Arquivo da tag: E. O. Wilson

The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson (Scientific American)

scientificamerican.com

Monica R. McLemore

We must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future

December 29, 2021


American biologist E. O. Wilson in Lexington, Mass., on October 21, 2021. Credit: Gretchen Ertl/Reuters/Alamy

With the death of biologist E. O. Wilson on Sunday, I find myself again reflecting on the complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas and how these ideas came to define our understanding of the world.

After a long clinical career as a registered nurse, I became a laboratory-trained scientist as researchers mapped the first draft of the human genome. It was during this time that I intimately familiarized myself with Wilson’s work and his dangerous ideas on what factors influence human behavior.

His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis 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. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public.

Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

Even modern geneticists and genome scientists struggle with inherent racism in the way they gather and analyze data. In his memoir A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, geneticist J. Craig Venter writes, “The complex provenance of ideas means their origin is often open to interpretation.”

To put the legacy of their work in the proper perspective, a more nuanced understanding of problematic scientists is necessary. It is true that work can be both important and problematic—they can coexist. Therefore it is necessary to evaluate and critique these scientists, considering, specifically the value of their work and, at the same time, their contributions to scientific racism.

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”

Second, the application of the scientific method matters: what works for ants and other nonhuman species is not always relevant for health and/or human outcomes. For example, the associations of Black people with poor health outcomes, economic disadvantage and reduced life expectancy can be explained by structural racism, yet Blackness or Black culture is frequently cited as the driver of those health disparities. Ant culture is hierarchal and matriarchal, based on human understandings of gender. And the descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued. Context matters.

Lastly, examining nurture versus nature without any attention to externalities, such as opportunities and potential (financial structures, religiosity, community resources and other societal structures), that deeply influence human existence and experiences is both a crude and cruel lens. This dispassionate query will lead to individualistic notions of the value and meaning of human lives while, as a society, our collective fates are inextricably linked.

As we are currently seeing in the COVID-19 pandemic, public health and prevention measures are colliding with health services delivery and individual responsibility. Coexistence of approaches that take both of these  into account are interrelated and necessary.

So how do we engage with the problematic work of scientists whose legacy is complicated? I would suggest three strategies to move toward a more nuanced understanding of their work in context.

First, truth and reconciliation are necessary in the scientific record, including attention to citational practices when using or reporting on problematic work. This approach includes thinking critically about where and when to include historically problematic work and the context necessary for readers to understand the limitations of the ideas embedded in it. This will require commitments from journal editors, peer reviewers and the scientific community to invest in retrofitting existing publications with this expertise. They can do so by employing humanities scholars, journalists and other science communicators with the appropriate expertise to evaluate health and life sciences manuscripts submitted for publication.

Second, diversifying the scientific workforce is crucial not only to asking new types of research questions and unlocking new discoveries but also to conducting better science. Other scholars have pointed out that feminist standpoint theory is helpful in understanding white empiricism and who is eligible to be a worthy observer of the human condition and our world. We can apply the same approach to scientific research. All of society loses when there are limited perspectives that are grounded in faulty notions of one or another group of humans’ potential. As my work and that of others have shown, the people most burdened by poor health conditions are more often the ones trying to address the underlying causes with innovative solutions and strategies that can be scientifically tested.

Finally, we need new methods. One of the many gifts of the Human Genome Project was the creativity it spawned beyond revealing the secrets of the genome, such as new rules about public availability and use of data. Multiple labs and trainees were able to collaborate and share work while establishing independent careers. New rules of engagement emerged around the ethical, legal and social implications of the work. Undoing scientific racism will require commitments from the entire scientific community to determine the portions of historically problematic work that are relevant and to let the scientific method function the way it was designed—to allow for dated ideas to be debunked and replaced.

The early work of Venter and Collins was foundational to my dissertation, which examined tumor markers of ovarian cancer. I spent time during my training at the NIH learning from these iconic clinicians and scholars and had occasion to meet and question both of them. As a person who uses science as one of many tools to understand the world, it is important to remain curious in our work. Creative minds should not be resistant to change when rigorous new data are presented. How we engage with old racist ideas is no exception.

“The Last Refuge of Scoundrels” (SftP Magazine)

magazine.scienceforthepeople.org


February 1, 2022

New Evidence of E. O. Wilson’s Intimacy with Scientific Racism

By Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons


By Isabel Holtan

The words “scientific racism” conjure up images of nineteenth century anthropologists measuring skulls with calipers. But it would be just as accurate to picture a Canadian psychologist in the 1980s obsessing over the size of genitals. That was J. Philippe Rushton, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario. Many have chronicled the story of Rushton’s disturbing attempts to enshrine his pseudoscientific beliefs about the biological basis of racial personality differences (from IQ, to sexual promiscuity, to criminality) into the scientific literature.1 But few know the full story, of which we present new evidence in this article, of the behind-the-scenes support Rushton received from eminent biologist E. O. Wilson.

On December 26, 2021, Edward O. Wilson passed away at the age of 94. He is remembered fondly by most who interacted with him and engaged with his writings.2 He has a well-earned reputation as a fierce advocate for the conservation of biodiversity and a world-class expert on ants and other social animals.3 However, throughout his career, he faced charges of racism due to his attempts to use evolutionary theory to explain individual differences among humans in terms of their behaviors and social status. Wilson dodged these charges skillfully, almost never mentioning race in his work or public comments.

Now that he has passed, the nature of his legacy has become a topic of intense debate. When Dr. Monica McLemore urged the scientific community to grapple with Wilson’s relationship with scientific racism in a Scientific American op-ed,4 she received swift and strong backlash from biologists and other supporters of Wilson. A few weeks later, Razib Khan, a blogger with a BS in genetics, wrote a letter of rebuttal claiming that these “accusations” are “baseless,”5 attracting dozens of academics to sign their names in support.6

Racism in academia and education is a perennially relevant topic. The US Supreme Court recently agreed to hear cases that challenge affirmative action admissions at Harvard University and in the University of North Carolina.7 States throughout the country are banning or considering bans on the teaching of critical race theory.8 Demographics of faculty and graduate students in the US are far from reflecting the racial demographics of the country as a whole.9 Therefore, as Dr. McLemore put it, now is the time for “truth and reconciliation” as we confront how some prominent biologists have worked to lend credibility, both culturally and in the scientific record, to pseudoscientific notions of a biological racial hierarchy.

Evolutionary ideas continue to be used by “race realists,” scientists and commentators alike, to promote ideology regarding the origin and implications of individual differences among humans that fall into socially-constructed racial groups.10 Anti-racism in evolutionary biology requires an honest confrontation of these issues. While many have done this important work through the decades, including Theodosius Dobzhansky, Jerry Hirsch, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Joseph Graves Jr, there is still much more work to be done.11 When answering the question of why scientific racism persists to this day, we can look at how systems, and the people within those systems, work to maintain credibility of racist and deeply flawed ideas.

Rushton died in 2012, but not before gaining a reputation as a prolific and outspoken racist. He spent the final decade of his life as head of the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that supports pseudoscientific research on race and is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group with white nationalism as their core ideology. He also spent his time writing articles for Mankind Quarterly and giving presentations for conferences of the hate group American Renaissance.12 All the while, Rushton maintained his credentials as a tenured professor of psychology. To this day, many of his most infamous papers remain published, although some have been posthumously retracted in recent years.13

We can’t know whether Rushton would have faded into obscurity without the professional support of his career by Wilson. However, while Rushton was a psychologist, he needed the backing of an evolutionary biologist to lend credibility to his biological claims.

Wilson and Rushton’s relationship is not a story of “guilt by association” or of honest mistakes and unfortunate missteps. It is a story about how racist ideas are woven into the scientific record with the support of powerful allies who operate in secret. While this story is extraordinary, it is not unusual.

“Dear Ed, … The battle continues, and I am now committed to carrying it to a victory, i.e., allowing genetic and evolutionary perspectives on race to be treated as normal science. … Again, my deepest appreciation for it all, With best regards, Phil.”

At the request of the Library of Congress, Wilson donated much of the contents of his office—letters, reprints, conference proceedings, etc.—to the national archive. The Wilson Papers comprises hundreds of boxes of documents and numerous digital recordings. We started exploring these holdings in September 2021, out of our broad interest in the Sociobiology debate. We did not intend to investigate scientific racism. However, the four folders labeled “Rushton, John Philippe” caught our attention. And in light of the controversy initiated by the Scientific American op-ed, we hope to share them and provide additional context for understanding Wilson’s legacy and the broader legacy of scientific racism.14

One of the most striking documents is an impassioned letter from Wilson to Professor Case Vanderwolf, a neuroscientist in Rushton’s department at the University of Western Ontario. Vanderwolf’s department was in the process of defending their decision to sanction Rushton for scholarly misconduct, including denying Rushton salary increase and disallowing him from teaching. This was at the height of Rushton’s infamy, sparking student protests and international media coverage. E. O. Wilson wrote a strong letter of support for Rushton that harshly criticized the Department of Psychology and University of Western Ontario with dramatic flair.

“Dear Professor Vanderwolf: First rule for one who finds himself in a hole: stop digging. The University of Western Ontario is in a deep hole, being on the verge of violating academic freedom in a way that will give it notoriety of historic proportions.” Wilson’s letter begins, dated July 3, 1990 (box 143, folder 9). This was only months after Rushton made appearances on American talk shows by Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue to defend his claims about racial differences, fueling the broad notoriety that became characteristic of his late career.15

Wilson’s letter continues, “To be sure, you and Professor Cain have found fault with Professor Rushton’s writings on race, but some noted specialists in human genetics and cognitive psychology have judged them to be sound and significant.” Wilson asks Vanderwolf to consider a poll that “found that a large minority of specialists of human genetics and testing believe in a partial hereditary basis for black-white average IQ differences.” Further, Wilson states that the National Association of Scholars (a right-wing advocacy group) is soon to publish an analysis “concluding that academic freedom is the issue in this case and that Rushton’s academic freedom is threatened.” The National Association of Scholars remains actively involved today in fighting affirmative action in higher education admissions and against the teaching of critical race theory.

Vanderwolf replied a week later (box 143, folder 9) to clarify that he was not involved with the investigation, as Wilson had assumed, but was instead simply another professor at the University of Western Ontario who was greatly opposed to Rushton’s work. Vanderwolf writes to Wilson, “My disagreement with Rushton is that I believe he misrepresents data in his publications and that he is willing to accept the most dubious kinds of publications on par with well-conducted studies if they happen to agree with his own views. Would you accept an article in Penthouse Forum as evidence that black men have larger penises than white men? Rushton did.” Vanderwolf later detailed these and other criticisms in publications with the aforementioned Professor Cain.16

Rushton thanked Wilson in a hand-written note (box 143, folder 9) dated July 17, 1990. “Dear Ed … Vanderwolf has been one of my harshest critics and the letters from you [Wilson] have given him cause to pause, and think.” Rushton promises to keep Wilson posted and states, “The battle continues, and I am now committed to carrying it to a victory, i.e., allowing genetic and evolutionary perspectives on race to be treated as normal science.” Rushton signs off with “Again, my deepest appreciation for it all, With best regards, Phil.”

This exchange is not what spared Rushton’s career—from what we can tell, it was inconsequential to the investigation. But it is possible that the relationship that had developed in the decade prior between Rushton and Wilson contributed significantly to establishing Rushton’s scientific credibility, which he used successfully to appeal the charges of unethical scholarship by his institution and remain a tenured professor for the rest of his life.

