SociobiologySociobiology is the study of the biological determinants of social behavior, based on the theory that such behavior is often genetically transmitted and subject to evolutionary processes. It stresses the importance of behavior and is committed to the theories of the adaptationist program. The adaptationist program assumes that certain creatures or groups of creatures currently exist because their past relatives possessed certain phenotypic traits that they were able to pass on to future generations.
According to Lewontin (1979), sociobiologists work under the assumption that "evolution of a species and community does in fact lead to high adaptation, high fitness, maximum intrinsic rate of increase, or some other attribute of the population related to reproductive success of individuals." Therefore it is the task of the individual theorist to decide what characteristics of the organism would be optimal given the state of the environment (p. 5). Note, that by using the term "nature" one is often referring to environment. Take for example the selection for black moths during the Industrial Revolution. When normally white trees became covered with soot due to factory pollution, the white moths became sparse, for they were easily sighted and eaten by birds. But the previously black moth minority population quickly increased as they were easily camouflaged by the soot. This exemplifies the theory of natural selection. The theory of natural selection is well established in scientific circles and rarely questioned.
In 1975, Wilson published Sociobiology, which was highly debated among theorists of the time. However, one no longer hears that psychology will be encompassed by sociobiology; rather psychology has incorporated some sociobiological theses while rejecting the more extreme assertions (Anker, 1987, p. 426). This is evident to those who have taken courses in various fields of psychology. Since 1975, evidence of genetic influence on behavior and acceptance of the theory has increased steadily. However, because of the general form of sociobiological argument, many remain skeptical.
Methods of SociobiologySociobiologists begin like many psychologists. They describe the behavioral phenotype of a species. A phenotype is the type of behavior one can see clearly. But like genetic phenotypes, one must realize that what is seen is sometimes superficial and often lacks the deeper, less obvious perspective. Once they do this, they must design an adaptationist story to explain that the circumstances that would cause individuals to act in a certain way would actually benefit the individual's or group of individuals' reproductive success. Kitcher (1987) states, "Another common indictment of sociobiology is that it pursues an illegitimate adaptationist program, in which the evolutionary process is regarded as generating optimal phenotypes" (p. 66). However, it must be noted that sometimes there is no optimal phenotype available. Other times the optimal phenotype or genotype is hidden within a heterozygous pair. One example of this would be the protection from malaria due to a combination of the dominant and recessive genes for sickle cell anemia. Sickle cell anemia is present only when two recessive genes are present. Therefore, genetic protection from sickle cell anemia is hidden within a heterozygous pair. However, they then must prove this behavior to be genetically transmittable. But this is highly problematic, and sociobiology suffers from a number of serious methodological and epistemological problems (Lewontin, 1979, p. 6). For example, how does one prove that circumstances once existed when it is impossible to determine specific environments of the past?
Sociobiologists must first decide how the evolution of an organism is to be divided. Should it be divided according to function or physiological location? Lewontin (1979) argues that evolution cannot select for mental processes, only physical traits. As we will see later, evolutionary psychologists have objections to this assumption. It is argued that although mental constructs are not real objects, they can alter the future course of evolution. But Lewontin is quick to say that this happens more in the evolution of plants than in humans.
Criticisms of SociobiologyOthers have argued that sociobiology can be considered racist. Take for example the controversial book The Bell Curve, which attempts to correlate race and intelligence. Some philosophers and critical scientists say that sociobiology lacks predictive qualities. Others say that it is too limited to animals and has little value in reference to human beings. There remain, however, philosophers and other theorists who see sociobiology as a rationalization for the misbehaviors of both individuals, in the case of rape for example, and of society, for instance, the exploitation of women and children (Anker, 1987, p. 426). This was, however, never the intent of sociobiologists. Buss describes some of the errors of sociobiology, and how it differs from evolutionary psychology.
Sociobiology Versus Evolutionary PsychologyBuss (1995) begins by saying, "Although sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists do share the same basic evolutionary theory in its modern instantiation as inclusive fitness theory, they depart in ways that are crucial for psychology" (p. 9). Specifically, sociobiologists believe that the main goal of humans is to increase reproductive success, to be "fitness maximizers." However, evolutionary psychologists believe humans to be "adaptation executors" or "mechanism activators." They believe the main goal of human beings is to solve the problems of survival that aid in reproduction and improve fitness. Notice this is very different from Buss (1991) who emphasizes that it is the sociobiologist who argues that humanity's main goal is reproduction. Evolutionary psychology is best regarded as a theory about origins, rather than the content of human nature (p. 463). Evolutionary psychologists specifically examine the causal processes that create specific mechanisms and not the mechanisms themselves.
Why can humans not be fitness maximizers? Buss (1995) answers this by saying that psychologists can not track fitness within a lifetime, much less action by action. Fitness is too nondescript, and contributors to fitness vary across species, sexes, ages, ecologies, and adaptive domains (p. 10). There are too many variable factors to specify what exactly contributes to fitness. He also describes the "sociobiological fallacy" by stating that many sociobiologists have skipped or neglected the 'psychological level' of analysis (p. 10). Simply, they have concentrated too much on the end product of behavior, and have failed to question why humans developed the behaviors in the first place. For example, why are people social animals? How do humans choose mates? Why do people behave in altruistic ways?