Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

Sign In or Create an Account. Sign In. Advanced Search. Article Navigation. Close mobile search navigation Article Navigation. Volume University of North Carolina. Oxford Academic. Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Permissions Icon Permissions. Article PDF first page preview. Issue Section:. The question then is how to proceed: HBEs often suggest changes to the model that might account for these failures of prediction; often, they do give some independent evidence for their suggestions.

There are a number of philosophical criticisms of behavioral ecology and its methods; this section will address some of these criticisms. Behavioral ecologists, including HBEs, are really methodological adaptationists Godfrey Smith, , in that they assume that natural selection is optimizing the trait they are studying as a heuristic, in order to establish other things about that trait; as such, no strong commitment about the power of natural selection is necessarily required on their part as discussed earlier.

Another objection to adaptationist methods from Gould and Lewontin that has persisted as a criticism of behavioral ecology is that these methods do not allow scientists to consider non-adaptationist explanations for the traits to which they are applied, such as whether those traits were fixed by drift or are simply side effects of other traits i. In principle, correctly pursued, adaptationist methods can help identify cases where a trait is a non-adaptation: drift, for example, can be identified by comparing the distribution of traits expected under selection and under drift with actual population distributions Sober, ; the question is whether the types of methods used in behavioral ecology are the most efficient at detecting these cases Lewens, Some philosophers have argued that methodological adaptationism is more pernicious in practice than it looks in principle, because real evolutionary social scientists are not good at dropping adaptationist hypotheses for a trait even when there is a strong case to be made that they should see, for example, Lloyd, , esp.

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Chapter 8. For further discussion of all these problems, see the entry on adaptationism. To say a trait is heritable in the simplest sense is just to say that if the parent has that trait, then the trait tends also to appear in the offspring i. The more demanding population genetic definition of heritability is that a heritable trait T is one where variation in T can be accounted for primarily by variation in genes as opposed to variation in the environment see also the entry on heritability.

Heritability in this sense is supposed to be required for natural selection because in order for natural selection to spread a variant T in a population, when T increases the average number of offspring of its possessors, those offspring have to reliably also have T if T is to spread at the expense of the other variants. The problem, however, is that many human behavioral traits do not seem likely to be heritable in this way: they tend to vary greatly across and even within cultures and environments, whereas human genetic variation is much too low to account for such differences Buller, ; Cosmides and Tooby, However, HBEs can get around this problem, by pointing out that local patterns of overt behavior are manifestations of more general strategies; differences in the environment cause the manifestations of different elements of these complex behavioral dispositions humans possess.

For example, the patterns of foraging behavior of the Ache people in the Paraguay rain forest Hill and Hurtado, and the Inuit in the Arctic Smith, are very different, and the genetic differences between these groups are insufficient to explain them. However, both could be simply local manifestations of a larger and more general foraging strategy or strategies which humans possess, which could be heritable and an adaptation. A behavioral strategy is, after all, simply a complex behavioral disposition, which involves responding in a variety of specific ways to a set of environmental cues, most of which would be achieved by having an appropriate psychological mechanism or mechanisms underlying the set of dispositions.

Of course, whether there are such heritable mechanisms for the behavioral strategies in which the HBEs are interested is likely to be a matter of some controversy. Despite the claim above that heritability in the population genetic sense is required as a condition of the action of natural selection, technically all that is required for natural selection to occur on a trait T is for T to be heritable in the weaker sense, i.

The reason heritability in the population genetic sense was believed to also be necessary for natural selection was that genes were believed to be the only developmental resource transmitted to offspring, so only if variation in traits followed variation in genes would traits be subject to natural selection for the reasons described above. However, recently a variety of philosophers and scientists have argued Odling-Smee et al. This has an interesting consequence: if highly reliably transmitted cultural traits could be subject to natural selection, standard evolutionary methods and models of the sorts used in behavioral ecology could be used to understand the evolution of such traits.

