E. O. Wilson, PBS, and the “Big Bang” Theory of Sociobiology

The “Blank Slate” is dead. As a dogma of the orthodoxy that passed for science among the academic and professional experts in human behavior, its final collapse is quite recent. Its epitaph was only written in 2002 in Steven Pinker’s book of that name. As often happens when an old dogma passes, a brand new one was concocted to take its place. According to the narrative now prevailing among the faithful, the Blank Slate reigned supreme until 1975. Then, E. O. Wilson said “Let there be light,” and a “Big Bang” occurred, marked by his publication of Sociobiology. Only after that epiphany did anyone have the slightest inkling that there was such a thing as human nature, and our mental wiring predisposes us to behave in certain ways, and not in others.

This refurbished dogma is faithfully reflected in Pinker’s book. He managed to write over 400 pages about the Blank Slate with hardly a mention of the very authors who had been most influential in debunking the theory, and insuring its eventual demise. The two whom the true believers in the Blank Slate themselves considered most influential and significant were Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz. Pinker comically dismissed them as “totally and utterly wrong” even though every thought of any significance in his book might have been lifted from what they had written many years before. Anyone who takes the trouble to glance through the collection of essays written by proponents of the Blank Slate attacking the two in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression will quickly see they weren’t as “confused” as Pinker about what the real debate was all about, or about which of their opponents were striking the most telling blows.

Wilson’s Sociobiology and On Human Nature were significant only as restatements of the basic theme of books they had published more than a decade earlier; that innate influences on human nature are real and important. With all due respect to Wilson, a great and brilliant man in his own right, nothing he wrote about innate behavior in humans was original. It happens, however, that he served as a perfect fig leaf for the expert community as it retreated from the Blank Slate. Saintly in appearance and otherwise impeccably politically correct, he was perfect candidate for enshrinement in the mythical role of “inventor” of innate human behavior.

Wilson’s canonization can be seen firsthand in “Lord of the Ants,” an episode of PBS that appeared a couple of years ago and can be seen online here. At the beginning of the program we are informed with all due solemnity that only in a blue moon does something really great emerge on the stage of science; something that “transcends the narrow boundaries of a particular line of research and alters our perspective of the world.” That “transformational event,” it turns out, was the publication of Sociobiology. Apparently, it took awhile to have the salutary effect of “altering our perspective of the world,” at least as far as PBS is concerned, because that organization, eminently respectable defender of the true faith that it is, was stoutly defending Blank Slate orthodoxy as recently as a decade ago.

As the program continues, we find that remarkably little time is required to inform us about that “really great something that transcends the boundaries of science.” We learn that nothing in evolutionary biology has caused such heated debate as the idea of innate behavior since the time of Charles Darwin, and that Wilson was “physically attacked” by Blank Slate zealots, who doused him with a pitcher of ice water, but that he nobly enduring all and prevailed in the end. With that, skirting unpleasantnesses about PBS’ former role as a huge supporter of the Blank Slate, and indelicate allusions to anything that might have happened before the “Big Bang,” Nova moves on to a glowing account of Wilson’s effort to preserve biodiversity, which takes up the lion’s share of the program.

In a word, the narrative hasn’t gone anywhere. It just changes from time to time. Still, a most important point has been gained. Innate behavior can no longer be denied with impunity by anyone with a claim to scientific respectability, and research will continue in the field. Knowledge and understanding of human behavior, and human moral behavior in particular, will continue to expand as a result. Unfortunately, we will still have to bear with the annoyance of periodic infestations of a pathologically pious priesthood of “experts” on ethics and morality for the time being, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson, PBS, and the “Big Bang” Theory of Sociobiology”

  1. I am puzzled with your exclusion of other mammal species as not being highly social and cooperative. I think of wolves, they share raising and educating their young and hunt in cooperative packs. Elephants, highly social and live in herds for generations. Lions, live in prides, share raising their young and hunt in packs, for example. I think it is almost impossible to be totally objective in the study of humans versus other mammals as we, of course, are studying us and would have a bias that could not be escaped.
    It would be wonderful if you could reply .
    Thank you,
    Mary Dandrea

  2. Mary,
    Thanks for your comment. I certainly don’t exclude other mammal species in the manner you suggest, and wonder what it is in this post that leads you to believe that. What the post is actually about is PBS’ portrayal of E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He was nothing of the kind. Virtually everything about human nature he wrote in 1975 and thereafter may be found in the books of Robert Ardrey, the first of which was published more than a decade earlier. What I object to here is the bowdlerization and distortion of history. PBS recently aired another special about Wilson, “E. O. Wilson – Of Ants and Men,” in which it doubles down on the Wilson fantasy, in the process virtually channeling Ardrey. He was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate in its heyday, and was the real “dragon slayer.” The “men of science” were shamed by him, because he was a “mere playwright.” Hence the alteration of history to exclude his legacy, and pretend it was “all about Wilson.” Virtually every major theme of Ardrey’s work is included in “Of Ants and Men”: his “Amity/Enmity Complex,” territoriality, cooperation within ingroups, sports as a ritual version of warfare, and, above all, group selection, the very pretext Pinker used to dismiss Ardrey in his “The Blank Slate.” You can find much more on this ongoing travesty by Googling my blog.

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