February 26, 2009

Deep Theory

On occasion friends who have an interest in sociobiology ask me for recommendations of more primary works upon which popularizations such as The Blank Slate rely.  Most evolutionary psychology which appeals to the general audience is the examination of specifics, but tends to elide over the general theoretical framework.  These are the three books which I think are helpful in fleshing out the theory upon which evolutionary psychology and sociobiology rests:

The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, R. A. Fisher’s classic work which outlines the mathematical superstructure around which modern evolutionary population genetics has grown over the past century.

Narrow Roads of Gene Land: The Collected Papers of W. D. Hamilton Volume 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour. William D. Hamilton’s collection of papers from the early phase of his career is highly engaging for a relatively technical work. Concepts such as inclusive fitness are given a deep treatment, and the biographical and cultural context to his intellectual development are also highlighted in his fascinating introductions.  Much of Richard Dawkins’ early popularizations are actually a distillation of Hamilton’s academic research program.

Natural Selection and Social Theory: Selected Papers of Robert Trivers.  This is a volume which resembles Hamilton’s.  Reciprocal altruism is one of the primary building blocks of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.  Steven Pinker has credited Trivers’ work with opening his eyes to the possibility of synthesis between the psychological and evolutionary sciences.  Like Hamilton, Robert Trivers has a fascinating biography, and the two should really be read together.

Though these works have some mathematics, that can be skimmed without losing much of the “meat.” Additionally, the math itself extends only minimally beyond basic calculus, probability and algebra.

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