Sociobiology is a current in sociology that emerged in the first half of the 1970s as a direct result of the crisis of functionalism. Scientific field, associated primarily with the thought and work of E. O. Wilson, who succinctly defined it as “the systematic study of all social behavior.” That is, sociobiology strives to explain the social organization of the animal world-including the human species-and the directions of its transformations by taking as its reference the biological characteristics identifiable, for example, in genetic constitutions or compatibility constraints. Making use of the contributions of ethological research, sociobiologists have been able to develop interesting and original models for understanding animal behavior, also pointing out suggestive analogies with the ways in which human societies are organized and communicated.

The different theories

While biologists unanimously agree that evolutionary (or selectionist) thinking can be applied to animals and plants, many of them believe that it is neither possible nor desirable to apply the same way of reasoning to the evolution of human behavior; indeed, it is difficult to accept that our behavior has been shaped by natural selection in such a way as to promote overall individual reproductive success, that is, of the individual and all those who carry one or more of his or her genes (notably relatives). The principle on which the objection made to sociobiologists rests is that in order to make reasonable assumptions about the behavior of any animal species, it is necessary to assume it as “adapted,” that is, as the result of an evolutionary process. If this is true, behavior must necessarily have a genetic basis, the only condition that would have allowed selection to operate on different alternatives in the past.

The goal of sociobiology, if applied to human behavior, would therefore be to find the genes responsible for different behaviors, such as altruism or aggression, genes that have never been identified. The retort of sociobiologists is that this argument rests on a misunderstanding and totally loses sight of the primary goal of sociobiological analysis of behavior. Indeed, even less is known about the genetic basis of the alarm behavior of ground squirrels or the group life behavior of the lion, but this fact does not prevent scholars from posing and testing hypotheses about their adaptive value. What interests sociobiology is the analysis of remote causes of behavior, not proximate causes.

The study of the neural systems, for example, that enable a bat to discover a moth in flight is intended to understand the proximate causes of the behavior; when, on the other hand, we formulate and test hypotheses about how the bat’s behavior enhances its biological success, we study the remote causes of the behavior and look for them in its evolutionary history. Similarly then, according to sociobiologists, it is entirely possible to test hypotheses about human behaviors without knowing anything about their genetic basis. A second objection to sociobiologists is that humans do not act with the intent of increasing their overall reproductive success: they rarely, if ever, act with the reproductive consequences of their behavior in mind. Indeed, if you ask any human being why he or she married a certain mate or partner, why he or she gave birth to children, in most cases his or her answers will have nothing to do with his or her biological success. However, if a baby cuckoo that throws out of its host nest the young of the adoptive species could talk, neither would it say that it does so because it wishes to leave behind as many copies of its genes as possible.

None of the sociobiological hypotheses assumes, however, that animals are conscious of the evolutionary effects of their behavior, and this is equally true for humans. The third objection raised is that not all human behavior is biologically adaptive. Critics of human sociobiology habitually cite behaviors such as the celibacy of members of certain religions or prohibitions on eating perfectly edible foods as examples of clearly non-adaptive behaviors. According to these critiques, if some human behavior diminishes the biological success of those who practice it, then the sociobiological approach cannot be correct. Implicit in this argument is the belief that absolutely all facets of animal behavior (including humans) must be adaptive; however, this is not proven either.

Assuming that a behavior is adaptive is only a working hypothesis that allows other hypotheses to be generated for testing; from a sociobiological point of view, if one assumes that celibacy is adaptive in a certain culture, it is necessary for this hypothesis to be tested. In this specific case, a positive finding may a priori seem impossible, however, one should not underestimate the existence of many forms of indirect selection. The important point is that the possibility of formulating multiple adaptive hypotheses about celibacy does not imply that none of them is correct. And since it is possible to reject one or more hypotheses after appropriate verification, our knowledge of the behavior in question will still be improved. Finally, a further objection is that sociobiology serves to justify social injustice and inequality of opportunity by serving as a “scientific” basis for unjust social policies.

According to critics, saying that a behavior is adaptive, that is, that it is genetically determined, is equivalent to saying that it is good and therefore cannot and should not be changed. For example, if a sociobiological theory says that male dominance is adaptive, then that theory would also say that the customs of our society, in which men generally dominate over women, reflect a desirable way of being, while feminist protests would be absurd because they go against what is biologically determined. In this regard, there is no doubt that scientific results in general are subject to a use that may turn out to be completely different from the inspiring motive and original intentions of the researcher: it is known to all, for example, that Nobel’s research on explosive substances and A. Einstein’s research on the relations between matter and energy served, in spite of themselves, for the development of armaments and the increase in the destructiveness of wars. Similarly, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection was used to assert that the rich are superior beings, or that it would be necessary to practice better human genetics by preventing the reproduction of “inferior beings.”

In the early 1980s, however, some proponents of sociobiology gave their research a critical bent against all traditional sociological approaches, with a substantial, questionable downplaying of the intentional and historical character of human action. Hence a controversy – not without ethical and ideological implications – that has lasted for almost a decade, with the accusation levelled at radical sociobiology of producing a theory of social control achievable through conditioning the genetic basis of human behavior. Today, however, there is broad agreement on the irreducibility of human collective and individual behavior to animal models, even considering the great evolutionary distance of the different species.

Sociology reaffirms the centrality of culture and the historicity of human action, while acknowledging the existence of conditioning and similarities that affect the animal world. The insights of ethological research therefore appear useful and scientifically stimulating, if one does not forget that society-as a product of human intentionality-is born precisely from the emancipation of the human condition from biological constraints.

Sociobiology and human behavior

It should be reiterated that the only real claim of sociobiology is to test the validity of adaptationist hypotheses about human behavior. Sociobiological hypotheses about human behavior fall into three categories: a behavior 1) may be presently adaptive (i.e., have a positive effect on the reproductive success of the individuals who carry it out); 2) may be presently non-adaptive but have been adaptive in the past, when the species was subjected to environmental pressures different from those of the present; and 3) may not be presently or have ever been adaptive, but be a secondary consequence of another behavior that definitely increases reproductive success (pleiotropic effect).

The ethical issues

The important point that critics overlook is that sociobiology aims to explain how behavior evolves and does not claim to justify it. This distinction poses no problems when the study turns to nonhuman animals. Researchers studying infanticide in langur monkeys or the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV) are not accused of endorsing infanticide or HIV. The interaction between genes and our environment leaves ample room for individual freedom, so that everyone continues to be responsible for his or her actions regardless of the genes he or she carries in his or her cells.

Undoubtedly, formulating hypotheses about human behavior using sociobiological methods is very difficult because of the enormous variety of social structures that our species presents. How can we think that reproductive behavior is adaptive if there are polyandrous, polygynous or monogamous societies? For some scholars of human behavior, it is clearly unnecessary to make sociobiological assumptions about our behavior, since the diversity of social organizations that our species presents offers sufficient evidence that we have escaped the constraints of our evolutionary history. Our behavior is arbitrary and therefore there is no point in seeking adaptive meanings for it.

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