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by John Alcock
Oxford University Press, 2001
Review by Keith Harris, Ph.D. on Nov 12th 2001

The Triumph of Sociobiology

Sociobiology is a term that, even a quarter century after it was thrust into the academic domain, often elicits unexpected and weakly articulated hostility from persons would appear to be otherwise sensible. Few educated persons now disagree that both the basic and extended premises of evolutionary theory have been repeatedly supported and empirically substantiated. And since sociobiology is simply a way to suggest that humans are not excluded from the effects of evolutionary forces, the vehemence of this emotional reaction always surprises me.

The author of the present book takes on the critics of sociobiology directly, and effectively demonstrates both the strength of the sociobiological approach and the questionable motives of those who would detract from it.

Not only academics are disturbed by the ideas of sociobiology. As Alcock explains, "[Sociobiology] does not appeal to those people, academics and non-academics alike, who believe that to understand human behavior, one [should] focus only on the process of cultural indoctrination, which they believe is shaped by the accidents of human history and the power of the human imagination" [p. 129, italics added]. However, Alcock does not deny the importance of the role of culture - he not only addresses the importance of evolutionary processes in the lives (developmental sequences) of individual humans but also stimulates the reader's thoughts about the role of culture in the evolution of our species.

The book begins with a discussion of what sociobiology is and what it isn't. Alcock gives a thorough overview of the areas of study that specifically appeal to sociobiologists. Although psychologists interested in the effects of evolutionary adaptations will find much to attract them in this book, it is perhaps noteworthy that the author uses the term "evolutionary psychology" sparingly; it's given only two references in the index, for example.

By unfortunate necessity, Alcock spends a substantial portion of the book explaining why the critics of sociobiology (and by extension evolutionary psychology) are both generally and specifically wide of the mark. For example, he found the need to address the naturalistic fallacy, one of the most frequent impediments to clear thinking (or of intentional obfuscation) used by the opponents of sociobiology. This error is a logical fallacy that purports to claim that because some trait or tendency occurs "naturally" our species, that trait or tendency must be seen as "moral". Another example of a disingenuous approach of those opposed to the study of sociobiology is to claim that these scientists subscribe to genetic determinism. Alcock clarifies this issue so handily that the reader is again left marveling at the tactics some academics will employ to support what appears to be their political, rather than scientific or methodological, opposition.

The last section of the book, "The Practical Applications of Sociobiology," addresses questions that are most applicable to psychologists. For example, the question of the extent to which humans can take intentional control of innate or evolved tendencies is central to the work of psychotherapists. Alcock describes the 1986 Seville Statement on Violence, produced by twenty academics that got together to proclaim that our species is not predisposed by biology toward aggressiveness and war. However, a tendency toward aggressiveness in humans, especially human males, is seen in virtually every known culture and throughout all of documented human history. But are we doomed to respond, puppet-like, to these genetically influenced aggressive tendencies, even when in most cases they no longer benefit us? Alcock suggests that there is plenty of evidence to show that people and even cultures can learn to increase their sense of self-agency and choose to behave in more productive ways.

In my opinion, The Triumph of Sociobiology will readily put to rest any lingering doubts and misunderstandings among clinicians and other non-academicians. Its approach, although not simplistic by any means, is both easy to follow and easy to digest, and the book uses a very logical and methodical style of presentation that is especially pleasant for the reader. The author's style serves to make the information accessible, but it is the book's content that is most important.

© 2001 Keith Harris

Keith Harris, Ph.D.  is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.