Evolutionary Psychology
[E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology]

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E. O. Wilson
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

  In 1971 a Professor at Harvard, the prominent entomologist E. O. Wilson, published a book entitled The Insect Societies. Four years later in his study entitled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, (an enormous volume comprised of 697 extra-sized pages), Wilson sought to extend the understanding he had gained of the principles of the intricate behaviors of social instincts to vertebrate animals. A third book, entitled "On Human Nature", which followed in 1978 was concerned with the further extension of these same principles to the human species.

  These last two books gave rise an initial storm of controversy that has somewhat abated as the evolutionary behavioral ideas as suggested by Wilson have gained more acceptance. Both within and beyond academic circles it was inevitable that ideas that are effectively concerned with fundamental questions of Human Life: its meaning and its inherent dignity would have the potential to be enormously controversial.

  In the very first paragraph of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis he states his view of life in quite unequivocally reductionistic terms as follows:

  In a Darwinian sense the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier... Samuel Butler's famous aphorism, that the chicken is only an egg's way of making another egg, has been modernized: The organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA.

  The overall message carried was a startling one: that various kinds of social behavior are genetically programmed into any species, including our own, and that this programming is particularly true of the social behavior human beings label "altruism," which Wilson defines as "self-destructive behavior performed for the benefit of others."

  People are animals, their behavior has evolved just like that of the animals, and our culture has a biological component, he announced. Human sexuality has evolved in certain ways for specific reasons, all through natural selection. It seemed to some that Professor E O Wilson of Harvard University was dramatically undermining human dignity.

Sociobiology "versus" Culture
Instincts "versus" Education

  Now, cultures need to accomplish certain things if they are to survive at all. They must assure effective use of natural resources, for example, which might involve the learning of all sorts of territorial and aggressive behaviors, just like in sociobiological explanations. And they must assure a degree of cooperation, which might involve learning altruistic behaviors, rules for sharing resources and for other social relationships, just like the ones in sociobiological explanations. And they must assure a continuation of the population, which might involve certain courtship and marital arrangements, nurturant behaviors, and so on, just like in sociobiological explanations.

  So do we have instincts? If instincts are defined as automatic reflex-like connections -- no, probably not. But define instincts as "strong innate tendencies toward certain behaviors in certain situations" -- yes, we probably do. An important point is that we (unlike animals) can always say no to our instinctual behaviors, just like we can say no to our learned ones!

Introductory quotations
Evolutionary psychology
E O Wilson
Tooby and Cosmides
Are Faith and Reason Compatible?
Spirituality &
the wider world




Start of
E O Wilson
Sociobiology: The New Synthesis