Is EPM an element in your life? Extra-Pair Mating is but one of many animal behaviour traits examined by John Alcock in this excellent overview of research in sociobiology. Many species of birds have been typified as monogamous - pairing for life, or during a mating season. Alcock cites avian studies that modify that picture. Red-winged Blackbird females will flit from the nest to take up with a different male although remaining partnered with her original mate. Alcock stresses that without the research spurred by Edward O. Wilson's 1975 book, Sociobiology, The New Synthesis, we would never have discovered this novel avian behaviour. He goes on to show even more unexpected traits in birds, such as warblers whose offspring remain in the nest area to assist in supporting the next clutch of hatchlings. These birds, faced with varying available resources actually possess the means to control the sex of their offspring depending on forecast needs.
Don't mistake the title of this book. "Triumph" is not a victory celebration, it's a paean to the successful maturing of a young science. Many of the studies, superbly related in this book, show how much the depth of knowledge has increased since Wilson's appeal. Alcock shows how sociobiology, instead of being a "revolution" as many of its critics tag it, is in reality the fulfillment of Darwin's original premise. Wilson defined the discipline as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour." To Alcock, that means seeking the role natural selection played in shaping the evolution of the particular social behaviour under study. Alcock relates how this foundation has led to inquiries and results rarely or never considered prior to Wilson's call for this type of study. Nor is the work confined to birds. Insects, spiders, mountain goats, chimpanzees and other animal life are covered. Nor are the botanists overlooked - plant reproductive strategies are also examined. The key phrase throughout is "adaptation" and its role in evolution. Anyone wishing to gain insight into the way life adapts to conditions will find this book a priceless treasure.
Alcock must spend time dealing with the critics of sociobiology because they have reached such a broad public audience. Gould's pernicious attacks are a particular concern of Alcock's since the Harvard paleontologist's adroit turn of phrase has deceived many unwary readers. Gould's mantle as "the pope of paleontology" has allowed him to characterize studies of adaptation as expressions of "Darwinian fundamentalism." This oft-repeated phrase, plus his characterization of "just so stories" to studies he disapproves of, have made the lot of several young researchers difficult. Alcock recounts one case in which an admittedly tentative field study was the target of Gould's vituperation. The long career of Gould's irrational attacks on sociobiology are analysed, then gently dismembered by Alcock. If for no other reason, this book should achieve wide circulation for its service in exposing the fallacies of Wilson's critics.
However, this book has far more value than puncturing "punctuationists." Alcock shows that sociobiology isn't the "gene determinist" science it's been labeled. The many studies cited in this book remove the idea that only humans are flexible in the decision-making process. Extending our evolutionary roots as Alcock's many examples do, leads him in to see sociobiology as the basis for many practical human social issues. The diamond in this tiara of evolutionary roots for social behaviour is the application of the research to the future human condition. His chapter on "practical applications of sociobiology" nearly justifies the price of the book in itself. With no illusions about immediate success given the ongoing squalls of opposition by such as Gould, Alcock still suggests reasoned, pragmatic solutions for social issues derived from sociobiological research. Instead of jousting with the opposition, Alcock says "let's try this or that solution and see if we achieve positive results." What better example of adaptation?
Alcock's citation method is novel, but one which we can only hope more writers will follow. Instead of a duality of footnotes and bibliography, Alcock simply lists his sources alphabetically. Assigning each author a corresponding number, he then inserts the number in the main text. The reader avoids the distraction of footnote references, the bibliography is a ready reference back to the text and the size of the book is reduced - saves paper. Of far greater novelty and function, however, is the appendix of this excellent work. Where other authors use an appendix to flesh out arcane topics for the dedicated student, Alcock, again, is more practical. His appendix is a study guide, complete with thought-provoking questions. It's a crafty tool for reconsidering your own ideas and expand your thinking.
NOTE: Alcock devotes much attention in this book to mating strategies. One such strategy, outside his scope, is matching compatible books. Where Alcock has given us a splendid picture of sociobiology research, another work on the people involved should be mated with TRIUMPH on your shelves. Ullica Segerstrale's DEFENDERS OF THE TRUTH is an in-depth study of Wilson and his critics. Both are valuable contributions in understanding the workings and workers in science.