sociobiology

sociobiology
A recently developed academic discipline, particularly popular in the United States, based upon the tenet that all animal and human behaviour is ultimately dependent upon genetic encoding moulded through evolutionary history by the processes of selection. This all-encompassing theme, according as it does with many common-sense assertions about human nature , is sufficient to have attracted an enormous quantity of media attention. The spotlight has focused particularly on its most well-known popularizing authors: Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term itself in his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975); and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976). Wilson, an American biologist and authority on ant behaviour, also provided the first definition of the new subdiscipline as ‘the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour’.
In the mid-1970s sociobiology brought together into a supposedly coherent theoretical synthesis the work of previous authors on the relationship between animal and human behaviour, including Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and Desmond Morris. It was anticipated, at least by Wilson, that all social and biological sciences would eventually be regarded merely as branches of sociobiology. Unsurprisingly, many sociologists and anthropologists have been deeply suspicious of the ultimately all-encompassing claims of this synthesis, and have drawn attention to the enormous cultural diversity of human societies-a diversity which challenges the frequently androcentric and ethnocentric assumptions of much sociobiological writing. For example, serious questions have been raised by Marshall Sahlins concerning the theoretical adequacy of sociobiology, and its claims to be a respectable academic discipline in its own right (The Use and Abuse of Biology, 1976). Many social scientists have challenged its use of scientific evidence (see, for example,, Vaulting Ambition, 1985). Others have linked the emergence of sociobiology in the United States to a conservative backlash against the radicalism of the 1960s (see, Not in our Genes, 1984).
The general response of sociobiologists to these criticisms has been gradually to admit more that is environmental into their analytical framework, whilst still retaining an adherence to the ultimate determining effect of biology, at least in any aspect of behaviour attributed with evolutionary significance. Wilson, for example, has more recently argued that ‘genes hold culture on a long leash’. Whilst some academic analysis has become relatively sophisticated and complex, the level at which much sociobiological argument is expressed (particularly in its more popular versions) remains alarmingly reductionist .
The sociobiological enterprise is now well established, being supported by a raft of academic journals (including Ethology and Sociobiology, Human Nature, and Evolutionary Anthropology), and two interdisciplinary associations (the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and the European Sociobiological Society). In a sympathetic review of the field, Fran¸ois Nielsen argues that sociobiological and evolutionary thinking will increasingly affect sociology in a number of areas, including (for example) the study of sex and gender roles, collective action, and altruism (see’Sociobiology and Sociology’, Annual Review of Sociology, 1994).

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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