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E. O. Wilson, a central figure in the history of sociobiology.

Sociobiology is a field of scientific study which is based on the hypothesis that social behavior has resulted from evolution and attempts to explain and examine social behavior within that context.


  • The keystone of the new social structure, the pivotal factor of advancing civilization, the guide of the new religion, is biology; for man is an animal, and his characteristics, his requirements, and his reactions can be recorded and studied quite as carefully and precisely as those of any other animal.
  • Speaking of rhetoric, there should be an editorial rule that sentences associated with sociobiology, with efforts to "justify slavery, imperialism, racism, genocide, and to oppose equal rights or ERA" [a quote from S.L. Washburn] should always appear next to sentences associating environmentalist/learning theory, with efforts to justify propaganda, psychological terror, false advertisement, public indoctrination of hatred of foreigners, class enemies, minority groups, and so on and so on. Juxtaposing sociobiology and learning theory in this manner ought to show how unproductive it is to claim through innuendo or otherwise that science will lead to pseudoscience, will lead to man's inhumanity to man: ergo no science. Actually, one could argue that since man is such a cultural/learning animal we should have greater fear of learning theory since learning has far more power over man's behavior than genes. More specifically, if humans were not such learning animals, they would not learn all that Galton trash: ergo stop learning research so that bad guys will not use the data to teach the trash more effectively.
    • William R. Charlesworth, “Comments on S.L. Washburn's review of Kenneth Bock's Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology” Human Ethology Newsletter (Volume 3, Issue 3, September 1981), p.22
  • I believe that human preferences came to be what they are in those millions of years in which our ancestors (whether or not they can be classified as human) lived in hunting bands and were those preferences which, in such conditions, were conducive to survival. It may be, therefore, that ultimately the work of sociobiologists (and their critics) will enable us to construct a picture of human nature in such detail that we can derive the set of preferences with which economists start. And if this result is achieved, it will enable us to refine our analysis of consumer demand and of other kinds of behaviour in the economics sphere.
    • Ronald Coase, "The Firm, the Market, and the Law", in The Firm, the Market and the Law (1988)
  • Even God cannot make two times two not make four.
    • Hugo Grotius, as quoted in Delbert D. Thiessen (ed.), A Sociobiology Compendium: Aphorisms, Sayings, Asides, p. 18
  • Thus perhaps the chief error of contemporary ‘sociobiology’ is to suppose that language, morals, law, and such like, are transmitted by the ‘genetic’ processes that molecular biology is now illuminating, rather than being the products of selective evolution transmitted by imitative learning. This idea is as wrong - although at the other end of the spectrum - as the notion that man consciously invented or designed institutions like morals, law, language or money, and thus can improve them at will, a notion that is a remnant of the superstition that evolutionary theory in biology had to combat: namely, that wherever we find order there must have been a personal orderer. Here again we find that an accurate account lies between instinct and reason.
  • Sociobiology reduces the human to the animal instead of observing how the animal becomes human.
    • Harvey Mansfield, How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science (2007)
  • Wilson clearly laid down a radical biosociological research programme, claiming that sociology should be reduced to biology. This idea has profoundly influenced sociobiology and its reception in the larger public. Because of his claims to 'biologicize' culture and even ethics and the changes in evolutionary biology, which he at least co-provoked, sociobiology was soon singled out for criticism. But this challenge to other subject areas also inspired interesting new theories for instance in psychology or in philosophy.
    • Momme von Sydow, From Darwinian Metaphysics Towards Understanding the Evolution of Evolutionary Mechanisms (2012).

All quotes from the American trade paperback edition, published in 2003 by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-055657-0, 24th printing Italics as in the book. Bold face added for emphasis.

