Sociobiology: What It Is And What Research Topics It Proposes


It is widely accepted that humans and other animal species behave in a certain way, instinctively.

It is true that life-long learning and experiences influence how one acts, but the biological basis is there and regulates certain behaviors.

Sociobiology has been an approach that has tried to explain the genetic bases of social behavior l, comparing that of the human being with that of other related animals.

Although this approach has offered some logical explanations for behaviors such as altruism, aggression and mating, it has not been without controversy, such as arguing that genes are everything.

Let’s take a closer look at what sociobiology is, mentioning some of the most important figures of this approach and detailing some of its most notable scientific theories on social behavior.

What is sociobiology?

Sociobiology is the approach that studies the biological bases of the behavior of gregarious animal species, that is, those in which their individuals live in communities of several individuals. Sociobiology is a branch of sociology and biology, and combines knowledge from several sciences, such as neurobiology, ethology, ecology and genetics. Among the aspects it studies are: aggression, altruism, social hierarchy and pairing.

Sociobiologists affirm that animal behavior patterns are generated, modified, maintained and become extinct. through the mechanisms of natural selection They also affirm that animal behavior, and therefore also that of humans, cannot be explained by resorting solely to culture and environment.

The experimental knowledge acquired by sociobiology is based on the behaviors observed in gregarious species. Each animal species can be seen as a kind of experiment, in which the interaction between genes and environment has allowed certain behaviors to flourish.

According to the assumptions of natural selection, put forward by Charles Darwin, certain animal behaviors contribute to their greater chance of survival and manage to reproduce. Sociobiology maintains that these same behaviors can be found in the human species, a statement which has generated some controversy.

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Historical background

Edward Osborne Wilson is considered the father of sociobiology, however, this does not mean that there has not been interest for a long time in finding the biological bases of behavior. Charles Darwin, in the 19th century, already tried to explain certain behaviors that apparently seem dangerous for individual survival but that are quite widespread, not only in the human species, but also in many other animals.

One of the behaviors that has brought the most headaches to evolutionism has been altruism, that is, the ability of an individual to benefit another with their actions, even when their life may be in danger. What evolutionary benefit can there be in helping another being if one can perish in the attempt?

As time went by, several researchers managed to offer an explanation for this behavior. Even at the risk of losing the ability to reproduce and, therefore, pass an individual’s genes to the next generation, Helping a being whose genome is similar to one’s own allows, to a certain extent, its own genes to survive

Based on this, the possibility has been raised that manifesting altruistic behavior is directly proportional to the degree of consanguinity that the organisms involved in this action have.

Subsequently, British evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton proposed the concept of class selection in 1960. Through a mathematical demonstration, he defended the idea that individuals of a species can improve their chances of reproductive success by helping their close relatives. The condition for this to be productive is that the person being helped receives a benefit greater than the cost invested by the person helping.

An example that would demonstrate what Hamilton said would be the behavior of worker bees. These types of bees sacrifice themselves more than drones for the common good of the hive. The drones are the product of sexual reproduction, while the workers are practically clones of each other. Based on the fact that the workers have a high degree of inbreeding, they seem to be more willing to die given that there are hundreds of bees that have the same genomic endowment.

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Although these explanations make sense, the truth is that in nature there are many situations in which altruism occurs without the need for blood ties.

This is when Robert Ludlow Trivers explains reciprocal altruism This happens when an individual receives help from another, with the implicit understanding that in the future he must return it. Individuals, to ensure that their energy is not misinvested, must distinguish between those peers who will be willing to return the favor and those who will not. This sociobiological concept is considered valid when explaining the behavior of species with small social groups, in addition to primates and also humans.

Applied sociobiology in the human species

Trying to explain animal behavior based on their biology can make a lot of sense. After all, genetics plays an important role in how animals behave, although their interaction with the environment should not be ignored. The controversy of sociobiology occurs when it tries to transfer the same principles previously explained to the human species

As with other species, human behavior can be studied by comparing its social structure with that of other animals, especially primates. Many species of apes, such as chimpanzees, display behaviors that are also observable in the human species. Nor should we ignore the anatomical and biological similarities between our species and the rest of primates.

In fact, An aspect in common between primates and humans is the number of individuals that are part of the closest social network Although numbers can vary from species to species, human and other primate groups range between 10 and 100 members, something significantly different compared to the two that usually exist in birds and the thousands in the case of many insect species. .

Another interesting relationship found between humans and monkeys, specifically cercopithecids, is the composition of social groups based on sex Although culture has served as a limitation, there are many sociobiologists who maintain that men are polygamous by nature, while women opt for selection strategies for the most suitable male. In cercopithecids, groups usually consist of one male and two or three females with whom he copulates.

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A pattern of care for offspring similar to that seen in humans has also been found in cercopithecids. During the first years, babies are raised by the mother and, when they have grown, they are in charge of looking for other individuals of the same age and sex. Social games are also played, which helps them avoid aggression, encourage exploration and can serve to regulate sexual practices.

Criticisms of this approach

Although some of the sociobiological approaches can help understand both animal and human behavior, the approach has not been without criticism. Sociobiology has been interpreted as a defense of genetic determinism that is, behavior is programmed in the genes and the environment has little influence.

One of the institutions in which an attempt has been made to give a critical vision to this approach has been the Sociobiological Study Group. This multidisciplinary group has come to maintain that the links between human sociobiology and genetic determinism are comparable to the eugenics movement, social Darwinism or the consideration that based on a person’s IQ they should have more or fewer job opportunities.

Extreme right-wing and neoconservative movements, based on a supposedly sociobiological and scientific vision, have defended racist, xenophobic, homophobic, supremacist and sexist ideas

Sociobiology has been accused of trying to justify the status quo of societies, arguing that the least favored people will continue to be so without the possibility of improving since education and culture could not make up for their deficits. It has also been criticized for nullifying the concept of human free will by attempting to reduce behavior to genes.