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  • E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter

    Posted on April 23rd, 2019 Helian 4 comments

    There are but 125 very sparsely filled pages in Genesis, E. O. Wilson’s latest. The book is really little more than a pamphlet. The few reviews one finds online are dismissive in their brevity. Perhaps it’s best described as a farewell letter from the grand old man. If so, the loss will be great. I know of no one who can fill his shoes. Wilson is an independent, courageous thinker who is refreshingly free of the now ubiquitous habit of larding his books with virtue signaling to his academic tribe. He can also occasionally be quite blunt. For example, in Genesis,

    The following can be posed with near certainty. Every part of the human body and mind has a physical base obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. And all of it, so far as we can tell by continuing scientific examination, originated through evolution by natural selection.

    No mealy-mouthed nonsense there about “spandrels,” or “exaptations.” Wilson has always been forthright about insisting on the obvious. He became famous for that trait back in the 70’s, defiantly debunking the Blank Slate dogmas that had blocked progress in the behavioral sciences for more than half a century in his Sociobiology and On Human Nature. At the time he became the most prominent academic in the U.S. to break ranks, giving the Blank Slate priesthood an extra poke in the eye by actually praising Robert Ardrey.

    Like most farewell letters, Genesis assumes its readers are already familiar with the author. For example, there is much discussion of the results of group selection, but the book is too short to allow an adequate explanation of what the term actually means, not to mention the historical controversy surrounding it. The same goes for “eusociality.” Wilson defines the term at length in his earlier books, but simply assumes the reader will know what he’s talking about in this one.

    It’s hard to say how long we will have to wait before another free spirit turns up who is both as prominent as Wilson and as willing to dismiss the obviously bogus truisms of his academic tribe with contempt. Sir Arthur Keith is the most recent example I can think of before him, and there was a gap of about a quarter of a century between the two. Both published some of their best work when they were in their 80’s, and both were convinced of the prominent role of group selection in driving the rapid evolutionary advance of the genus Homo, although Keith used the term in a much more general sense than is common today. Both pointed to truths that our species will continue to ignore at its peril.

    If this is really Wilson’s gentle way of saying “Goodbye,” all I can think of to say in response is “Thanks.” I’ll leave it at that. I hate long goodbyes.

     

    4 responses to “E. O. Wilson’s Farewell Letter” RSS icon

    • David Spielberg

      I just want to thank you for your consistently excellent essays. Your website is a treasure. Thank you.

    • Thanks for visiting.

    • No mealy-mouthed nonsense there about “spandrels,” or “exaptations.”

      Why are these “mealy-mouthed nonsense”? Is not the flagellar motor plausibly an exaptation from the Type III secretion system? I’ve long heard that evolution is “purposeless”, but here you seem to be saying that everything is purposeful, with a single purpose.

    • @Luke

      See, for example, my post about Ayala’s exaptation theory of morality at,

      http://helian.net/blog/2010/12/22/morality/francis-ayala-and-morality-as-exaptation/

      Based on what we know about our genetic “toolkit” for natural selection, and the obvious speed at which it has taken place in our species over, say, the last hundred thousand years, it would be extremely difficult for any spandrel or exaptation to exist if it had a negative effect on fitness. It would quickly be eliminated by natural selection. Assuming their effect on fitness is negligible, they can certainly occur. However, when they are invoked to explain the persistence of traits that have a profound effect on fitness, such as the traits we associate with morality, the motive, in every case that I have encountered, is ideological, not scientific.


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