  • I know of no other way that human nature can have developed except by evolution, and there is now overwhelming evidence that there is no other way for evolution to work except by competitive reproduction. Those strains that reproduce persist; those that do not reproduce die out.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (pp. 4-5)
  • Everything can be inherited except sterility. None of your direct ancestors died childless. Consequently, if we are to understand how human nature evolved, the very core of our inquiry must be reproduction, for reproductive success is the examination that all human genes must pass if they are not to be squeezed out by natural selection. Hence I am going to argue that there are very few features of the human psyche and nature that can be understand without reference to reproduction. I begin with sexuality itself.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 5)
  • Reproducing sexually must improve an individual’s reproductive success or else sex would not persist. It is increasingly hard to understand how human beings came to be so clever without considering sexual competition.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (pp. 5-6)
  • The idea that we were designed by our past was the principal insight of Charles Darwin. He was the first to realize that you can abandon divine creation of species without abandoning the argument from design. Every living thing is “designed” quite unconsciously by the selective reproduction of its own ancestors to suit a particular life-style.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 6)
  • The study of human nature must have profound implications for the study of history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and politics. Each of those disciplines is an attempt to understand human behavior, and if the underlying universals of human behavior are the product of evolution, then it is vitally important to understand what the evolutionary pressures were.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 7)
  • I have gradually come to realize that almost all of social science proceeds as if 1859, the year of the publication of the Origin of Species, had never happened; it does so quite deliberately, for it insists that human culture is a product of our own free will and invention. Society is not the product of human psychology, it asserts, but vice versa.
    That sounds reasonable enough, and it would be splendid for those who believe in social engineering if it were true, but is is simply not true.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 7)
  • We assume, and rightly that a Russian is just as human after two generations of oppressive totalitarianism as his grandfather was before him. But why, then, does social science proceed as if it were not the case, as if people’s natures are the products of their societies?
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 8)
  • There is, therefore, such a thing as a universal human nature, common to all people.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 10)
  • Just as human nature is the same everywhere, so it is recognizably the same as it was in the past.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 10)
  • In behavior, as in appearance, every human individual is unique.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 12)
  • It is no harder to explain than a game of cards. There are aces and kings and twos and threes in any deck of cards. A lucky player is dealt a high-scoring hand, but none of his cards is unique. Elsewhere in the room are others with the same kinds of cards in their hands. But even with just thirteen kinds of cards, every hand is different and some are spectacularly better than others. Sex is merely the dealer, generating unique hands from the same monotonous deck of genetic cards shared by the whole species.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 13)
  • People are attracted to people of high reproductive and genetic potential—the healthy, the fit, and the powerful. The consequences of this fact, which goes under the name of sexual selection, are bizarre in the extreme.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 14)
  • When a neo-Darwinian asks, “Why?” he is really asking “How did this come about?” He is a historian.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 17)
  • One of the peculiar features of history is that time always erodes advantage. Every invention sooner or later leads to a counterinvention. Every success contains the seeds of its own overthrow. Every hegemony comes to an end. Evolutionary history is no different.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 17)
  • In history, and in evolution, progress is always a futile, Sisyphean struggle to stay in the same relative place by getting ever better at things. Cars move through the congested streets of London no faster than horse-drawn carriages did a century ago.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 18)
  • Breeding, in sexual species, consists of finding an appropriate partner and persuading it to part with a package of genes. This goal is so central to life that it has influenced the design not only of the body but of the psyche. Simply put, anything that increases reproductive success will spread at the expense of anything that does not—even if it threatens survival.
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (p. 20)
  • The more competitive nature of men is a consequence of sexual selection. Men have evolved to live dangerously because success in competition or battle used to lead to more or better sexual conquests and more surviving children. Women who live dangerously merely put at risk those children they already have. Likewise, the intimate connection between female beauty and female reproductive potential (beautiful women are almost by definition young and healthy; compared with older women, they are therefore both more fertile and have a longer reproductive life ahead of them) is a consequence of sexual selection acting on both men’s psyches and women’s bodies. Each sex shapes the other. Women have hourglass-shaped bodies because men have preferred them that way. Men have an aggressive nature because women have preferred them that way (or have allowed aggressive men to defeat other men in contests over women—it amounts to the same thing).
    • Chapter 1, Human Nature (pp. 20-21)
  • Below the surface of every banality and cliché there lies irony, cynicism, and profundity.
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (p. 27)
  • I asked John Maynard Smith, one of the first people to pose the question “Why sex?,” whether he still thought some new explanation was needed. “No. We have the answers. We cannot agree on them, that is all.”
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (p. 29)
  • Sex is recombination plus outcrossing; their mixing of genes is its principal feature….So sex equals genetic mixing.
