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Forging Revolutions from Anthills

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Forging Revolutions from Anthills

The great sociobiologist E. O. Wilson transformed our understanding of the distinction between nature and culture. January 11, 2022
The Social Order
Politics and law

Biologist Edward O. Wilson died at 92 the day after Christmas, taking his leave with the same discretion that governed his conduct as a scientist. His passing, however, was not greeted in all quarters with the same grace. Scientific American, offering more evidence of its capture by woke ideology, chose to note Wilson’s passing by declaring that “we must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future.” In her editorial for the magazine, Monica R. McLemore lamented that Wilson’s work had “contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.”

Its stridency and trendiness aside, Scientific American’s attack serves as a useful reminder about Wilson and his career: this biologist found himself a lightning rod for controversy when he pioneered a new science that, in its beginnings in 1973 (the year he published Sociobiology), created not only a scientific but also a political revolution. It all began with observing ants. The social organization of ants is complex, as is that of termites and bees, because these “social insects,” according to Wilson, are genetically programmed from birth. An ant does not think, does not learn, does not evolve; it is a product of Darwinian evolution, programmed so as to preserve and then perpetuate its genetic inheritance.

There is nothing polemical in these observations; it is accepted in the scientific community that living beings are shaped by evolution. Within the Darwinian camp, however, anthropologists hold that human beings are determined by their social origins and their culture, while animals are determined by their inheritance. This distinction was advanced under the influence of Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian who, in the 1960s, observed geese and deduced that certain of their “social” behaviors were innate and not acquired. Darwin had applied the theory of evolution only to the exterior forms of animals, to anatomy. Lorenz became the first to apply evolution to behaviors. He thus founded ethology, but he did not know how behaviors could be transmitted; the workings of genetic transmission were not yet understood. The great scientific leap after Darwin, and after Lorenz, would be the work of Wilson, who came to believe that certain human behaviors traditionally attributed to culture (for example, incest prohibition, altruism, religious feeling) could be explained by genetic transmission.

Sociobiology was born. Wilson shook up received ideas on the distinction between nature and culture, innate and acquired, where human beings are concerned. Are we programmed by our genes, making us, in effect, complex robots—like ants? On the right, there is indignation in response to the idea that religious feeling could be programmed; on the left, there is even more indignation concerning the negation of education and culture as the only factors shaping our choices and behaviors.

Wilson, who was never a polemicist and still less a political activist, would add nuances to his discovery. He would not deny cultural evolution or the role of education but would try to explain that these evolve within an inherited genetic framework. The function of sociobiology would thus be to distinguish, as far as possible, what is innate and what is acquired. The prohibition of incest, for example, found in all human societies but also among chimpanzees, seems not to be acquired culturally, as Claude Lévi-Strauss had argued, but rather determined genetically because incest leads to the degeneration of the genetic patrimony. More radically still, Wilson considered that the distinction between good and evil was an innate trait that leads, for example, to marriage and procreation such as to assure the transmission of the genetic patrimony. Sociobiology also tries to explain an anthropological enigma: altruism. Marriage and children, almost perfect figures of altruism, perpetuate genes. Similarly, in war, a minority sacrifices itself (without knowing it) to save the genetic patrimony of the majority of the population. On the same principle, religions, part of every civilization, contribute to the perpetuation of the genetic patrimony by restraining violence and favoring altruism.

But doesn’t sociobiology lead to racism—as Scientific American and others would allege—since we’re not all born with the same genetic patrimony? Wilson proposes that genetic patrimonies may differ but that the difference implies no superiority of one individual or group over another. Why are so few mathematicians women? The answer is genetic, Wilson says—but not a sign of inferiority.

The further Wilson went in his research, the more he accepted the growing influence of culture to the detriment of innate genetics but without ever setting aside the latter. “Our genes,” he told me, “hold us on a leash; the leash is lengthened under the influence of culture, but it is never broken.” He considered that, because they are genetically advantageous, certain behaviors succeed finally in becoming part of our genetic patrimony in a coevolution of the innate and the acquired, nature and culture.

What is the point of sociobiology? It has no point, Wilson once told me: it is not a political program, only a tool of understanding. I might risk contradicting Wilson by suggesting that sociobiology is an invitation to modesty—personal, collective, and political. Perhaps this formulation could temper some of the passions surrounding his work, which, in any case, remains essential.

Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

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