In 1986, Wilson sponsored Rushton’s paper “Gene-culture coevolution of complex social behavior: Human altruism and mate choice” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).17 PNAS is one of the most prestigious journals in the world, and publishing in this journal is a signal of merit and broad interest in an author and their work. However, unlike most journals, submitting to PNAS requires sponsorship from a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Sponsorship is not only an endorsement of the quality of the publication but an agreement to act as handling editor, sending the manuscript out for peer review and giving recommendations for revision and acceptance.

The peer reviews were a mix of positive and negative feedback (box 143, folder 11). The first review was “highly favorable but [the reviewer] has some quibbles” and the second by a “friendly critic” was “very unfavorable.” Wilson asked Rushton to decide whether criticisms from the second reviewer could be “safely bypassed” while Wilson attempted to solicit another “tough but friendly reviewer.” Two months later, Wilson wrote to Rushton to inform him of his decision to accept the article. While there is no record in the collection of what happened in the interim, two months hardly seems enough time to overhaul the work, address the “very unfavorable” reviews, and make satisfactory revisions toward publishing in a prestigious journal such as PNAS.

“Rushton is breaking the taboo and may, after hair-raising persecution, eventually get away with it. Free discussion, permitting fresh ideas and release of tensions, may be possible in the next ten years.”

A year later, Rushton again asked Wilson to sponsor a PNAS article (box 143, folder 11). Wilson declined. This time, the article is explicitly about race, promoting Rushton’s now infamous ideas about applying r-K selection theory to racial differences.18 A few months later, Rushton submitted the paper to Ethology and Sociobiology, for which Wilson provided a strong positive review (box 143 folder 11), although it was eventually rejected.

In Wilson’s September 1987 letter declining to sponsor this paper, he states, “You have my support in many ways, but for me to sponsor an article on racial differences in the PNAS would be counterproductive for both of us.” He recounts an incident of being attacked for his views and continues, “I have a couple of colleagues here, Gould and Lewontin, who would use any excuse to raise the charge again. So I’m the wrong person to sponsor the article, although I’d be glad to referee it for another, less vulnerable member of the National Academy.”19

Despite Wilson’s self-perceived vulnerability, he stuck his neck out for Rushton on many occasions. He behaved in many ways like a mentor. The relationship between the two men is almost heartwarming, until you start reading Rushton’s overtly racist work.

On July 1, 1989, Rushton received an evaluation from the Chair of the Promotion and Tenure (P&T) Committee, Dr. Greg Moran, rating his performance as “Unsatisfactory” (box 143, folder 11). Moran summarizes, “The members of the P&T committee were unanimous in their judgment that your overall performance in 1988–1989 was below the minimum acceptable level for a faculty member in this department.” While Rushton published extensively during this period, members of the committee “were of the unanimous opinion that your work on the genetic basis of race differences is substantially flawed and that your published record indicates serious scholarly deficiencies.” Rushton appealed the decision, and in his defense, he chiefly cited his numerous publications, some of which Wilson had helped to shape with his feedback in years prior through formal and informal communications (box 143 folder 11).

​​April 4, 1990, Wilson wrote to the Appeals Committee at the University of Western Ontario to support Rushton’s appeal of his Unsatisfactory rating (box 143 folder 9). Wilson argued that Rushton’s data and interpretation were “sound, being adapted in a straightforward way from well documented principles of r-K selection in biology.” He goes on to say that many other unnamed biologists agree with Wilson’s assessment, but added, “You may wonder why almost none have published their opinions. The answer is fear of being called racist, which is virtually a death sentence in American adademia [sic] if taken seriously. I admit that I myself have tended to avoid the subject of Rushton’s work, out of fear.”

Wilson’s aforementioned July 1990 letter to Professor Vanderwolf, while ultimately inconsequential, calls attention to a message of support for Rushton from the National Association of Scholars through their publication Academic Questions. What Wilson does not mention is that Wilson himself solicited support for Rushton from the National Association of Scholars in a letter to its founder Stephen Balch on November 6, 1989 (box 143 folder 10). On December 5, 1989, Wilson writes to Rushton, copying Balch, with the following message: “I am very heartened by the response of the National Association of Scholars (Academic Questions) to your case… Much as they like, your [Rushton’s] critics simply will not be able to convict you of racism, and there will come a day when the more honest among them will rue the day they joined this leftward revival of McCarthyism.”

A year later, on October 18, 1991, Rushton wrote Wilson an extensive letter of appreciation for his ongoing support (box 143, folder 9). Rushton had won his appeals, and the proceedings against him by his university had concluded. He boasted of a “solid” victory, “This year, on July 1, 1991, I received a rating of ‘Good’ despite an even greater percentage of my research being devoted to race differences.” He talks about his return to teaching “despite pickets, demonstrators, and the occasional class disruption.” He describes the important role that the National Association of Scholars played, facilitated by Wilson, in Rushton’s public defense.

In this same letter, Rushton tells Wilson that he compiled a book of supportive letters, including from Wilson himself. “A copy sat in the departmental coffee room for several months and bolstered those colleagues who might otherwise have felt I was too isolated to support. It is uplifting to look at that book and realize the strength of character of those, such as yourself [Wilson], who came forward to articulate principles in aid of so unpopular a cause. I remain immensely grateful for your help.”

Rushton never missed an opportunity to express his gratitude for Wilson’s support, and he was convinced that it played a major role in keeping his job. Rushton remained a Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario for the remainder of his career, lending him credibility as he toured the country speaking to groups of neo-Nazis.

