A lecture by a professor of Sociobiology

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Listen to audio recording and answer the questions.

Listen to part of a university lecture by a professor of Sociobiology.

Professor: Well, it looks like everybody's here, so I'd like to welcome you all to Sociobiology 101. Some of you are Sociology majors, I know, and others of you are in the Biology Department, so I think the first thing I should do is give you all an idea of what sociobiology is all about. It's a relatively new field. The word "sociobiology" didn't even exist until 1946, and it wasn't really noticed until after 1975, when the great entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, discussed it in his book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. It was after this book was published that sociobiology really exploded into an exciting new field of research.

What is it that Dr. Wilson synthesizes in his book? Well, briefly, because we'll be getting into this later, Wilson wanted to use the theories of biological evolution and natural selection- you know,. Darwin's theories- and apply them to explain the development of social behaviors, just as Charles Darwin used them to explain the development of animals' physical, morphological, characteristics.

Wilson's research was mostly on ants, and he was interested in the reasons for their complex social behaviours, like division of labor, like mating and parenting- and he was especially interested in the idea of altruistic behaviour, of altruism. Now, you should already know that word. "Altruism" is the act of helping someone else when the action does not seem to help you yourself.

Now, ants and their relatives, the bees and the termites- what we call the "social insects"- are consummate altruists. Almost all the members of their colonies are sterile female workers who never get a chance to reproduce. Instead, they spend their lives defending and taking care of the nest and their queen and the queen's offspring. It's only the queen who gets to pass along her genes to the next generation. Wilson wondered why this was, why such a system would evolve, why an organism would forgo its own genes in deference to another's. He knew that there must be some advantage to this, so he set out to discover what that advantage might be.

I'm sure you all know the old conundrum about "what came first, the chicken or the egg?"- and also the slightly humorous idea that "a chicken is just an egg's way of producing another egg." Well, that's essentially what the basis of Wilson's theory is- that an organism is just a gene's way of producing another gene. Dr. Wilson thought that the genes of all the members of an ant colony are so similar that a worker ant is really taking care of its own genes when it takes care of the queen's offspring. And if such a colony is more successful, if it has a better chance of surviving, because of this specialization of labor- because the workers specialize in working and the queen specializes in laying eggs- then evolution will support this altruistic behaviour.

Well, this is just an example, but the initial work by Wilson and other evolutionary biologists- like William Hamilton and, uh, like Maynard Smith- laid the groundwork for what's now a very rich and exciting area of research- sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of social behaviour.

Now, the scientific community were all very enthusiastic about these new ideas- until sociobiologists began to apply Darwin's theories to human social behaviour. That's when the trouble started- because many scientists and philosophers and theologians are unwilling to accept that Man is just another animal. They insist that it's man's environment, the society that he's raised in- it's his culture and his education- that determine his behaviour and his actions- and not his genetic make-up. Some even say that the theories of sociobiologists amount to genetic determinism, that they are downright dangerous- that these biological theories leave no room for the concept of "free will", or for true philanthropic or humane activities, and that they condone or legitimatize as "natural" such behaviours as aggression, and crime, and the stereotyping of sexual roles in society, and so forth.

There was a good bit of very heated controversy about this, especially around the time that Wilson's second book, On Human Nature, was published. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for that book, by the way. But at the time, some respected scientists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould even attacked Wilson's theories as politically motivated! Nowadays, though, the fuss is pretty much over, and social scientists have pretty much all agreed that there's room for both biological, evolutionary, forces and social, cultural, uh, educational forces- that is, room for both nature and nurture- in explaining human social behaviour.

Anyway, what we're going to do in the first week or so in this class is look at some of the background science, some of the earlier thinkers before sociobiology became a recognized field. We'll start with a quick review of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and then do some reading in Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which was written in the early 1890s. And then we'll look at Konrad Lorenz's and Nicholas Tinbergen's classic studies in animal behavior, before we start to examine Edward Wilson's work itself.


Which fact is true of Edward O. Wilson?


What is altruism?


Which statement is NOT supported by the lecture?


Dominant male lions often kill the cubs (babies) produced in their pride by other males. Which statement best explains this behaviour?


Judging from the lecture, which is NOT a characteristic of social insects?


Why does the lecturer mention 'chickens' and 'eggs'?