A Satyrical Comment on the Reductionist Theory of Edward O. Wilson & Co.


Isadore Nabi

The First Annual Piltdown Lecture on Man and Nature

A Rodin study
Atkins Museum
Kansas City

The fundamental proposition of sociobiology (the new synthesis) is that human cultural behavior can be explained and understood as the outcome of natural selection acting on that behavior in such a way as to maximize the inclusive fitness of the actor. This theory can, in principle, account for both the invariants of the human condition and those traits which vary in space and time and can be applied to several levels of natural organization including the individual, the nuclear family, kin group, joint stock company, nation, or class.

The present paper examines the English, 14‑line sonnet as an adaptive trait.

The adaptive significance of cultural behavior is two‑fold: it mediates the relation of man to nature (the competition for food or struggle against predators) and the relations of men to each other (the struggle for access to females). Therefore, the first question is, which of these roles is the major adaptive significance of the sonnet?

A textual analysis shows possible significance for either role. References to nature abound, either by way of sharpening the sensory focus on potential resources ("hark, hark, the lark!") or by atuning man's activity cycle to the deep rhythms of the seasons ("shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"). Note that this is expressed as a question. Then follows further description of summers' days so that at the end the hearer may be better able to cultivate the corn at the appropriate time.

However, on the whole the 14‑line English sonnet seems to be more related to the winning of mates than the struggle for food, and should be seen as part of courtship behavior. Our hypothesis then, is that the English sonnet is a sex organ, and that like more corporeal sex organs, it has an optimal size which will be selected for.

In order to serve its purpose as mediating early coupling, the sonnet must be long enough to arouse the interest of the receptive female.  Clearly the couplet, quatrain, or limerick are too brief to induce more than a flicker of interest. On the other hand, if the sonnet were too long it would interfere with the later stages of courtship, the open-ended heroic epic for example would dilute any passion into "words, words, words!", or the lady's husband may return.

Therefore, there is some intermediate optimum which balances the needs of arousal and consummation, courtship and safety, passion and prudence, allowing man to reproduce himself with minimum risk and maximum issue.

That this optimum is approximately 14 lines is shown by the following:

(1) Fourteen is a subharmonic of the 28‑day menstrual cycle, thus evoking deep (hypothalamic‑limbic) instinctual rhythms.

(2) Sonnet‑writing peoples have been among the most successful in the world whether measured in terms of population growth, geographic spread, spawning of new populations (cladistic evolution), relative share in world petroleum consumption, military potential, foreign investment, or other measures of all‑inclusive fitness.

(3) In Table 1, we compare the 14‑line English sonnet to longer and shorter versions of the same theme. This procedure, modeled after the familiar techniques of perturbation analysis, demonstrates the patent superiority of the 14‑liner over small and medium deviations from it.

(4) There is no evidence that Neanderthalers wrote sonnets (their art emphasized food‑getting). They are extinct.

(5) The sonnet has an insignificant role in gay literature.


The demonstration that the 14‑line sonnet was selected as the optimum early‑courtship behavior (at least in a cold climate) is consistent with the role of sonic communication in bird courtship as well, and may be important in the pairing of dolphins and of killer whales.

But a gene for sonnet writing in the male would lack adaptive value without a corresponding receptor site in the female. The sonnet receptivity lows (SRL) may prove to be linked with other genes in the Gullibility and Role regions of the X‑chromosome, such as the Emotionality locus (EL), Intuitiveness locus (IL), Submissiveness locus (SL), etc. We note that there seems to be a one‑to‑one correspondence between male and female behaviors reminiscent of the gene‑for‑gene equivalences of rust resistant loci in wheat and anti‑resistance loci in wheat rust. On the other hand, in humans we may be dealing with the same genes in both sexes, which express themselves differently depending on genetically determined sex.

The author is of course aware of the importance of culture and recognizes, for example, that the Italian sonnet is frequently written in Italian and often ignores larks. Therefore, my own conservative estimate is that approximately 7% of the English sonnet is genetically determined, and that this 7% must include the size‑regulating 14th line.


It is shown that the Fourteen Line English Sonnet (FLES) has evolved from birdsongs as an optimal early courtship behavior in Man.


Desmond, Alfred E. The Wife of the Dolphin. Penguin Paperback, 1975.

McFirster, Amory. Men, Genes and History: A Genetic Interpretation of Western Civilization. Knapsack Press, Cambridge, 1977.

Nabi, I. 1975. Maximum likelihood estimates of the length of the sonnet. Biosoc. Stat. 4: 1‑3.

