Wilson’s own theory, the major advances in the understanding of animal behaviour that gave rise to what came to be referred to as ‘sociobiology’ were made in the main by biologists other than Wilson himself.  
Thus, it was William Hamilton who first formulated inclusive fitness theory (which came to be known as the theory of kin selection); John Maynard Smith who first introduced economic models and game theory into behavioural biology; George C Williams who was responsible for displacing a crude group-selection in favour of a new focus on the gene itself as the principal unit of selection; while Robert Trivers was responsible for such theories such as reciprocal altruismparent-offspring conflict and differential parental investment theory
Instead, Wilson’s key role was to bring the various strands of the emerging field together, give it a name and, in the process, take far more than his fair share of the resulting flak. 
Thus, far from being a maverick theory of a single individual, what came to be known as ‘sociobiology’ was, if not based on accepted biological theory at the time of publication, then at least based on biological theory that came to be recognised as mainstream within a few years of its publication. 
Controversy attached almost exclusively to the application of these same principles to explain human behaviour. 

Applying Sociobiology to Humans 

In respect of Wilson’s application of sociobiological theory to humans, misconceptions again abound. 

For example, it is often asserted that Wilson only extended his theory to apply to human behaviour in his infamous final chapter, entitled, ‘Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology’. 

Actually, however, Wilson had discussed the possible application of sociobiological theory to humans several times in earlier chapters. 
Often, this was at the end of a chapter. For example, his chapter on “Roles and Castes” closes with a discussion of “Roles in Human Societies” (p312-3). Similarly, the final subsection of his chapter on “Aggression” is titled “Human Aggression” (p 254-5). 
Other times, however, humans get a mention in mid-chapter, as in Chapter Fifteen, which is titled ‘Sex and Society’, where Wilson discusses the association between adultery, cuckoldry and violent retribution in human societies, and rightly prophesizes that “the implications for the study of humans” of Trivers’ theory of differential parental investment “are potentially great” (p327). 
Another misconception is that, while he may not have founded the approach that came to be known as sociobiology, it was Wilson who courted controversy, and bore most of the flak, because he was the first biologist brave, foolish, ambitious, farsighted or naïve enough to attempt to apply sociobiological theory to humans. 
Actually, however, this is untrue. For example, a large part of Robert Trivers’ seminal paper on reciprocal altruism published in 1971 dealt with reciprocal altruism in humans and with what are presumably specifically human moral emotions, such as guilt, gratitude, friendship and moralistic anger (Trivers 1971). 
However, Trivers’ work was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and therefore presumably never came to the attention of any of the leftist social scientists largely responsible for the furore over sociobiology, who, being of the opinion that biological theory was wholly irrelevant to human behaviour, and hence to their own field, were unlikely to be regular readers of the journal in question. 

Yet this is perhaps unfortunate since Trivers, unlike the unfortunate Wilson, had impeccable left-wing credentials, which may have deflected some of the overtly politicized criticism (and pitchers of water) that later came Wilson’s way. 

Reductionism vs Holism

Among the most familiar charges levelled against Wilson by his opponents within the social sciences, and by contemporary opponents of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, alongside the familiar and time-worn charges of ‘biological determinism’ and ‘genetic determinism’, is that sociobiology is inherently reductionist, something which is, they imply, very much a bad thing. 
It is therefore something of a surprise to find among the opening pages of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson defending “holism”, as represented, in Wilson’s view, by the field of sociobiology itself, as against what he terms “the triumphant reductionism of molecular biology” (p7). 
This passage is particularly surprising for anyone who has read Wilson’s more recent work Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, where he launches a trenchant, unapologetic and, in my view, wholly convincing defence of “reductionism” as representing, not only “the cutting edge of science… breaking down nature into its constituent components” but moreover “the primary and essential activity of science” and hence at the very heart of the scientific method (Consilience: p59). 

Thus, in a quotable aphorism, Wilson concludes: 

The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science” (Consilience: p59). 

Of course, whether ‘reductionism’ is a good or bad thing, as well as the extent to which sociobiology can be considered ‘reductionist’, ultimately depends on precisely how we define ‘reductionism’. Moreover, ‘reductionism’, how ever defined, is a surely matter of degree. 

Thus, philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, distinguishes what he calls “greedy reductionism”, which attempts to oversimplify the world (e.g. Skinnerian behaviourism, which seeks to explain all behaviours in terms of conditioning), from “good reductionism”, which attempts to understand it in all its complexity (i.e. good science).

