Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard-based naturalist who died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 92, was often misunderstood by the left. When he launched the field of sociobiology in 1975, he was charged by the Sociobiology Study Group – a critical group set up by Marxist geneticist Richard Lewontin – with trying to ‘justify the present social order’. His work, applying the modern synthesis of genetics and evolution to the interpretation of behaviour, appeared to give a new gloss to discredited biological determinism, and suggest that there was a natural basis for such undesirable characteristics as xenophobia and male dominance.
Despite the conservative implications of some of his work, Wilson did not consider himself a man of the right. In his own words, he was a ‘Roosevelt liberal turned pragmatic centrist’. He considered himself a feminist, and furiously rejected charges of racism. His major intellectual goal, which he termed ‘consilience’, was to unify the sciences through a narrow version of Darwinism. He hoped that the essential questions about art, society and religion could be addressed, in part, as questions about genetics. His major ethical concern was to defend the biosphere, challenge human exceptionalism and cultivate respect for the non-human species he studied. Awareness of the ‘limits of human nature’, achieved by viewing humanity ‘from a distance’ – from a termite’s-eye-view, one might say – would undermine anthropocentrism.
He was also a pugilist ‘roused’, as he once wrote, ‘by the amphetamine of ambition’. Nothing could have been more ambitious than to use population biology to explain animal behaviour at every level. In his advice to young scientists, he urged followers to avoid research fields blazing with intellectual battle: ‘march away from the sound of the guns’, he said, before adding, ‘make a fray of your own’. This is what Wilson did, through thirty books on insect civilization, island biogeography, human nature, ecology, extinction, the origins of social life and the roots of creativity, among other themes. His turn to environmentalism, including his ‘half-earth’ solution to mass extinction, made a significant impact on the ecological left.
And, if one could forgive his political obtuseness, he wrote beautifully. His descriptions of his field work were excitable, evocative, and dense with delighted observations and perfectly pitched metaphors. This gift won him mass audiences and two Pulitzer Prizes.
Born on 10 June 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, Wilson was raised in a South beguiled, as he wrote in his memoir, by ‘her antebellum dream of the officer and the gentleman’. It was a chaotic childhood, with unhappy parents. When he was seven, in the summer of 1936, he was sent to stay with a family on Florida’s Perdido Bay while his parents fought. He spent two days, in this ‘season of fantasy’, exploring the life on the shore, enthralled by marine life and the evidence of ‘alien purpose and dark happenings in the kingdom of deep water’. The same year, he blinded himself in his right eye in a fishing accident. To this injury he credited his attention to smaller creatures, such as butterflies and ants. Finally, in the winter of 1937, his parents divorced, and he was sent to the private Gulf Coast Military Academy in Gulfport, Mississippi, which he described as a ‘carefully planned nightmare engineered for the betterment of the untutored and undisciplined’. He was gleeful when the Academy was visited by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and populist governor of Alabama Jim Folsom, whom he admired.
Unable to serve in the army during the Second World War, due to the impairment of his right eye, he studied biology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he was also briefly drawn to the radical left. It was, however, the Darwinian revolution that would capture his imagination. The ‘modern synthesis’, as it was dubbed by Julian Huxley, combined Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics. R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright had deployed mathematical population genetics to show that continuous, small-scale genetic mutations could provide the missing mechanism of heredity in Darwin’s theory of evolution. This discovery catalysed Wilson’s conversion from his Baptist upbringing to secular humanism.
The ambition of the modern synthesis was expansive. Influenced by the Vienna positivists, many of its pioneers sought to unify the sciences: a factor in Wilson’s later effort to shoehorn sociobiology into every possible field. It was also infused with the ambition of human improvement, through eugenics. Wilson hoped, in the spirit of pre-war progressivism, that the ‘jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations’ in humanity could be refined through ‘conventional eugenics’.
