Have sociobiologists proved that the mechanisms of the inheritance and development of human physical, mental, and behavioral traits are essentially the same as for other animals

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Have sociobiologists proved that the mechanisms of the inheritance and development of human physical, mental, and behavioral traits are essentially the same as for other animals?

Viewpoint: Yes, sociobiologists led by E. O. Wilson have offered convincing evidence that the mechanisms of the inheritance and development of human physical, mental, and behavioral traits are essentially the same as for other animals.

Viewpoint: No, sociobiologists fail to account for many observable phenomena and invariably support a version of biological determinism.

In popular usage, the term sociobiology is used for the assumption that all mechanisms that account for the inheritance and development of physical, mental, and behavioral traits are essentially the same in humans and other animals. According to Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), sociobiology is "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, was widely recognized as an authority on the social insects. In the first chapter of his controversial book, The Morality of the Gene (1984), Wilson noted that, so far, such studies had necessarily focused on animal society, but he predicted that the discipline would eventually encompass the study of human societies at all levels of complexity. Indeed, he thought that sociology and the other social sciences, including the humanities, would be incorporated into the "Modern Synthesis," that is, neo-Darwinist evolutionary theory. Up to the 1970s, the central theoretical problem in sociobiology had been determining how altruism, self-sacrificing behavior which could lead to injury or death, could have evolved by natural selection. The answer, Wilson asserted, was kinship. Genes that led to altruistic behaviors were selected over time because altruistic acts by a member of a kinship group increased the survival of such genes in future generations.

The word sociobiology was used as early as 1949 by the American zoologist Warder C. Allee and his associates in Principles of Animal Ecology. The kinds of questions addressed by sociobiology, however, were alluded to in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). In the first book, Darwin merely hinted that his ideas might throw some light on the origins of human beings, in the second, he analyzed the implications of human evolution as a purely biological process. Despite the paucity of evidence available at the time, he concluded that "man is descended from a hairy, tailed, quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits." Darwin reasoned that the investigation of behaviors shown by animals, such as curiosity, memory, imagination, reflection, loyalty, and the tendency to imitate, could be thought of as the precursors of human characteristics. In 1872 Darwin elaborated on this concept in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a work that established the foundations of modern research in ethology (animal behavior) and ethnology (comparative anthropology). Essentially, Darwin argued that the evolution of behavior, like the evolution of the physical components of the body, is subject to the laws of inheritance and selection. The idea that cooperation and altruism were significant factors in evolutionary change was proposed by Russian geographer (and revolutionary) Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid (1902). He suggested that evolution must have produced the instincts that ruled the behavior of social insects and the wolf pack.

Until the 1960s scientists generally ignored Darwin's arguments about sexual selection and female "choice" in mating as a significant aspect of the evolution of apparently nonadaptive traits, but some aspects of the concept were revived in the 1960s. In particular, sexual selection was invoked as a means of providing Darwinian explanations for the evolution of traits, such as altruism, cooperation, and sexual ornamentation, that might be seen as counterproductive in the struggle for existence. The establishment of ethology as a new science is primarily associated with the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with the Dutch-born British zoologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, and another Austrian zoogist, Karl von Frisch, "for their discoveries concerning … individual and social behavior patterns." Like sociobiology, ethology has often been associated with controversial political and social assumptions about the nature of learning and inheritance.

