Edward O. Wilson's

Reviewed by Helen Fisher's review of
The New York Times Book Review
, October 16, 1994.

At the annual meeting of the Americal Anthropological Association in 1976, a resolution to censure sociobiology was defeated ("but not by an impressive margin", as Wilson recollects), in large part owing to Margaret Mead's passionate defense of intellectual liberty: "Book burning, we are talking about book burning" (quoted by Fisher, p. 15). There were historical and political reasons for the instant unpopularity accorded to Edward O. Wilson's 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

"In the 1840's, Herbert Spencer, the English political philosopher, becan to publish essays contending that human nature and the contemporary social order had arisen by a natural process, "survival of the fittest" - Spencer, not Darwin, coined this phrase. Darwin had no interest in defending the status quo of Victorian England, but the so-called Social Darwinists (who should have been called Social Spencerites) misused his ideas. Soon they started the American eugenics movement. Still worse, in Europe Social Darwinism contributed to the ideology behind Nazism.

By the 1920's, a counterrevolution was in full swing. Many social scientists began to insist that culture, not biology, was the primary molder of human behavior. With the rise of Hitler, and the universal abhorrence inspired by the backlash against Nazism, cultural determinism gained even more adherents. This doctrine - with a concomitant disdain for any biologically based explanation for human behavior - dominated academic theory into the 1970's. Into this milieu Mr. Wilson cam with "Sociobiology," igniting fury and fear that it would start another era of scientifically justified bigotry." (quoted in Fisher, p. 17).

Helen Fisher is a research associate in anthropology at Rutgers University and the author of Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce.


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles