A eulogy for E.O. Wilson
A giant of modern evolutionary thinking and the inventor of sociobiology
[Figure of Homo habilis in (in)famous chapter 27 of Wilson’s Sociobiology, which applied same theoretical principles deployed in first 26 chapters on other social animals to human social behavior]
I heard someone on NPR the other morning refer to “the late E.O. Wilson.” Ed died during the Christmas holiday season, on December 26 of last year, and I somehow missed the news. He was 92.
E.O. Wilson was perhaps the single most important thinker in the evolutionary analysis of animal social life of his time. He was certainly one of the thinkers who most influenced my own views on human behavior and social organization.
I first read a bit of On Human Nature while in grad school. It was not a coincidence that I never heard his name mentioned by any of the people in my home department. Proper sociologists, it has always been made perfectly clear to me by just about everybody with any professional connection to the discipline, do not pay attention to evolutionary biologists. Why? Because culture. Period. End of discussion. Please sit down and be quiet now.
I don’t remember now precisely how I did happen to get interested enough in his work, despite the particulars of my training, to scour the San Diego used book stores successfully for a few titles that I quickly devoured, but I have a suspicion.
There were a few of us from different programs (a couple of philosophers, a political theorist, an economics grad student who never returned the Jimi Hendrix concert compilation double LP I loaned him, and me) who had met in the places oddball intellectuals-in-training meet. We were essentially the outliers and outcasts of our own departments—mostly because we continued to display an eagerness to read things our respective disciplines were telling us were not really our business. You know, unprofessional behavior.
We would irregularly get together on the UCSD campus at the Grove Cafe (which I just sadly learned is now no more) on weekend afternoons and talk about anything any of us happened to find of the slightest interest, whimsical or serious. It is quite likely that Ed’s work might have come up there, as we often talked about the uses and limits of various broad theoretical frameworks for understanding H. sapiens.
We would drink coffee all afternoon there at a wonderful spot among the eucalyptus trees, and then, when the cafe closed, sometimes we’d just stay at the outside tables, which were slightly elevated and carved right in among the trees, and talk (or yell at one another, depending on the level of agreement) into the night. More than occasionally, if things went on long enough and we’d not yet talked out the day’s issues, we’d move the meeting to some nearby establishment with a liquor license. And then…
Here’s part of the dedication of my most recent book, for which Ed graciously wrote a blurb after I sent him an email out of the blue—he read the whole text and said things that were too gracious for such a meager offering to the grand enterprise of which he was one of the founders:
To Ed Wilson, whose Sociobiology, On Human Nature, and Consilience have taught me more about the way toward a scientific understanding of humans than just about any other three books I can name.
And these are the first two paragraphs of the book, in a chapter titled “What’s Wrong with Sociology”:
In 1978, E.O. Wilson predicted, in an essay that has been an inspiration to my own thinking, the imminent merging of biology and social science. In elegant prose and rigorous logic, Wilson extended the breathtakingly ambitious effort he had made just a few years earlier to present sociobiology as a unified science of social systems in all life on Earth. In that dense 1975 book, he had dedicated but one—the final--chapter to Homo sapiens. But already there he had presented the bare bones of the much fuller case he made a few years later. The social sciences would inevitably have to recognize that the insights into human nature and psychology made possible by modern biological science would have to form the basis of any systematic and scientific understanding of how humans behave and organize themselves socially. If this did not happen, Wilson suggested, sociology and the other social sciences would simply cease to have anything scientifically meaningful to say about their subject matter.
Forty years on from the publication of On Human Nature, there is almost no evidence to indicate that we are any closer to the moment Wilson hoped was in the offing. Let us not then beat around the bush in getting to the bad news. Sociology has lost its way, and it is now very deeply lost indeed. It is so deeply lost that there is a significant risk that at some point soon virtually all serious people will simply stop paying attention to it, and it will only be attended to by people who in their attention reveal themselves as uninterested in scientific knowledge about human behavior and social organization.
Ed’s critics—typically the ones who had not bothered to read him, though at least a few people far too smart for this kind of frivolousness have engaged in it too—would sometimes decry what they claimed to find of determinism and the naturalistic fallacy in his work. It didn’t seem to matter that he took this on and demolished it many times in his published writing.
I start every class session in which I introduce students to a sociobiological perspective with a little sermon about the search for truth and the beauty of our connection to the rest of life that I mostly cribbed from Ed’s writings. It runs roughly thus:
“Some people are convinced that applying evolutionary theory reduces our behavior to instinctual action and turns us into automatons running according to a program we don’t understand. It is true that we still do not fully understand ‘the program,’ but we know of its existence and are currently studying it with constant advance. That in and of itself disproves the notion that we have no ability to intervene in the aspects of our beings that natural selection made. We are doing it as I speak.
And only accurate knowledge of how we work will enable us to have any chance at all to move things in a direction we desire. Rejecting the fact that we were produced by the same processes that produced other life effectively guarantees we will not know how to get anywhere close to where we want to go.
And then there’s this: when I look at living things that are not us and realize that we came from the same origin and were engineered by the same processes, it does not make me think less of us. On the contrary. It makes me feel closer to these other beings, and it makes me happy to know that all of us here on this planet are in a sense brothers and sisters of the same parents. I think it’s possible you might experience that same feeling if you just give this all a chance.”
The loss of E. O. Wilson is incalculable to science. There will be no other like him.