Thursday, January 13, 2022
Biologist Edward O. Wilson died at 92 the day after Christmas, taking his leave with the same discretion that governed his conduct as a scientist. His passing, however, was not greeted in all quarters with the same grace. Scientific American, offering more evidence of its capture by woke ideology, chose to note Wilson’s passing by declaring that “we must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future.” In her editorial for the magazine, Monica R. McLemore lamented that Wilson’s work had “contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.”
Its stridency and trendiness aside, Scientific American’s attack serves as a useful reminder about Wilson and his career: this biologist found himself a lightning rod for controversy when he pioneered a new science that, in its beginnings in 1973 (the year he published Sociobiology), created not only a scientific but also a political revolution. It all began with observing ants. The social organization of ants is complex, as is that of termites and bees, because these “social insects,” according to Wilson, are genetically programmed from birth. An ant does not think, does not learn, does not evolve; it is a product of Darwinian evolution, programmed so as to preserve and then perpetuate its genetic inheritance.
There is nothing polemical in these observations; it is accepted in the scientific community that living beings are shaped by evolution. Within the Darwinian camp, however, anthropologists hold that human beings are determined by their social origins and their culture, while animals are determined by their inheritance. This distinction was advanced under the influence of Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian who, in the 1960s, observed geese and deduced that certain of their “social” behaviors were innate and not acquired. Darwin had applied the theory of evolution only to the exterior forms of animals, to anatomy. Lorenz became the first to apply evolution to behaviors. He thus founded ethology, but he did not know how behaviors could be transmitted; the workings of genetic transmission were not yet understood. The great scientific leap after Darwin, and after Lorenz, would be the work of Wilson, who came to believe that certain human behaviors traditionally attributed to culture (for example, incest prohibition, altruism, religious feeling) could be explained by genetic transmission.
Sociobiology was born. Wilson shook up received ideas on the distinction between nature and culture, innate and acquired, where human beings are concerned. Are we programmed by our genes, making us, in effect, complex robots—like ants? On the right, there is indignation in response to the idea that religious feeling could be programmed; on the left, there is even more indignation concerning the negation of education and culture as the only factors shaping our choices and behaviors.
At least E.O. Wilson's work served as a quick litmus test of who you were dealing with, i.e., whether you were talking to someone who was scientifically-minded, or just another idiot, useful or otherwise.