This is the not the end of the problem, however.

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  • Some philosophers have argued that not all traits that are culturally transmitted or learnt can be properly understood using adaptationist methods, because many of these traits are not heritable even in this weaker sense, and hence cannot be adaptations Driscoll, ; Driscoll and Stich, ; Kitcher, Worse, such traits could appear highly adaptive on evolutionary models. For example, traits which are subject to highly adaptive individual learning or adaptive social transmission processes in populations Henrich and Boyd, ; Henrich and Gil-White, are nevertheless not adaptations because they are not shaped by natural selection [ 8 ].

    Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

    This is because in many of these cases, the features of the environment that make the trait appear adaptive may not actually have featured as selection conditions in the causal history of the trait or perhaps as causes in any sense. In such cases, evolutionary methods popular in sociobiology and the current evolutionary social sciences such as optimality modeling will make traits appear to be adaptations to those conditions when they are not.

    For a more detailed discussion of dual inheritance theory, gene culture co-evolution and the associated theory, see the entry on cultural evolution. Another problem for behavioral ecology and sociobiology is their focus on trying to understand the biological basis of behavior as such. The result of the cognitive revolution in psychology was that many psychologists came to regard the proper target of explanation in psychology to be genuinely psychological states or mechanisms rather than behavioral dispositions as in Skinnerian Behaviorism Chomsky, In cognitive science since the middle of the twentieth century, psychological states and mechanisms have largely been understood in computational and materialist terms, that is, that the mind is the brain, and that brain states and mechanisms are essentially computational states and computers respectively though almost certainly not serial computers.

    Psychological descriptions, then, are simply descriptions of these brain systems in computational or information-processing terms; generally they appeal to representations, decision rules and algorithms that brain systems process. The shift in methodology and theory represented by this change in approach was extremely significant.

    E. O. Wilson Sociobiology The New Synthesis

    But it also appears to have made cognitive psychologists interested in evolution averse to thinking of behavioral dispositions as proper targets of evolutionary explanation, just as they were averse to thinking of them as the proper targets of psychological explanation Cosmides and Tooby, The importance of the issue to the evolutionary psychologists has led to a series of arguments traded between the human behavioral ecologists and evolutionary psychologists for preferring behavior over psychology and vice versa.

    Two main arguments have been raised in favor of considering behavior the proper target of explanation, both from. The first is purely practical: behavior is relatively straightforwardly observable whereas psychological mechanisms are not, to the extent that the nature of only a few psychological mechanisms has been uncontroversially demonstrated one of the few examples might be the mechanisms for learning language Alexander, The second is that only behavior can be an adaptation because only behavior is the actual causal nexus between the organism and its environment Alexander, ; see the same idea in early form in Skinner, The central problem with both of these arguments is that, while they are true of overt behavior, they are not true of the behavioral dispositions or strategies complex behavioral dispositions which are the actual targets of explanation in behavioral ecology—or at least, no more true than of psychological mechanisms.

    Arguments for the claim that only psychological mechanisms should be considered to be adaptations rest on the idea that behavior is really only ever a manifestation of the underlying psychology. Behavior is not an adaptation so much as it is the effect of an adaptation. Cosmides and Tooby also argue that the really interesting evolutionary generalizations emerge at the level of psychology, not behavior.

    More recently, philosophers have also presented some arguments for one side or the other of this issue. Buller , 50—52 , for example, argues that behaviors cannot be adaptations because they are not heritable, whereas psychological mechanisms are. Buller argues that behaviors could disappear from the population for generations if the necessary response conditions never arose, but yet still emerge again if the stimulus reappeared, and this suggests that these behaviors are not inherited as such rather than the underlying psychological mechanism.

