What’s the Difference Between Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology?

In his current Slate dialogue, Robert Wright writes: “We both subscribe to the modern Darwinian view of human behavior (whose variants include evolutionary psychology and sociobiology) …” What are evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, and how are they different?

Sociobiology came first. It gained fame through the 1975 book Sociobiology by Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson. It is a school of thought that takes Darwin’s theory of evolution and applies it to animal (including human) behavior. The central principle is that the gene’s mission is to propagate itself, and therefore the behavior of living things is based on the desire to produce the maximum number of offspring. Instead of believing humans are born blank slates, sociobiologists say we come highly programmed and that much of our behavior, from violence (eliminating potential mate usurpers) to altruism (saving those with similar genes) to sex roles (men want to spread their sperm as widely as possible; women want to assure survival of the offspring they bear), can be ascribed to ancient evolutionary forces. Almost immediately sociobiologists were widely attacked. (Wilson had a pitcher of water dumped on his head at an academic conference.) The charge was that they were racist, sexist, and reductive, that sociobiologists believed humans are just coded to act a certain way and nothing can change that. The sociobiologists argued their views were being distorted in the cause of political correctness and that to understand ourselves we have to understand underlying evolutionary forces.

Sociobiology needed a new marketing campaign. Enter evolutionary psychology. It emerged in the mid-1980s–leading proponents are John Tooby  and Leda Cosmides, husband and wife and professors at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Some sociobiologists say there is no distinction between their field and the new one, but many evolutionary psychologists say that some early sociobiologists were too simplistic about human behavior. In addition the evolutionary psychologists say they have a more subtle understanding of how the emergence of successful hunter-gatherer groups in the Pleistocene is still affecting human behavior today. They say that the gene’s mission of maximum reproduction produces thoughts and urges that could lead to certain behaviors, but that we are free to act on these desires or not. Critics say that evolutionary psychologists don’t account enough for how different cultures produce different human behaviors and that they tend to selectively cite evidence in animal and human studies that support stereotypical sex roles.

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