Review of Edward O. Wilson



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Review of Edward O. Wilson,

On Human Nature

Harvard University Press (2004)

Herbert Gintis

This Pulitzer Prize winning work is the third of a trilogy that this great man wrote in the 1970, including, in addition to the current volume, The Insect Societies (1971), and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975). The first of these established Wilson's reputation as the leading expert on the social organization of ants, bees, wasps, and termites. The second is a masterpiece of entomology, and extension of biosocial theory to cold-blooded vertebrates, birds, and mammals, with sub-categories ungulates (critters with hoofs) and elephants, carnivores, nonhuman primates, and finally to Homo sapiens himself. E. O. Wilson is, I believe, the first to conceive of sociobiology as a general field of study covering the manner of live of all social species. Prior to Wilson, several animal behaviorists (a.k.a. ethologists), indeed even in Darwin himself, had written about communalities behavior and emotions across species. But unlike his predecessors, from Charles Darwin to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, Wilson's focus is on the organization of social life across species as well as the effect of this organization on the constitution of the species.

When I read Sociobiology, the second of the trilogy, in 1975, I loved it in every way, and it, along with George Williams' Adaptation and Natural Selection (1966), started my life-long effort to integrate biological thinking into economics and sociology. I had no problem with the biological argument because I had spent the last seven years or so being a proponent of Karl Marx's early work, especially his Manuscripts of 1844, which developed the idea that there is an innate human nature (Gatungswesen or species-being) which is subject to alienation (Entfremdung) when not supplied with its conditions for full realization (this theory is close to Amartya Sen's approach to `human flourishing,' if you want to see a contemporary version). The only part of this theory that I have given up is the part that says capitalism leads to alienation. That now appears to me to be completely wrong-headed; capitalism plus liberal democracy are the prerequisites in the contemporary world of personal liberation. Of course, there are illiberal and undemocratic capitalisms that entail alienation and worse. Mais, je divague....

Edward Wilson wrote this book, he tells us, in response to the bitter and violent reaction against the final chapter of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which was the only chapter in the book to deal with Homo sapiens. The criticism was far from impersonal, as the main critics were faculty at Harvard (where Wilson taught), MIT, and other Boston-area academics, some of whom had impeccable scientific credentials. I was a graduate student at Harvard from 1961 to 1969, and member of the Harvard faculty from 1969-1976, so witnessed the events surrounding the political formation of these critics. The anti-Vietnam war and the civil rights movements severely damaged the complacent liberal world-view of many academics who matured between World War II and the Vietnam war. Those with training in the humanities and social sciences for the most part became liberal supporters of the anti-war and civil rights movements, but those with training in the natural sciences, including biology, fell under the spell of Marxian social theory and identified with movements for socialism in the advanced capitalist countries and in the Third World. Many of those members of Boston-Cambridge academia formed Science for the People and other groups purporting to reveal the falsities of bourgeois thought and explain the necessity of a transition to socialism to combat domestic racism and international imperialist wars. The critical point about these groups was their commitment to critique not just bourgeois society, but bourgeois science as an emanation of bourgeois society.

I found this aspect of Science of the People and related groups to be both abhorrent, yet fascinating. I considered myself a Marxist, but I had never encountered "bourgeois science" in my years of studying mathematics, physics, and biology. I had always believed that science is science, and unless distorted by an oppressive state or religious power, produces truth (or warranted belief) through open debate, public discourse, and the reward of excellence. I had read about Lysenko in the Soviet Union, who gained the confidence of the country's Communist (and scientifically illiterate) leadership by claiming that Darwinism was "bourgeois science," who had dissidents from his Lamarckian views shot and exiled, and whose wild ideas eventually led to agricultural crisis in the Soviet Union. I therefore had nothing but contempt for the Science for the People group, and often noted that few were professionally trained in the areas they glibly wrote about, and their critiques were simple-minded and naïve. Moreover, the idea that they could speak of "bourgeois science" and "socialist science" gave me chills. These were highly intelligent, highly sophisticated (at least in natural science) academics at the top of the academic heap. Is this what our country was headed for? Would social change bring us Lysenko's all over the place?

Of course, I was far from alone being a progressive academic who refused to play the Science for the People game. Noam Chomsky, Hilary Putnam, and many others did not participate. But the Science for the People crowd had a very loud voice. Accusing Edward Wilson of racism and right-wing fascist sentiments, critics claimed that sociobiology was political ideology, not science. In November 1975, a Science for the People offshoot, the Sociobiology Study Group spearheaded a violent and multi-pronged attack on Edward Wilson, the co-signers of the group's first public statement (appearing in the New York Review of Books) including Wilson's prominent colleagues, Richard C. Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould.

The attack on Edward Wilson expanded country-wide. He was assaulted by Maoist activist students while he was speaking at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Ironically, Stephen Jay Gould was co-speaker at the event. Gould took the microphone, apologized to Wilson, and denounced the perpetrators, quoting Lenin's critique of misplaced violence. Wilson recalled, however, that after the attack "No one asked [the attackers] to leave the premises, no police were called, and no action was taken against them later."