It wasn’t enough for Wilson himself to support Rushton’s work. He also encouraged his friend and colleague Bernard Davis to do the same in May of 1990 (box 50, folder 19). At Wilson’s goading, Davis penned a letter in support of Rushton’s work on racial differences in IQ to The Scientist. Wilson wrote to Davis, “Rushton is breaking the taboo and may, after hair-raising persecution, eventually get away with it. Free discussion, permitting fresh ideas and release of tensions, may be possible in the next ten years.”

Why was Wilson so sure that Davis would be willing to speak on Rushton’s work on race? While Wilson was cautious to rarely mention race publicly, Davis clearly had no such reservations. Davis was a professor at Harvard Medical School who was an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, particularly when it came to Black students earning admission to Harvard.20 Wilson’s papers reveal a close relationship with Davis (Box 50, 2 folders, Box 51, 6 folders), finding common ground and supporting each other against criticism leveled by Richard Lewontin.

“[About] our favorite anti-racists of the Left, … my way of putting it would be that anti-racism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

Davis frequently had Wilson’s back, especially throughout Wilson’s most high-profile controversy: the debate with Lewontin and Gould, who were outspoken and relentless critics of Wilson’s Human Sociobiology. By Wilson’s own account in the previously quoted September 1987 letter to Rushton, the two Harvard colleagues and critics had a chilling effect on his ability to support Rushton’s race science. One might wonder whether Wilson would have been far bolder, like Davis, without constant pressure from scientists like Lewontin and Gould.

This feud is well documented and has been the subject of much discussion about the nature of politics and ideology among scientists. But for Davis and Wilson, the “correct side” of the debate was obvious. In a letter to Davis (box 51, folder 5), Wilson provided some commentary about their “favorite anti-racists of the Left.” Wilson pontificated that arguing for equity among groups of people was ideologically similar to racism, adding the evocative phrase “my way of putting it would be that anti-racism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

This is one story of many that can be found among the letters of this famous biologist. The collection also includes correspondences between Wilson and notorious “race scientists” Arthur Jensen and Richard J. Herrnstein, and of course intense sparring with Gould and Lewontin. We encourage those with an interest to explore the collection.

But this is a part of a much bigger story. Close ties between biologists and white supremacists continue to exist. Racists are often thrilled for an opportunity to see their ideology lent credibility by biologists, especially those of great renown. If we are to address the history and present of racism in the field of biology and in our society at large, we need to contextualize these stories. On the one hand, we may recognize how the system can nurture racist ideologies that are legitimized by scientists; on the other, we may draw inspiration from and continue the work of those “scoundrels” who relentlessly “raise the charge” against racist pseudoscience.

Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons are a wife and husband team with an interest in the history of science. Dr. Farina is an Assistant Professor at Howard University with a PhD in Evolutionary Biology. Matthew Gibbons has a BA in Humanities and works in public health.


Notes

  1. Andrew S. Winston, “Scientific Racism and North American Psychology,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.516; Joseph L. Graves, “What a Tangled Web He Weaves: Race, Reproductive Strategies and Rushton’s Life History Theory,” Anthropological Theory 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2002): 131–54, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1469962002002002627.
  2. Scott Neuman, “E.O. Wilson, Famed Entomologist and Pioneer in the Field of Sociobiology, Dies at 92,” NPR, December 27, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/12/27/1068238333/e-o-wilson-dead-sociobiology-entomology-ant-man; Felicia He, “E.O. Wilson, Renowned Harvard Biologist Known as ‘Darwin’s Natural Heir,’ Dies at 92,” The Harvard Crimson, December 31, 2021, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/12/31/edward-wilson-obit/; Bert Hölldobler, “Edward Osborne Wilson, Naturalist (1929-2021),” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 119, no. 5 (February 1, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2200201119.
  3. Doug Tallamy, “Remembering E.O. Wilson’s Wish for a More Sustainable Existence,” December 27, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/remembering-eo-wilsons-wish-for-a-more-sustainable-existence-180979298/.
  4. Monica R. McLemore, “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson,” Scientific American, December 29, 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-complicated-legacy-of-e-o-wilson/.
  5. Razib Khan, “Setting the Record Straight: Open Letter on E.O. Wilson’s Legacy,” Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning (blog), January 19, 2022, https://razib.substack.com/p/setting-the-record-straight-open.
  6. After the revelation that the blogger held white nationalist views, several academics retracted their signatures. But many maintain that they are in agreement with the blog’s contents.
  7. Adam Liptak and Anemona Hartocollis, “Supreme Court Will Hear Challenge to Affirmative Action at Harvard and U.N.C,” The New York Times, January 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/24/us/politics/supreme-court-affirmative-action-harvard-unc.html.
  8. Liz Crampton, “GOP Sees ‘huge Red Wave’ Potential by Targeting Critical Race Theory,” POLITICO, January 5, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/01/05/gop-red-wave-critical-race-theory-526523.
  9. Maya L. Gosztyla et al., “Responses to 10 Common Criticisms of Anti-Racism Action in STEMM,” PLoS Computational Biology 17, no. 7 (July 2021): e1009141, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009141.
  10. Nuno M. C. Martins, Michael J. Carson, and the Genetics and Society Working Group, “What Can Current Genetic Testing Technologies Tell You About ‘Race’?” Science for the People, November 19, 2021,  https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/lewontin-special-issue/genetics-of-race-gswg/.
  11. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1996); Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin, Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (Haymarket Books, 2017); Joseph L. Graves Jr, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2003).
  12. Mankind Quarterly is “a pseudoscientific journal founded after the Second World War to argue against desegregation and racial mixing.” See Angela Saini, “The Internet Is a Cesspool of Racist Pseudoscience,” Scientific American Blog Network, accessed January 31, 2022, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/the-internet-is-a-cesspool-of-racist-pseudoscience/.
  13. J. P. Rushton, “RETRACTED: An Evolutionary Theory of Health, Longevity, and Personality: Sociobiology and r/K Reproductive Strategies,” Psychological Reports 60, no. 2 (April 1987): 539–49; J. P. Rushton, “RETRACTED: Contributions to the History of Psychology: XC. Evolutionary Biology and Heritable Traits (with Reference to Oriental-White-Black Differences): The 1989 AAAS Paper,” Psychological Reports 71, no. 3 Pt 1 (December 1992): 811–21; J. P. Rushton, “RETRACTED: Race and Crime: International Data for 1989-1990,” Psychological Reports 76, no. 1 (February 1995): 307–12; J. Philippe Rushton and Donald I. Templer, “RETRACTED: Do Pigmentation and the Melanocortin System Modulate Aggression and Sexuality in Humans as They Do in Other Animals?,” Personality and Individual Differences 53, no. 1 (July 1, 2012): 4–8.
  14. The materials presented in this article have not, to our knowledge, been made available to the participants on either side of the debate on Wilson’s legacy.
  15. Antony Violanti, “A Researcher, or a Racist? Ontario Professor Draws Fire for Theory That Links Intelligence and Race,” Janurary 16, 1991, The Buffalo News, https://buffalonews.com/news/a-researcher-or-a-racist-ontario-professor-draws-fire-for-theory-that-links-intelligence-and/article_a8e0861e-2725-5c7d-829b-0327202b671a.html.
  16. C. H. Vanderwolf and D. P. Cain, “The Neurobiology of Race and Kipling’s Cat,” Personality and Individual Differences 12, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 97–98, https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(91)90138-2; Donald P. Cain and C. H. Vanderwolf, “A Critique of Rushton on Race, Brain Size and Intelligence,” Personality and Individual Differences 11, no. 8 (January 1, 1990): 777–84, https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(90)90185-T.
  17. J. P. Rushton, C. H. Littlefield, and C. J. Lumsden, “Gene-Culture Coevolution of Complex Social Behavior: Human Altruism and Mate Choice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 83, no. 19 (October 1986): 7340–43, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.83.19.7340.
  18. In summary, r-K selection theory was a term coined by Wilson to describe how evolutionary forces may act to produce two types of reproductive strategies: “r” in which organisms produce many offspring with little parental care and “K” in which organisms produce few offspring and care for them greatly. In his pseudoscientific analyses, Rushton proposed that people of African ancestry were “r” strategists and people of European and Asian ancestry were “K” strategists. Rushton was swiftly and widely criticized for using heinously inappropriate and racist lines of evidence and reasoning, from a scholarly and ethical perspective.
  19. Helen Fisher, “‘Wilson,’ They Said, ‘Your All Wet!,’” The New York Times, October 16, 1994, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/16/books/wilson-they-said-your-all-wet.html.
  20. R. D. Davis, “Academic Standards in Medical Schools,” The New England Journal of Medicine 294, no. 20 (May 13, 1976): 1118–19, ​​https://doi.org/10.1056/nejm197605132942013.

