The History of Edward Wilson’s Sociobiology

A Predecessor To Evolutionary Psychology

In his 1975 book, Edward O. Wilson presented his theory of Sociobiology, which explained social behavior as having resulted from evolutionary history.

In the 1970s, the notion of “sociobiology,” the theory that there exists a biological basis to social behavior saw a controversial reception in the United States. The story of this theory, the antecedent to what is now known as “evolutionary psychology” begins with an obsession with ants.

A Brief Biography of Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson began his scientific career at the age of 13 when he discovered the first known U.S. colonies of fire ants in Mobile, Alabama. His devotion to studying ants continued as he worked as an assistant professor at Harvard in the 1950s where he demonstrated that ants respond to chemical signals that have since been identified as pheromones.

As Wilson further studied ant colonies, he began to notice remarkable similarities between the systems ants create and the social interactions of other animals, including humans. In 1975, Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he proposed that social behavior is the result of natural selection.

Academic Reaction to Sociobiology

With the publication of Sociobiology came a storm of controversy. For the majority of the book, Wilson wrote about the genetically inherited behavioral characteristics of non-humans, a concept initially recognized as a monumental scientific discovery. The problem lay in the book’s 27th chapter, in which Wilson suggested that the sociobiological concepts that had been demonstrated empirically in animal species would also apply to humans.

Accusing Wilson of racism and misogyny, critics claimed the theory was nothing more than political doctrine masquerading as science. In November 1975, only months after the book’s publication, a number of Boston area academics formed the Sociobiology Study Group, which launched an unrelenting attack on the study of sociobiology. Much to Wilson’s disappointment, the co-signers of the group’s first public statement included some of Wilson’s colleagues at Harvard, including Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould.

Public Reaction to Sociobiology

The public reaction to the theory was similar to that by the academics. The International Committee Against Racism (CAR) was even more hostile in its criticisms. They called sociobiology “dangerously racist” and disseminated flyers that said things like “Sociobiology, by encouraging biological and genetic explanations for racism, war and genocide, exonerates and protects the groups and individuals who have carried out and benefited from these monstrous crimes.” The new science garnered so much controversy that it soon appeared on the covers of TIME magazine and the New York Times.

In 1978, as part of their annual meeting, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sponsored a two-day symposium devoted to the sociobiology debate. The fact that the debate was being recognized by the AAAS delighted the Sociobiology Study Group; the symposium speakers spoke to a full house, but the program became anything but civil.

Just as Wilson was about to speak, ten members of CAR ran onto the platform shouting, “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and poured a jug of ice water over Wilson’s head. As the inevitable commotion ensued, the CAR members disappeared, and Wilson received a standing ovation. Still wet, Wilson decided to deliver his speech anyway to address the concerns of his critics.

Wilson’s Application of Sociobiology to Understanding Human Nature

Although human behavior was not the intent of his 1975 book, it became the sole topic of his 1978 work, On Human Nature, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1979. Wilson wrote that the unusual aftermath of Sociobiology led him to study human behavior more closely, and he became convinced that the theories of sociobiology provided the appropriate instruments with which human nature could be studied. He concluded: “The question of interest is no longer whether human social behavior is genetically determined; it is to what extent.”

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