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This fat anthology attempts to put in perspective the impassioned debate that arose following publication of E. O. Wilson's massive tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975). There the noted Harvard authority on insect societies expressed the hope that sociobiology would be a new science establishing the genetic basis for social behavior. In particular, he argued that altruism is part of the genetic endowment of social groups. However, he has also speculated on the existence of genetic underpinnings for such human traits as conformity and homosexuality and he has opined that, in general, human groups are characterized by male dominance, territoriality, and so on. These are the points that have sparked the debate, particularly raising the hackles of the Boston-based group, Science for the People, whose members include such distinguished Harvard colleagues of Wilson's as population geneticist Richard Lewontin and paleontologist Stephen Gould. Lewontin et al. contend that Wilson's point of view is essentially political and that, like Spencer and other biological determinists, he is arguing for a perpetuation of the status quo as genetically established. Wilson denies this and so the battle is joined. The reader needs to read these issues and counterissues once to get the point, but unfortunately the anthology presents themes and variations, rebuttals and counterrebuttals--on the whole tending to favor Wilson as being misrepresented. On the other hand, the volume contains some fine historical and other background material, including papers by Spencer and Darwin. The ethologists are represented, along with the mathematical modelers and such theorists as Waddington, as well as philosophers of ethics. Particularly noteworthy is a 1943 contribution by W. C. Allee predicting postwar hostility to science, and an adroit and sophisticated philosophical paper by Anthony Flew--""From Is to Ought."" In sum, a reasonable backgrounder, not totally neutral, and better to have been pared.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Harper & Row