Sociobiology developed from studies in population biology and genetics, in conjunction with research on the social insects, especially ants and honeybees. The theoretical basis of sociobiology is generally attributed to papers published by the British evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (1964). In "The Genetical Theory of Social Behavior," Hamilton established the concept of inclusive fitness. Essentially, this concept emphasizes the survival of genes, as opposed to the survival of individuals, by means of the reproductive success of relatives. The concept works particularly well for the social insects, where all the workers born of the same queen are full sisters, and only the queen reproduces. As developed by Wilson and his followers, however, sociobiology purports to involve the study of all social species, including humans. By following his theory from the social insects to human beings in the last chapter of Sociobology, "Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology," Wilson created a well-publicized, and even acrimonious, controversy. In the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Sociobiology, Wilson said that the chapter on human behavior had "ignited the most tumultuous academic controversy of the 1970s." Primarily, Wilson was accused of advocating a modern version of the concept of "biological determinism," although he denies saying that human behavior is wholly determined by the genes. Many critics of sociobiology have called it a pseudoscience that promotes racism and sexism. The British zoologist Richard Dawkins, however, expanded on Hamilton's concept in his well-known book The Selfish Gene.

One of the first public critiques of Wilson's Sociobology was a letter published in The New York Review of Books. The cosigners of the letter were members of a group called the Sociobiology Study Group, which included two of Wilson's colleagues in the same department at Harvard, Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould. Nevertheless, sociobiology eventually evolved into an interdisciplinary field generally known as evolutionary psychology, which has attracted many anthropologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, geneticists, economists, and so forth. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (1992), edited by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, provides a valuable exposition of this academic field. Critics argue that the basic concepts of evolutionary psychology are fundamentally the same as those of sociobiology.


Viewpoint: Yes, sociobiologists led by E. O. Wilson have offered convincing evidence that the mechanisms of the inheritance and development of human physical, mental, and behavioral traits are essentially the same as for other animals.

Human beings have long valued the concept of freedom, which Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines as "the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action." If we are not free, we are bound by some type of restraint(s), in effect, slaves to forces quite possibly beyond our control. The loss or perceived loss of freedom in any context usually results in a maelstrom of debate. When sociobiology declared that human behaviors such as altruism, aggression, and even choice of a mate has biological and genetic roots, a large outcry declared that humanity was being relegated to sophisticated robots, preprogrammed to love, hate, be kind, or act selfishly. Even segments of the scientific community, which largely agrees that such is the case in other "lower" animals, joined in the attack.

If Edward O. Wilson, a distinguished Harvard zoologist, had left out the last chapter of his groundbreaking 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, there would have been little uproar over this new approach to studying the behavior of social animals. Evolution and natural selection (the various processes that lead to the "survival of the fittest") had previously been applied primarily to physical characteristics in animals and humans. Wilson said they also affected animal behaviors or traits, such as instinctual parental behaviors to ensure offspring survival, as well as the survival of the species or group as a whole. This concept was not entirely new in terms of animal behavior. It was only because Wilson speculatively applied this perspective to humans in his final chapter that scientific, political, and religious factions cried out that sociobiology proponed "biological determinism," which has been used to validate existing social arrangements as being biologically inevitable. In fact, sociobiology says nothing of the sort. No serious sociobiologist believes that biology and heredity totally determine human behavior. Wilson and other sociobiologists have made it quite clear that they believe human behavior results from both biological/genetic causes and environmental factors.

Sociobiology Helps Explain Human Nature

Not all sociobiologists work from the same fundamental theoretical and methodological approaches. However, nearly all sociobiologists construct theoretical models to explain social behavior based on information collected by population biologists, who gather both demographic and genetic data to understand the mechanisms regulating the structure and dynamics of animal populations.

Regardless of the approach or theories, numerous examples offer insights into how sociobiology helps to explain human behavior. For example, considering the basic "survival of the fittest" aspect of evolution, it would seem that animals should be totally selfish in "looking out for number one" so they could survive and produce offspring who would also survive to reproduce. However, there are many examples of altruism in humans and other animal species. Crows often post a lookout to keep an eye out for predators and warn the rest of the flock that is foraging for food. However, the lookout is more exposed than the rest of the flock and its sound of alarm will also call attention to it. As a result, its behavior actually reduces its own individual fitness, or likelihood of survival, but it increases the overall group, species, or population fitness and ability to survive. The explanation lies in the concept of inclusive fitness, which says that animals also have an innate biological drive to pass on their genes both to direct offspring and to close relatives that have many of the same genes. This form of natural selection is called kin selection, and acts on both individuals and more extended families (as is often the case in flocks of crows). How does kin selection work on a genetic basis? An "altruism gene" or allele would increase a species' likelihood of survival as a group if this altruistic trait of being willing to risk oneself for the group was passed on to successive generations.