Michael Balter: When the Hagiography Stops and the Truth-Telling Begins: The Legacy of E.O. Wilson

michaelbalter.substack.com

Michael Balter

Feb. 7, 2022


Jim Harrison/ Wikimedia Commons

When an illustrious person dies, the hagiography usually starts while the body is still warm. The death of biologist E.O. Wilson last December 26 was no exception to this general rule. Of course, it’s considered impolite and in bad taste to speak ill of the dead right after they leave us; it can be the worst form of talking behind someone’s back. Yet there are no firm rules about when it is okay to do so. In some cases, colleagues, journalists, and other commenters never get around to “warts and all” portraits of the departed, especially when there are inconvenient truths involved. But all too often, defenders of the deceased’s reputation take it upon themselves to police the conversation, and attack those who do want to examine the warts, especially if they do it “too soon.”

I don’t doubt that Wilson is being rightly praised for his advocacy of biodiversity conservation and his contributions to our understanding of the natural world, especially that of ants and other insects. But the inconvenient truth is that Wilson, back in 1975, gave a major boost to genetic and evolutionary explanations for human behavior when he published his massive tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, to the acclaim of those convinced that biology played a bigger role in human affairs than previously appreciated, and the condemnation of those who thought it played an even lesser role.

In doing so, it has been argued, Wilson also provided considerable cover to racists who have long argued that inequities in human societies—most notably, socioeconomic differences between Blacks and whites in the United States—are due to biological differences rather than structural flaws in our society. And yet, at the time Wilson’s book was published, those who objected to his ideas—or more specifically, their application to human societies—were the ones who got accused of being politically motivated.

The first round of Wilson obituaries reflected this political bias very clearly. The “Sociobiology Wars,” as they came to be known, were treated in some obits as a kind of quaint and colorful ancient history, caricatured by one of their most memorable episodes: Anti-racist activists dumping a pitcher of water on Wilson’s head during a debate at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In his obituary of Wilson for the New York Times, evolution writer Carl Zimmer gave short shrift to the critics of sociobiology, describing the Sociobiology Wars as follows:

In a letter to The New York Review of Books, some denounced sociobiology as an attempt to reinvigorate tired old theories of biological determinism — theories, they claimed, that “provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”

In her book “Defenders of the Truth” (2000), Dr. Segerstrale wrote that Dr. Wilson’s critics had shown “an astounding disregard” for what he had written, arguing that they had used “Sociobiology” as an opportunity to promote their own agendas. When Dr. Wilson attended a 1978 debate about sociobiology, protesters rushed the stage shouting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” A woman dumped ice water on him, shouting, “Wilson, you are all wet!”

Likewise, in Science’s Retrospective of Wilson, Stuart Pimm of Duke University dismissed sociobiology’s critics in similar terms:

In his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Ed reported a monumental survey of the wide range of animal societies, including our own. That natural selection might shape human behaviors was questioned by some. Many critics made ad hominem attacks, which were short on scientific content. Ed responded vigorously, noting that the adaptive value of animal behaviors was not in dispute, however disturbing this might be to political philosophies. During this time, someone famously threw water onto Ed at a meeting—the amount involved grows with every telling of the story. When Ed told it, it was with a twinkle and an appreciation of this unique honor.

