An Ironic Biography of E. O. Wilson

It may be a bit ironic that a biography of E. O. Wilson was published by Richard Rhodes, whose most famous book was probably “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” but that’s not the irony I refer to. Rhodes’ book, “Scientist, E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature,” alludes to a much greater irony, and certainly one of the most amusing scientific ironies of all time. It has to do with the historical role assigned to Wilson by one of his peers. To understand it, you need to know a bit more about Wilson and the times he lived in, so let’s take a look at what Rhodes has written about him.

Wilson was a well-known scientist long before 1975, but he first achieved national prominence in that year with the publication of “Sociobiology.” The reason for this was his inclusion in the final chapter of the book of comments to the effect that innate behavioral traits of the kind observed in many animals also occurred in human beings. In other words, he defended the existence of human nature. Rhodes covers the well-known allergic reaction of Wilson’s peers in the behavioral “sciences” of the time in some detail. Unfortunately, his comments on the significance of this reaction, and why it occurred, belong more in the realm of myth than fact.

According to Rhodes,

Ironically, as several scholars have noted, the conflict between Wilson and the Sociobiology Study Group was the opposite of what it seemed. Buried beneath the classic rubble of scholarly attack I the service of career ambition lay a more fundamental disagreement between traditional liberalism and the emerging radicalism of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era. The SSG and its larger affiliation, Science for the People, had emerged from the 1960s New Left as activist groups favoring multiculturalism, the beginning of the movement in support of what the cultural historian Neil Jumonville calls “significant multicultural differences to be preserved and honored between races and ethnicities” – that is, identity politics.

The “Sociobiology Study Group” was an organization founded to attack Wilson for his deviation from the pseudo-religious dogmas of the Blank Slate, which passed as “science” at the time. However, the idea that these dogmas had emerged in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras, or that they weren’t defended just as fanatically by “traditional liberalism” as by the multiculturists of the New Left is nonsense. They were certainly around in the 1920’s as attested by H. M. Parshley in an article entitled “Heredity and the Uplift,” which appeared in the February, 1924 issue of H. L. Mencken’s “The American Mercury.” Describing the “multiculturist” types of his own day, Parshley writes,

The philanthropist, the social worker, too often the sociologist, and always the uplifter have held, to state their views most extremely, that the individual is wholly the product of his circumstances. The child is “plastic.” Placed in Fagin’s clutches he becomes a criminal; but for the curfew she becomes a streetwalker. Surrounded, on the other hand, with swaddling care and subjected to edifying precept and example, with occasional touches of the bastinado, the same lumps of indifferent wax take on in time the form of stock-brokers, and captains of industry, Chautauqua orators and senators, bishops and college presidents. This is the old environmentalist philosophy, which, though largely discredited and discarded by science, still feeds the flames of hope and envy in the breasts of the have-nots and remains the underlying principle of the Uplift.

In other words, the “usual suspects” have been with us since long before the Vietnam era, whether as the multiculturists of today or the Uplift of a century ago. Alas, Parshley’s fond hope that science would rescue us from the environmentalist zealots was sadly mistaken. They established the hegemony of what we now know as the Blank Slate in the behavioral “sciences” for well over half a century, stifling any serious progress towards human self-understanding in the bud. Those interested in confirming this for themselves can consult Carl Degler’s excellent “In Search of Human Nature,” or, if they prefer an account from the point of view of the Blank Slaters themselves, “The Triumph of Evolution,” by Hamilton Cravens.

Rhodes also accepts the now-standard “history” of the Blank Slate, according to which E. O. Wilson was the noble knight in shining armor who single-handedly slew the Blank Slate dragon.  That account is just as mythical. It’s quite true that the only reason for the notoriety of his “Sociobiology” was his defiance of the Blank Slaters. However, by the time his book appeared, the Blank Slate house of cards was already collapsing thanks to the efforts of men like Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and, most significantly, Robert Ardrey. The content of “Sociobiology” that stuck in the craw of the Blank Slaters was little different from what Ardrey had written nearly a decade and a half earlier in such highly popular books as “African Genesis,” and “The Territorial Imperative.” However, Ardrey was an outsider, a “mere playwright.” The academic and professional “experts” in the behavioral sciences needed a fig leaf to demonstrate that their “science” was “self-correcting,” and one of their own was the “real” nemesis of the Blank Slate. Wilson was that fig leaf.

