chapter  3
20 Pages

Beyond Sociobiology: A Kinder and Gentler Evolutionary View of Human Nature

There is little argument that human beings are capable of performing kind, caring, helpful, and even heroic behaviors toward others. To the disapproval of some, evolutionary theorists often explain such helpful behaviors as being ultimately selfish. But behaviors that are considered ultimately selfish need not be selfish in the vernacular sense. For over 30 years, the existence of helpful behaviors among kin and non-kin (inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism respectively) have been explained using theories from evolutionary biology. Because these theories are based on genetic selfishness, evolutionary theorists have been accused of providing an overly cynical depiction of human nature (for discussions, see Pinker, 2002, and Wright, 1994). This criticism was first directed at sociobiology. E.O.Wilson’s (1978) term for the systematic study of animal and human social behavior using the principles of ethology, genetics, and evolutionary biology. Because much socio-biological research analyzes behavior in terms of how it maximizes individual fitness (reproductive success), sociobiology quickly became associated with a self-interested view of human nature. According to Frank

(1991), this view is only a caricature of sociobiology. Frank suggested that “a closer look at sociobiology reveals that there is room for other interpretations, including the interpretation that some human behavior is genuinely noble” (p. 92). Since the 1970s, sociobiology has changed. It has bloomed and transformed into a number of specialized fields including evolutionary psychology, psychiatry, economics, and anthropology. Furthermore, in recent years, there has been an increasing amount of theory and research devoted to the evolution and nature of cooperative, helpful, and moral behaviors (Alexander, 1987; Axelrod. 1984; Caporael, Dawes, Orbell, & van de Kragt, 1989: de Waal, 1996; Frank, 1988; Krebs, 1998; Nesse, 1999; Tooby & Cosmides, 1996: Wright, 1994). These new ideas and research extend beyond the classic sociobiological theories of helping and altruism. There is a new focus on how individuals’ behavioral traits or strategies benefit others, as well as themselves.