On the other hand, ‘holistic’ is a word most often employed in defence of wholly unscientific approaches, such as so-called holistic medicine, and, for me, the word itself is almost always something of a red flag. 

Thus, the opponents of sociobiology, in using the term ‘reductionist’ as a criticism, are rejecting the whole notion of a scientific approach to understanding human behaviour. In its place, they offer only a vague, wishy-washy, untestable and frankly anti-scientific obscurantism, whereby any attempt to explain behaviour in terms of causes and effects is dismissed as reductionism and determinism

Yet explaining behaviour, whether the behaviour of organisms, atoms, molecules or chemical substances, in terms of causes and effects is the very essence, if not the very definition, of science. 

In other words, determinism (i.e. the belief that events are determined by causes) is not so much a finding of science as its basic underlying assumption.[4]

Yet Wilson’s own championing of “holism” in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ can be made sense of in its historical context. 

In other words, just as Wilson’s defence of reductionism in ‘Concilience’ was a response to the so-called sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 80s in which the charge of ‘reductionism’ was wielded indiscriminately by the opponents of sociobiology, so Wilson’s defence of holism in ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ itself must be understood in the context, not of the controversy that this work itself provoked (which Wilson was, at the time, unable to foresee), but rather of a controversy preceded its publication. 

In particular, certain molecular biologists at Harvard, and perhaps elsewhere, led by the brilliant yet but abrasive molecular biologist James Watson, had come to the opinion that molecular biology was to be the only biology, and that traditional biology, fieldwork and experiments were positively passé. 

This controversy is rather less familiar to anyone outside of Harvard University’s biology department than the sociobiology debates, which not only enlisted many academics from outside of biology (e.g. psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and even philosophers), but also spilled over into the popular media and even became politicized. 

However, within the ivory towers of Harvard University’s department of biology, this controversy seems to have been just as fiercely fought over.[5]

As is clear from ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, Wilson’s own envisaged “holism” was far from the wishy-washy obscurantism which one usually associates with those championing a ‘holistic approach’, and thoroughly scientific. 

Thus, in On Human Nature, Wislon’s follow-up book to ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, where he first concerned himself specifically to the application of sociobiological theory to humans, Wilson gives perhaps his most balanced description of the relative importance of reductionism and holism, and indeed of the nature of science, writing: 

Raw reduction is only half the scientific process… the remainder consist[ing] of the reconstruction of complexity by an expanding synthesis under the control if laws newly demonstrated by analysis… reveal[ing] the existence of novel emergent phenomena” (On Human Nature: p11). 

It is therefore in this sense, and in contrast to the reductionism of molecular biology, that Wilson saw sociobiology as ‘holistic’. 

Group Selection? 

One of the key theoretical breakthroughs that formed the basis for what came to be known as sociobiology was the discrediting of group-selectionism, largely thanks to the work of George C Williams, whose ideas were later popularized by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here).[6] 
A focus the individual, or even the gene, as the primary, or indeed the only, unit of selection, came to be viewed as an integral component of the sociobiological worldview. Indeed, it was once seriously debated on the pages of the newsletter of the European Sociobiological Society whether one could truly be both a ‘sociobiologist’ and a ‘group-selectionist’ (Price 1996). 

It is therefore something of a surprise to discover that the author of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’, responsible for christening the emerging field, was himself something of a group-selectionist. 

Wilson has recently ‘come out’ as a group-selectionist by co-authoring a paper concerning the evolution of eusociality in ants (Nowak et al 2010). However, reading ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ leads one to suspect that Wilson had been a closet, or indeed a semi-out, group-selectionist all along. 

Certainly, Wilson repeats the familiar arguments against group-selectionism popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (which I have reviewed here), but first articulated by George C Williams in Adaptation and Natural Selection (see p106-7). 

However, although he offers no rebuttal to these arguments, this does not prevent Wilson from invoking, or at least proposing, group-selectionist explanations for behaviours elsewhere in the remainder of the book (e.g. p275). 

Moreover, Wilson concludes: 

Group selection and higher levels of organization, however intuitively implausible… are at least theoretically possible under a wide range of conditions” (p30). 

Thus, it is clear that, unlike, say, Richard Dawkins, Wilson did not view group-selectionism as a terminally discredited theory. 

Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology… and Perhaps Evolutionary Psychology 

What then of Wilson’s final chapter, entitled ‘Man – From Sociobiology to Sociology’? 

It was, of course, the only one to focus exclusively on humans, and, of course, the chapter that attracted by far the lion’s share of the outrage and controversy that soon ensued. 

