24 Oct 2013
4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
470 Stephens Hall
Associate Professor of the History of Science, Princeton University
In 1975, biologist Edward O. Wilson, a lanky and charming expert on ant behavior, published a controversial book called Sociobiology. Geneticists and molecular biologists—scientists who studied the inner workings of cells and nuclei—had been enjoying the public spotlight for over a decade, dubbing their research “modern” biology. Zoologists like Wilson grasped for the cultural authority with which to balance the rising prestige of molecular biology by arguing that their research provided them with the necessary expertise to understand the evolution of universal human behaviors. In doing so, sociobiologists sought to create a vision of rigorous evolutionary analysis distinct from the “unprofessional” efforts of science popularizers like Robert Ardrey’s Territorial Imperative (1966), Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression (1966), and Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967). These best-selling books intended for non-expert readers nevertheless helped create the stereotypes against which Wilson’s critics reacted. Anthropologists and feminists alike, for example, had already lost patience with Ardrey, Lorenz, and Morris’s attempts to define human nature. After all, reducing human behavior to universals required stripping away the very cultural complexity they found most fascinating. Thus, in part because scientists often read so-called popular science in fields outside their area of direct expertise, these books contributed significantly to the intellectual landscape of professional debates over sociobiology in the 1970s.
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