Many of the behaviors that sociobiology looks to explain are intensely controversial, such as the "naturalness" of the long-time (or old-fashioned, if you will) roles of males and females in human society. Virtually all biologists believe that natural selection is intrinsic in evolution. As a result, sexual behavior is far too important to be left solely to chance. For example, on a biological or genetic basis, sexual attraction to healthy, vital, vigorous, attractive people as opposed to those who are sickly is partly due to biological programming to maximize our genetic success in producing healthy offspring. In addition, differences between the sexes manifest themselves in terms of the roles males and females play in certain aspects of mating and child rearing. Our ancient female ancestors, for example, could only produce a limited number of offspring just as today, but they also had to face greater health and physical dangers associated with pregnancy and birth. In addition, during pregnancy, they required more food (which was not readily available at the local supermarket) and were more susceptible to predators. So, choosing a mate that could provide for and protect them was far more important to females than to males, who could easily impregnate a female and then leave. Over the centuries, a highly specific form of sex-role specialization developed in which females "traditionally" (and that is a key word here) shoulder the larger burden, not only in bearing but also in rearing children. In terms of self-interest, males and females have very different agendas concerning sex and producing offspring. Studies of "mating strategies" in many countries and cultures have found that men place a high value on physical attractiveness, which may indicate health and the success of producing offspring. On the other hand, women may value attractiveness, but they are more interested in status and income, which may help to ensure that their offspring will survive. This preference holds true in both literate (the United States, Nigeria, and Malaysia) and nonliterate (the Ache of Paraguay and the Kipsigis of Kenya) countries and societies.

Another behavior that can be explained in sociobiological terms is aggression. Throughout recorded human history, violence has been perpetrated more by men than women. For example, current statistics have shown that men killing other men is the cause of most violent deaths, and that sexual rivalry is often a major cause of violence. Male violence and murder directed toward women is also more common as opposed to women acting violently toward men. This predominance of control through aggression in men can partly be explained because, in terms of absolutes, a male can never be certain without genetic testing that a child is his, while a female who bears a child knows with absolute certainty that the child belongs to her. As a result, men have often used force or violence to help prevent their women from engaging in sexual relations with other men, thus ensuring that their genes are passed on for survival. In addition, most societies have traditionally placed a greater social stigma on women engaging in sex with more than one man than on men having sex with more than one woman.

Statistics on family violence also show that stepfathers are seven times more likely to abuse their children than biological fathers, and that fatal abuse by stepfathers is 100 times higher. This behavior is common in many countries and societies, from the United States to the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela. Furthermore, research has shown that other factors, such as ethnicity, religion, education, and socioeconomic status, do not account for these statistics. The sociobiological explanation is that a stepfather has no "evolutionary" goal to attain by maintaining his stepchildren and that using resources in "providing" for them is actually against his own biological interests.

As a final example, let us look at the case of divorce. In her book The Anatomy of Love (1995), anthropologist Helen E. Fisher says that the prevalence of divorce is due to more than just the influence of a more modern liberal culture. Based on data from more than 60 societies around the world, Fisher found that divorce tends to occur between two and four years after marriage. Although certain factors, such as having more than one child and a female who is more dependent on a male for support, may prolong marriage, this tendency to separate after two to four years of marriage seems to be a "natural" part of humans. The statistics stand true regardless of other social structures, including whether or not a society is polygamous or monogamous or whether or not it condones divorce. Sociobiology explains this phenomenon in several ways. In most societies, human infancy is considered to last about four years, after which the child is better able to care for itself or be cared for in school and other places. In addition, the euphoric feeling of love has been traced to the brain's limbic system as it produces "feel good" natural amphetamines, such as phenylethyline. Research has shown that this natural stimulant due to new love begins to wear off after three years, which, in some cases, may lead both males and females to seek this "high" again by finding a new mate. Furthermore, as Fisher points out, in many traditional societies, breast-feeding coupled with other factors such as exercise and a low-fat diet can suppress ovulation, inhibiting the female's ability to become pregnant for about three years. Thus, the divorce peak can be seen to relate to the average of four years between births in families. This behavior in humans is similar to that in other animals, including foxes and robins, that mate only through a breeding season that lasts long enough for offspring to become independent.

