By John Coss, Vice Chair of Stockport Humanists
Continuing our series of profiles of humanists who are not as widely known as they should be, including distinguished men and women not generally known to be humanists.
E.O. (Edward) Wilson (1929-2021) was an American biologist, ecologist and entomologist (the branch of zoology concerned with the study of insects). He transformed his particular field of research—the behaviour of ants—and applied his scientific perspective and experience to illuminate the human condition, including human origins, human nature, and human interactions. He played a major role in developing the disciplines of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and was also a pioneer in spearheading efforts to preserve and protect the biodiversity of the planet, culminating in his ‘Half Earth’ proposal to protect half the land and half the sea in order to manage sufficient habitat to ensure the long-term health of the planet. Wilson wrote more than 400 mostly technical articles, and 36 books, of which about half drew on his technical work to extend into wider fields. Two of his books were awarded Pulitzer Prizes: On Human Nature - which explores the biological basis of human behaviour; and The Ants (co-authored with Bert Hölldobler) - a comprehensive survey of the behaviour, social organisation, and ecology of ants.
For much of his career, Wilson was a professor at Harvard. In 1990, he was awarded the Crafoord Prize of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in biosciences – comparable to a Nobel Prize. He was a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and in 1999 was the American Humanist Association Humanist of the Year – awarded to ‘a person of national or international reputation who, through the application of humanist values, has made a significant contribution to the improvement of the human condition’. He was a major populariser of science, and as an ardent conservationist was awarded the Gold Medal of the World Wide Fund for Nature International. In total, he received over 150 awards, mostly for science or literature.
David Attenborough has described Wilson as 'a magic name to many of us working in the natural world, for two reasons. First, he is a towering example of a specialist, a world authority. Nobody in the world has ever known as much as Ed Wilson about ants. But, in addition to that intense knowledge and understanding, he has the widest of pictures. He sees the planet and the natural world that it contains in amazing detail but extraordinary coherence.'
Controversies - was Wilson racist?
Nevertheless, Wilson was involved in a number of controversies, in particular with Stephen Jay Gould in relation to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, with Richard Dawkins and others regarding the possibility of group selection, and as to the extent to which he held racist views.
Gould was critical of Wilson’s sociobiology, which he saw as overly reductionist and determinist. He emphasised the importance of historical and cultural contingency in shaping human behaviour, whereas Wilson believed that biology could offer valuable insights into human nature and culture, and should not be dismissed or ignored in explaining human behaviour. Their disagreement essentially centred on the extent to which biology influences human behaviour and society. Current thinking is that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are important tools for understanding human behaviour and cognition, but they need to be used with caution and critical thinking, and should not be used to justify discriminatory attitudes or policies.
Wilson first published his views on group selection in the 1960s, and continued to refine and develop his ideas. In The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012, he argued that group selection (a theoretical and controversial concept in evolutionary biology that proposes that natural selection can operate not only on individuals but also on entire groups or populations) had played a crucial role in the evolution of social behaviour in humans and the social insects, where the benefits of cooperation within a group outweigh the costs to individuals, resulting in the success and survival of the group as a whole. He claimed that this type of selection was responsible for the development of social behaviours, such as the formation of tribes, cultures and societies, that cannot be fully explained by individual selection. As he has put it: 'Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.' Richard Dawkins wrote a scathing critique in response, saying of this book that 'there are interesting and informative chapters on human evolution, and on the ways of social insects . . . but unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of erroneous and downright perverse misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.' Steven Pinker has also been a vocal critic of group selection, arguing that group selection does not provide a valid explanation for the evolution of altruistic behaviour, and that it was more likely that altruism evolved through kin selection and reciprocal altruism. However, it seems that Dawkins, Pinker and others now accept that group selection may play a role in certain circumstances, while maintaining that selection acting on individual genes is the primary driver of evolution.
In his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Wilson argued that social behaviour is partly the result of genes that have been shaped by natural selection, and there may be genetic differences in behaviour and intelligence between racial groups. Critics accused him of promoting a biological determinist view of human behaviour that could be used to justify racism and discrimination. Some critics also accused him of ignoring the role of culture and social structures in shaping behaviour. In response, Wilson argued that his views were being misrepresented and that he did not believe in genetic determinism or the idea of inherent racial superiority. He also argued that his work was aimed at understanding human behaviour in a scientific and objective way, rather than promoting any particular ideology. Wilson acknowledged that there had been a history of racism in the field of evolutionary biology and genetics, but he maintained that his work was not racist and that it was important to continue studying the genetic basis of behaviour in order to better understand and address social problems.
The controversy continued after his death. In a Scientific American article - The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson - the author reflected on 'the complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas and how these ideas came to define our understanding of the world.' There was a fierce response from Wilson's supporters, followed by further contributions to the debate. For an overview, see the link below. My impression is that at least some of the disagreement arises from different understandings of what is meant by racism.
E. O. Wilson on religion . . .
'Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger.'
'Religious beliefs evolved by group-selection, tribe competing against tribe, and the illogic of religions is not a weakness but their essential strength.'
'No statistical proofs exist that prayer reduces illness and mortality, except perhaps through a psychogenic enhancement of the immune system; if it were otherwise the whole world would pray continuously.'
'The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with others who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code—preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.'
on the human situation . . .
'We have created a Star Wars Civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.'
'Despite all of our pretenses and fantasies, we always have been and will remain a biological species tied to this particular biological world. Millions of years of evolution are indelibly encoded in our genes. History without the wildlands is no history at all.'
'Humanity is part of nature, a species that evolved among other species. The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life, the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources of human sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built.'
'Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.'
'A very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.'
'The origin of modern humanity was good for us for a while, bad for most of the rest of life for ever.'
Note on the International Academy of Humanism
The International Academy of Humanism, established in 1983, is a programme of the Council for Secular Humanism (US). It was established to recognize great humanists and disseminate humanist thinking. According to its declared mission, members of the academy are devoted to free inquiry, are committed to a scientific outlook, and uphold humanist ethical values. More here.
For a comprehensive account of Wilson's life and achievements, see https://eowilsonfoundation.org/
For a review of the recent debate about Wilson and racism, see https://undark.org/2022/02/16/new-evidence-revives-old-questions-about-e-o-wilson-and-race/
Many of WIlson's presentations, and discussions with other eminent thinkers, are available on YouTube, for example: