Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Behavioral Ecology

Edward O. Wilson (born June 10, 1929) is an American biologist, researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author.  His biological specialty is myrmecology, the study of ants.  Wilson is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  He is known for his scientific career, his role as “the father of sociobiology”, his environmental advocacy, and his secular-humanist and deist ideas pertaining to religious and ethical matters.  Wilson received his early training in biology at the University of Alabama (B.S., 1949; M.S., 1950).  After receiving his doctorate in biology at Harvard University in 1955, he was a member of Harvard’s biology and zoology faculties from 1956 to 1976.  At Harvard he was later Frank B. Baird Professor of Science (1976–94), Mellon Professor of the Sciences (1990–93), and Pellegrino University Professor (1994–97).  He was professor emeritus from 1997.  In addition, Wilson served as curator in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (1973–97).  A recent project of Wilson’s, the Encyclopedia of Life website, catalogs all key information about life of Earth — including data about every living species — and makes it accessible to everyone.  Launched with money from his 2007 TED Prize, the Encyclopedia of Life recently received an additional $10 million from the MacArthur Foundation.  Wilson also is the recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize (a sister to the Nobel), and the Audubon Medal.  He is the University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and continues to research at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Recently, Wilson teamed with Harrison Ford to create a new PEN Literary award titled the PEN/E.O.  Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing.

Hailed as a genius of modern science, he’s also been accused of racism in a vicious debate over evolution.  The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans.  The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings are born without any innate mental content and that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success.  In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more).  There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior.

Although much human diversity in behavior is culturally influenced, some has been shown to be genetic – rapid acquisition of language, human unpredictability, hypertrophy (extreme growth of pre-existing social structures), altruism and religions.  “Religious practices that consistently enhance survival and procreation of the practitioners will propagate the physiological controls that favor the acquisition of the practices during single lifetimes.  Unthinking submission to the communal will promotes the fitness of the members of the tribe.  Even submission to secular religions and cults involve willing subordination of the individual to the group.  Religious practices confer biological advantages.”

Jerome H. Barkow is a Canadian anthropologist at Dalhousie University who has made important contributions to the field of evolutionary psychology. He received a B.A. in Psychology from Brooklyn College in 1964 and a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Chicago in 1970.  He has conducted field research in West Africa, Nova Scotia, and Indonesia, and is currently collaborating on an analysis of mass media and gossip from an evolutionary perspective.  He is Professor of Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University and a Distinguished International Fellow at the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland).

Professor Barkow has research and teaching interests in evolution and human nature and in the anthropologies of food and of health.  The connecting theme of his publications is that our evolved psychology underlies human society and culture.  Barkow has published on topics ranging from sex workers in Nigeria to the kinds of sentients SETI might find.  He is best known as the author of Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture (1989). In 1992, together with Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Barkow edited the influential book The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  In 2006, he edited Missing the Revolution: Darwinism for Social Scientists.

In his article “The Elastic Between Genes and Culture” he argues that a society’s culture may come to include information tending to lead to fitness-reducing behavior on the part of some or all of its members.  This phenomenon results from conflict among factions within each society, from transmitted misinformation (e.g., cupping restores health), from natural and human-caused environmental change so that previously adaptive information becomes maladaptive, and from the long and short-term negative “side effects” of information that may otherwise be fitness enhancing.  Because some cultural information may be fitness reducing, we apparently have been selected for individual-level traits that often result in our revising socially transmitted information that might otherwise have maladaptive consequences.  Two examples of such traits are adolescent “rebelliousness” and the tendency to learn most readily from those higher than ourselves in status.  Such leading-to-culture-revision traits are very imperfect mechanisms, however, so that some likely-to-be maladaptive cultural information, such as medical cupping or denying infants the colostrum, remains part of the culture.  It is doubtful, given the structure of modern human populations and the ubiquity of culture change, that such maladaptive socially transmitted information leads to natural selection for genetic “direct biases” against accepting the practices in question.