Sociobiology Is Not a Question of Morality

Some scientists have criticized Wilson and other sociobiologists as being oversimplistic and conducting "bad" science. Making the assumption or conjecture that a gene or group of genes may exist for a certain behavior does not, they assert, meet the requirement of good science. But almost all good science, including psychiatry and psychoanalysis, begins with and continues to use postulates (statements assumed to be true and taken as the basis for a line or reasoning). As Ullica Segerstrale, a professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, points out in her book, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond (2001), "Most of science depends on plausibility arguments. Science is an ongoing project." Nevertheless, science has made progress in relating genetics and behavior. For example, laboratory experiments have found genes related to gregarious feeding habits and other social behaviors in worms, learning behaviors in honeybees, and kin recognition in ants. However, unlike physical, or morphological changes that have occurred due to human evolution, behavior in humans can be difficult to observe accurately and even more difficult to measure or quantify. Still, if sociobiology is bad science, why do biologists and others almost universally accept it when it focuses on animals other than human beings? For example, the Animal Behavior Society, the primary international organization in this discipline, said in 1989 that Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was the most important book published concerning animal behavior.

In The Triumph of Sociobiology (2001), John Alcock, a noted animal behaviorist at Arizona State University, reminds readers that "natural" behavior is not "moral" behavior. This linking of natural to moral is really the crux of the vehement opposition to sociobiology as stated by Richard C. Lewontin and others. They believe that any hypothesis attempting to provide a biological basis for social behavior is wrong because it propagates the status quo, as well justifying the allocation of privilege on the basis of sex, race, and social class. Such hypotheses, they note, played a large role in sterilization and immigration laws in the United States between 1910 and 1930 and in theories of eugenics used by Hitler in Germany during World War II as an excuse for the slaughter of the Jews. In other words, their primary argument is that sociobiology is a scientific endeavor that is morally wrong.

There is little doubt that, taken simplistically, sociobiology could be construed to offer justification for eugenics and Social Darwinism. Both concepts have led to beliefs which hold that the poor are "unfit" and, as a result, should be allowed to die off or be eliminated to enhance opportunities for those who are fit (successful, rich, good looking, etc.) to prosper. But sociobiology does not claim to fully explain human actions or to condone seemingly selfish or other negative actions as "biologically correct." Neither does sociobiology deny the influence of culture on human actions or reject the concept of free will by saying that all human actions are the result of preprogrammed biological impulses.

What sociobiology does point out is that cultures and their growth and change occur much more rapidly than evolution in biological terms, and that much of our basic behaviors are still based on our Pleistocene hunter-gatherer nature because, in terms of evolution, several million years is a relatively short amount of time. Sociobiology also provides enhances our model of understanding human behavior and our psyches. Only by truly grasping all the influences on our human nature, including evolutionary, psychological, and cultural influences, can we began to make really lasting changes for the better, including reducing such things as violence, selfishness, and greed. Take racism for example, sociobiology has not provided one example of racial superiority, but has helped to provide evidence for the "universality" of human traits, thus undercutting beliefs in cultural and racial differences.


Humans have bred animals for centuries to obtain certain characteristics, including those that are physical (e.g., specific types of cows for beef) and psychological (e.g., breeds of dogs that are more aggressive). If scientists accept that evolutionary forces have influenced the physical traits of human beings just as it has those of animals, it is reasonable to believe that, just like other animals, our psychological traits or tendencies have evolutionary factors involved. In the end, sociobiology is about influences, not determinism, and about understanding our free will and moral behavior in a new light. What makes humans different from other animals is our enormous intellect and ability to make choices. It is not "nature versus nurture" but "nature and nurture" that makes us what we are. And, like evolution, sociobiology does not eliminate the possibility of a God, for, as the saying goes, "God works in mysterious ways." Or, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


Viewpoint: No, sociobiologists fail to account for many observable phenomena and invariably support a version of biological determinism.

Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard University, defines sociobiology in his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior." In other words, genetics are the sole determinant of behavior. The premise that humans inherit and develop their physical, mental, and behavioral traits in essentially the same way as other animals can be made to sound feasible, logical, and almost obvious. However, there is no hard evidence to back up this premise. In "Genomics and Behavior: Toward Behavioral Genomics," Peter McGuffin, Brien Riley, and Robert Plomin of the Social, Genetic, and Development Psychiatry Research Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London, state that news reports often claim that researchers have found specific genes for traits such as aggression, intelligence, homosexuality, and bad luck. These reports "tend to suggest, usually incorrectly, that there is a direct correspondence between carrying a mutation in the gene and manifesting the trait or disorder." McGuffin, Riley and Plomin postulate that the idea of a single gene determining a particular trait holds little validity, and that behavior is influenced by the interplay between multiple genes and our environment. Moreover, they point out that human behavior is "unique in that it is the product of our most complicated organ, the brain."

In an article entitled "Genes, Culture, and Human Freedom," Kenan Malik, a neurobiologist and former research psychologist at the University of Sussex Centre for Research into Perception and Cognition, writes: "In the six million years since the human and chimpanzee lines first diverged on either side of Africa's Great Rift Valley, the behavior and lifestyles of chimpanzees have barely changed. Human behavior and lifestyles clearly have. Humans have learned to learn from previous generations, to improve upon their work, and to establish a momentum to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum physics—and to the unraveling of the genome. It is this capacity for constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals."

If, over the eons, humans have developed from hairy, apelike creatures learning to get off all fours and onto their hind legs to the way we appear today, and chimpanzees have remained virtually unchanged; and if one believes in the Darwinian philosophy of evolution; then why, if humans and animals inherit their genes in essentially the same way; are humans and chimps so different? Could it be that additional variables and possibly other mechanisms came into play?

Sociobiological Theory Opens Pandora's Box

Although the roots of sociobiology go back at least as far as 1949, to the work of American zoologists Warder C. Allee and Alfred E. Emerson in their book Principles of Animal Ecology, Wilson opened the Pandora's Box of modern sociobiology in 1975 when he extended the Darwinian philosophy of evolution, not just from the physical to the behavioral, but from animal behavior to human behavior. Thus began a controversy that rages even as the twenty-first century begins and the Human Genome Project (HGP) has mapped our genes.

In another of his books, On Human Nature (1978), Wilson writes: "The heart of the genetic hypothesis is the proposition, derived in a straight line from neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, that the traits of human nature were adaptive during the time that the human species evolved and that genes consequently spread through the population that predisposed their carriers to develop those traits." In this context, the term adaptive means that an individual inheriting certain desirable traits (particularly those necessary for survival) is more likely to be chosen as a mate, or to choose a mate with a similar dominant trait, in order to produce offspring so that genetic trait is passed on. The offspring that displays that trait is similarly more likely to pass on those genes, and so forth. Sociobiologists call this trend "genetic fitness," which, they state, increases the odds of personal survival, personal production of offspring, and survival of others in the extended family which inherits the trait from a common gene pool of ancestors. The stronger the trait becomes, the greater the genetic fitness of that particular group. When continued over many generations, the trend produces an entire population displaying the preferred trait. Darwin called this process "natural selection," and Wilson says "In this way human nature is postulated by many sociobiologists, anthropologists, and others to have been shaped by natural selection."

