Sociobiology, also called behavioral ecology, is the study of the evolution of social behavior in all organisms, including human beings. The highly complex behaviors of individual animals become even more intricate when interactions among groups of animals are considered. Animal behavior within groups is known as social behavior. Sociobiology asks about the evolutionary advantages contributed by social behavior and describes a biological basis for such behavior. It is theory that uses biology and genetics to explain why people (and animals) behave the way they do.
Sociobiology is a relatively new science. In the 1970s, Edward O. Wilson, now a distinguished professor of biology at Harvard University, pioneered the subject. In his ground-breaking and controversial book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Dr. Wilson introduced for the first time the idea that behavior is likely the product of an interaction between an individual's genetic makeup and the environment (or culture in the case of human beings). Wilson's new ideas rekindled the debate of "Nature vs. Nurture," wherein nature refers to genes and nurture refers to environment.
Sociobiology is often subdivided into three categories: narrow, broad, and pop sociobiology. Narrow sociobiology studies the function of specific behaviors, primarily in non-human animals. Broad sociobiology examines the biological basis and evolution of general social behavior. Pop sociobiology is concerned specifically with the evolution of human social behavior.
Sociobiologists focus on reproductive behaviors because reproduction is the mechanism by which genes are passed on to future generations. It is believed that behavior, physically grounded in an individual's genome (or genes), can be acted upon by natural selection. Natural selection exerts its influence based upon the fitness of an organism. Individuals that are fit are better suited (genetically) to their environment and therefore reproduce more successfully. An organism that is fit has more offspring than an individual that is unfit. Also, fitness requires that the resulting offspring must survive long enough to themselves reproduce. Because sociobiologists believe that social behavior is genetically based, they also believe that behavior is heritable and can therefore contribute to (or detract from) an individual's fitness. Examples of the kinds of reproductive interactions in which sociobiologists are interested include courtship, mating systems like monogamy (staying with one mate), polygamy (maintaining more than one female mate), and polyandry (maintaining more than one male mate), and the ability to attract a mate (called sexual selection.)
Sociobiology also examines behavior that indirectly contributes to reproduction. An example is the theory of optimal foraging which explains how animals use the least amount of energy to get the maximum amount of food. Another example is altruistic behavior (altruism means selfless). Dominance hierarchies, territoriality, ritualistic (or symbolic) behavior, communication (transmitting information to others through displays), and instinct versus learning are also topics interpreted by sociobiology.
Sociobiology applied to human behavior involves the idea that the human brain evolved to encourage social behaviors that increase reproductive fitness. For example, the capacity for learning in human beings is a powerful characteristic. It allows people to teach their relatives (or others) important life skills that are passed-down from generation to generation. However, the ability to learn is also a variable trait. That is, not every person learns as quickly or as well as every other person. A sociobiologist would explain that individuals who learn faster and more easily have increased fitness. Another example is smiling. The act of smiling in response to pleasurable experiences is a universal social behavior among people. Smiling is observed in every culture. Furthermore, smiling is an example of an instinct that is modified by experience. Therefore, because the behavior is instinctual, it has a genetic and inheritable basis. Because it is altered by experience, the behavior is socially relevant. Sociobiologists might speculate, then, that since smiling is a visual cue to other individuals that you are pleased, people who tend to smile more easily are more likely to attract a suitable mate, and are therefore more fit.
The discipline of sociobiology is also riddled with debate, principally because it attempts to not only explain the behavior of animals but also of human beings. More dangerously, it tries to describe "human nature." The idea that human behavior is subject to genetic control has been used in the past to justify racism, sexism, and class injustices. In this respect, sociobiology is similar to Social Darwinism. For this reason, sociobiology remains a controversial discipline. Further criticisms include the observation that sociobiology contains an inappropriate amount of anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to animals) and it excessively generalizes from individuals to whole groups of organisms.