Fired up by the new discoveries, Wilson would begin his first survey of Alabama ants at the age of eighteen, start his PhD research at Harvard three years later in 1950, join Harvard’s faculty in 1956, and go on, with population ecologist Robert MacArthur, to develop the theory of island biogeography. He would also develop the insights of British evolutionary biologist, W. D. Hamilton, whose obscure paper on the evolution of altruistic traits, ‘The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour’, he read in 1964. Hamilton was struggling to gain an academic position, in part due to his views on eugenics. His theory of ‘inclusive fitness’ argued that the unit of selection was not the organism, but the gene. Since related organisms shared so much genetic material, there was an advantage to kin altruism. Wilson had already become interested in social biology through his study of ant societies. Hamilton’s theory suggested to him the possibility of launching a new discipline.
Wilson first systematically applied Hamilton’s ideas with his 1971 book, The Insect Societies. However, it was with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), and On Human Nature (1978), that he made his fray. In Sociobiology, he sought to explain the social behaviour of insects, birds and primates with the Hamiltonian principle that each organism, a ‘temporary carrier’ of its genes, was ‘the DNA’s way of making more DNA’. Behaviour, being adapted to its environment, must be governed by its genetic make-up.
Like Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’, also influenced by Hamilton’s work, this way of talking about DNA was pungent mythmaking. In ascribing ultimate agency to genes, Wilson’s metaphor implied a rigid genetic determinism. In Sociobiology and On Human Nature, however, he emphasized the importance of emergent properties, acknowledged that ‘genes have given away most of their sovereignty’, foregrounded the human ‘flexibility’ allowing individuals to ‘play roles of virtually any degree of specification’, and stressed that there were choices to be made ‘among our innate natural propensities’. He rejected claims for a genetic basis of hierarchy and downplayed IQ, a fetish of the right, as ‘only one subset of … intelligence’. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained, ‘I see maybe 10 percent of human behaviour as genetic and 90 percent environmental’.
Nonetheless, Wilson insisted, human nature did restrict social choice. There was, he suggested in Sociobiology, a likely genetic basis for xenophobia, war, the nuclear family, spite, homosexuality, creativity, entrepreneurship, drive and mental stamina. Citing the work of ecologist Garret Hardin, he suggested that ‘human territorial behaviour’ was genetically founded, with the result that when tribes compete over scarce resources, ‘xenophobia becomes a political virtue’. In arguing for the possibility of ‘homosexual genes’, he explained that the ‘homosexual state itself results in inferior genetic fitness,’ and could only be explained by ‘kin selection’: though he was unsure whether ‘such genes really exist’. Of the nuclear family, then under sustained criticism from the feminist movement, he insisted that it was the ‘building block of nearly all human societies’, and that the ‘formalised code’ governing kinship relations had not changed much since hunter-gatherer society. Of universal competition and hierarchy, he explained that the ‘best and most entrepreneurial of the role-actors usually gain a disproportionate share of the rewards, while the least successful are usually displaced to other, less desirable positions.’
Most controversially, in On Human Nature, he tentatively lent credence to ‘racial’ variations. While acknowledging that ‘almost all differences between human societies are based on learning and social conditioning’, he cited research finding ‘significant average differences’ between races in ‘locomotion, posture, muscular tone, and emotional response’. One did not have to believe in ‘biological equality’ as a condition for affirming ‘human freedom and dignity’, he averred. But, without displaying the slightest historical sensitivity, he accepted the framing of variation in terms of the monstrous pseudo-concept of ‘race’. This is notable given the placatory tone of the book, and its effort to distinguish him from crude reductionists and reactionaries.
Wilson’s ahistorical description of species behaviour in terms of the categories of twentieth-century capitalism – neither the ‘nuclear family’ nor ‘entrepreneurship’ are human universals, for example – implied that it would be very difficult to change behaviours like competitiveness, racism or sexism by changing the environment. Later, writing in the New York Times Magazine, Wilson guessed that ‘the genetic bias’ between the sexes was ‘intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies’, although he qualified this as ‘only a guess’ which could not justify ‘anything less than sex-blind admission and free personal choice’. But such a ‘guess’, like the value-laden claims peppering the last chapter of Sociobiology, is indistinguishable from ideology.