Richard C. Lewontin is an evolutionary geneticist and Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard University. In his 1979 article "Sociobiology as an Adaptationist Program," Lewontin argues that the sociobiological approach to human behavior reduces evolutionary theory to a pseudoscience. Just three of the several arguments he puts forth against sociobiology are: 1) Reification—in which he points out that "sociobiologists conveniently forget that evolution occurs only in real objects and cannot occur in the metaphysical world of thoughts. Yet they constantly try to apply evolution to 'mental constructs' such as property and territoriality." 2) Confusion of levels—sociobiology, he says, by its very name, deals with societal behavior but often focuses on individual behavior. Then it assumes, incorrectly, that societal behavior is simply a collection of individual behavior. 3) Imaginative Reconstruction—a process in which a single trait of some species is isolated, and a problem is deduced to explain why that trait was important enough to become subject to natural selection. The deduced problem may be correct, but it also may be completely incorrect, although scientifically it cannot be proven incorrect. "This makes this method unfalsifiable and therefore, unscientific," writes Lewontin.

Maybe It's Not in Our Genes!

The idea that natural selection determines human behavior has been interpreted by many to mean our behavior is predetermined, or set in the cement of our genetic inheritance. That may be fine for other animals that have the well-defined and very limited goals of survival and reproduction. When applied to humans, the hypothesis leaves many questions unanswered. Many human cultures hold dear the idea that individuals have free will—the power to choose, and the ability to change behavior patterns. Therefore, the idea of genetic determinism arouses heated debate because humans are not limited to naturally defined goals such as finding food, shelter, or a mate. We establish individual goals, as well as goals for our families, our group, and our societies.

When, in the late twentieth century, scientists began to map out human genes, the general consensus was that humans, being much more sophisticated than other creatures, possessed as many as 100,000 different genes. It would then be just a matter of identifying, some thought, the individual genes that determined our behavior patterns, for surely, they must. Much to the surprise of many, the final analysis of the Human Genome Project revealed that humans have approximately 30,000 genes, just 300 more than a mouse. It should be noted that these figures are still open to debate. Nonetheless, ass noted by Robin McKie, science editor for the Observer in her article "Revealed: The Secret of Human Behavior, Environment, Not Genes, Key to Our Acts," this small number raised serious problems for the those in the scientific community who hung their hats on genetic determinism. McKie quotes Dr. Craig Venter, an American scientist whose company worked independently of a United States-United Kingdom team on the project. Venter said, "We simply do not have enough genes for this idea of biological determinism to be right. The wonderful diversity of the human species is not hardwired in our genetic code. Our environments are critical."

Nature versus Nurture: If Not Genes, Then Culture

Kenan Malik at the University of Sussex addresses both the nature (genetic) and nurture (cultural) viewpoints. If, he asks, having fewer genes implies less hard-wiring and more freedom of behavior, should we not be celebrating the fact that "a creature with barely more genes than a cress plant can nevertheless unravel the complexities of its own genome?" If it turned out humans had 200,000 genes, he wonders, would we be "slaves to our nature? And given that fruit flies possesses half our number of genes, should we consider them twice as free as we are?"

Does the fact that we have fewer genes than expected mean that we are, of necessity, governed by our cultural environment? "The problem with the nature-nurture debate is that it is an inadequate way of understanding human freedom," Malik says. While agreeing that, just like every other organism, humans are shaped by both hereditary and cultural forces, he notes that humans, unlike all other organisms, have the ability to "transcend both, by our capacity to overcome the constraints imposed by both our genetic and our cultural heritage…. We have developed the capacity to intervene actively in both nature and culture, to shape both to our will." Malik believes that while our evolutionary heritage no doubt shapes the way we approach our world, we are not limited by it. The same applies to our cultural heritage, which influences how we perceive our world but, again, does not imprison our perceptions. "If membership of a particular culture absolutely shaped our world-view," Malik writes, "historical change would never be possible."