For anyone who was not around at the time, these hagiographic accounts (please read their entire texts for support for that statement) might leave the impression that the only opponents of Wilson’s application of sociobiological thinking to human affairs were crazy left-wing activists. But the truth is that noted scientists, including Wilson’s Harvard colleagues Richard Lewontin, Ruth Hubbard, and Stephen Jay Gould, were among those who carefully examined Wilson’s ideas and found them to be in the long and sordid tradition of racial thinking about human biology. At around the same time, Harvard Medical School geneticist Jon Beckwith and others founded a Sociobiology Study Group to discuss and analyze Wilson’s book and develop a critique of his ideas, based both on solid science and the history of scientific racism.

I was around at the time, a graduate student in biology at UCLA and a member of Science for the People, the organization Beckwith and some other Wilson critics belonged to. Since most of the action was on the East Coast, especially in Boston and Cambridge, MA, I was not an active member, other than subscribing to the group’s eponymous magazine. But I did follow things closely, including the infamous water pitcher episode, and the 1976 publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which greatly expanded on the idea that humans were largely at the mercy of our genes (a conclusion that Dawkins, with limited success, has tried to refute.)

But now, barely a month after Wilson’s death and while the hagiography is still more or less in full swing, we are suddenly faced with revelations that leave little doubt Wilson was—behind the scenes, and despite his public protests—a racist, or minimally, a sympathizer of race science (which is the same thing.) The scoop goes to Science for the People magazine in its new incarnation (the publication was moribund for many years), in a February 1 article by Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons, a wife and husband team (Farina is an assistant professor at Howard University with a PhD in evolutionary biology, and Gibbons works in public health.)

Digging into Wilson’s letters held at the U.S. national archives, Farina and Gibbons came across a trove of correspondence between Wilson and the late scientific racist J. Philippe Rushton, who died in 2012. I will leave it to readers to look at this painfully clear article, but in my view it leaves no doubt that Wilson wholeheartedly supported, encouraged, and cheered on Rushton’s bogus and long discredited attempts to show that differences between Blacks and whites in IQ, socioeconomic status, and other measures were based on biological racial differences. There is no ambiguity here, which is making it very difficult for Wilson’s apologists to question the evidence (although they will still try.)

And it turns out that while Farina and Gibbons were working in the archives, an independent pair of historians of science, Mark Borrello of the University of Minnesota and David Sepkoski at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, were looking at the same documents and coming to the same conclusions. Their somewhat more comprehensive analysis, published on February 5 in The New York Review of Books, leaves little doubt about Wilson’s real thinking. And should it be that much of surprise? Nearly all the obituaries of Wilson emphasize his roots in Alabama and the segregated University of Alabama, and depict him as a southern gentleman scientist—without any examination of the possibility that the prejudices of growing up in the south might have left their mark on Wilson’s psyche.

This new evidence matters greatly, because over all these years the conceit of Wilson and his defenders has been that they were champions of scientific truth, and their critics were driven by politics and ideology. Indeed, the term “race realism,” used by Rushton and other scientific racists as a bludgeon against anti-racists and an attempt to depict them as cowards who cannot face what science allegedly tells them, can now clearly be seen as evidence of Wilson’s own attitudes and biases (Wilson was no shrinking violet in defending his ideas, as even the hagiographic retrospectives make clear.)

In their next to last paragraph, Borrello and Sepkoski lay out clearly what is at stake in a proper and accurate understanding of Wilson’s real legacy when it comes to his writings on sociobiology, which have been very influential in the years since:

Preserving a naively hagiographic picture of his career obscures the extent to which racist and sexist bias remains a glaring vulnerability of the science that has been built on his theories; indeed, such bias can motivate and blind scientists to deeply flawed interpretations of data. Racism in science, today, rarely announces itself with a white hood. Rather, it persists in tacit and unspoken assumptions, and hides behind claims of the inherent objectivity of scientific research. 

In what follows, I would like to go back over the history of the Sociobiology Wars, and attempt to salvage—as others have tried over the years—the true history of these debates. They did not consist only of activists running around with water pitchers, a very minor part of the story, but serious and conscientious scientists trying to point out fallacies in a theory of human behavior that has left its damaging marks in today’s discourse about race and justice.

My purpose is not to do a deep dive into sociobiology and the arguments pro and con, but simply to remind readers—and alert those new to the debate—that there were serious scientific issues involved, not just left vs. right politics.

“The use and abuse of biology”

The late anthropologist Marshall Sahlins/ Elkziz/ Wikimedia Commons

In 1976, the year after Wilson’s Sociobiology was published and the same year Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene appeared, Marshall Sahlins—a major figure in anthropology who died last year—published his own contribution to this literature: The use and abuse of biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology.

It’s a slim volume, only 120 pages, but certainly not a political diatribe. Sahlins argues, in effect, that anthropology is too important and too laden with its own facts and data to be left to geneticists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists who often know more about ants and fruit flies than about human beings. Moreover, as Sahlins points out with many examples from societies around the world, human culture is too complicated—too cultural, as it were—to be reduced to simple biology, or even complex biology.

Sahlins spends a lot of the book discussing sociobiological notions of kinship and kin selection, which have been key to the thinking of sociobiologists over the decades (Wilson developed his own spin on how natural selection was acting, which I will get to shortly.) In essence, organisms, including humans, act in such ways as to increase the likelihood that their genes will get passed on to future generations. While not all proponents of this concept endorse Dawkins’ depressing contention that genes evolved to “swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control”—especially because the lumbering robots included us humans—the idea that human behavior can be largely explained by what is best for the replication of our genes has stuck hard in much biological thinking, even today.

