E.O. Wilson and The Social Instinct

Wilson, E. O. (1976). The Social Instinct. Bulletin of the Academy of the Arts and Sciences30(1), 11-25. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3822607


Sociobiology is the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms, and is part of an effort to bring biology as a science to psychology, anthropology, and sociology. It deals with thousands of species and their social aspects in hopes that data from other species can provide a historical perspective and basis for general laws of genetic social evolution. And then, hopefully, those can be extended to study humans.

Wilson begins with insects, describing their social behaviors. Even though termites don’t recognize each other as individuals (in the manner vertebrates do), they still manage to accomplish great feats in social groups. The build intricate and specific underground systems that allow them their livelihood. Termites also have specific bodies of soldiers that rush to attack, while others continue their tasks for the colony. Similarly, some ants have soldiers that run forward in attack, or act as a wall to block an entrance to the colony to anyone but their own. Honeypot ants have a strange combat ritual involving few deaths, but hours and days of combat dancing, until the smaller colony breaks. The workers of the losing colony are then carried back as slaves, while their queen is executed.

This last example of behavior by the Honeypot is like that of vertebrates. Male gazelles in Africa use their horns as a display to win females, even though they could be used as weapons, and the loser departs with no damage done.

A notable characteristic of vertebrates, especially mammals, have a close and mutual affiliation of females. Mothers, daughters, and other close relatives tend to typically form permanent cores in society, as males normally come and go. African elephant herds, for example, consist of females, their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, who are all lead by the oldest female. Some aquatic mammals show similar familial situations, like the atlantic dolphins. Homo habilis likely had to develop even more intricate alliances in order to survive.

Altruism, or the welfare of others, is seen to be counter-evolutionary. However, if sacrifice of one is better for the group, it can be seen as a productive trait. For example, if one sacrifices himself for his full sibling, the full sibling will still pass on shared genes, and thus the altruistic person still contributes to the next generation, by allowing reproduction to happen where it would have not.


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