The academic discipline best known through the work of Edward O. Wilson who coined the term in his Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (1975). The approach to human behaviour is based on the premise that all social behaviour has a biological basis, and seeks to understand that basis in terms of genetic encoding for features that are then selected for through evolutionary history. The philosophical problem is essentially one of methodology: of finding criteria for identifying features that can usefully be explained in this way, and for finding criteria for assessing various genetic stories that might provide useful explanations. Among the features that are proposed for this kind of explanation are such things as male dominance, male promiscuity versus female fidelity, propensities to sympathy and other emotions, and the limited altruism characteristic of human beings. The strategy has proved unnecessarily controversial, with proponents accused of ignoring the influence of environmental and social factors in moulding people's characteristics (e.g. at the limit of silliness, by postulating a ‘gene for poverty’). However there is no need for the approach to commit such errors, since the feature explained sociobiologically may be indexed to environment: for instance it may be a propensity to develop some feature in some social or other environment (or even a propensity to develop propensities…). The main problem is to separate genuine explanation from speculative just so stories which may or may not identify real selective mechanisms. See also biology, philosophy of ; evolutionary ethics.

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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