Culture: Sociobiology Research Paper Starter

Culture: Sociobiology

This article presents an overview and tenets of sociobiology viewed through a neo-Darwinist lens. Theories of sociobiology and subsequent individual and collective behaviors manifested by sociobiology are also presented. Additionally, insights are presented into ways sociobiological philosophies impact current sociological thought and gender and sex issues. Insights into different models of thinking are offered through the examination of two models: individual differences model and social psychological model. Debated issues are also included to provide a framework for understanding the vast academic and societal debate on sociobiological theories. A conclusion is offered that describes solutions for conceptualizing sociobiological theory into solving current societal dilemmas.

Keywords Biology; Cultural Evolution; Evolution; Individual Differences Model; Neo-Darwinism; Social Psychology Model; Sociobiology



Sociobiology combines the fields of sociology and biology. It is the study of biologically based behaviors defined in the context of neo-Darwinian evolutionary history. Sociobiology was originally defined by Wilson (1975) as the "systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior" (p. 4). Sociobiology focuses on evolutionary explanations of behavior within the context of modern society, and specifically neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory (Nielsen, 1994, p. 267). Sociobiology also refers to the collective enterprise, described by Lopreato (1992) as an "alliance of disciplines" that emerged to public consciousness in the mid-1970s stemming from two key texts. The first key text that mentioned the idea of sociobiology was Wilson's work entitled: Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. The second text was Dawkin's work entitled: The Selfish Gene. Both of these texts generated a great controversy, which surrounded the premise that the "contribution of Sociobiology to the understanding of human behavior can be organized around a small number of major theoretical articulations" (Lopreato, 1992). These included the identification of the gene as the basic unit of selection and selfishness and the idea of inclusive fitness, which also includes the roles of relatedness leading to theories of sex and gender differences, the paradox of collective action, concepts of human nature, and psychological foundations of social behavior (Nielsen, 1994, p. 269). Borgerhoff Mulder (2006) wrote that "human Sociobiology," as a term, has changed somewhat and also includes terms like: "human behavioural and evolutionary ecology," "Darwinian anthropology," "evolutionary anthropology," and "socioecology" (p. 21-22). When researching this topic, these additional terms should be considered for enhanced understanding.

In defining the basis for "Sociobiological thought," Dawkins (1989) identified the gene as “the fundamental unit of selection and the basic unit of selfishness. From the gene-centered perspective, the individual organism becomes a temporary collection of genes that does not directly reproduce itself, but is instead an organism constructed by genes designed to enhance their transmission to the next generation” (Nielson, 1994, p. 269). Wilson (1975) explains, "In a Darwinian sense the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier. The organism is only DNA's way of making more DNA" (p. 3). This idea promoted the concept of group selectionism, which is the idea that entire groups, or local populations are subjected to natural selection. Wynne-Edwards (1962) argued that when individuals evolve a self-restraint behavior to benefit the group as a whole yet at the expense of the members engaging in it, the altruistic behavior eventually becomes fixated in a given population, and disproportionate group survival occurs.

In argument against this theory, several researchers, including Lack (1966) argued that the tendency for birds to lay a limited number of eggs occurred as a result of individual level selection. Evolutionary geneticists similarly agreed that even though group selection is theoretically potential, it depends on a combination of extraordinary circumstances typically not found in nature, resulting as an impossibility in most cases (Williams, 1966, 1975; Boorman & Levitt, 1980). On the other hand, Hamilton's (1966) inclusive fitness theory predicted that “milder forms of nepotistic altruism among animals would be structured along a gradient of relatedness” to the organisms' propensities toward friendship, “gratitude and sympathy, to moralistic aggression against non-cooperative behavior, to guilt” and seeking the higher good, to “a sense of justice, and even a capacity for detecting deceit and for self-deception” (Nielson, 1994, p. 273).

Despite heated debate within societal and academic ranks regarding sociobiology and its tenets, some researchers insist that the "sociobiological approach has won. It has spawned societies, journals, and an ever-expanding program of research" (Segerstale, as cited in Jolly, 2000, par. 7). The philosophy has also outgrown "genetic determinism" leaping into debates regarding gender, nature versus nurture, and many of the deeply seated and heated arguments regarding sociology and biology ultimately combining the two ideologies; integrating the two in some areas while separating them in others (Segerstale, 2000; Jolly, 2000). Two such important applications of the sociobiological debate are sex and parental investments origins and sociobiology and gender differences.


Sociobiology: Sex

One of the central puzzles to the evolution of sexual reproduction is the fact that offspring are produced from the recombination of genes from two parents. Within the origins of sex and parental investment, "sex is paradoxical" because it is typically more advantageous for the individual and for individual genes to be passed along rather than group genetics (Nielsen, 1994, p. 279). In such cases, origins of the current theories of sex emphasize benefits of asexual reproduction in environments that must be conquered quickly where there is little crowding and competition. Sexual reproduction in situations of high biotic interactions with other species has been shown to accelerate the rate of evolution of defenses against predators or parasites that are developing more efficient means of attack (Williams, 1975; Maynard Smith, 1978, 1989, p. 237–246; Trivers, 1985, p. 315–330).

Life History Theory

Incorporated within theories relating to sex and parental investment origins is "life history theory," which can be used to explain the timing and/or existence of three key events in the life history and reproduction of females, specifically. These three life events include: menarche, menopause, and death. According to sociobiology and neo-Darwinist beliefs, the age of menarche can be interpreted as an exchange of the fitness advantage of reproducing as early as possible, for the “lower survival chances of babies born to an immature mother, complicated by the potential benefits of delaying one's own reproduction by helping one's mother raise siblings” (Nielson, 1994, p. 286). Males experience a much less extensive investment in reproduction, therefore menopause did not evolve in males and the loss of sexual function with age was significantly more gradual.

Neo-Darwinist theorists also suggested that the timing of senescence and death itself may be the result of natural selection. This type of natural selection may occur as a result of diminished helping opportunities for post-reproductive women to help with the family or as a result of accumulated late acting harmful genes (Voland & Engel, 1989; Medawar, 1952; Hamilton, 1966; Dawkins, 1989, pp. 40–42; 274). Constructed within this argument is an overview of key biological phenomenon which sociologists would argue simultaneously impact and are impacted by social and collective constructs.

The Male Dilemma

Further providing insight into the sociobiological framework is an overview of the male parental role in reproduction and its subsequent dilemma. Borgerhoff Mulder (1992) approached the issue of parental care in terms of the costs, benefits, and opportunity costs of parental care to both genders. The male dilemma consists mainly between "dad" or "cad" (Harpending & Draper, 1986). According to Borgerhoff Mulder (1992), males are typically more motivated by the physical act of copulating rather than parental responsibility. The male response to such a dilemma is that "males would be expected to seek matings rather than continue to invest in their offspring; conversely expenditure should be in parental care where the pay off exceeds that of an identical expenditure in mating" (p. 362). Issues affecting such a dilemma are impacted by the stability of a couple's relationship, the general level of promiscuity, and the essentiality of the role of the father to the survival of the offspring (Harpending & Draper, 1986; Gaulin & Schlegel, 1980; Flinn, 1981, Nielsen, 1994, p. 286).

Instead of arguing the role of family responsibilities, neo-Darwinists argue that these are sociobiological theories of life history and "optimal allocation of reproductive efforts informing an emerging synthesis in works on parenting or the family" (Nielson, 1994, p. 287). These theories are represented theoretically and can be found in additional research represented by van den Berghe (1979), Lancaster, Altmann, Rossi, and Sherrod, 1987; Lancaster (1989a; 1989b), Lancaster & Kaplan (1992), Troost & Filsinger (1993), and Rossi (1984, 1994) (cf. Nielson, 1994, p. 287). These findings were similarly supported by Buss (1994) who argued that sex differences have a biological basis in reproductive roles, because women face the need for life-sustaining resources while they are pregnant and lactating, while men face the need to reduce uncertainty about the paternity of the offspring they support (Riger, 1997, p. 396).


In addition to sex and parental investment issues, Nielsen (1994) asserted that differential psychologists determined that major psychological differences exist between men and women. Early findings suggested that four documented areas of differences existed, which included: higher verbal ability in females, and higher visual-spatial ability, mathematical reasoning, and aggressiveness in males (p. 288; also Maccoby & Jacklin,...

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