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (p. 30; ellipsis represents the elision of details for the sake of continuity)
  • Evolution is something that happens to organisms. It is a directionless process that sometimes make’s an animal’s descendants more complicated, sometimes simpler, and sometimes changes them not at all. We are so steeped in notions of progress and self-improvement that we find it strangely hard to accept this. But nobody has told the coelacanth, a fish that lives off Madagascar and looks exactly like its ancestors of 300 million years ago, that it has broken some law by not “evolving.”
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (p. 31)
  • Evolving is not a goal but a means to solving a problem.
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (p. 31)
  • Psychologists sometimes wonder why people are endowed with the ability to learn the part of Hamlet or understand calculus when neither skill was of much use to mankind in the primitive conditions where his intellect was shaped. Einstein would probably have been as hopeless as anybody in working out how to catch a woolly rhinoceros. Nicholas Humphrey, a Cambridge psychologist, was the first to see clearly the solution to this puzzle. We use our intellects not to solve practical problems, but to outwit each other. Deceiving people, detecting deceit, understanding people’s motives, manipulating people—these are what the intellect is used for. So what matters is not how clever and crafty you are, but how much cleverer and craftier than other people. The value of intellect is infinite. Selection within the species is always going to be more important than selection between the species.
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (pp. 33-34)
  • But as we shall see, the appearance is misleading. Animal altruism is a myth. Even in the most spectacular cases of selflessness it turns out that animals are serving the selfies interests of their own genes—if sometimes being careless with their bodies.
    • Chapter 2, The Enigma (p. 35)
  • The things that kill animals or prevent them from reproducing are only rarely physical factors. Far more often other creatures are involved—parasites, predators, and competitors.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (p. 65)
  • Parasites provide exactly the incentive to change genes every generation that sex seems to demand. The success of the genes that defended you so well in the last generation may be the best of reasons to abandon the same gene combinations in the next. By the time the next generation comes around, the parasites will have surely evolved an answer to the defense that worked best in the last generation. It is a bit like sport. In chess or in football, the tactic that proves most effective is soon the one that people learn easily to block. Every innovation in attack is soon countered by another in defense.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (p. 67)
  • Computer viruses have since become a worldwide problem. It begins to look as if parasites are inevitable in any system of life.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (p. 69)
  • He (Thomas Ray) had discovered that the notion of a host-parasite arms race is one of the most basic and unavoidable consequences of evolution.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (p. 70)
  • The longer your generation time, the more genetic mixing you need to combat your parasites.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (p. 71)
  • Parasites invent new keys; hosts change the locks. There is an obvious group-selectionist argument here for sex: At any one time a sexual species will have lots of different locks; members of an asexual one will all have the same locks. So the parasite with the right key will quickly exterminate the asexual species but not the sexual one. Hence the well-known fact: By turning our fields over to monocultures of increasingly inbred strains of wheat and maize, we are inviting the very epidemics of disease that can only be fought by the pesticides we are forced to use in ever larger quantities.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (pp. 71-72)
  • Sex keeps the parasite guessing.
    • Chapter 3, The Power of Parasites (p. 83)
  • A gene is by definition the descendant of a gene that was good at getting into future generations.
    • Chapter 4, Genetic Mutiny and Gender (p. 93)
  • Wherever you look in the historical record, the elites favored sons more than other classes….Lower down the social scale, daughters are preferred even today.
    • Chapter 4, Genetic Mutiny and Gender (p. 126; ellipsis represents the elision of examples)
  • The process of choosing somebody to have sex with, which used to be known as falling in love, is mysterious, cerebral, and highly selective.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 132)
  • The sex that invests the least has time to spare to seek other mates. Therefore, broadly speaking, males invest less and seek quantity of mates, while females invest more and seek quality of mates.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 133)
  • In species where the females get nothing useful from their mates, they seem to choose on aesthetic criteria alone.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 134)
  • Sexual selection theory suggests that much of the behavior and some of the appearance of an animal is adapted not to help it survive but to help it to acquire the best or the most mates.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 134)
  • Females choose; their choosiness is inherited; they prefer exaggerated ornaments; exaggerated ornaments are a burden to males. That much is now uncontroversial. Thus far Darwin was right.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 138)
  • It is hardly surprising to find that the males best at seduction tend to be the best at other things as well; it does not prove that females are seeking good genes for their offspring.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 147)
  • Advertising works. Brand names are better known if they are advertised with sexy or alluring pictures, and better-known brands sell better. Why does it work? Because the price the consumer would have to pay in ignoring the subliminal message is just too high. It is better to be fooled into buying the second-best ice cream than go to the bother of educating yourself to resist the salesmanship.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 158)
  • As every bird-watcher knows, the beauty of a bird’s song is inversely correlated with the colorfulness of its plumage.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 163)
  • Such “habituation” is just a property of the way brains work; our senses, and those of grackles, notice novelty and change, not steady states. The female preference did not evolve: it just is that way.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 165)
  • If females have an existing aesthetic preference, it is only logical that males will evolve to exploit that preference.