(I should point out here that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists—the latter being sort of latter-day sociobiologists—are always quick to insist that they recognize a role for the environment, and Wilson always did so when criticized. The problem is that it’s a no-brainer that environment is involved, and this disclaimer often serves to justify returning to a focus on genes as if some sort of technicality has been dealt with.)

In his book, Sahlins provided a lot of examples of cultures, studied by anthropologists, in which kinship is not defined by those who are genetically closest, but in all kinds of other ways, including ties that have nothing to do with genealogy. In doing so, he paints a much more realistic portrait of human relationships, in which we often may be more willing to die for someone who is not genetically related to us at all than a close relative (eg, an estranged sibling or parent.)

Sahlins writes:

The reason why human social behavior is not organized by the individual maximization of genetic interest is that human beings are not socially defined by their organic qualities but in terms of symbolic attributes; and a symbol is precisely a meaningful value—such as “close kinship” or “shared blood”—which cannot be determined by the physical properties of that to which it refers.

Before leaving Sahlins, I should qualify what I say above by pointing out that he did not argue that a “political framework” should not be used in analyzing sociobiology and its weaknesses in explaining human behavior. But what he did insist on is that the politics is at its root anthropological, ie, the way we describe human societies. Thus sociobiology is itself profoundly political, he concluded:

What is inscribed in the theory of sociobiology is the entrenched ideology of Western society: the assurance of its naturalness, and the claim of its inevitability.”

There is an interesting wrinkle in Wilson’s view of how natural selection operated, however, which eventually diverged from the strict focus on kin or individual selection. Dawkins and others before him, including the British evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, waged a fierce war against the concept of group selection, in which natural selection is postulated to act on groups of individuals rather than individuals themselves. Wilson, however, eventually threw in his lot with advocates of “multilevel” selection (what might perhaps be called group selection lite, or kin selection heavy), particularly in collaboration with the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (no relation)—the proposition that evolution can act on both the group and individual level. The two Wilsons published, in 2007, a paper in The Quarterly Review of Biology, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” which led some diehard kin selection theorists to declare that E.O. Wilson had betrayed his own cause.

Thinking and studying sociobiology

Jonathan Marks /University of North Carolina

Marshall Sahlins’ foray into the sociobiology wars was just one example of anthropologists trying to weigh in with their own insights into human behavior. One of the best critiques, in my opinion, was penned by Jonathan Marks—now an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of “What it means to be 98% chimpanzee” and “Why I am not a scientist”—when he was still a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

In a 1980 paper for the Arizona Anthropologist, “Sociobiology, Selfish Genes, and Human Behavior: A Bio-Cultural Critique”, Marks engaged in a witty but cogent skewering of sociobiology’s misconceptions. Among his most important criticisms, in my view, is the use by sociobiologists of what the naturalist Ernst Mayr called “beanbag genetics,” in which genes are imagined as discrete entities which code for complex behaviors such as altruism, aggression, selfishness, conformity, and other attributes. Looking at genes that way made the mathematics of calculating the effects of kin selection on evolution easier, Marks pointed out; but it has resulted in severe oversimplifications that actually obscure what is going on, especially in the evolution of human behavior (if, indeed, human behavior is something that actually genetically evolves.)

Marks wrote:

Given the knowledge that a simple behavior such as aggregation in slime molds involves the interaction of fifty genes (May 1976), one may conclude that ‘conformity’ in humans, if genetically based, would be a very formidable genetic system.

This critique, by Marks and others, was prophetic. Modern genetic research reveals that there are unlikely to be individual genes for “altruism” or other traits that geneticists have tried to mathematically model in the past, but rather a constellation of hundreds or thousands of genes involved, each one adding a tiny statistical weight to the genetic makeup of an individual—and, in the end, rendering the notion of genetic determinism for any human trait essentially meaningless. This is certainly the lesson of today’s Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which often require cohorts of many thousands of subjects to detect any genetic variation at all. (For more on this, I highly recommend the writings of Eric Turkheimer, a behavior geneticist who has questioned some of the commons assumptions of his field.)

Marks again:

Sociobiology of humans, without theoretical underpinnings in ‘beanbag genetics’… is a statement of social philosophy, not science; for without genes for altruism, one cannot speak of its evolution, except in a metaphorical sense. And to accept a metaphor as literally binding is surely a breach of logic.

I recommend reading Marks’ entire paper, as well as Chapter 9 in Jon Beckwith’s memoir, Making Genes, Making Waves, “It’s the Devil in Your DNA,” a chronicle of the Sociobiology Study Group and the Sociobiology Wars which certainly corresponds to how I myself remember them. Beckwith points out that the publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology was accompanied (as his death is now) with multitudes of uncritical media stories heralding the new biological explanations for sometimes mysterious human behavior—in the New York Times, People, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Time (a cover story), Reader’s Digest, and even House and Garden.

To try to counter these one-sided accounts, Beckwith and other critics of sociobiology argued that genetic determinism (they insisted that was what sociobiology was, even if glossed up in a more sophisticated scientific veneer) was a key principle of eugenics, Nazism, and, in our day, attempts to justify unequal treatment of different groups in employment, housing, education, and other areas of life.

And of course, sociobiology was not the end of it. Some researchers believe that evolutionary psychology is the heir to sociobiology, with its panoply of “just-so” evolutionary stories for complex human behavior; and that every few years or so there is a media frenzy over recycled theories of human racial differences (The Bell Curve, published in 1994 by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, is still the subject of lively debate today; for evidence that racially motivated theories in science are again on the rise, please see Superior: The return of race science by Angela Saini.)

