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14 July 2003updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Great thinkers of our time – E O Wilson

John Gray on E O Wilson

By John Gray

Chance led E O Wilson to the studies that made him one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our age. Born in 1929, he grew up in comfortable circumstances, his mother having divorced his father (who was an alcoholic) and remarried a successful businessman. He developed an interest in the natural world as a young boy when he spent the summers exploring Paradise Beach in Florida, but lost the sight in his right eye in a fishing accident. Later, in his teens, a hereditary defect caused him to lose some of his hearing. For a time, he was sent to the Gulf Coast Military Academy; he considered joining the army to fund his studies at college, but was turned down because of his defective vision. Given his disabilities, Wilson chose to pursue a life as a naturalist by studying creatures that could be easily picked up and inspected using his remaining good eye. He became an entomologist and spent his career at Harvard, where he was curator in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology for nearly a quarter of a century. It was through studying the behaviour of ants that Wilson developed the intensely controversial discipline of sociobiology for which he is chiefly known.

In terms of the history of science, sociobiology is not new. Darwin studied the expression of emotion in animals, and Wilson’s attempt to theorise the social behaviour of humans in terms of that of other animals is in many ways a development of this Darwinian research programme. Given the prestige that Darwinism enjoys in the public culture one might expect that Wilson’s intellectual initiative would be celebrated, but that would be to reckon without the pervasive influence of the notion that humans are somehow categorically different from all other animals.

For many, Wilson’s researches into the animal roots of human societies are intellectually and politically objectionable. They are intellectually objectionable because they aim to reduce the complexities of human behaviour to a few simple regularities, and politically so because they seem to narrow the range of social experimentation and innovation.

Among Wilson’s fiercer critics these objections harden into the accusation that sociobiology is merely another right-wing ideology. Wilson describes it as “the systematic study of the biological basis of social behaviour and advanced societies”. But for some Marxists and feminists it is pseudo-science, a reactionary attempt to show that the unequal distribution of power in society is natural and unalterable.

The bottom line in Wilson’s sociobiology is naturalism – the belief that the human species is an integral part of the natural world. In Victorian times, Darwin’s critics opposed his naturalism on supernatural grounds. His opponents believed that, unlike any other animal species, humans are made in the image of God: they have immortal souls and free will. A century later, Wilson’s restatement of Darwinian naturalism ran up against a secular version of the same objection. For humanistic social scientists and philosophers, the biological laws that govern the behaviour of other animals need not apply to humans. Using our powers of critical reflection and our capacity for collective action, we can reshape our lives.

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Wilson published his textbook, Sociobiology, in 1975. In On Human Nature (1978), an elegant meditation on the idea’s ethical and political implications, he makes his message clear: changes in socio-economic conditions can lead to improvements in human behaviour but they cannot remove the human propensity for violence and unreason. Large-scale social change can and will occur, but even the most radical revolution in social institutions cannot remake human nature. No political scheme can overcome our congenital imperfection.

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Like Darwin, Wilson advances the cause of truth against the vested illusions of the day, but that is not the only reason he is important. He is also one of the most eloquent scientific defenders of conservation. In many of his recent books, he laments the remorseless human destruction of planetary biodiversity. As he notes in his magnificent book The Diversity of Life (1992), species are being wiped out at a rate that can only be compared with the great extinctions of the remote past, such as that in which the dinosaurs disappeared sixty-odd million years ago. Faced with this horrifying prospect, Wilson turns to science for solutions. We need to use all the tools made possible by our expanding knowledge, he argues, to avert the horror of an impoverished biosphere. Rather than turn over the rest of the planet to agriculture to feed an expanding population, we should exploit the full potential of genetic engineering and adopt urgent measures to slow human population growth.

This readiness to endorse GM foods has sparked criticism among some Greens, but the problem with Wilson’s approach to conservation does not lie in any of his specific proposals. What is anomalous is his belief that the human species can act collectively to solve the environmental crisis. It is a faith supported by nothing in human history; it is at odds with his insistence that humans are not categorically different from other animals. It comes not so much from science as from scientism.

In the early 19th century, Auguste Comte propagated the belief that science can transform the human condition. Wilson’s recent book Consilience: the unity of knowledge (1998) contains many Comtean themes. Wilson, like Comte, believes in the possibility of a unified science covering all branches of human knowledge. He believes, again like Comte, that science can somehow deliver humanity from itself. But the true lesson of sociobiology is the opposite: humans will use their growing knowledge not to protect the planet, but simply to pursue their most urgent goals, however destructive to themselves and their environment these might be. Perhaps it is this message – too discomforting, it seems, even for Wilson himself – that accounts for the controversy that continues to surround his work.

E O Wilson Born 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, US. Graduated from University of Alabama in biology and earned PhD at Harvard. Father of sociobiology and world’s leading expert on and advocate for the study of biodiversity. Taught at Harvard for more than 40 years. Now Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus. Major publications include On Human Nature (1978), The Ants (1991) and The Future of Life (2002). Won two Pulitzer prizes for non-fiction