    • Chapter 5, The Peacock’s Tale (p. 165)
  • Human beings are a product of evolution as much as any slime mold, and the revolution of the last two decades in the way scientists now think about evolution has immense implications for mankind as will. To summarize the argument so far, evolution is more about reproduction of the fittest than survival of the fittest; every creature on earth is the product of a series of historical battles between parasites and hosts, between genes and other genes, between members of the same species, between members of one gender in competitions for members of the other gender. Those battles include psychological ones, to manipulate and exploit other members of the species; they are never won, for success in one generation only ensures that the foes of the next generation are fitter to fight harder. Life is a Sisyphean race, run ever faster toward a finish line that is merely the start of the next race.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 174)
  • There is no nature that exists devoid of nurture; there is no nurture that develops without nature. To say otherwise is like saying that the area of a field is determined by its length but not its width. Every behavior is the product of an instinct trained by experience.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 175)
  • The fifth method (that is, of analyzing human mating systems) is to compare mankind with other animals that share our highly social habits: with colonial birds, monkeys, and dolphins. As we shall see, the lesson they teach is that we are designed for a system of monogamy plagued by adultery.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 176)
  • Humanity shares this profile of ardent, polygamist males and coy, faithful females with about 99 percent of all animal species, including our closest relatives, the apes.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 178)
  • And in the matter of seduction itself, once more it is the male who is expected to make the first move. Women may flirt, but men pounce.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 178)
  • Women cannot increase their fecundity by taking more mates; men can.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 179)
  • In any case, no moral conclusions of any kind can be drawn from evolution.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 180)
  • I am trying to describe the nature of humans, not prescribe their morality. That something is natural does not make it right.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 181)
  • Nature is not inflexible but malleable. Moreover, the most natural thing of all about evolution is that some natures will be pitted against others. Evolution does not lead to Utopia. It leads to a land in which what is best for a man may be the worst for another man, or what is best for a woman may be the worst for a man.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 181)
  • And even where I am wrong about human nature, I am not wrong that there is such a nature to be sought.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 181)
  • The technological problems of suburban life may be a million miles from those of the Pleistocene savanna, but the human ones are not.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 193)
  • Power seeking is characteristic of all social mammals.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 195)
  • If reproduction has been the reward and goal of power and wealth, then it is little wonder that it has also been a frequent cause and rewarding of violence.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 202)
  • Monogamy, enforced by law, religion, or sanction, does seem to reduce murderous competition between men.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 202)
  • One of the legacies of being an ape is intergroup violence.
    • Chapter 6, Polygamy and the Nature of Men (p. 203)
  • By describing adultery as a force that shaped our mating system, I am not “justifying” it. Nothing is more “natural” than people evolving the tendency to object to being cuckolded or cheated on, so if my analysis were to be interpreted as justifying adultery, it would be even more obviously interpreted as justifying the social and legal mechanisms for discouraging adultery. What I am claiming is that adultery and its disapproval are both “natural.”
    • Chapter 7, Monogamy and the Nature of Women (p. 219)
  • Jealousy is a “human universal,” and no culture lacks it, Despite the best efforts of anthropologists to find a society with no jealousy and so prove that it is an emotion introduced by pernicious social pressure or pathology, sexual jealousy seems to be an unavoidable part of being a human being.
    • Chapter 7, Monogamy and the Nature of Women (pp. 235-236)
  • Wealth and power are means to women; women are means to genetic eternity….Men are to be exploited as providers of parental care, wealth, and genes.
    Cynical? Not half as cynical as most accounts of human history.
    • Chapter 7, Monogamy and the Nature of Women (p. 244; ellipsis represents the elision of details for the sake of continuity)
  • Men and women have different bodies. The differences are the direct result of evolution. Women’s bodies evolved to suit the demands of bearing and rearing children and of gathering plant food. Men’s bodies evolved to suit the demands of rising in a male hierarchy, fighting over women, and providing meat to a family.