The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signaling in Human Foraging Strategies, by Rebecca Bird, Eric Smith, and Douglas Bird

In this article, the authors use a study conducted on the small island of Mer to support their theory of genetics as controlling human behavior — specifically the act of turtle hunting. As described by the authors, men who participated in turtle hunting (either as individuals or in hunting parties) stood to gain something more than what can be acquired nutritionally. According to Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT), human foragers pick food that results in maximum gain for minimal input. As this is not the case in turtle hunting, the authors argue that men use hunting as a way of signaling something significant to other members of the group, thereby making up for the extra energy expended on a less calorically efficient activity. As a result of surveys conducted on the island, the authors found that men who killed more turtles than others were recognized as better hunters, which may mean that they were held in higher esteem and possibly more attractive to the women on the island, thus making it more likely that they will be able to pass along their genes. The question is, can all of this be attributed to genetics? Is all just a result of the basic urge to pass along genes to future generations?

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  • Kayla M  On March 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    In regards to The Hunting Handicap. According to Darwin it is our goal in life to pass on our new generations. I mean women are more likely to choose the more handsome, stronger looking men just like how birds choose mates based off of their colors, or dancing skills. Based off of Mer culture I guess it is attractive to the people to be the best hunters. Although I think genes can partially be put towards good hunting skills I believe it is more of a cultural deal that whoever brings back the most turtles can be seen as the most attractive. If you think about it we have to be taught over time to hunt.

  • Martha T.  On March 26, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Wilson’s arguments and theories relate to the same old question that has come up time and time again- nature or nurture? It’s one of those issues that can be debated to the end of all times. I think that people are born with genetic predispositions to certain traits, for example, addictive personalities seem to be genetic. There has also been research on twins born and raised apart who turn out to be very similar despite the fact that they were “nurtured” differently. I think the issue is less of whether it is in fact nature or nurture that shape us; but to what extent they shape us. The post mentions that the rate of language acquisition seems to be genetic; but how much does that actually impact the individual? If they as children acquire language a few months sooner than other children their age- is that really all that important? Just a little food for thought…

  • kmgalvez  On March 27, 2012 at 9:06 am

    First of all, I must admit that I read Wilson’s section with the previous knowledge that I am not too fond of him. This dislike of him was partly influenced by my Sociology of Sex and Gender class, where he was viewed in a not-so-positive light. Sociobiologists, such as Wilson, used their status in the academic community to support, if not promote, sexism and racism. He was a respected Harvard professor, so who would dare question his findings? Especially since he used Darwin’s concepts to “support” his findings. For example, he used Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection along with the concept of genetic fitness to argue that genes make us behave a certain way. And the genes that make us behave this certain way must be “good” since we are still alive. So, according to sociobiologists, human beings behave in ways that are good for their own survival and reproduction so that these “good” genes that make us behave this way in the first place can be passed on to future generations.
    Wilson states that social organization is based off of “population parameters combined with information on the behavioral constraints imposed by the genetic constitution of the species” (376-377). In turn, population parameters are determined by the evolutionary history of the species. Is he implying that the primitive societies which were thought to not have evolved are disadvantaged? And are they further disadvantaged because of their behavioral constraints?
    “Sexism and Sociobiology” by Ruth Hubbard points out a few general problems with sociobiology. For starters, you can’t compare ants to people! Secondly, sociobiologists believe that a behavior is genetic if it occurs in different societies (because the behavior must have been adapted and passed on through natural selection). Just because behaviors serve similar purposes, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they share an evolutionary origin. Finally, it is not possible to prove that “adaptive behaviors are inherited biologically and passed on through cultural learning”. This is because our environment also shapes our behavior; and humans can’t be studied in a laboratory in order to determine the extent to which genes and the environment affect our behavior.

    • Rosalva  On March 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      I agree with you that adaptive behaviors cannot be based just on genetics and how this would affect the outcome of the generations to come. The environment you live on also greatly affects your behavior. It would depend on the people that surround you the most and things that the individual himself would take from it and leave what it does not want. Nature and Nurture go hand in hand I don’t think you can really separate them both. Wilson believed that behavior could only be fully comprehended through genetics and I really don’t think that is true.

