Biology and Social Thought Today (1975- present)

1. Historical and Social Context 

·   In 50s and 60s “nurture assumption” influenced both social policy (e.g., welfare state, “war on poverty”, etc…) and social movements (black civil rights movement, feminism).

·   Culture and society were seen as key shapers of human behaviour 

·   By mid 70s social and economic changes (decline of mass protest movements, end of post war boom, “stagflation”, etc…) caused re-questioning of social policy, erosion of welfare state and rising tide of conservatism.

·   Since the mid 70s social “nurture assumption” of the 60s under attack.

·   Meanwhile, the Biological Revolution, including genetic engineering and the Human Genome Project have sparked new claims about biology’s ability to explain and even to shape human nature.


2. Two New "Sciences" Emerge at this Time

Sociobiology & evolutionary psychology (both more or less the same)

Sociobiology: “the scientific study of the biological basis of all social behaviour” (E.O. Wilson, 1975).


Key assumptions and terms

(1) that “social behaviour” has a biological basis

(2) that all social behaviour of all creatures (including humans) has a biological basis

·   social behaviour” = an organism’s observable actions, its key mental abilities. This includes aggression, intelligence, sexual behaviour, and many others.

·   “Biological basis” = includes both genetics and evolution by natural selection, etc… (i.e., as opposed to what is learned).

o       Just like nature selects “fittest” physical traits (e.g., giraffes with longer necks), it also selects fittest mental ones (i.e., behavioural traits).

o       Behaviour, like physical traits, are controlled by genes

o       Thus human behaviour is “programmed” by evolution by natural selection and by genetics.

o       Behaviour programs for survival and reproduction of genes (maximum fitness).

o       These genetic programs established by natural selection, especially before and during Paleolithic era in humans.


3. Sociobiology and the “Problem of Altruism”

However if all organisms are programmed by evolution for survival and reproduction (fitness), how de we explain organisms apparently behaving in ways threatening their own survival for others benefit (i.e., altruism)?


Altruism: self-sacrificing behaviour for the benefit of others (e.g., a mother risking her life to save her child from a burning building).


Sociobiology sees altruism as a “problem” since it is a behaviour that appears to contradict supposed genetic programming for maximum fitness (survival and reproduction).


“Solution” to the “problem of altruism”

·   Genes may “program” behaviour patterns leading to possible sacrifice of an individual as long as it serves to preserve the same genes in another individual (e.g., a mother sacrificing her life for a daughter).

·   Thus “survival of the fittest” which assumes fittest individuals survive (Darwinian fitness) should be redefined to mean “inclusive fitness”: includes survival not just of one’s own genes but of identical genes existing in close kin (sons, daughters, brothers, sisters). 

·   See text for how Wilson’s study of ants helped contribute to this “insight”.


“Selfish Gene” Concept


  ·   Thus altruistic behaviour doesn’t contradict Sociobiological view that all behaviour is biologically programmed for survival and reproduction

  ·   However, behaviour is programmed for survival and reproduction of potentially “immortal” genes rather than disposable and temporary individual body.

 ·   Genes and natural selection have created both bodies and behaviours of all animals.

·   Bodies (of all living beings) are only temporary “survival machines” for the “selfish genes” (Dawkins).



5. Sex, Sex, Sex… in humans and other organisms

Some Questions:

1. Why do we like certain qualities in the opposite sex?

2. What explains why each sex behaves in certain, supposedly “typical” ways towards the opposite sex? e.g., why do men supposedly prefer various female mates while women supposedly prefer one reliable one?


Sociobiology’s (and evolutionary psychology’s) answer:

Behaviour patterns toward the opposite sex not primarily a product of the influence of various cultures or societies. Instead, Sociobiology claims that:

·   Like all organisms, men and women “biologically programmed” to maximize reproductive fitness (number of offspring)

·   But women only produce a limited number of eggs in a lifetime

·   Women also bear most of the “cost” of carrying and raising offspring (9 months + 15 years of child-rearing).

·   Men produce almost infinite number of sperm per sexual encounter

·   Thus each offspring is “expensive” proposition for female but “cheap” for male (“sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive”)

·   Thus best strategy for genes is to encourage males to have many mates while encouraging females to be “more choosey”

·   Biological differences between the sexes thus explain behaviour differences currently observed between males and females.


6. Possible Critiques

·   Sociobiological view of human behaviour has been accused of biological determinism – can you see why?

·   Sociobiological view of differences in sexual behaviour between men and women has been accused of simply providing new supposedly scientific justification for traditional gender roles – can you see how?

·   Sociobiological view has been denounced as ideology rather than genuine science – is this accurate? Why or why not?