Sociobiology: the new synthesis

1975 book by biologist E. O. Wilson

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.[1]
  2. this applies to an animal's behaviour and social life as much as it does to any other aspect of its life.[2]
Sociobiology: the new synthesis
AuthorEdward O. Wilson
Genrescience books
PublisherHarvard University Press
Publication date
591.56 21
LC ClassQL775 .W54 2000
Preceded byThe Insect Societies 
Followed byOn Human Nature 

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,[3] 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.[2][4] For ethologists, Wilson's ideas are mainstream, and for them his book is not controversial.[5][6]



  1. May, Robert M. 1976. Sociobiology: a new synthesis and an old quarrel. Nature 260, 5550, 390-392. ISSN 0028-0836
  2. 2.0 2.1 Alexander, Richard D. (1982). Darwinism and Human Affairs. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-295-95901-6.
  3. Gould S.J. 1978. Sociobiology: the art of storytelling. New Scientist 80, 530–533.
  4. Ullica Christina Olofsdotter Segerstråle (2000). Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-19-850505-1.
  5. Alcock, John (2003). The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-19-516335-3.
  6. Trivers R.L. 1985. Social evolution. Benjamin/Cummings. ISBN 978-0-8053-8507-6