If you’re a fan of E. O. Wilson, you’ll want to read his profile (written by Howard W. French) in the latest Atantic: “E. O. Wilson’s theory of everything.“
It’s long, combining a vignette of Ed’s trip to Mozambique with a retrospective of his career, and makes absorbing reading. The man is indefatigable, even at 82. Just a few tidbits:
- Wilson’s novel, Anthill, is characterized as a “bestseller.” Has anyone read it?
- Ed denounces Steve Gould in a big way:
Wilson defined sociobiology for me as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Gould savagely mocked both Wilson’s ideas and his supposed hubris in a 1986 essay titled “Cardboard Darwinism,” in The New York Review of Books, for seeking “to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud,” and Wilson still clearly bears a grudge.
“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” he told me. “I believe that he was … seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.” It is easy to imagine Wilson privately resenting Gould for another reason, as well—namely, for choosing Freud as a point of comparison rather than his own idol, Darwin, whom he calls “the greatest man in the world.”
- A lot of the piece is devoted to the flap over the Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson paper in Nature, which I’ve posted a lot about before (see here and here, for example). Although the paper quotes some critics of their misguided attack on kin selection (including me), the article makes it seem as if this paper presages a huge revolution in our study of social behavior. It doesn’t. Here’s some of the Atlantic’s uncritical hype:
WILSON TOLD ME the new proposed evolutionary model pulls the field “out of the fever swamp of kin selection,” and he confidently predicted a coming paradigm shift that would promote genetic research to identify the “trigger” genes that have enabled a tiny number of cases, such as the ant family, to achieve complex forms of cooperation. His next book, The Social Conquest of Earth, expands on his theories—and takes up the question left dangling at the end of the Nature article. “It starts with posing the questions that I call the most fundamental of philosophy and religion,” he said. “Where did we come from, what are we, and where are we going?”
- Wilson, despite being known as faith-friendly, is unsparing of religion, but also of philosophy:
Wilson announced that his new book may be his last. It is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities, as well. Summarizing parts of it for me, Wilson was particularly unsparing of organized religion, likening the Book of Revelation, for example, to the ranting of “a paranoid schizophrenic who was allowed to write down everything that came to him.” Toward philosophy, he was only slightly kinder. Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”
- Wilson proposes a theory for the origin of human sociality and social behavior, which involves the adoption of fixed campsites early in our evolution. That, he says, promoted much of the repeated human interactions that selected for our social behaviors and fixation on sussing out or fellow humans. This sounds a lot more plausible to me than the invocation of stuff like fire or tool use as key factors in human evolution
- Wilson also invokes, less plausibly, the importance of group selection in the evolution of human altruism:
“Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation. “But in competition between groups, groups of altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection.” Taking in newcomers and forming alliances had become a fundamental human trait, he added, because “it is a good way to win.”
- Finally, what has always endeared Ed to me is his boyish enthusiasm for nature. Even in his ninth decade, he’s travelling all over the world, still collecting ants, still excited by nature and the prospect of a new field site. His diligence and sense of wonder are an inspiration to all of us:
A FEW DAYS EARLIER, Wilson, remarkably, had taken his very first helicopter ride, a shuttle run that brought him from the nearby port city of Beira to the park’s immense floodplain, dotted by riverine pools thick with caucusing hippos and crocodiles, and finally to a close view of the mountain itself. “Mount Gorongosa!” he exclaimed to me later. “It has always loomed in my imagination as this dark, brooding mountain, but boy, is it magnificent; so bright, so full of life!”
“For every organism, there exists a problem, for the solution of which that organism is ideally suited,” Wilson said. We had been talking over lunch for about two hours, and Wilson had barely touched his food. He paused for a moment, taking a bite of chicken. “A lot of my work was done with pheromones; then came island biogeography, because I could collect enough ants in a short enough period of time to get an idea of the nature of fauna on different islands.” Only then “came the question, ‘What are the driving forces of evolution?’” He put down his fork, and gave a slight smile. “Ants are always there, and this has given me an edge,” he said. “I’ve ridden ants the whole way.”