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Sociobiology: the new synthesis
Author Edward O. Wilson
Subject Sociobiology
Genre science books
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date
Pages 697
ISBN 978-0-674-00089-6
OCLC 42289674
591.56 21
LC Class QL775 .W54 2000
Preceded by The Insect Societies 
Followed by On Human Nature 

Sociobiology: the new synthesis is a book by E.O. Wilson that helped start the sociobiology debate, one of the great scientific controversies of the 20th century. Wilson popularized the term "sociobiology" as an attempt to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind behaviours such as altruism, aggression, and nurture. The fundamental principles guiding sociobiology are:

  1. an organism's evolutionary success is measured by the extent to which its genes are represented in the next generation.
  2. this applies to an animal's behaviour and social life as much as it does to any other aspect of its life.

The book was first published in 1975, then reprinted in 1976. A twenty-fifth anniversary edition was published in 2000 by Harvard University Press.


The application of sociobiology to humans was immediately controversial. Some people, such as Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin said that sociobiology was biologicially determinist. They argued that it would be used, as similar ideas had been in the past, to justify the status quo, entrench ruling elites, and legitimize authoritarian political programmes. They referred to social darwinism and eugenics of the early 20th century, and to other more recent ideas, such as the race and IQ controversy of the early 1970s as cautionary tales in the use of evolutionary principles as applied to human society.

Wilson and his admirers countered these criticisms by saying that Wilson had no political agenda, and if he had one it was certainly not authoritarian (Wilson is an outspoken environmentalist). They argued that sociobiology does not necessarily lead to any particular political ideology as many critics implied.

Many other sociobiologists have used sociobiology to argue quite separate points. Noam Chomsky surprised many by coming to the defense of sociobiology on the grounds that political radicals need to postulate a relatively fixed idea of human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society. They needed to know what human needs were in order to build a better society.

An extensive account of the controversy around the book was published 25 years later. It largely supporting Wilson's views. For ethologists, Wilson's ideas are mainstream, and for them his book is not controversial.

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