Yet, reading it today, over forty years after it was first written, it is, I feel, rather disappointing. 

Let me be clear, I went in very much wanting to like it. 

After all, Wilson’s general approach was basically right. Humans, like all other organisms, have evolved through a process of natural selection. Therefore, their behaviour, no less than their physiology, or the physiology or behaviour of non-human organisms, must be understood in the light of this fact. 

Moreover, not only were almost all of the criticisms levelled at Wilson misguided, wrongheaded and unfair, but they often bordered upon persecution as well.

The most famous example of this leftist witch hunting was when, during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he was drenched him with a pitcher of water by leftist demonstrators. 

However, this was far from an isolated event. For example, an illustration from the book The Moral Animal shows a student placard advising protesters to “bring noisemakers” in order to deliberately disrupt one of Wilson’s speaking engagements (The Moral Animal: illustration p341). 

In short, Wilson seems to have been an early victim of what would today be called ‘deplatorming’ and ‘cancel culture’, phenomena that long predated the coining of these terms

Thus, one is tempted to see Wilson in the role of a kind of modern Galileo, being, like Galileo, persecuted for his scientific theories, which, like those of Galileo, turned out to be broadly correct. 

Moreover, Wilson’s views were, in some respects, analogous to those of Galileo. Both disputed prevailing orthodoxies in such a way as to challenge the view that humans were somehow unique or at the centre of things, Galileo by suggesting the earth was not at the centre of the solar system, and Wilson by showing that human behaviour was not all that different from that of other animals.[7]

Unfortunately, however, the actual substance of Wilson’s final chapter is rather dated.

Inevitably, any science book will be dated after forty years. However, while this is also true of the book as a whole, it seems especially true of this last chapter, which bears little resemblance to the contents of a modern textbook on evolutionary psychology

This is perhaps inevitable. While the application of sociobiological theory to understanding and explaining the behaviour other species was already well underway, the application of sociobiological theory to humans was, the pioneering work of Robert Trivers on reciprocal altruism notwithstanding, still very much in its infancy. 

Yet, while the substance of the chapter is dated, the general approach was spot on.

Indeed, even some of the advances claimed by evolutionary psychologists as their own were actually anticipated by Wilson. 

Thus, Wilson recognises:

One of the key questions [in human sociobiology] is to what extent the biogram represents an adaptation to modern cultural life and to what extent it is a phylogenetic vestige” (p458). 

He thus anticipates the key evolutionary psychological concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA, whereby it is theorized that humans are evolutionarily adapted, not to the modern post-industrial societies in which so many of us today find ourselves, but rather to the ancestral environments in which our behaviours first evolved.

Wilson proposes examine human behavior from the disinterested perspective of “a zoologist from another planet”, and concludes: 

In this macroscopic view the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology” (p547). 

Thus, for Wilson: 

Sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology waiting to be included in the Modern Synthesis” (p4). 

Indeed, the idea that the behaviour of a single species is alone exempt from principles of general biology, to such an extent that it must be studied in entirely different university faculties by entirely different researchers, the vast majority with little or no knowledge of general biology, nor of the methods and theory of researchers studying the behaviour of all other organisms, reflects an indefensible anthropocentrism

However, despite the controversy these pronouncements provoked, Wilson was actually quite measured in his predictions and even urged caution, writing 

Whether the social sciences can be truly biologicized in this fashion remains to be seen” (p4) 

The evidence of the ensuing forty years suggests, in my view, that the social sciences can indeed be, and are well on the way to being, as Wilson puts it, ‘biologicized’. The only stumbling block has proven to be social scientists themselves, who have, in some cases, proven resistant. 

‘Vaunting Ambition’? 

Yet, despite these words of caution, the scale of Wilson’s intellectual ambition can hardly be exaggerated. 

First, he sought to synthesize the entire field of animal behavior under the rubric of sociobiology and in the process produce the ‘New Synthesis’ promised in the subtitle, by analogy with the Modern Synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics that forms the basis for the entire field of modern biology. 

Then, in a final chapter, apparently as almost something of an afterthought, he decided to add human behaviour into his synthesis as well. 

This meant, not just providing a new foundation for a single subfield within biology (i.e. animal behaviour), but for several whole disciplines formerly virtually unconnected to biology – e.g. psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, economics. 

Oh yeah… and moral philosophy and perhaps epistemology too. I forgot to mention that. 

From Sociobiology to… Philosophy?

Indeed, Wilson’s forays into philosophy proved even more controversial than those into social science. Though limited to a few paragraphs in his first and last chapter, they were among the most widely quoted, and critiqued, in the whole book. 