C. George Boeree, a professor in the psychology department at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, writes in his article "Sociobiology" that, regardless of what behavior is apparent in humans, for every sociobiological explanation of that behavior a cultural explanation can also be applied. However, Boeree ends his article with virtually the same premise as Malik—humans have the ability to change their behavior, whether that particular behavior is influenced by our genes or our environment.

Joseph McInerney, director of the Foundation for Genetic Education and Counseling, an organization set up to promote understanding of human genetics and genetic medicine, writes in his article "Genes and Behavior: A Complex Relationship," that the nature/nurture debate is virtually meaningless. Instead, McInerney says, "the prevailing view is how nature and nurture contribute to the individuality of behavior."

Much Left to Incorporate

What is it, then, that gives humans such individuality and sets us apart from animals? Many people point to the spiritual side of human nature, one often denied by sociobiologists and other scientists. The Reverend Joel Miller, the senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, New York, in a sermon entitled Sociobiology, Spirituality, and Free Will (December 3, 2000), states that both theologians and scientists often confuse religion and science. "The 'creationism' of some religionists is the famous example of religion confused with science…. Some scientists have the firm and certain belief that only those things that can be detected with instruments are worth any attention, and because free will is an impossible thing to measure or describe scientifically, it doesn't exist at all and should not even be discussed."

Margaret Wertheim, the writer and host of the 1998 PBS television series Faith and Reason, points out in her article "Crisis of Faith": "We have already encountered such proposals from Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson in … Consilience, from Richard Dawkins, who has famously explained religion as a virus of the mind, or what he calls a viral 'meme,' and from English psychologist Susan J. Blackmore, who has elaborated on Dawkins' ideas in her recent book The Meme Machine. For all these scientists, religion is simply a byproduct of cultural and/or genetic evolutionary processes that arises and flourishes in human societies because it lends a survival advantage."

Wertheim does not deny the sociobiological perspective of religions as "lending a survival advantage … by encouraging altruism and reciprocal altruism among group members and by providing a moral framework for the community." However, she points out that a purely scientific answer for the basis of religious beliefs discounts the foundation of those beliefs in reality. She notes that, " [F]or believers, " God and the soul are "fundamental aspects of the real ….that, for Christians, Jesus really was the son of God, … that he really did rise from the dead and ascend to Heaven, and that they, too, will be resurrected…. Likewise, for Aboriginal Australians, the Dreamtime spirits really did create the world and they really do interact in it today."

Caroline Berry, a retired consultant geneticist who once worked at Guy's Hospital in London, England, and Attila Sipos, a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Bristol, England, in their article "Genes and Behaviour," also bring the spiritual and aesthetic nature of humans into the debate. Can our genetic makeup cause us to appreciate art and music, ask Berry and Sipos, or to "sacrifice ourselves for intangible ideals such as universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery? … God is spirit, so clearly our being made in his image gives us more than is in our DNA. There is more to our humanity than our biological makeup, even though it is difficult to elucidate the exact nature of this inherited quality." Berry and Sipos also quote Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and a committed Christian, from his announcement to representatives from the world's media in February 2001 following completion of the mapping of human genes: "The human genome will not help us to understand the spiritual side of humankind …" Obviously, the spiritual side of human nature plays a huge role in determining our behavior—individually and societally.

Tom Bethell, the senior editor of the conservative journal the American Spectator writes in an article entitled "Against Sociobiology," that: "A peculiar omission from the school of sociobiologists' subdivision of human nature is the faculty of reason itself…. Once reason is admitted as a characteristic of human nature—and in truth it is the characteristic, along with freedom of the will—it can be shown to do the work imputed to phantom genes in almost any example that sociobiologists want to bring up."

