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The Triumph of Sociobiology
by John Alcock
ISBN 0195143833 / 9780195143836 / 0-19-514383-3
Publisher Oxford University Press, USA
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Scientists tend to be a bit insecure about their position in society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the decades-old sociobiology debate, and in The Triumph of Sociobiology behavioural scientist John Alcock tries to shore up his side against the sometimes-hysterical opposition. Inevitably, the book is somewhat defensive and apologetic, but the author explains himself and his field well and will convince most readers that studying the evolution of behaviour is no more controversial than any other aspect of evolution. Between charming, engaging tales of field study and intriguing analyses of the chief arguments against sociobiology, Alcock disarms any natural discomfort with the topic and makes his case clearly.
Humans have not always had all the cultural accoutrements of Hutus or Englishmen. At one time not so many million years ago, our ancestors could make only rudimentary tools while surely communicating in a far less sophisticated manner than we do currently. The immense increase in brain size over the last million or so years must have had profound consequences for our capacity to learn and acquire our culture. If you accept the less-than-revolutionary assumption that brains are necessary for learned behavior, then past selection on hominids that varied in their capacity for culture is a certainty.But doesn't sociobiology justify rape, racism and genocide? Not so fast, says Alcock--just because behaviour has a natural explanation, that doesn't make it moral. It would seem that those who want to prevent this sort of behaviour would be keenly interested in understanding why it manifests, but often the opposite case pertains. Through gentle dissection of the differences between scientific and ethical knowledge, Alcock shows that we can use them to complement each other. The Triumph of Sociobiology takes time and care to examine all of the claims made against the field, both political and scientific, and ends up making a strong case for deeper research. --Rob Lightner [via]