Mindless Societies

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

by Edward O. Wilson
Harvard University Press, 697 pp., $20.00

Since the discovery of the nature and mode of operation of the basic units of heredity, biologists in search of major new fields to conquer have increasingly turned their attention to what has conventionally been referred to as behavior, mentality, and society. Three of the most important students of animal behavior, Karl von Frisch, Konrad Lorenz, and Niko Tinbergen, who recently shared a Nobel Prize, have all recently published books about their work; but the most sustained attempt to synthesize the whole of our present-day knowledge is undoubtedly that of Professor Edward O. Wilson of Harvard. His book is a formidable work. If I had to find a single word to describe my feelings when I found on my desk this offering from the NYR—no fewer than 392 broad-columned galley proofs, with a promise of more to come, containing glossary, bibliography, and index, plus, as a small side dish, a work of a mere 200 pages of sophisticated neurobiology—I think the best I could do would be “dudgeon”—not high dudgeon, but certainly low dudgeon.

A first glance was not very appetizing. The first sentence of Sociobiology quotes Camus (“Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide”), only to have it pointed out in the second that there Camus was—not unusually in my opinion—talking Gallic rhetoric through his hat (“That is wrong even in the strict sense intended”), and in the third sentence we find ourselves involved with the hypothalamus and the limbic system of the brain. H’m…. So I turned to the very last sentence, at the bottom of galley 392. Only to find Camus again. This time propounding one of his tautological aphorisms: “In a universe divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.” Well, in such a universe this may be so. This time Wilson remarks, “This, unfortunately, is true. But we still have another 100 years.” So I applied what capacity for perseverance I possess to trying to discover what the intermediate 390 galleys told us to do in this 100 years.

It was quickly apparent that there is, as might be expected from Professor Wilson, a great deal of solid and interesting material behind the window dressing. He is well known as one of the most profound professional students of animal societies, particularly those of insects. He very early makes it. clear that his book has a well-defined and important aim, and it is rather closely organized around this coherent theme. By “Sociobiology” he means the systematic study of the biological basis of all aspects of social behavior, particularly of animal societies, but also encompassing the social behavior of early man, and the organization of the more primitive contemporary human societies. He foregoes the attempt to deal with more complex forms of human social organization.

He argues that societies have been produced by evolution, that is to say by the natural selection of genetic variants, and that the proper way to understand societies is to discover how natural selection could…

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