The Genius of Edward o Wilson

E. O. Wilson, noted biologist and professor at Harvard, has dedicated his life to the study of ants, and through them, to the study of social behavior. Out of that study came a groundbreaking and controversial book, Sociobiology, first published in 1975. That book attempts to describe the behavior of social animals, including humans, in terms of evolutionary drives.

Many disagree with him, but no one doubts his dedication or his intellect. Professor Wilson was born in Alabama in 1929, and raised there and in Washington D. C. A childhood accident left him with severely impaired vision, which channeled his love of nature into the study of insects, entomology; and especially ants, myrmecology; because ants were small enough for him to focus on. He persevered.

At 16, he was conducting a survey of the ants of Alabama. He tried to get into the army, thinking to finance his education that way, but his poor vision kept him out. So he got his BS and Ms from the University of Alabama, because it was relatively cheap and local. He was Phi Beta Kappa there. Then he got his PhD from Harvard, where he is now Pellegrino Research Professor in Entomology.

He defines sociobiology as the “study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” Dr. Wilson believes that social behaviors are selected for in reproduction in the same way physical traits are. For decades, many thoughtful people have believed that evolution is a process in which the organisms best adapted to present conditions are most likely to leave the largest numbers of offspring. Through time, according to this theory, the genetic strains that produced organisms best adapted to conditions became more widespread, while the genetic strains least adapted to local conditions tended to die back.

Before Wilson, most evolutionary biologists thought of these adaptations as being purely physiological, a matter of eye color, blood type, and so on. Wilson enlarged the idea of adaptation to include the inheritance of social behaviors. His work attempts to explain behaviors that might otherwise remain mysterious, as when a stinging bee dies for the hive. The bee cannot profit from the hive’s success, because the stinging kills it. So why does the witless insect give its life, in a way that in a human we would call altruistic, or even patriotic?

Wilson’s notion is that the bee soldier cannot help itself. Through generations of bees, the hives with the most self-sacrificing soldiers have prospered, while hives of a more pacifistic strain have passed away. So the surviving beehives we encounter today are alive with soldiers unshakably willing to die for the lives of their sisters and their queen. More specifically, it is not the queen the soldier is bred to die for, but the genes of the soldier’s sisters and half sisters, the genes that are nearly the same of the soldiers own.

Thus, according to Professor Wilson, the ruling genes have created and enforced behaviors (many behaviors besides the one I have sketched here) that ensure their survival, even at the cost of a single ant, or bee, or human that carries them. This explains a lot of behaviors in insects, and even in higher animals, that are difficult to explain any other way. The trouble comes when Edward O. Wilson’s theories are applied to humankind.

One argument opponents of sociobiology advance is History. Insects do not have history. They can’t learn from Napoleon’s failures, or immunization’s successes. Strictly speaking, the lower animals do not have enough mind to benefit from education. They don’t train their young with example and precept to think, instead of reacting instinctively.

Another knock on sociobiology is a political one. It is immoral, some detractors say, to accept that male aggression is predetermined and inevitable, the way we used to accept slavery. It is wrong to accept certain ugly and unpleasant features of modern life as preordained. Reading some of Professor Wilson’s opponents, there seems to be almost a refusal to believe anything that doesn’t seem to nurture our moral character, or our self-image as wise and thoughtful beings.

Sociobiology is not the professor’s only book. Our Human Nature argues directly that our nature is as much a product of our genes as it is learned from our culture. He describes himself as neither religious nor irreligious, but describes religion as a powerful force in human affairs, like science. He has written persuasively about ecology, and our need to preserve the natural world. His autobiography is called Naturalist.

I myself refuse to really believe that I am a puppet of my genes. It’s my nature. I am willing to grant that the insights Professor Wilson has shared over his long and brilliant career have given us new ways to understand the world and ourselves, and have been a generous gift to all humankind.

Sociobiology ISBN 0-674-00089-7
Naturalist ISBN 1-55963-288-7