Personal feelings can complicate science journalism. I dislike some scientists whose views I admire, and like some whose views make me squirm. For example, I admired Stephen Jay Gould's hostility to biological reductionism but thought he was a jerk. Conversely, I resist some views of Gould's archenemy, Edward O. Wilson, but in person I find him charming. Reviewing Wilson's latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, in my last post got me reminiscing about a day I spent interviewing him at Harvard in February 1994. I wrote a profile of Wilson for the April 1994 issue of Scientific American, which I expanded for my 1996 book The End of Science. Below is an edited version of the expanded profile, which I hope shows why my 1994 encounter with Wilson, now 85 years old, remains a high point of my career. -–John Horgan
Everything would have been easy for Edward O. Wilson if he had just stuck to ants. Ants lured him into biology when he was just a boy growing up in Alabama, and they remain his greatest source of inspiration. He has written stacks of papers and several books on the tiny creatures, including the massive 1990 tome The Ants, co-authored with Bert Holldobler. Ant colonies line Wilson's office at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Anatomy. Showing them off to me when I visited him, he was as proud and excited as a 10-year-old boy.
When I asked Wilson if he had exhausted the topic of ants yet, he cried, "We're only just beginning!" He had just embarked on a survey of Pheidole, one of the most abundant genera in the animal kingdom. Pheidole is thought to include more than 2000 species of ants, most of which have never been described or even named.
"I guess with that same urge that makes men in their middle age decide that at last they are going to row across the Atlantic in a rowboat or join a group to climb K2, I decided that I would take on Pheidole," Wilson says.
Wilson was a leader in the effort to conserve the earth's biological diversity, and his "grand goal" was to make Pheidole a benchmark of sorts for biologists seeking to monitor the biodiversity of different regions. Drawing on Harvard's collection of ants, the largest in the world, Wilson was generating a set of painstaking pencil drawings of each species of Pheidole along with descriptions of its behavior and ecology.
"It probably looks crushingly dull to you," Wilson apologized as he flipped through his drawings of Pheidole species (which were actually compellingly monstrous). "To me it's one of the most satisfying activities imaginable."
He confessed that, when he peered through his microscope at a previously unknown species, he had "the sensation of maybe looking upon--I don't want to get too poetic--of looking upon the face of creation." A single ant was enough to render Wilson awestruck before the universe.
I first detected a martial spirit glinting through Wilson's boyish exuberance when we walked over to the ant farm sprawling across a counter in his office. These are leafcutter ants, Wilson explained, which range from South America as far north as Louisiana. The scrawny little specimens scurrying across the surface of the sponge-like nest are the workers; the soldiers lurk within. Wilson pulled a plug from the top of the nest and blew into the hole. An instant later several bulked-up behemoths boiled to the surface, BB-size heads tossing, mandibles agape.
"They can cut through shoe leather," Wilson remarked, a bit too admiringly. "If you tried to dig into a leafcutter nest, they would gradually dispatch you, like a Chinese torture, by a thousand cuts." He chuckled.
Wilson's pugnacity--innate or inculcated?--emerged more clearly later on, when he discussed the continued reluctance of American society to confront the role played by genes in shaping human behavior.
"This country is so seized by our civic religion, egalitarianism, that it just averts its gaze from anything that would seem to detract from that central ethic we have that everybody is equal, that perfect societies can be built with the good will of people." As he delivered this sermon, Wilson's long, thin face, usually so genial, became as stony as a Puritan preacher's.
There are two--at least two--Edward Wilsons. One is the poet of social insects and the passionate defender of all the earth's biodiversity, who is rendered awestruck by a single ant. The other is a fiercely ambitious, competitive man struggling with his sense that he is a latecomer, that his field is more or less complete.
Wilson has traced his role as the prophet of sociobiology back to a crisis of faith he suffered in the late 1950's, just after his arrival at Harvard. Although he was already one of the world's authorities on social insects, he began to brood over the apparent insignificance--at least in eyes of other scientists--of his field of research. The reason was that molecular biologists, exhilarated by their discovery of the structure of DNA, the basis of genetic transmission, had begun questioning the value of practicing evolutionary biology by studying whole organisms--such as ants.
