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Social versus reproductive success: The central theoretical problem of human sociobiology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2010

Daniel R. Vining Jr
Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104


The fundamental postulate of sociobiology is that individuals exploit favorable environments to increase their genetic representation in the next generation. The data on fertility differentials among contemporary humans are not cotvietent with this postulate. Given the importance of Homo sapiens as an animal species in the natural world today, these data constitute particularly challenging and interesting problem for both human sociobiology and sociobiology as a whole.

The first part of this paper reviews the evidence showing an inverse relationship between reproductive fitness and “endowment” (i.e. wealth, success, and measured aptitudes) in contemporary, urbanized societies. It is shown that a positive relationship is observed only for those cohorts who bore their children during a unique period of rising fertility, 1935–1960, and that these cohorts are most often cited by sociobiologists as supporting the central postulate of sociobiology. Cohorts preceding and following these show the characteristic inverse relationship between endowment and fertility. The second section reviews the existing so-ciobiological models of this inverse relationship, namely, those of Barkow, Burley, and Irons, as well as more informal responses among sociobiologists to the persistent violation of sociobiology's central postulate, such as those of Alexander and Dawkins. The third section asks whether the goals of sociobiology, given the violation of its fundamental postulate by contemporary human societies, might not be better thought of as applied rather than descriptive, with respect to these societies. A proper answer to this question begins with the measurement of the pace and direction of natural selection within modern human populations, as compared to other sources of change. The vast preponderance of the shifts in human trait distributions, including the IQ distribution, appears to be due to environmental rather than genetic change. However, there remains the question of just how elastic these distributions are in the absence of reinforcing genetic change.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1986

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