Malik, describing humans as both subjects and objects, writes that while we are influenced by biological and physical laws our consciousness gives us purpose and allows us to "design ways of breaking the constraints" of those laws. He points out that, while humans and other animals have an evolutionary past, only humans make history. "The historical, transformative quality of being human is why the so-called nature-nurture debate, while creating considerable friction, has thrown little light on what it means to be human. To understand human freedom we need to understand not so much whether we are creatures of nature or nurture, but how, despite being shaped by both nature and nurture, we are also able to transcend both."

In a 1987 article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Philip Kitcher, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, writes "genetical-cultural evolution is incorrect due to its strong argument on how the genetic aspect of the evolution is directly responsible for the cultural aspect. This is because while genetics may truly affect certain individual's behavior, it does not mean an entire culture can be shaped due to presence of certain genes in its population."


Although human behavior may, to some extent, be predisposed to the influence of genetic makeup, animal behavior is absolutely predetermined by it. While there may be similarities between humans and other animals in the ways in which genes are inherited and developed, there are also differences. True knowledge is dependant upon examining both similarities and differences, and perhaps it is time to pay closer attention to the differences.


Further Reading

Alcock, John. The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Berry, Caroline, and Attila Sipos. "Genes and Behaviour." Christian Medical Fellowship. <http://www.cmf.org.uk/ethics/brief/gene.htm>.

Bethell, Tom. "Against Sociobiology." First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life 109 (January 2001): 18-24. <http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0101/articles/bethell.html>.

Boeree, C. George. "Sociobiology." <http://www.ship.edu/~cgboeree/sociobiology.html>.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York:Oxford University Press, 1989.

Holmes, W. G., and P. W. Sherman. "KinRecognition in Animals." American Scientist 71, no. 1 (1983): 46-55.

Kitcher, P. "Precis of Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10 (1987): 61-71.

Lewotin, R. C. "Sociobiology as an Adaptionist Program." Behavioral Science 24 (1979): 5-14.

Malik, Kenan. "Genes, Culture, and Human Freedom." <http://www.spiked-online.com/>.

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Alternative forms of a gene that may occur at a given locus.


Approach to improving of hereditary qualities of a race or breed by selection of parents based on their inherited characteristics.


In biological terms, evolution is the theory that all life evolved from simple organisms and changed throughout vast periods of time into a multitude of species. The theory is almost universally accepted in the scientific community, which considers it a fundamental concept in biology.


Cellular component that determines inherited characteristics. Genes can be found in specific places on certain chromosomes.


Unalterable traits inherited through genes.


Permanent transmissible change in the genetic material, usually in a single gene.


The total set of genes carried by an individual or a cell.


The worldwide effort to sequence all the genes in the human body.


Process in which certain individuals (organisms, animals, humans) who are best suited for their environment and reproduction survive. Natural selection acts as an evolutionary force when those selected for survival are genetically different from those not selected.


Geologic time period, or epoch, in Earth's history spanning 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago. Anthropologists have found evidence of the early ancestors of humans living during the Pleistocene. According to the theories of evolution, these early humans eventually developed into modern humans.


Study of populations focusing on understanding the mechanisms regulating their structure and dynamics, including demography and population genetics.


Hypothesis that is an essential presupposition or premise of a train of reasoning.


To establish or make concrete beforehand.


To incline beforehand; to give tendency to.


Concept that applies Charles Darwin's theories of evolution to society in that people ultimately compete for survival, which results in certain "superior" individuals, social groups, and races becoming powerful and wealthy. The theory has been criticized by sociologists for its failure to take into account social influences such as people born into wealth and powerful families, thus their social status and good fortune relies on social position and not natural superiority. Social Darwinism was no longer widely accepted by the turn of the twentieth century.


Systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.

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Have sociobiologists proved that the mechanisms of the inheritance and development of human physical, mental, and behavioral traits are essentially the same as for other animals

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