Wilson once recalled that James Watson, who was then at Harvard and was still flushed with the excitement of having discovered the double helix, "openly expressed contempt for evolutionary biology, which he saw as a dying vestige that had hung on too long at Harvard." Wilson responded by broadening his outlook, seeking the rules of behavior governing not only ants but also all social animals.
That effort culminated in Sociobiology. Published in 1975, it was a magisterial survey of social animals, from ants and termites to antelope and baboons. Drawing on his studies of ethology, population genetics and other disciplines, Wilson showed how mating behavior and division of labor were adaptive responses to evolutionary pressure.
Only in the last chapter did Wilson shift his sights to humans. He argued that warfare, xenophobia, the dominance of males and even our occasional spurts of altruism all spring at least in part from our primordial compulsion to propagate our genes.
The book was for the most part favorably reviewed. TIME magazine published an enthusiastic cover story on Wilson and sociobiology. Yet some scientists, notably Wilson's Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould, attacked Wilson. Sociobiology, Gould and others argued, represented an updated version of social Darwinism, which provided a scientific justification for racism, sexism and imperialism.
The criticism of Wilson peaked in 1978 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A member of a radical group called the International Committee Against Racism dumped a pitcher of water on Wilson's head while shouting, "You're all wet!"
Undeterred, Wilson went on to write two books on human sociobiology with physicist Charles Lumsden: Genes, Mind and Culture in 1981 and Promethean Fire in 1983. Wilson and Lumsden conceded "the sheer difficulty of creating an accurate portrayal of genetic and cultural interaction." But they declared that the way to cope with this difficulty was not to continue "the honored tradition of social theory written as literary criticism" (a swipe at the mode of social science practiced by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz) but to create a rigorous mathematical theory of the interaction between genes and culture.
"The theory we wished to build," Wilson wrote, "would contain a system of linked abstract processes expressed as far as possible in the form of explicit mathematical structures that translate the processes back to the real world of sensory experience."
Wilson was more bullish than ever about the prospects for sociobiology. While granting that support for his proposals was slim in the 1970's, he insisted that "a lot more evidence exists today" that many human traits have a genetic basis. Advances in medical genetics have made genetic explanations of human behavior more acceptable to scientists and to the public. While many scientists shun the term sociobiology, disciplines with names such as "biocultural studies," "evolutionary psychology," and "Darwinian studies of human behavior" are all "sprigs" growing from the trunk of sociobiology.
Sociobiology, Wilson predicted, would eventually subsume philosophy and ethics and all the social sciences. In fact, he was writing a book about how findings from sociobiology will help to resolve political and even moral issues. [See Postscript.]
He intended to argue that religious tenets can and should be "empirically tested" and rejected if they are incompatible with scientific truths. He suggested, for example, that the Catholic Church might examine whether its prohibition against abortion--a dogma that contributes to overpopulation--conflicts with the larger moral goal of preserving all the earth's biodiversity.
As Wilson spoke, I recalled one colleague's comment that Wilson combined great intelligence and learnedness with a kind of naivete, almost an innocence.
Even those evolutionary biologists who admire Wilson's efforts to lay the foundations for a detailed theory of human nature doubt whether such an endeavor can succeed. Richard Dawkins, for example, loathed the "kneejerk hostility" towards sociobiology displayed by Gould and other scientists.
"I think Wilson was shabbily treated, not least by his colleagues at Harvard," Dawkins said. "And so if there's an opportunity to be counted, I would stand up and be counted with Wilson." Yet Dawkins was not as confident as Wilson seemed to be that "the messiness of human life" can be completely understood in scientific terms.
Science is not intended to explain "highly complex systems arising out of lots and lots of details," Dawkins elaborated. "Explaining sociology would be rather like using science to explain or to predict the exact course of a molecule of water as its goes over Niagara falls. You couldn't do it, but that doesn't mean that there's anything fundamentally difficult about it. It's just very, very complicated."
Wilson himself may doubt whether sociobiology will ever become as all-powerful as he had once believed. At the end of Sociobiology, Wilson implied that the field would eventually culminate in a complete, final theory of human nature.
