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The Extent and Limitations of the Contributions of Biology To Understanding Human Social Behaviour

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image of Netherlands Journal of Zoology
For more content, see Archives Néerlandaises de Zoologie (Vol 1-17) and Animal Biology (Vol 53 and onwards).

My aim was to consider the extent and the limitations of usefulness of a biological approach in understanding human behaviour. It has been argued that this is facilitated by distinguishing successive levels of social complexity, each of which is affected by the 'sociocultural structure'. Whilst all social behaviour at each level is affected by both genetic and social (including cultural) factors, there are some aspects of individual behaviour whose biological bases are particularly clear. Differences in social experience play only a limited role in their development, and indirect evidence concerning their biological function is available. At the level of relationships, a biological approach helps to integrate diverse and otherwise independent facts into a coherent whole. Even at the level of the socio-cultural structure, some features can be related to basic human propensities. However much human behaviour is clearly neutral or even maladaptive in terms of natural selection. Some such cases can be understood in terms of the excessive expression of tendencies that were adaptive in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness but are no longer so under modern conditions, or as the result of the exploitation of some individuals by others. However in many cases the potency of the sociocultural forces in determining individual behaviour is paramount. Since the sociocultural structure is complex, each feature depending on many psychological characteristics of individuals, it may be remote from the psychological mechanisms on which natural selection acted.

Affiliations: 1: (MRC Unit on the Development and Integration of Behaviour, Madingley, Cambridge CB3 8AA, England


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