Edward O. Wilson on Sociobiology

I have just returned from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. I was there to participate in a small conference honoring Edward O. Wilson, the well-known evolutionist. Although he spent his working life at Harvard, Wilson comes from the South and is a graduate of the University of Alabama. These days, Wilson (who celebrated his 80th birthday last year) has moved beyond straight science. His big interest is in biodiversity and the threat that modern life poses to the earth’s natural habitats, especially the destruction of the tropics and even more especially the Brazilian rain forests. For Wilson, this is a personal campaign, because as a world-leading expert on the ants, he has spent many a summer foraging in the forests, looking for and examining these tiny (and very abundant) creatures.

Wilson has written many books, but I am sure that posterity will highlight one above the others. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis appeared in 1975, bringing together just about everything then known about the evolution of social behavior. This ranged from the theories and models that had been developed over the previous two decades to the increasing number of empirical studies, work that followed animals around in their natural surroundings and that reported on the behaviors of living beings in the family, in the groups, and between rival factions.

Nearly 700 pages long, Sociobiology – the name was not Wilson’s but it was he who gave it prominence, so that now it is used to describe the whole field of social behavior in an evolutionary perspective – was a remarkable achievement. It was recognized as such and the early reviews were very positive. But then it came under very heavy critical attack, primarily from a group calling itself The Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People, this being a sub-section of the left-wing organization that formed during the Vietnam War and that was dedicated to rooting out perceived misuses of science, as for instance in weapon development.

Wilson’s book was judged to be an apology for the sexist, patriarchal, capitalist, reductionist establishment, and criticisms ranged from the charge that the ideas were unfalsifiable to the somewhat opposing charge that the ideas were false! Particular umbrage was taken at the final chapter of Sociobiology, which dealt with our own species, and this was derided as the fantasies of a middle-aged white man pretending that his prejudices were genuine scientific claims. Above all, Wilson supposedly was guilty of the charge of “genetic determinism,” seeing biology as all-important in producing human nature and giving culture no role at all. What gave this attack a particularly personal and nasty edge was the fact that several of the leading members of the Sociobiology Study Group were members of Wilson’s own department at Harvard. These included the population geneticist Richard Lewontin and the paleontologist (and soon-to-be very popular, general science writer) Stephen Jay Gould.

For my contribution in Alabama this week, I decided to go back to Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and read it anew. I am not a biologist but a historian and philosopher of biology, who had written on the sociobiology controversy back then. What today, some 30-plus years later, would strike me as interesting and significant about the book? In the late 1970s, almost uniquely in the philosophical community I had been rather favorable to sociobiology, including its application to humankind. (This was in major part because I came from England where there was a tradition of left-wing thinkers like J.B.S. Haldane being very comfortable with biological understandings of humankind.) Would I think the book was any good? Would I think that yes, indeed, it was little more than an excuse to promote rather unpleasant ideas about women and blacks and other members of society who had been subjects of prejudice? Was it something that would appeal to the right-wing because of its underlying philosophy?

Well, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis still strikes me as being a pretty remarkable achievement. It really does survey a huge amount of work, binding it all into one coherent picture. It is tempting to speak of Wilson as launching a new “paradigm,” but that is not quite exact. First, although he reports on much work that he himself had performed – for instance, over the use of chemicals (pheromones) by insects to communicate – most of the book openly is about the work of others. Second – and this incidentally was something that upset the critics – Sociobiology is firmly in the Darwinian paradigm of evolution through natural selection. Social behavior is being shown as much an adaptation as teeth and eyes and bark and leaves. (The critics were upset because by then Darwin was being seen as the epitome of racism, sexism, capitalism, and so forth.)

