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The Development of Sociobiology in Relation to Animal Behavior Studies, 1946–1975

Journal of the History of Biology, 2018

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Published version of the paper in the Journal of the History of Biology, paywalled ($$$)

Free version of the paper: html version, pdf version

You can also email me ( if you prefer that I communicate to you my personal copy, directly.

Commentary on the origin and goals of the paper:

In 1975, a scientific and political controversy erupted when Edward O. Wilson, professor at Harvard, published an enormous book entitled "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis":

cover sociobiology

Specialist of ants, E. O. Wilson studied the behavior of all social animal species across 26 chapters. In the 27th chapter, he discussed human societies using the same frame he used all along the book, suggesting that human social behavior (including economic behavior, gender roles, etc.) was shaped by biological evolutionnary forces.

It drew praises and condemnation across the US and beyond, the whole episode being known as the "sociobiology debate". While some scientists praised Wilson for his encyclopedic review of animal social behavior, many critics of sociobiology drew a line between nature and culture, human societies belonging to the later. Famous scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin and other evolutionary biologists related the book to social Darwinism and nazism:

These [early XXth century social Darwinist] theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany. The latest attempt to reinvigorate these tired theories comes with the alleged creation of a new discipline, [Edward O. Wilson's] sociobiology.

Against Sociobiology , Allen et al. 1975

The history of sociobiology written so far has been mainly the history of this debate, which unfolded in 1975-1980 and beyond, following the publication of the book. But where does the book come from? What is the history of "sociobiology"? This is the question addressed by the paper.

The consensus is that the "deep history" of sociobiology lays in the 1960s, when Edward O. Wilson read William Hamilton's papers on kin selection, providing Wilson with the key to a synthesis of all patterns of animal social behavior under a brand new name, "sociobiology".

Doing even just preliminay historical research on sociobiology, I was disturbed by some anomalies. A search in databases of scientific journals on "sociobiology" returns documents published well before Edward O. Wilson's use of the term: sometimes coincidentally, but at other times in the context of American animal social behavior studies, in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1956, a Section On Animal Behavior and Sociobiology was created within the Ecological Society of America, independently of Wilson, and it gained more than 300 members in less than a year. Who were these people??

Since the history of sociobiology was not central to my PhD work at the time, I ignored the question. But several readings kept suggesting a more complex historical frame for sociobiology than the one which makes it all start with Edward O. Wilson reading the papers of Hamilton in 1964.

In the end, I came back to the issue and tried to write a history of sociobiology that made sense. It turned out that this history could not be cut off from the contemporary developments in the multiple communities active at the time on the study of animal social behavior: ecology, comparative psychology and ethology. It helped that many actors met in one single place, leading directly to a first formal definition of sociobiology. This was a conference oganized in in 1946 by behavioral geneticist J.P. Scott at Bar Harbor, and this is the starting point of the narrative.

This conference promoted the naturalist way of doing animal behavior studies: performed outdoor to conduct observations in the natural habitat of animals, in opposition to rat / lab studies which were becoming the modern orthodoxy in animal studies.

Participants to the conference used "sociobiology" to call their way of studying animal behavior in the wild, making room for field-based as well as lab-based research. This burgeoned into the Animal Behavior Society, founded in 1964.

Is Wilson's sociobiology unrelated to this earlier sociobiology project by scientists self-identifying as naturalists?

Reading Wilson's autobiography, entitled Naturalist (hint!), many cues made me suspect that Wilson's motives to develop sociobiology were not that different from the ones of earlier sociobiologists.

I started to wonder, can different traditions of practicing science, the naturalist way vs the lab way, be of value to shed light on the history of sociobiology? It happens that a magistral book by Robert Kohler makes the case that place / location is an important dimension in defining competing scientific "cultures" (I didn't use Knorr Cetina concept of epistemic cultures, but that's the idea).

Kohler specifically studies naturalist vs lab styles of research. I realized it illustrated quite well what had happened in this Bar Harbor conference in 1946, and that it was probably a good subscript for Wilson's sociobiology.

Indeed, the same pattern of defensive alliance by naturalists can be found with the 2 next incarnations of sociobiology: Stuart Altmann, doctoral student of E. O. Wilson in touch with some of the participants to the Bar Harbor conference, and then E. O. Wilson himself.

They were all naturalists at a time when American science was redirecting funds and prestige towards lab-based research, which adopts a reductionist approach and mathematical formalisms - far from "jungle studies".

To give an idea, Wilson was in the same department at Harvard as James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA structure in 1953. Imagine the pressure to establish your scientific credentials, when you are a naturalist like Wilson wearing boots to study ants in the field, next to a person who co-discovered the mechanism of heredity standing in a lab!

This gives a motive for Wilson's sociobiology very similar to the motives of J.P. Scott and Stuart Altmann's to develop their brands of sociobiologies: an attachment to the naturalist way of doing science (attention to the whole animal and its social relations in groups, in natural conditions of observations), by combining naturalist and new formal approaches (lab studies, sophisticated mathematical formalism) into a synthesis.

This is the main claim of the paper. You'll have to read it to have all the nuances of the argument (see links above to access the paper).

I like the result for a couple of reasons:

  1. it traces a history of sociobiology independently from the sociobiology debate: the accusations of biological determinism following the publication of E. O. Wilson's book in 1975. This debate received a proper sociological, historical and philosophical examination (by Segerstrale and Kitcher in paticular), but it tended to capture the history of sociobiology from a post-hoc viewpoint, framed by the reception of the book after 1975. My paper unearthes motives and dynamics which shaped sociobiology independently from what happened post-1975.

  2. it relies heavily on the secondary literature. It is common to read outstanding work in the history of science, to end up referencing one page here, or a paragraph there. For this paper, I had to rely extensively on a couple of impressive studies which were really doing the heavy lifting: Robert Kohler's work on the role of place in scientific practices (Kohler 2002), Greg Mitman's opus on the history of ecology at the University of Chicago (Mitman 1992), the series of articles on cybernetics and animal studies by Donna Haraway culminating into her book (Haraway 1989), or the history of ethology by Richard Burkhadt ( 2005) (and others). It is a pleasure to put these references to work once again, and make them shed a bright light on a different time period or scientific field they had focused on.

  3. there is a "smoking gun", a key documentary evidence for the central argument of the paper, found in the archives. There is plenty of evidence that the 3 sociobiology projects discussed in the paper are driven by a need to defend the naturalist credo in animal behavior studies. But explicit evidence digged from an archival source is always great to corroborate. And this what I found in the correspondence between JP Scott and TC Schneirla (a comparative psychologist who had done field studies), following the Bar Harbor conference:

    All of this [the grouping of naturalists in a newly defined sociobiology], I think, will tend to work in the direction of both building up interest in animal behavior and sociobiology and thereby making it possible to do what we talked about at the [New York] conference, namely to organize a new journal for this type of work. In spite of the cordial attitude of the editors of various existing journals, my own experience and that of others who have worked in the field leads me to believe that it is often very difficult to fit papers to the individual requirements of these journals.

    Scott to Schneirla, July 9 1948 Box M579 Folder "Conferences: Behavior Committee" - Theodore C Schneirla Papers - Archives of the History of American Psychology - The University of Akron)

    Here Schneirla basically explains that the sociobiology committee he just co-created with Scott will, hopefully, help researchers promote field-based research work, which tend to be harder and harder to place in scientific journals - which are more and more interested in different types of work (presumably lab-based). The thesis of the paper vindicated in one historical source! :-)
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