Blute Blog

Blute's blog about evolutionary theory: biological, sociocultural and gene-culture.

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

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This review of a biography of E. O. Wilson by Richard Rhodes, Doubleday (2021) was written for the newsletter of the Evolution Biology and Society section of the American Sociological Association but for some reason the newsletter has not been published so I am posting it here. A few days after it was written, E. O. Wilson died.

For R & R I like to read books that are not exactly work, but not exactly unrelated to work either. One I read lately which both older and younger members of the section might enjoy is Richard Rhodes’ biography of Edward O. Wilson. Wilson was the author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) among other books including earlier The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; and later, On Human Nature; Genes, Mind and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process; and Biophilia among others, as well as many articles.

I say both because the oldest of us know that without Wilson, our section might well not exist, and for the youngest, well his importance may be lost in history. Personally, I well remember, while finishing my PhD thesis comparing theories of change in biology, psychology and the social sciences, reading a review of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis on the front page of the New York Times no less. While at a conference in another city I found a copy of the large format, heavy hardback book in the university bookstore, purchased it, and subsequently wrote my own review, the second thing I ever published.

Wilson’s argument was that a new science of “sociobiology”, the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior, will incorporate the sociology of all species into the neo-Darwinian synthetic theory of evolution so that the social sciences will “shrink to specialized branches of biology . . . the sociobiology of a single primate species”. Not surprisingly, reactions went to both extremes – raving or scathing. To give an example of how heated things became, a graduate student dumped a pitcher of water on Wilson’s head while he was on stage at a conference exclaiming “Wilson, you’re all wet”! I tried to be more balanced in my review- praising his treatment of the “preformationist” disciplines but criticizing his neglect of the “epigenetic” ones i.e. of development, as well as of the possibility of a distinct sociocultural evolutionary process. To this day there is a large literature on the elusiveness not of a theory of evolution and genetics which is well established, but of one also incorporating development and ecology. However, in the second case, the study of Darwinian-style cultural evolution is flourishing, among other places, in a large Cultural Evolution Society.

Rhodes biography is not officially authorized, but one with which Wilson cooperated by being interviewed in a series of lengthy interviews while resting comfortably in a retirement community at the age of 92. He had a difficult childhood growing up in Alabama with divorced parents, the loss of an eye in an accident, and due to the exigencies of his father’s job, attending 16 different schools! (I once read a study showing that moving for a child, involving a change of neighbourhoods, schools and friends is as hard on a child as a divorce.) His fascination with insects, particularly ants, and later membership in the Boy Scouts saved him and after his bachelors and masters degrees in Biology at the University of Alabama, he did his PhD at Harvard. For that, with his fiancé waiting at home, he was funded for a long trip throughout many Pacific islands, collecting, classifying and identifying many new species of ants. Shortly thereafter he married and soon became a faculty member at Harvard.

Rhodes includes interesting material on Wilson’s conflicts with Watson who also joined the faculty there (yes, that Watson) who thought that the kind of field naturalists’ research that Wilson engaged in was outdated “stamp collecting” and all that was important for the future was biochemistry and molecular biology. It did not help their relationship that Wilson received tenure before Watson. They clashed over positions for hiring at Harvard and eventually the department was split into two – organismic and evolutionary biology in the one and molecular biology in the other. However, as Wilson’s reputation grew, they eventually reconciled and Watson decamped anyway to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island where he achieved great success for some years.

Wilson had a 40 year career at Harvard, retiring from there in 1996. During that time, among other things he championed the concept of group selection particularly for eusocial species like ants which have reproductively sterile casts and embraced gene-culture coevolution (doubtfully according to some). Once retired, he embraced “consilience” rather than reduction as the best concept for inter-disciplinary relations, became even more of a champion of the conservation of biodiversity, and developed from an agnostic to an atheist. He received many awards and honorary doctorates during his career and after his retirement, and in fact was one of most publicly well known scientists of his time. Whatever one thinks of Wilson’s concepts and his work which Rhodes provides an entertaining overview of, there can be little doubt that he was the origin of modern discussions of the relationship among evolution, biology and society.

Written by Marion Blute

March 26, 2022 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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