In fact, the argument concerning humans in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis is carefully considered, measured, and temperate, hardly justifying the venom of Wilson's critics. Sociobiology supports comparative studies across species of such aspects of social behavior as cooperation and reciprocity, conflict and cheating, and kinship and mating. Such behaviors have a strong genetic basis in that rarely would a member of one social species have the proper predispositions and capacities to operate successfully in the social context of another, and animal societies tend to be strikingly similar even when widely separated in time and space. Moreover, because all social species are the product of Darwinian evolution, the same must be true of human societies, and since social cohesion in human societies depends on sharing common ethical norms, morality itself must be the product of evolution.

Critics of sociobiology are fond of labeling any argument in which genes affect social behavior "genetic determinist.'' Wilson certainly recognizes the effect of genes on behavior, but is equally insistent on the effect of culture on genes. "If culture has evolved for millennia under the influence of a biological human nature, it is equally true that human nature has evolved... Gene-culture coevolution, the synergistic coupling of the two forms of evolution was inevitable.'' (p. xi) Later, he reinforces this point by offering an observation that has come to be central to evolutionary game theory, "sociobiological theory can be obeyed by purely cultural behavior as well as by genetically constrained behavior." (33) However, Wilson infuriates his critics by claiming that "the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialized branches of biology," but he means this in the same sense that chemistry is a specialized branch of physics and biology is a specialized branch of chemistry. I find it quite misleading to use the term "specialized branch" in this way. Chemistry introduces numerous central concepts that are absent from physics, and biology has many more that are absent from chemistry. Similarly, the humanities cannot in any sense be reduced to social science, nor can social science be reduced to the natural sciences.

Typical of Wilson's mode of argumentation is his use of Chomsky's theory of "deep grammar" to explain how a universal human predisposition to understand deep grammar can be compatible with huge cross-cultural variation in the actual linguistic behavior of groups. He could have added, as an example of gene-culture coevolution, that the physiology of language production (tongue, lips, facial muscles, and larynx) evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to facilitate verbal and facial communication.

Wilson clearly recognizes in On Human Nature that the fact that humans are not infinitely malleable is a fundamental emancipatory message. Whereas Utopians have for centuries dreamed of creating the perfect society based on inculcating prosocial values and suppressing selfish and antisocial values, Wilson recognizes the totalitarian implications of ideologies, such as Marxism and some forms of liberalism. Wilson argues that we evolved our human morality in small hunter-gatherer societies over hundreds of thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene tended to be egalitarian and tolerant, thus explaining the universal attraction of democracy and civil liberties. He argues, for instance that such institution as slavery and communal child-rearing have reappeared throughout history, they are not in fact very compatible with human nature, so they tend to be short-lived and to disappear.

Typical of Wilson's mode of analysis, he argues that humans, especially males, are predisposed to being aggressive, but aggression can be kept to a moderately low level through good laws. Wilson even offers the now standard argument that women were not subordinated to men in most hunter-gather societies, so that the idea of gender equality is quite compatible with basic human nature. He argues that the relaxation of discriminatory norms against the full participation of women in public life would release a huge reservoir of talent, but enforced equality of outcome between genders would be unlikely to work in many areas of social life. He argues that homosexuality is found in many animals and must be considered a common sexual variant in humans. He even offers a "kin-selection" theory of how homosexuality can maintain itself in a biological population. Concerning altruism, Wilson speculates that most human altruism among non-kin is the "soft altruism" called by Robert Trivers "reciprocal altruism," but he also speculates that "hard altruism" of the sort analyzed by Darwin, in which individuals sacrifice inclusive fitness for the group, might have evolved and may be important in modern society.

Naturally, Wilson gets in his licks against his critics, briefly in the Preface and at greater length towards the end of On Human Nature. "The strongest opposition to the scientific study of human nature," he observes, "has come from a small number of Marxist biologists and anthropologists who are committed to the view that...nothing exists in the untrained human mind that cannot be readily channeled to the purposes of the revolutionary socialist state. When faced with the evidence of genetic structure, their response has been to declare human nature off limits to further scientific investigation." (191)



In his concluding chapter, Wilson offers three areas in which sociobiology might contribute to making a better world for humans. First, "a biology of ethics will make possible the selection of a more deeply understood and enduring code of moral values." (196) Second, he argues that "a correct application of evolutionary theory also favors diversity in the gene pool as a cardinal value." This implies that "master race" politics, eugenics, and other "genetic improvement" schemes should be rejected. Finally, and following the Enlightenment thinkers, he argues that "universal human rights" can be defended on the basis of a "universal human nature."

There has been an explosion of sociobiological research in the three decades since Edward O. Wilson wrote On Human Nature. My interpretation of the evidence is that it strongly supports Wilson's moderate statements almost perfectly, and gives the lie to his critics of all stripes.


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