Sociobiology at Age 25

by Steve Sailer
National Review


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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis -- 25th Anniversary Edition, by Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press, 697 pages, $75.00 cloth, $29.95 paper) 

[This is the last of the various versions I wrote for NR. No doubt it differs in some fashion from what they actually printed. -- Steve Sailer,]

Great fiction does not grow obsolete. Nor in it's own way does great propaganda. In contrast, truly important scientific books render themselves obsolete by opening new fields for subsequent scholars to elaborate. Edward O. Wilson's 1975 landmark SociobiologyCover of Sociobiology, which introduced Darwinian explanations for behavior to the public--and which has now been reissued to mark its 25th anniversary--is just such a book. Vast yet coherent, Sociobiology demonstrated in rigorous detail how Darwinian selection molded the various ways in which all animals--from the lowly corals to the social insects to the highest primates--compete and cooperate with others of their own species. 

Outraging the leftists who dominated academia, Wilson suggested numerous analogies between animal and human societies. While men have drawn such parallels since long before Aesop, Wilson's command of natural history and the power of neo-Darwinian theory in unifying this vast body of knowledge lent credibility to his grand ambition to reduce social science to a branch of biology, just as, Wilson argued, biology could ultimately be reduced to chemistry and chemistry to physics. .

Tom Wolfe has lauded Wilson as "the new Darwin," but that's somewhat overstating the case. Wilson is more the workaholic synthesist who brought to wide awareness the insights of even more original but lesser-known sociobiologists like the manic-depressive Robert Trivers and the late English genius William D. Hamilton. It was Hamilton who launched the sociobiological era in 1964 with his theory of "kin selection," which mathematically answered a question that had long nagged Darwin: Why do social creatures, whether ants or humans, tend to be nepotistic? Why do we sacrifice for our children and even for our more distant relatives? Hamilton showed that acting altruistically toward your kin can be in your genes' self-interest even when it's not in your own. Richard Dawkins, another sociobiologist inspired by Hamilton, popularized this insight in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene

Only the last of Sociobiology's 26 chapters is devoted solely to human societies, yet it blazed a trail that many others followed. In recent years, this genre has become wildly popular with readers of serious nonfiction books. lists 416 titles under "sociobiology" and 1,218 under "human evolution." While Wilson's archenemy, the Marxist media hound Stephen Jay Gould, has largely been reduced to negativity and obfuscation, many others have responded gallantly to Sociobiology's challenge. Among the most enjoyable introductions to modern Darwinism are The Third Chimpanzee by the bracing Jared Diamond and How the Mind Works by the entertaining Steven Pinker. Matt Ridley's Thatcherite perspective adds rigor to The Red Queen and The Origin of Virtue. Robert Wright's neoliberal The Moral Animal is a good read but sometimes tries to make Darwinism sound like a beta release of Clintonism.

Despite the success of Darwinism in answering some fundamental questions about human behavior and in attracting many of the best minds of our time, it has not been terribly popular with either left or right. Ironically, while the religious right futilely attacks Darwin's theory of what we evolved from, the left clamps down upon Darwin's theory of what we evolved to. The left has long denounced sociobiological research for validating what conservatives have assumed all along: that human nature--with its sex differences and its stress on individual, family, and ethnic self-interest--is an innate heritage, not a blank slate that can be wiped clean by speech codes, sensitivity workshops, and re-education camps. 

Not that the left hasn't tried: Stalin shipped his Darwinists to the Gulag. In the politically correct West, evolution-oriented scientists haven't been murdered. Yet Wilson had a bucket of ice water poured on his head, IQ scientist Arthur Jensen needed a bodyguard, the police investigated racial difference scholar J.P. Rushton for six months, the U. of Edinburgh fired IQ researcher Chris Brand despite 26 years of tenure, and a mob of protestors beat up Hans Eysenck, Britain's most prominent psychologist.

Wilson's orthodox Darwinian sociobiology made it countless enemies in academia. Centrist anthropologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides accordingly re-launched sociobiology under the neutral name of "evolutionary psychology." Pronouncing themselves the truest True Believers in equality, Tooby & Cosmides portrayed human nature as almost monolithically uniform, and proclaimed that evolutionary psychology should only study human similarities. 

But while egalitarianism served as a useful cover story for infiltrating sociobiology into academia, it proved a largely useless methodology for learning about humanity. Why? Because knowledge consists of contrasts. To learn much about human nature, we need to look for patterns of similarities and differences among humans. Ironically, therefore, evolutionary psychology has become primarily the study of sex differences. Impressively -- considering the stranglehold feminism has on academia -- many of the leading scholars in the field are female. Evolutionary psychologists like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy often began as feminist avengers, seeking to demonstrate that the importance of females in Darwinian selection had been grossly underrated. Yet their work on how women choose and manipulate mates ultimately undermined the feminist convention of women as the powerless victims of patriarchy. They thus confirmed what conservatives, not to mention any guy struggling to get a date, had always known: women exercise enormous informal power.

The biophobia of the politically pious originates in their dread of admitting the importance of human biodiversity. Old-fashioned leftists like Karl Marx hated evolutionary logic's implication that mankind was not perfectible. Paradoxically, new-fangled "identity politics" leftists have been driven berserk by the Darwinian research that suggests their obsession with gender and race might stem from the actual existence of innate differences between groups. However, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has recently suggested that the left should follow evolutionary psychology by abandoning feminist resentment in favor of (limited) biological realism. In Singer's new book A Darwinian Left, he argues that leftists could use the insights of Darwinism to "promote structures that foster cooperation rather than competition." The sophomoric Singer doesn't grasp that sociobiological altruism is a two-edged sword: the most effective way to get males to cooperate with each other is to get them fired up about competing with somebody else. For example, black and white college football players work together far better than the other students on campus precisely because if they don't, their opponents will crush them. Without competition to impose costs, people naturally discriminate in favor of their kin and race. 

You might think that conservatives would give sociobiology a sympathetic hearing, if only because anything Steven Jay Gould abhors can't be all bad. And, indeed, many rightwing heavyweights like James Q. Wilson (The Moral Sense), Francis Fukuyama (The Great Disruption), and Charles Murray ("Deeper into the Brain," NR, January 24, 2000) have increasingly built their worldviews upon a Darwinian plinth. Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full is The Great Human Biodiversity Novel. Note how Wolfe carefully describes each character in terms of his muscle to fat ratio. (This is far less wacky than it sounds because testosterone levels influence both muscularity and masculine personality traits like aggressiveness.). 

This is a natural evolution for American conservatism. After all, Darwin himself was crucially inspired by the free market economics of conservative icon Adam Smith. And as Pope John Paul II's endorsement of Darwinism demonstrated, the theory of natural selection is reasonably compatible with the main creeds in the Judeo-Christian tradition, except for the kind of ultra-literalist fundamentalism that makes a fetish out of the universe being created in 4004 B.C.

Having shot itself in the foot over Galileo, the Roman Catholic has wisely learned not to bet its prestige on one side of a scientific controversy. Science works best with theories that are falsifiable, religion with beliefs that aren't. Creationism, an extremely easily falsified theory, just makes religion in general look stupid. Similarly, when conservatives are excessively solicitous of the feelings of Creationists, they end up looking dim, too. Worse, anti-Darwinism keeps conservatives from noticing that Darwinian science is corroborating and extending much of the conservative world-view. It's time to wake up and realize: we're winning.

Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and an Adjunct Fellow of the Hudson Institute. 

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