  • EarlP  On March 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Well, Wilson was an interesting read. Is that what sociobiologist do? I would like to compare the complex ant to human society. I found it hard to believe some of his theories about natural selections. It was clear that he was piggy backing on an evolutionary theory from the past, but trying to mold it to fit his thoughts and research. Darwin had his finches and Wilson had his ants. But, the idea that an altruistic event could jeopardize natural selection was pretty hard for me to envision or comprehend and even believe. I know what altruism means, but did he. At the bottom of the page on 374 the footnotes explain a possible understanding of that theory. A selfless act of sacrificing food, shelter, living space, and the possibility of losing reproduction rights could influence the gene pool in the future is a pretty wild theory. I don’t think selflessness is a genetic trait, but that’s my opinion. I would think that it would build a stronger evolutionary chain in natural selection. There are a lot of ideas that could support my theory about altruism creating a stronger natural selection theory, but this is about Wilson…

  • Roxie  On March 27, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    This section of the reading, was interesting. There are somethings that I do agree with and a few that I do not. Sociobiology, is behavior genetic. In my opinion some behavior is learned and other behavior that is passed down biologically. First of all is survival a behavior? if it is then it is passed down biologically, this is what Darwin was getting at with genetic mechanisms of transmission. This is a specific human behavior that has been passed down from generation to generation. Who doesn’t want to survive.
    “Sociobiologist argue that because humans are biological organisms, they are subject to the same evolutionary laws as other life forms” (431). To me this makes sense, looking at behavior from an evolutionary stand point.anyone reading this Mulooly.
    Is behavior something that is passed down (biologically) or something that is developed, learned (culturally), looking at it from being learned is what anthropologist do when they are observing other cultures. This section brings up many more questions, some are being answered but others are not.

    • Roxie  On March 28, 2012 at 8:24 am

      Mullooly, sorry spelled it wrong.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On April 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Well I read “The Morality of the Gene” by Edward O. Wilson and I was not moved one way or the other by it. It was just hohum, bordering on boring.

    Wilson is a reductionist and he searched for unifying principles which he could use to explain all behavior (like population growth, gene flows, demography, etc).

    His ‘sociobiology’ focuses on natural selection and reproductive success as the mechanism for determining such behavior. He sees the key issues as being entirely within the hard sciences – which does not include anthropology.

    Wilson’s worldview comes from a place of extreme frugality where explanations are clean and precise – leaving no loose ends. This reminds me of those old 19th century views and I am not in line with that.

    The ‘hard sciences’ can have sociobiology thank you very much.

  • CorrinaC  On April 7, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Wilson’s theory that all humans social activity is reduced to evolutionary genetics takes a Darwinian perspective and I couldn’t help but applying his theory to the primates social behavior. Our societies, personalities and the concept of individualism is argued to to be result of historical events, language, and the environment that influences us as people. The concept of natural selection evolving humans to be unique rises from the evolution of our anatomy and the physiological functions.
    There is no doubt we as people are unique as we are one of a kind species that has transitioned society from different ages and eras as the archeological evidence can point out, but does our society and way of being any more awesome than other species? Birds can fly, chimps can fling across trees with no trouble at all, and dolphins who are mammals like humans soar through the seas. Their own society works for them and has ensured their survival throughout the years as much as humans, can they not be just as unique, maybe even more?
    From my primates class, I studied much about the behavior of apes and monkeys and how in order for them to survive them must adapt to certain changes, an even more so live together as a troupe as they are social creatures. Plenty of primates are solitary creatures, but their history have shown that their survival has been a result of living and depending on each other as well as passing down genetic traits that would help them ensure their survival. That is why females will most likely choose the alpha who is placed at the top of hierarchical chain as they enhance the fitness of their line and future. Males themselves who are attracted to females who may already have a baby will target and kill their infant to impregnate the female and enhance their line as well. When the infant becomes older, there is a likely chance that the infant will become an alpha and raises the status of the mother and kin. Kin therefore needs to be recognized which then altruism becomes a factor in recognizing their maternal kin.

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