I confess that most of the criticisms of the Sociobiology Study Group strike me not so much as wrong as irrelevant. There is no question that Wilson does show the attitudes of the 1970s and somewhat calmly assume that things like traditional family groupings are in part biological. He also uses language that would be anathematized today. Although let us not forget that nearly all of us did so in those days. I am amused to note that the year before, 1974, Lewontin had published his major work, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, and calmly included in the index an entry for “man.” What we do not find in Sociobiology is any racism – and let us not forget Wilson’s origins – and the thought that the work might be a manifesto for capitalism or the industrial-military complex is ludicrous. Although it did not come out until three years later in 1978, Wilson’s book exclusively on our own species, On Human Nature, made explicit what was more implicit in the earlier work. Wilson saw human nature as being a result of culture working its ways on a biology that somewhat channeled (but did not fix) the subsequent nature of our species. Wilson was never a genetic determinist.

Having said this, however, in respects the critics failed to see that Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is a very peculiar book – or shall we say a book with a very distinctive metaphysical underpinning, one that would not be shared by all. One, I should say, that is not shared by me, although back then I did not see this. Above all, Wilson is committed to the belief in biological progress, the idea that organic life has proceeded from the very simple to the very complex, from the value-free to the value-laden, from (as they used to say in the 19th century) the monad to the man.

Again and again Wilson stresses this in the book, arguing that there are four “pinnacles” (his word) of social evolution – the slime molds, the social insects, the non-human mammals, and then our own species. He sees in fact a decline in the complexity and sociality from the first to the third of these groups, and then miraculously (I use this word metaphorically) we humans have brought things back up into play. “Man has intensified [the] vertebrate traits while adding unique qualities of his own. In so doing he has achieved an extraordinary degree of cooperation with little or no sacrifice of personal survival and reproduction. Exactly how he alone has been able to cross to this fourth pinnacle, reversing the downward trend of social evolution in general, is the culminating mystery of all biology.” To explain how this did occur, Wilson invokes something he calls an “autocatalytic model” of change, which involves a kind of feedback. As humans got more social and greater users of tools, they needed bigger brains, and to feed these brains they needed to be more social and better tool users, and so forth.

Let me make three points about all of this. First, the enthusiasm for progress is not a one off in Wilson’s writings. Again and again he returns to the theme. “Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals.” Second, this is bound up with Wilson’s social and moral vision. From his childhood he has been an optimist, believing strongly in the possibilities of social progress. Wilson’s father worked for the government in the Deep South in the 1930s. Wilson sees Roosevelt’s New Deal, working through such things as the Tennessee Valley Authority, as bringing hope and happiness to people who hitherto had lived in Third World conditions. For Wilson today, the need is to preserve biodiversity. But this is not just a hope. Rather this is something rooted in Wilson’s biological progressionism. Evolution brings value. Humans are the pinnacle of value. Hence we have a moral obligation to preserve and cherish humankind. To do this we must promote biodiversity. Hence it is morally right to argue for the Brazilian rain forests.

Third, all of this makes professional philosophers tear out their hair. David Hume showed definitively that you cannot get values from facts. “Evolution produced humans” does not support “We ought to cherish humans.” And in any case, there are serious doubts about whether evolution is progressive. It produced humans, true. It also produced smallpox and syphilis and potato blight. Waking belatedly to the real thrust of Sociobiology, Gould later spoke of progress as “a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.” Wonderful Life was a book-long attack on the idea.

Such criticisms leave Wilson unmoved, which in turn raises the question of whether he is right or wrong (I think he is right to think that evolution is relevant to the nature of ethics but wrong to think that evolution can justify ethics) and the related question of where ultimately he derives his ideas. My bet, based both on the similarities and on an open enthusiasm for the person, is that Wilson’s thinking comes ultimately from Darwin’s Victorian contemporary Herbert Spencer. Today, Spencer is less than fashionable, to put it mildly, but in his day he was far more popular than Darwin. Moreover that popularity was greatest in America, and I suspect persisted if not always openly. Spencer was an ardent progressionist and like Wilson used this progress to support his moral thinking. What a paradox if today’s most eminent evolutionist owes as much to the derided Herbert Spencer as he does to the deservedly venerated Charles Darwin!

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