22011 Sociobiology and Its Offshoots: Science in Controversy

Credits: 3 graduate credits in Biological Thought

Prerequisite: Admission to the graduate program in Biological Thought

The course is based on two readers edited by Simona Ginsburg and Batya Zalinger, and on books which change from semester to semester.

The major claims of sociobiology (and one of its more modern offshoots, evolutionary psychology) are that social behavior is grounded in biology and that specific animal and human social behaviors are shaped by natural selection. Thus, the unification of the natural and social sciences was the vision of sociobiologists.

Sociobiology attempts to reconstruct the history of particular behavioral strategies, and in doing so relies on various evolutionary models and concepts (such as reciprocal altruism and kin selection), which are discussed in this course. Critics of sociobiology deny the applicability of Darwinian theory to the explanation of human behavior, rebuff the idea of “universal human nature” and write off sociobiological reconstructions of human behaviors as “just so” stories. Opponents also reject the genetic determinism inherent in some of the scientific literature of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (usually in the more popular publications), and point to the danger of reviving social Darwinism and eugenic movements as the outcome of notions such as genes “for” criminality, genes “for” homosexuality, etc. Finally, critics accuse sociobiology of providing an ostensibly scientific basis – a “cover” – to perpetuate the given social order and justify sexism and racism. The course deals with these criticisms and their counter-attacks as a case study of a science in controversy, and examines the roles of values, ideology, politics and rhetoric in science.