Wilson’s claims provoked the formation of Richard Lewontin’s Sociobiology Study Group. Lewontin wrote to the New York Review of Books to warn that discredited biological determinism was being presented as breakthrough research. Ironically, Sociobiology had cited Lewontin’s work several times. Demonstrators began to turn up at Wilson’s lectures, charging that he was legitimizing sexism and racism. Wilson was bitter over the attacks. He considered Stephen Jay Gould, a leading critic of his work, a ‘charlatan’, and framed the battle as one between ‘science and political ideology’, in which Marxism was ‘mortally threatened by the discoveries of human sociobiology’. The sociologist Ullica Segerstrale argues in Defenders of the Truth (2000) that the critics showed ‘astounding disregard’ for what he had written. There is some truth to this: Wilson was frequently misquoted, and wrongly treated as a biological determinist making a case for sexism and hierarchy.
Yet, as Philip Kitcher wrote in Vaulting Ambition (1985), by far the best review of the controversy, this was ‘a dispute about evidence’, not the validity of sociobiological research. Wilson’s most trenchant critics were not extreme culturalists. Lewontin, Leon Kamin and Steven Rose, in Not in Our Genes (1984), rail against the ‘denial of biology’. In part, Wilson acknowledged, there was a dispute about the validity of ‘plausibility arguments and speculation’. As Kitcher put it, when the costs of being wrong are sufficiently high, ‘then it is reasonable and responsible to ask for more evidence’. Not only was there little to no evidence for human sociobiology’s most controversial claims but, as Rose would argue, this style of reasoning posited speculative ‘distal’ (evolutionary) mechanisms for human behaviour such as sexism and xenophobia, when ‘proximal’ (political or social) causes better explained the data. An underlying theoretical issue, as Gould wrote, was Wilson’s stringently adaptationist version of Darwinism which resulted in the false inference that any behaviour that contributed to fitness, and was universal, must have come about through natural selection, and thus be under what Wilson called ‘genetic control’.
Despite Wilson’s middle-of-the-road politics, the ideological refrains bookending his ambitious salvo resonated with a wider turn to the right. A form of pop sociobiology vastly more vulgar than anything Wilson endorsed held that human destiny was ‘hard-wired’, a claim that entered the conservative ‘common sense’ of the era and fed into human sociobiology’s rebranded successor, evolutionary psychology.
And there is a further, revealing chapter in Wilson’s political opacity. Between 1987 and 1994, according to a recent exposé in the NYRB, he corresponded with the ‘race realist’, J. Phillipe Rushton. Rushton, based at Western University, used Wilson’s work on island biogeography to explain ‘race differences’. Wilson and MacArthur had suggested that the reproductive success of species in islands was determined by the advantages of ‘r/K’ selection. Species that produced large amounts of offspring were ‘r selected’. Those that produced fewer offspring with more parental investment were ‘K selected’. Rushton thought that black people were ‘r selected’ while white people were ‘K selected’.
Wilson did not see a racist pseudoscientist mangling his work. He saw, instead, a ‘courageous’ academic being persecuted. He acted as an academic referee for Rushton’s article, and lobbied Western’s faculty on Rushton’s behalf when he was investigated for academic misconduct. There is no evidence that Wilson was a wholehearted supporter of ‘race realism’. In his 2000 introduction to Sociobiology, he observed that ‘statistical racial differences, if any, remain unproven’. Yet given his claims in Sociobiology and On Human Nature, it cannot be written off as an error of judgment. Rather, Wilson’s predicates, and his historical ignorance, inclined him to credit views that were at odds with his liberal politics.
Wilson’s Darwinian ecological precepts had other political ramifications. An emphasis on the struggle for survival in conditions of competition for scarce resources underlined the biological limits conditioning human civilization. Yet Darwin also stressed the evolved dependencies between organisms, and the necessity of cooperation. As Wilson wrote, humanity had been an ‘ignorant’ steward of the planet, having ‘scarcely begun to conceive of the possible benefits that other organisms will bring in economic welfare, health, and aesthetic pleasure’.
