Task Allocation and the Logic of Research Questions: How Ants Challenge Human Sociobiology

Biological Theory 14 (1):52-68 (2019)
After biologist Deborah Gordon made a series of experimental discoveries in the 1980s, she argued that a change in terminology regarding the division of labor among castes of specialists was needed. Gordon’s investigations of the interactive effects of ants in colonies led her to believe that the established approach Edward O. Wilson had pioneered was biased in a way that made some alternative candidate adaptive explanations invisible. Gordon argued that this was because the term “division of labor” implied a division among specialists that was unwarranted, and proposed “task allocation” as a better description that did not bias research against the alternative causes she had discovered. Gordon’s empirical findings and theoretical proposals also vindicate the initial critics of Wilson’s human sociobiology who have been dismissed as political radicals, but her proposals have been widely misunderstood by many contemporary behavioral ecologists. The terminological and methodological confusions rampant in contemporary discourse can be clarified by applying a framework developed by Elisabeth Lloyd involving an analysis of the constraints imposed by different research questions. Applying this framework will show how the methodological problems involving description raised by the initial critics of Wilson’s human sociobiology extended to his analysis of ants, indicating that they were not challenging Wilson’s naturalistic approach to the study of human evolution, but rather his methods. It will also show how confusion over how Gordon’s proposed research questions have been conflated with the possible answers she has argued ought to be investigated. This in turn will clarify contemporary disputes over her proposal to abandon the term “division of labor.”
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DOI 10.1007/s13752-018-0308-8
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Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.Edward O. Wilson - 2000 - Journal of the History of Biology 33 (3):577-584.
The Theory of Island Biogeography.Robert H. Macarthur & Edward O. Wilson - 2002 - Journal of the History of Biology 35 (1):178-179.
Seven Types of Adaptationism.Tim Lewens - 2009 - Biology and Philosophy 24 (2):161-182.

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