There is ample verification of Ardrey’s role for anyone interested in Blank Slate history as opposed to Blank Slate mythology. See, for example, an invaluable little piece of source material entitled, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu and published in 1968, and available on eBay and elsewhere for a few dollars. It consists of a collection of attacks on Ardrey as well as Konrad Lorenz, with William Golding, author of “Lord of the Flies,” thrown in as an afterthought, apparently for comic effect. These attacks are remarkably similar to those advanced by the Sociobiology Study Group, complete with the now familiar “scientific” arguments that Ardrey and Lorenz were Nazis, fascists, and “extreme right wingers.”

Enter Steven Pinker and his “history” of the Blank Slate, published in 2002. A member of the academic tribe himself, Pinker seized on Wilson, another member of the tribe, as the “dragon slayer” of the Blank Slate. However, to do so, he couldn’t just ignore Ardrey and Lorenz. Somehow, he had to discredit them. He did so in a single paragraph of his book, dismissing them as “totally and utterly wrong,” using as his authority for this remarkable claim a footnote pointing to a passage in Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins had, indeed, accused Ardrey and Lorenz of being “totally and utterly wrong,” but not about human nature, the major theme of their work. No, Dawkins had been referring to their advocacy of group selection! That, along with some nonsense about Lorenz’ “hydraulic theory,” which I have disposed of in another post, formed the entire basis for Pinker’s consignment of the role of these two highly significant figures in the history of the Blank Slate to the memory hole!

Now, let us return to Rhodes’ biography. In the final chapters he documents Wilson’s whole-hearted advocacy of an evolutionary mechanism also suggested by Darwin. What was it, you ask? None other than group selection! If you doubt Rhodes, by all means read such Wilson titles as “The Social Conquest of Earth,” “The Meaning of Human Existence,” and “The Origins of Creativity,” in which Wilson emerges as the most determined, uncompromising, and prominent advocate of group selection to appear in the last 50 years! This is the irony I refer to in my title. Pinker is sorely in need of a substitute knight in shining armor.

I revere E. O. Wilson as a great scientist and, when it comes to the subject of human morality, a great philosopher. It is unfortunate that he became an unwilling participant in the bowdlerization of the history of the Blank Slate by Pinker and others. As for Rhodes, I might have wished he’d done a bit more historical homework, but his biography of Wilson is still well worth reading. I noticed little if any diminution in the same clarity and excellence of his writing that I found in “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” Given that the man is well into his 80’s, that qualifies him as a rock star in my book.

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 “An Ironic Biography of E. O. Wilson”

  1. The labelling of people as Nazis was once quite a thing, or so I thought. However, the recent Ukraine shambles shows us that challenging the orthodoxy of the DNC/Biden, madness and propaganda, called it foreign policy, will instantly result in people being labelled Nazis, no matter their politics or history. I was reminded of the easy way so many of these ‘types’ dismiss the genius of Tinbergen, Ardrey and of course Lorenz. They are unable to look at any challenging science or logic as their ‘beliefs’ are little more than a child like conformity to the ‘group speak’ of the day.
    The increased clamour to ‘silence disinformation’ is the mid point of a very slippery slope. I’d be interested in your thoughts re this.

  2. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in “The Righteous Mind,”

    “I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

    “Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to – then things will make a lot more sense.”

    I agree completely. Calling people who disagree with us Nazis is just one of the cruder forms of this behavioral trait. A good measure of how effective one side’s argument is the appearance of the more blatant forms of the trait on the other side. Thus, for example, Leftists seldom attempt to rationally refute conservative arguments when they strike a particularly painful nerve. Instead, they dismiss their opponent as “extreme right wing,” or “an advocate of right wing fringe groups,” etc.

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