    In this he is right as long as he means the overt behaviors; behavioral dispositions or strategies could also remain present and be inherited in the absence of the response conditions. Another argument in the philosophical literature for thinking that behaviors are not the proper targets of natural selection explanations is that behaviors are not quasi-independent Lewontin, in the way they need to be to evolve by selection in their own right Sterelny, ; Sterelny and Fitness, ; Sterelny and Griffiths, This is because many behavioral strategies will depend on multi-purpose mechanisms that cannot change during evolution without those changes ramifying to the other strategies those mechanisms produce.

    However, Driscoll argues that this is not necessarily the case; multi-purpose mechanisms, in order to be able to produce more than one strategy, would have to have branching algorithms; variation in any of these mechanisms necessary to generate variation in any one strategy need only occur on the branch relevant to the strategy in question and need have little or no effect on the other branches. Instead, whether an evolutionary explanation is properly directed at the behavioral or psychological level depends on the case.

    Sociobiology, despite its complicated history, remains of interest to philosophers and has some import for certain important philosophical debates. One such question is whether human beings should be understood to have a nature , a set of traits which for Wilson are those heritable traits that have been fixed in the population by natural selection Wilson, Most importantly, Wilson suggests that some of the characteristics that make up human nature are specifically behavioral.

    Quite apart from the fundamental interest of the question of whether there is a human nature, the issue is important because it might have a significant moral or social upshot: what society we can have, and indeed what society we should have might depend on what human nature is like Wilson, Another hope on the part of philosophers is that understanding the evolution of cognition might give us some insight into the nature of certain human psychological traits that have particular philosophical interest.

    One such trait is our moral psychology. Moral psychology is of interest to philosophers who hold naturalistic views of ethics because they believe moral values depend in part on features of that psychology; understanding that psychology and how it evolved would give us insight into what the correct moral values are. Understanding the origins of human moral psychology might also help answer certain metaethical questions Street, As Wilson hoped, scientists working in disciplines which are the modern descendants of sociobiology have contributed to our understanding of the way that norms, including moral norms, might have become established in human evolution see, for example, Henrich and Boyd, ; Sripada, Philosophers still strongly disagree, however, on how the evolution of moral psychology, especially for the acquisition of norms, should be understood Dwyer, ; Sripada and Stich, ; Sterelny, Other debates surrounding sociobiology are still ongoing.

    For example, while methodological adaptationism has become and remained the standard approach in behavioral ecology, not all philosophers are convinced that this is an entirely benign practice — there are still concerns about the assumptions that this methodology requires see, for example, Lewens, ; Lloyd, Similarly, there has been an increasing interest in the role of culture in the nature and history of human behavior; work studying the evolution of culture has increased since Lumsden and Wilson published their book.

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    Philosophers and scientists are still addressing questions about how and how far cultural traits can be said to evolve; and, as discussed above, whether traits that have evolved in this way can be considered adaptations in any sense Driscoll, ; Fracchia and Lewontin, , ; Henrich et al. Thanks to Colin Allen for many helpful comments on an earlier version; and to John Carroll and Johannes Hafner for some helpful pointers.

    Sociobiology as Behavioral Ecology 2. Sociobiology as Human Behavioral Ecology 4. Central criticisms of Sociobiology and Behavioral Ecology 4. Psychological Focus 5. Central criticisms of Sociobiology and Behavioral Ecology There are a number of philosophical criticisms of behavioral ecology and its methods; this section will address some of these criticisms.

    Psychological Focus Another problem for behavioral ecology and sociobiology is their focus on trying to understand the biological basis of behavior as such. Conclusion Sociobiology, despite its complicated history, remains of interest to philosophers and has some import for certain important philosophical debates.

    Bibliography Alexander, R.

    Ethology and Sociobiology , — Allen, E. Beckwith, J. Beckwith, S. Chorover, D. Culver, M. Duncan, et al. Axelrod, R. Hamilton, , The Evolution of Cooperation. Science , — Barash, D. The American Naturalist , : — Bolduc, J. Cezilly, , Optimality modelling in the real world. Biology and Philosophy , — Boyd, R.

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