"To maintain the species indefinitely," Wilson wrote, "we are compelled to drive toward total knowledge, right down to the levels of the neuron and the gene. When we have progressed enough to explain ourselves in these mechanistic terms, and the social sciences come to full flower, the result might be hard to accept."
He closed with a quote from Camus that "in a universe divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land."
When I remarked that this coda seemed rather gloomy, Wilson admitted that he had finished Sociobiology in a slight depression. "I thought after a period of time, as we knew more and more about where we came from and why we do what we do, in precise terms, that it would reduce the--what's the word I'm looking for--our exalted self image, and our hope for indefinite growth in the future." Wilson also believed that such a theory would bring about the end of biology, the discipline that had given meaning to his own life. "But then I talked myself out of that," he said.
Wilson decided that the human mind, which has been and is still being shaped by the complex interaction between culture and genes, represented an endless frontier for science. "I saw that here was an immense unmapped area of science and human history which we would take forever to explore," he recalled. "That made me feel much more cheerful."
Wilson resolved his depression by acknowledging, in effect, that his critics had been right: science cannot explain all the vagaries of human thought and culture. There can be no complete theory of human nature, one that resolves all the questions we have about ourselves.
What would sociobiology achieve, then? Not much, according to Wilson himself. Wilson, for all his creativity and ambition, is a rather conventional Darwinian. [See Post-postscript.]
That became clear when I asked him about a concept called biophilia, which holds that the human affinity for nature, or at least certain aspects of it, is innate, a product of natural selection. Biophilia represents Wilson's effort to find common ground between his two great passions, sociobiology and biodiversity. Wilson wrote a monograph on the topic, published in 1984, and later edited a collection of essays by himself and others.
During my conversation with Wilson, I made the mistake of remarking that biophilia had something in common with Gaia, since each idea evokes an altruism that embraces all of life rather than just one's kin or even one's species.
"Actually, not," Wilson replied, so sharply that I was taken aback. Biophilia does not posit the existence of "some phosphorescent altruism in the air," Wilson scoffed. "I take a very strong mechanistic view of where human nature came from," he emphasized. "Our concern for other organisms is very much a product of Darwinian natural selection." Biophilia evolved, Wilson said, not for the benefit of all life but for the benefit of individual humans. "My view is pretty strictly anthropocentric, because what I see and understand, from all that I know of evolution, supports that view and not the other."
I brought up the assertion of his Harvard colleague Ernst Mayr, one of the architects of neo-Darwinism, that biology after Darwin had been reduced to "puzzles." Wilson smirked. "Fix the constants to the next decimal point," he said, in a reference to the Michelson quote that helped to create the legend of the complacent 19th century physicists. "Yeah, we've heard that." But having gently mocked Mayr's view of completion, Wilson went on to agree with it.
"We are not about to dethrone evolution by natural selection, or our basic understanding of speciation," Wilson said. "So I, too, am skeptical that we are going to go through any revolutionary changes of how evolution works or how diversification works or how biodiversity is created, at the species level."
There is much to learn about embryonic development, about the interaction between human biology and culture, about ecologies and other complex systems. But the basic rules of biology, Wilson asserted, are "beginning to fall pretty much, in my judgment, permanently into place. How evolution works, the algorithm, the machine, what drives it."
What Wilson might have added is that the chilling moral and philosophical implications of Darwinian theory were spelled out long ago. In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that if humans had evolved as bees had, "there can be hardly a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering." In other words, we humans are animals, and natural selection has shaped not only our bodies but also our very beliefs.
One dismayed Victorian reviewer of Descent wrote, "If these views be true, a revolution in thought is imminent, which will shake society to its very foundations by destroying the sanctity of the conscience and the religious sense." That revolution happened long ago. Before the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche had proclaimed that there are no divine underpinnings to human morality: God is dead. We did not need sociobiology to tell us that.
Postscript: The book, titled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, was published in 1998.
Post-postscript: Wilson, in 1994, had not yet embraced group selection, the notion--rejected by Dawkins and others--that natural selection operates not just at the level of genes and individuals but also of populations.
Photo of Wilson taken in 2003 by Jim Harrison, courtesy PLoS, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plos_wilson.jpg.