    Men and women have different minds. The differences are the direct result of evolution. Women’s minds evolved to suit the demands of bearing and rearing children and of gathering plant food. Men’s minds evolved to suit the demands of rising in a male hierarchy, fighting over women, and providing meat to a family.
    The first paragraph is banal; the second inflammatory. The proposition that men and women have evolved different minds is anathema to every social scientist and politically correct individual. Yet I believe it to be true for two reasons. First, the logic is impeccable….Second, the evidence is overwhelming.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (pp. 247-248; ellipsis represents the elision of details for the sake of continuity)
  • These concerns (that is, about differences being used to justify unequal treatment) are fair. But just because people have exaggerated sexual differences in the past does not mean they cannot exist. There is no a priori reason for assuming that men and women have identical minds and no amount of wishing it were so will make it so if it is not so. Difference is not inequality.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 249)
  • We give boys tractors and girls dolls. We are reinforcing the stereotypical obsessions that they already have, but we are not creating them.
    This is something every parent knows. Despairingly they watch their son turns every stick into a sword or gun, while their daughter cuddles even the most inanimate object as if it were a doll.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 256)
  • These facts have been first disputed and then actively suppressed by the educational establishment, which continues to insist that there are no differences in learning ability between boys and girls.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 257)
  • There is a contradiction at the heart of feminism, one that few feminists have acknowledged. You cannot say, first, that men and women are equally capable of all jobs and, second, that if jobs were done by women, they would be done differently.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 261)
  • Differences cannot be appealed to when they suit and denied when they do not.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 261)
  • Without this evolutionary history in mind, it is impossible to explain the different sexual mentalities of men and women.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 266)
  • Anthropology consists of studying the differences between peoples. But this has led anthropologists to exaggerate the motes of racial difference and to ignore the beams of similarity.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 275)
  • The stuff of anthropology—the traditions, the myths, the crafts, the language, the rituals—is to me but the froth on the surface. Beneath lie giant themes of humanity that are the same everywhere and that are characteristically male and female. To a Martian an anthropologist studying the differences between races would seem like a farmer studying the differences between each of the wheat plants in his field. The Martian is much more interested in the typical wheat plant. It is the human universals, not the differences, that are truly intriguing.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 275)
  • Wishful thinking that they are the same will be mere propaganda and no favor to either sex.
    • Chapter 8, Sexing the Mind (p. 276)
  • Beauty is not arbitrary.
    • Chapter 9, The Uses of Beauty (p. 280)
  • Morality is never based upon nature.
    • Chapter 10, The Intellectual Chess Game (p. 316)
  • In the 1970s a few brave “sociobiologists” began to ask why, if other animals had evolved natures, humans would be exempt. They were vilified by the social science establishment and told to go back to ant-watching. Yet the question they had asked has not gone away.
    The principal reason for the hostility to sociobiology was that it seem to justify prejudice. This was simply a confusion. Genetic theories of racism, or classism or any kind of ism, have nothing in common with the notion that there is a universal, instinctive human nature. Indeed, they are fundamentally opposed because one believes in universals and the other in racial or class particulars.
    • Chapter 10, The Intellectual Chess Game (p. 319)
  • Sexual selection, as we have seen, is very different from natural selection in its effects, for it does not solve survival problems, it makes them worse.
    • Chapter 10, The Intellectual Chess Game (pp. 338-339)
  • And I end with one of the strangest of the consequences of sex: that the choosiness of human beings in picking their mates has driven the human mind into a history of frenzied expansion for no reason except that wit, virtuosity, inventiveness, and individuality turn other people on. It is a somewhat less uplifting perspective on the purpose of humanity than the religious one, but it is also rather liberating. Be different.
    • Chapter 10, The Intellectual Chess Game (p. 344)
  • The Western cultural revolution that calls itself political correctness will no doubt stifle inquiries it does not like, such as those into the mental differences between men and women. I sometimes feel that we are fated never to understand ourselves because part of our nature is to turn every inquiry into an expression of our own nature: ambitious, illogical, manipulative, and religious.
    • Epilogue, The Self-Domesticated Ape (p. 349)
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