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Sociobiology

sex role stereotypes sex roles gender roles stereotypes social sociobiologists human roles

A term coined by the eminent entomologist Edward O. Wilson to define a field of study combining biology and social sciences.

In his 1975 work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, entomologist Edward O. Wilson first coined the term "sociobiology" to create a new field of study combining biology and social sciences, especially anthropology and sociology. Sociobiologists study the biological nature of human behavior and personality according to the tenet that all social behavior has a biological basis.

The field of sociobiology has not been widely accepted by contemporary theorists of personality and culture. The trend of social thought for several decades has been that humans are by and large responsible for their personal behaviors and for the ways they interact with others and with society as a whole. Wilson and other sociobiological theorists consider many human behaviors to be genetically based, including aggression, motherchild bond, language, the taboo against incest, sexual division of labor, altruism, allegiance, conformity, xenophobia, genocide, ethics, love, spite, and other emotions.

Traditional social scientists, however, debate sociobiology. Feminists have been particularly critical of the new field's view on gender roles. Feminists believe that gender roles are culturally determined. Sociobiologists see gender roles as basic human traits and point out that in almost no culture in the history of the world have women, for example, taken the role of sexual aggressor or exhibited a propensity to collect harems of sexually active men—two human traits that appear in nearly every culture.

Sociobiologists point to the mother-child bond as one of the prime examples of genetically based behavior. According to sociobiologists, the attachment a mother feels for her infant is a genetically programmed response to the biological need to continue the human gene pool. While this is almost certainly true to some extent, many psychologists and those in the various fields of social science argue otherwise. They point out that non-genetic mothers in contemporary society, for example, adoptive parents and step-mothers, demonstrate a bond just as deep as those between genetic mothers and their children.

Sociobiologists have also tried to explain the prevalence of gender stereotypes across different cultures. As children approach school age in Western culture, their experiences become more social and less domestic as they spend a great deal of time away from home with people other than their parents. During this time, children start to identify with their same-sex peers and learn stereotypical gender roles whether or not these roles are enforced in the home. Sociobiologists believe the current trend to avoid gender-marking is a wasted effort since gender roles are an intractable part of human nature.

Young boys tend to be aggressive in their play, while young girls tend to be reflective, or, to use a term widely applied in sociobiology, coy. This tendency is also seen in other primates and occurs across a variety of human cultures. It is therefore logical to assume that a young boy is naturally predisposed to aggressive behavior while a young girl is naturally predisposed to less violent modes of play. It is also widely held that boys and girls have different intellectual capacities, with boys being more adept at spatial reasoning and girls at verbal. There are reams of standardized test score data backing up such assertions, but it is not clear whether such differences are genetically determined.

Sociobiologists do not claim that aggression in males is acceptable. Even though male domination seems to be the predominant form of social organization, organized societies are not in any way obliged to defer to it. Social structures have for thousands of years modified what might be considered "natural" behaviors. Murder is an example. In preliterate societies murder is sanctioned under a variety of conditions. Human sacrifice, for example, used to play a large role in preliterate societies. But as societies develop, these "natural" tendencies are, necessarily, curbed. Instinctive behavior is replaced by social behavior because a culture sees social behavior as more desirable. While sociobiology may predict patterns of behavior in young children, there is no reason to believe that these tendencies cannot or should not be altered.

If there is any stage of life that most exemplifies the ideas of sociobiologists, it is adolescence. During this period, hormones are changing the body at a pace unmatched during any time in life, and with those changes in physical appearance, behavior also changes. Boys and girls take on social roles during adolescence that are radically different from their roles as children.

Some sociobiologists believe that many of the problems adolescents face in constructing their adult identities have a basis in evolution. There is increasing evidence, for instance, that certain adolescents are genetically predisposed to fall into clinical depressions. Genetic research has shown that many people suffering depression share a genetic abnormality that may only "turn on" if confronted with certain overwhelming social problems such as those faced by adolescents. There is also evidence that a predisposition to drugs and alcohol dependency is genetically determined. Recent studies have found links between several biological functions and anti-social and criminal behavior among adolescents. Included in this list are a slowly developing frontal lobe system in the brain, a variety of genes, a faulty autonomic nervous system, abnormal blood sugar levels, deviant brain waves, and hyperactivity. So, while specific behaviors are not linked to a specific gene or to evolutionary adaptation, a propensity to behave in a certain way, in the absence of more socially acceptable alternatives, may have a partial foundation in biology.

Further Reading

Wilson, Edward. Sociobiology—the New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975

de Wal, Frans B.M. "The Biological Basis of Behavior." The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 14, 1996, p. B1.

Horgan, John. "The New Social Darwinists." Scientific American, October, 1995, p. 174.

——. "Revisiting Old Battlefields." Scientific American, April 1994, p. 36.

"Irven DeVore." Omni (interview) June 1993, p. 69.

Laying, Anthony. "Why Don't We Act Like the Opposite Sex?" USA Today, January 1993, p. 87.

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