In the latter half of the 1970s, Wilson, alarmed by reports of catastrophically declining biodiversity, embraced the cause of environmentalism. Alongside other ecologists he formed part of the ‘rain forest mafia’. In the same year Sociobiology was published, he wrote of the urgent need for an ‘applied biogeography’ to reduce the rate of biodiversity decline. His biogeographical work with MacArthur had found that the diversity of the population declined with island size. The reduction and fragmentation of natural reserves under pressure from human industrial and agricultural expansion was reducing the ‘islands’ available for biodiversity. A vital source for this view of the value of biodiversity was Ukrainian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s argument, in his programmatic statement of the modern synthesis, Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), that genetic diversity was a store of variability that enabled species to survive changing environments.
Wilson sought a biological foundation for his ethical convictions. In 1979, he coined the concept of ‘biophilia’, suggesting that humans have an ‘inborn affinity’ for other forms of life. The biophilia hypothesis, speculative and based on ‘thin’ evidence as he acknowledged, was an effort at moral persuasion aimed partly at states and scientific establishments, whom he exhorted to invest in research and conservation strategies. Through the 1980s, Wilson wrote copiously and passionately on the threat of extinction caused by the destruction of ecosystems, including a stint editing the journal BioDiversity in 1988. Against ‘spurious’ claims that humanity was merely acting as another ‘Darwinian agent’ by causing species’ extinction, he noted that the ‘rate of extinction is now about 400 times that recorded through recent geological time and is accelerating rapidly’.
This implicitly called for drastic changes to production and consumption. However, like most in the rain forest mafia, Wilson wrote in an eco-Malthusian register. ‘While ants exist in just the right numbers for the rest of the living world,’ he wrote, ‘humans have become too numerous.’ The ‘problems of Third World countries’, he explained, were ‘primarily biological’. ‘Various forms of biological excess’ such as ‘overpopulation’ contributed to deforestation, soil erosion, famine and disease: a position that highlighted the danger of applying Darwinian concepts to complex social problems
Perhaps Wilson’s most implicitly radical suggestion was his ‘half-earth’ thesis. ‘Large plots,’ he wrote, ‘harbour many more ecosystems and the species composing them at a sustainable level … A biogeographic scan of the Earth’s principal habitats shows that … the vast majority of its species can be saved within half the planet’s surface.’ One suspects that such conservation was not just a defence strategy. It spoke to an occulted utopian impulse in his work. As he wrote in The Future of Life (2001), the encounter with wild nature reminded one of ‘the way life ought to be lived, all the time.’ Which is to say, with curiosity, sympathy and a sense of mystery. In his nature writing one finds precisely the transcendental impulse to which he appeals in The Creation (2006), a plea to the fundamentalist Christians in whose tent he was raised to help save the earth. Again, though, Wilson tended to view the issue as a moral struggle against the worst of the human nature. ‘We are still too greedy, shortsighted, and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. … Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in the making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though the species of the natural world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Have we no shame?’
Wilson continued to rethink the human condition in view of his version of Darwinism. Having decided that Hamilton’s concept of ‘inclusive fitness’ had ‘crumbled’, he wrote in The Social Conquest of the Earth (2012) that humans were shaped by the legacy of two types of selection: group selection favoured ‘honour, virtue, and duty’ whereas individual selection favoured ‘selfishness, cowardice and hypocrisy’. Since group selection could never totally overwhelm individual selection, the ‘human condition’ was one of ‘endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us’. This was elegantly parsimonious: deceptively so given the mass of data on which it relies. Despite its fabular feel, it acknowledged the variety of contradictory human behaviours built into our biological potential.
Wilson was a great naturalist, but also a moralist. Much of his later work seems to be an effort to alert the species to its dark side and limit its damage. His contradictory sociopolitical legacy, and methodological narrowness, cannot but sour the left’s response to him. Yet he was not an ideologue, but a serious scientist. His problematic political speculations represent a fraction of his output. And there is much to critically admire, and radicalise, in the ambition and intellectual breadth with which he studied, catalogued, explained, valued and defended the multitude of life on earth.
Read on: Richard Seymour, ‘Patterning Slowdown’, NLR 131.