Nabi, I. The Summer's Day in Sociometeorology—a Newer Synthesis (Ed.) G. P. Mallory.

National Research Council 1978. The lark as a potential energy resource. NAS, Washington, D.C.

Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds in Shakespeare. 18th Edition (in press).


(a) Suboptimal form

A self‑pitying poet compared
His fortunes to others, despaired
Of the cruelty of fate
'Til he thought on his mate
And then like a skylark he fared.

(b) Optimal

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heavens with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising
Haply I think on thee and then my state
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

(c) Supra‑optimal

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I hear folk snickering behind my back
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
Of "Woe is me" and "fuck it" and "alack",
I all alone beweep, my outcast state
And, in excess, in company as well,
And look upon myself and curse my fate
And scorn my looks, my touch, my sound, my smell,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
In ships, in shares, in titles, stocks, and bonds,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope
Of this man's lakes or even that man's ponds,
Featured like them, like them with friends possessed,
At least with contacts, and with fine abodes,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
An ear for sonnets and a flair for odes.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising
For coveting alone what I have not,
Like to the owl at fall of night arising
To share the pewter and the pity pot,
Haply I think on thee and then my state
Like holy Mary's Bodily Assumption
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate,
My hopes return, my humor and my gumption,
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That banish goblins, doubts and dismal scenes
So then I scorn to change my state with kings,
With bankers, popes, or academic deans.

Editors philosophical remarks. This gentle spoof by a pseudonymous Nabi reflects quite well the anthropomorphic and mechanistic concept of the gene in sociobiology—popularized by Dawkins as The Selfish Gene, and implemented in a rash of papers in scientific journals demonstrating how the male (bluebird, garter snake, or so forth) protects his "gene investment". For this most recent formulation of genetic determinism, Edward O. Wilson of Harvard has received wide acclaim from the competitive social system that he reflects; Jimmy Carter gave him the National Medal of Science in 1977. Wilson's exhaustive treatise Sociobiology: The New Synthesis [1975] starts right off [p. 4] by explaining "The Morality of the Gene" in terms that relegate cortical processes to a secondary role in social behavior:

The hypothalamic‑limbic complex of a highly social species, such as man, "knows," or more precisely it has been programmed to perform as if it knows, that its underlying genes will be proliferated maximally only if it orchestrates behavioral responses that bring into play an efficient mixture of personal survival, reproduction, and altruism.

Defining sociobiology as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior" [emphasis added), Wilson makes it clear that genetic influence must take precedence over historical development as the key to understanding "all" social processes and class‑divided social structures:

Sociology sensu stricto, the study of human societies at all levels of complexity, still stands apart from sociobiology, because of its largely structuralist approach and nongenetic approach. It attempts to explain human behavior primarily by empirical description of the outermost phenotypes and by unaided intuition, without reference to evolutionary explanations in the true genetic sense. [ibid.]

Since human society regrettably still defies reduction to an equation, Wilson formulates his present goal as follows: "When the same parameters and quantitative theory are used to analyze both termite colonies mid troops of macaque monkeys, we will have a unified science of sociobiology." But even in this seeming modest goal, he would deny the development of qualitative differences in the laws governing the potential and actual social organizations for such widely divergent organisms. Because of the mechanistic nature of his proposed model, Wilson can find philosophical support from otherwise strange bedfellows such as Noam Chomsky, Herbert Marcuse and B.F. Skinner. (He does not mention either Marx or Engels.) And, predictably, his mechanistic materialism leads to some blatantly idealist formulations, such as a genetic basis for religion too.

Now, this criticism of Wilson's philosophical approach does not imply rejection of all his work. Who would deny that the biology of the individual organism plays a dialectical role in collective social behavior? This was discussed by Pyotr Fedoseyev in Social Sciences (Moscow) 9 (3): 20‑43, 1978 (excerpted in Science and Nature No. 2). For more extended discussions, Ashley Montagu has recommended:

Marshall Sahlins, The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology. Univ of Michigan Press 1976.

Vernon Reynolds, The Biology of Human Action. W.H. Freeman, 1976.

SOURCE: Nabi, Isadore. “An Evolutionary Interpretation of the English Sonnet” [with editors’ philosophical remarks], Science and Nature, no. 3 (1980), pp. 70-74. [Layout of original publication not preserved.]

On Revolution in Epistemology by V. Kurayev

On the Tendencies of Motion” by Isadore Nabi

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)


The Nabi Papers by 'Isador Nabi'

Isidore Nabi on the Tendencies of Motion (from Levins & Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist)

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