Not only were opponents of sociobiology (and philosophers) predictably indignant, but even those few researchers bravely taking up the sociobiological gauntlet, and even applying it to humans, remained mostly skeptical. 

In proposing to reconstruct moral philosophy on the basis of biology, Wilson was widely accused of committing what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy or appeal to nature fallacy

This refers to the principle that, if a behaviour is natural, this does not necessarily make it right, any more than the fact that dying of tuberculosis is natural means that it is morally wrong to treat tuberculosis with such ‘unnatural’ interventions as vaccination or antibiotics. 

In general, evolutionary psychologists have generally been only too happy to reiterate the sacrosanct inviolability of the fact-value chasm, not least because it allowed them to investigate the evolutionary function of such morally dubious, or indeed morally reprehensible, behaviours as infidelity, rape, war, sexual infidelity and child abuse, while denying they are thereby providing a justification for the behaviours in question. 

Yet this begs the question: if we cannot derive values from facts, whence can values be arrived at? Can they be derived only from other values? If so, then whence are our ultimate moral values, from which all others are derived, themselves ultimately derived? Must they be simply taken on faith? 

Wilson has recently controversially argued, in his excellent Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, that, in this context: 

The posing of the naturalistic fallacy is itself a fallacy” (Consilience: p273). 

Leaving aside this controversial claim, it is clear that his point in ‘Sociobiology’ is narrower. 

In short, Wilson seems to be arguing that, in contemplating the appropriateness of different theories of prescriptive ethics (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian deontology), moral philosophers consult “the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain” (p3). 

Yet these same moral philosophers take these emotions largely for granted. They treat the brain as a “black box” rather than a biological entity the nature of which is itself the subject of scientific study (p562). 

Yet, despite the criticism Wilson’s suggestion provoked among many philosophers, the philosophical implications of recognising that moral intuitions are themselves a product of the evolutionary process have since become an serious and active area of philosophical enquiry. Indeed, among the leading pioneers in this field of enquiry has been the philosopher of biology Michael Ruse, not least in collaboration Wilson himself (Ruse & Wilson 1986). 

Yet if moral philosophy must be rethought in the light of biology and the evolved nature of our psychology, then the same is also surely true of arguably the other main subfield of contemporary philosophy – namely epistemology.  

Yet Wilson’s comments regarding the relevance of sociobiological theory to epistemology are even briefer than the few sentences he devotes in his opening and closing chapters to moral philosophy, being restricted to less than a sentence – a mere five-word parenthesis in a sentence primarily discussing moral philosophy and philosophers (p3). 

However, what humans are capable of knowing is, like morality, ultimately a product of the human brain – a brain which is a itself biological entity that evolved through a process of natural selection. 

The brain, then, is designed not for discovering ‘truth’, in some abstract, philosophical sense, but rather for maximizing the reproductive success of the organism whose behaviour it controls and directs. 

Of course, for most purposes, natural selection would likely favour psychological mechanisms that produce, if not ‘truth’, then at least a reliable model of the world as it actually operates, so that an organism can modify its behaviour in accordance with this model, in order to produce outcomes that maximizes its inclusive fitness under these conditions. 

However, it is at least possible that there are certain phenomena that our brains are, through the very nature of their wiring and construction, incapable of fully understanding (e.g. quantum mechanics or the hard question of consciousness), simply because such understanding was of no utility in helping our ancestors to survive and reproduce in ancestral environments. 

The importance of evolutionary theory to our understanding of epistemology and the limits of human knowledge is, together with the relevance of evolutionary theory to moral philosophy, a theme explored in philosopher Michael Ruse’s book, Taking Darwin Seriously, and is also the principal theme of such recent works as The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald D Hoffman. 


Is ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ worth reading today? At almost 700 pages, it represents no idle investment of time. 

Wilson is a wonderful writer even in a purely literary sense, and has the unusual honour for a working scientist of being a twice Pulitzer-Prize winner. However, apart from a few provocative sections in the opening and closing chapters, ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ is largely written in the form of a student textbook, is not a book one is likely to read on account of its literary merits alone. 

As a textbook, Sociobiology is obviously dated. Indeed, the extent to which it has dated is an indication of the success of the research programme it helped inspire. 

Thus, one of the hallmarks of true science is the speed at which cutting-edge work becomes obsolete.  

Religious believers still cite holy books written millennia ago, while adherents of pseudo-sciences like psychoanalysis and Marxism still paw over the words of Freud and Marx. 

