Vaulting Ambition

Vaulting Ambition

Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature

By Philip Kitcher





Vaulting Ambition is the first extensive and detailed evaluation of the controversial claims that sociobiologists have made about human nature and human social behavior. It raises the "sociobiology debate" to a new level, moving beyond arguments about the politics of the various parties involved, the degree to which sociobiology assumes genetic determinism, or the falsifiability of the general theory. Sociobiology has made a great deal of noise in the popular intellectual culture. Vaulting Ambition cuts through the charges and counter-charges to take a hard look at the claims and analyses offered by the sociobiologists. It examines what the claims mean, how they relate to standard evolutionary theory, how the biological models are supposed to work, and what is wrong with the headline-grabbing proclamations of human sociobiology. In particular, it refutes the notions that humans are trapped by their evolutionary biology and history in endlessly repeating patterns of aggression, xenophobia, and deceitfulness, or that the inequities of sex, race, and class are genetically based or culturally determined. And it takes up issues of human altruism, freedom, and ethics as well.Kitcher weighs the evidence for sociobiology, for human sociobiology, and for "the pop sociobiological view" of human nature that has engendered the controversy. He concludes that in the field of nonhuman animal studies, rigorous and methodologically sound work about the social lives of insects, birds, and mammals has been done. But in applying the theories to human beings-where even more exacting standards of evidence are called for because of the potential social disaster inherent in adopting a working hypothesis as a basis for public policy - many of the same scientists become wildly speculative, building grand conclusions from what Kitcher shows to be shoddy analysis and flimsy argument. While it may be possible to develop a genuine science of human behavior based on evolutionary biology, genetics, cognition, and culture, Kitcher points out that the sociobiology that has been loudly advertised in the popular and intellectual press is not it. Pop sociobiology has in fact been felled by its overambitious and overreaching creators.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262111096 470 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262610490 470 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • This book is undoubtedly the finest overall assessment of sociobiology yet produced. It supersedes the writings of previous scholars, regardless of their field and regardless of their sympathy or antipathy for sociobiology. It is excellent – both philosophically and scientifically. This book is a stunning achievement. The ideas it develops are important; the mode of presentation is engaging and unfailingly interesting.

    Elliott Sober

    Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison

  • The best dissection ever published of the logic and illogic (mostly the latter) of sociobiology.

    Stephen J. Gould

    Curator, Department of Invertebrate Paleontology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

  • With superb command of both philosophical and biological issues, Professor Kitcher has developed the most detailed and incisive analysist of sociobiology that has yet appeared. In gentle, reasoned terms and sparkling prose, he evenhandedly criticizes the arguments of both sociobiologists and their critics, and presents a devastating critique of sociobiology that is free from the rhetoric and excess that have sometimes marred such analyses. Vaulting Ambition is essential reading for anyone concerned with the bearing of evolutionary theory on our understanding of human nature.

    Douglas J. Futuyma

    Professor, Ecology and Evolution, State University of New York at Stony Brook

  • Vaulting Ambition is indeed the last word on the subject of sociobiology. It is meticulous in its argument and total in its scope. It deals a carefully reasoned blow to the pretentions of sociobiologists. What Kitcher has done is to treat the question of socio-biology both from fundamental philosophical perspective and a technical perspective. He has shown that there are serious technical errors in what socio biologists attempt to do but he has shown that even if their technical apparatus were impeccable that there are deep underlying philosophical problems with which they have failed to cope.

    Richard Lewontin

    Professor of Biology Emeritus, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Emeritus


  • Co-Winner, 1987 Lakatos Award in Philosophy of Science sponsored by the London School of Economics & Political Science.