However, the scientific method is a cumulative process based on falsificationism and is moreover no respecter of persons.

Scientific works become obsolete almost as fast as they are published. Modern biologists only rarely cite Darwin. 

If you want a textbook summary of the latest research in sociobiology, I would instead recommend the latest edition of Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach or An Introduction to Behavioral Ecology; or, if your primary interest is human behavior, the latest edition of David Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind

The continued value of ‘Sociobiology: The New Synthesis’ lies in the field, not of science, but history of science In this field, it will remain a landmark work in the history of human thought, for both the controversy, and the pioneering research, that followed in its wake. 


[1] Actually, ‘evolutionary psychology’ is not quite a synonym for ‘sociobiology’. Whereas the latter field sought to understand the behaviour of all animals, if not all organisms, the term ‘evolutionary psychology’ is usually employed only in relation to the study of human behaviour. It would be more accurate, then, to say ‘evolutionary psychology’ is a synonym, or euphemism, for ‘human sociobiology’.

[2] Whereas behavioural geneticists focus on heritable differences between individuals within a single population, evolutionary psychologists largely focus on behavioural adaptations that are presumed to be pan-human and universal. Indeed, it is often argued that there is likely to be minimal heritable variation in human psychological adaptations, precisely because such adaptations have been subject to such strong selection pressure as to weed out suboptimal variation, such that only the optimal genotype remains. On this view, substantial heritable variation is found only in respect of traits that have not been subject to intense selection pressure (see Tooby & Cosmides 1990). However, this fails to be take into account such phenomena as frequency dependent selection and other forms of polymorphism, whereby different individuals within a breeding population adopt, for example, quite different reproductive strategies. It is also difficult to reconcile with the finding of behavioural geneticists that there is substantial heritable variation in intelligence as between individuals, despite the fact that the expansion of human brain-size over the course of evolution suggests that intelligence has been subject to strong selection pressures.

[3] For example, in 1997, the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, which had by then become, and remains, the leading scholarly journal in the field of what would then have been termed ‘human sociobiology’, and now usually goes by the name of ‘evolutionary psychology’, changed its name to Evolution and Human Behavior.

[4] An irony is that, while science is built on the assumption of determinism, namely the assumption that observed phenomena have causes that can be discovered by controlled experimentation, one of the findings of science is that, at least at the quantum level, determinism is actually not true. This is among the reasons why quantum theory is paradoxically popular among people who don’t really like science (and who, like virtually everyone else, don’t really understand quantum theory). Thus, Richard Dawkins has memorably parodied quantum mysticism as as based on the reasoning that: 

Quantum mechanics, that brilliantly successful flagship theory of modern science, is deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Eastern mystics have always been deeply mysterious and hard to understand. Therefore, Eastern mystics must have been talking about quantum theory all along.”

[5] Indeed, although since reconciled, Wilson and Watson seem to have shared a deep personal animosity for one another, Wilson once describing how he had once considered Watson, with whom he later reconciled, “the most unpleasant human being I had ever met” – see Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist. A student of Watson’s describes how, when Wilson was granted tenure at Harvard before Watson:

It was a big, big day in our corridor” as “Watson could be heard coming up the stairwell…  shouting ‘fuck, fuck, fuck” (Watson and DNA: p98)  

Wilson’s description of Watson’s personality in his memoir is interesting in the light of the later controversy regarding the latters comments regarding the economic implications of racial differences in intelligence, with Wilson writing: 

Watson, having risen to historic fame at an early age, became the Caligula of biology. He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness.” 

In contrast, geneticist David Reich suggests that Watson’s abrasive personality predated his scientific discoveries and may even have been partly responsible for them, writing: 

His obstreperousness may have been important to his success as a scientist” (Who We are and how We Got Here: p263).

[6] Group selection has recently, however, enjoyed something of a resurgence in the form of multi-level selection theory. Wilson himself is very much a supporter of this trend.

[7] Of course, it goes without saying that the persecution to which Wilson was subjected was as nothing compared to that to which Galileo was subjected (see my post, A Modern McCarthyism in Our Midst). 


Nowak et al (2010) The evolution of eusociality Nature 466:1057–1062. 

Price (1996) ‘In Defence of Group Selection, European Sociobiological Society Newsletter. No. 42, October 1996 

Ruse & Wilson (1986) Moral Philosophy as Applied SciencePhilosophy 61(236):173-192 

Tooby & Cosmides (1990) On the Universality of Human Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual: The Role of Genetics and AdaptationJournal of Personality 58(1): 17-67. 

Trivers (1971) The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57