Jon Beckwith/ Harvard Medical School

It’s going to be interesting to see what Wilson’s defenders and apologists make of his newly revealed correspondence with Rushton. Some will no doubt insist that Wilson was simply encouraging Rushton’s right to free academic inquiry, not endorsing his racist conclusions. I think that’s going to be a hard case to make; and the inquiry into Wilson’s true views is not likely to be over. There will be other letters, hidden away in archives or in the files of his friends, which may also see the light of day.

Wilson vociferously insisted, from the 1975 publication of his famous book to pretty much the day he died, that his critics were driven by political bias, but not him. That was never a credible claim. Now, with the revelations of his personal racism, it has no credibility at all.

Suggested reading.

Beckwith, Jon. Making Genes, Making Waves: A social activist in science. (2002)

Sahlins, Marshall. The use and abuse of biology: An anthropological critique of sociobiology. (1976)

Saini, Angela. Superior: The return of race science. (2019)

Segerstrale, Ullica. Defenders of the Truth. (2000)

In addition, Jon Beckwith provided me with a detailed bibliography of papers by members of the Sociobiology Study Group and other critics:

Sociobiology: The Debate Evolves. A Special Double Issue (The Philosophical Forum: A Quarterly, vol XIII, nos 2-3, 1981-82) 

Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature, by Philip Kitcher (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985)

Allen, E. et al. Against Sociobiology. The New York Review of Books. pp. 182, 184-6 (Nov. 13, 1975)  Reprinted in A. Caplan- . in The Sociobiology Debate.  ed. by A. Caplan.  Harper & Row. New York . pp. 259-264 (1978) 

Alper, J.S., Beckwith, J.. Chorover, S., Hunt, J., Inouye, H., Judd, T., Lange, R.V., and Sternberg, P.  The Implications of Sociobiology: Science.192:424-427 (1976). 

Alper, J., Beckwith, J., and Miller, L.  Sociobiology is a Political Issue. in The Sociobiology Debate.  ed. by A. Caplan.  Harper & Row. New York 476‑488 (l978).  

Alper, J., Beckwith, J. and Egelman, E. Misusing Sociobiology. The Harvard Crimson. Nov. 19, 1979.  

Beckwith, J. Triumphalism in science. (A review of The Triumph of Sociobiology, by J. Alcock., Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). American Scientist. 89:461-472 (2001). 

Beckwith, J.  The Political Uses of Sociobiology in the United States and Europe.  The Philosophical Forum. XIII, #2, Winter, l98l, p. 3ll‑32l.  

Beckwith, J.  Biological Backlash: A book review of K. Bock. Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology.  Technology Review. Oct. l98l. p.30.  

The Six Legacies of Edward O. Wilson (This View of Life)

By David Sloan Wilson – Published On: January 5, 2022

Note: An abbreviated version of this article is published in Nautilus Magazine.

Edward O. Wilson, who passed away at the age of 92 on December 26, 2021, is widely recognized as a giant of the Arts and Sciences. I include the Arts because Wilson regarded the creative dimension of science as an artistic endeavor, worked toward unifying the Arts and Sciences, and wrote beautifully for the general public, resulting in two Pulitzer prizes for nonfiction and one novel.

Wilson’s stature is so great, and reflections on his legacy upon his death are so numerous, that another reflection might seem unnecessary. The purpose of my reflection, however, is to make a novel point: Wilson left at least six legacies, which need to be combined to fully realize his vision. Combining the legacies of Edward O. Wilson requires first identifying them separately and then integrating them with each other.

The six legacies are:

1) His contributions to evolutionary biology.

2) His contributions to the conservation of biodiversity.

3) His contributions to a sociobiology that includes humans.

4) His contributions to the unification of knowledge.

5) His encouraging stance toward young scientists and other learners.

6) The new frontier that he was working on at the time of his death was ecosystems.   

My relationship with Edward O. Wilson

Before turning to these legacies and their integration, I will briefly recount my own relationship with Ed. I am 20 years younger so that he was already famous as a Harvard professor when I entered graduate school at Michigan State University in 1971. I first met him during the summer of that year. I was a student in an ecology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He was sitting in on the student project reports. After I reported my experiments on food size selection in zooplankton, Ed remarked “That’s new, isn’t it?” I was so proud to have impressed the great E.O. Wilson and contributed to the vast storehouse of scientific knowledge that I have remembered his comment ever since!

My graduate education was shaped in part by Ed’s influence on evolutionary biology, as I will elaborate below. My next personal interaction came near the end of my graduate career. I had constructed a mathematical model that provided support for the theory of group selection, which had been almost universally rejected by evolutionary biologists, as I will also elaborate below. Convinced of its importance, I wrote Ed asking if he would consider sponsoring it for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ed invited me to visit him at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. As with my first encounter, I have a vivid memory of the visit, which began with a tour of his ant laboratory. Then he stood me in front of a blackboard, sat down in a chair, and said “you have 30 minutes until my next appointment.”

I talked like an auctioneer, filling the board with my equations. Ed was sufficiently intrigued to sponsor my article for PNAS after sending it out for review by two experts in theoretical biology. The article became my Ph.D. thesis, which is probably the shortest in the history of evolutionary science (four pages).

In the years that followed, I became one of the main advocates of group selection without directly crossing paths with Ed. I also took part in most of the other initiatives associated with Ed’s legacies without directly interacting with him. We were both involved in the formation of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) and I hosted its third annual conference in 1993. On the theme of consilience, I started the first campus-wide program for teaching evolution across the curriculum and wrote one of the first book-length accounts of religion from an evolutionary perspective. It might seem strange that Ed and I shared so many interests without directly interacting, but just about everything associated with Ed’s legacies are in fact broad developments in the history of science involving many protagonists, a point to which I will return.

My next and by far most substantive interaction with Ed began at the 2006 annual conference of HBES. Ed was a plenary speaker and I was in the audience. Even though HBES members were in the avant-garde of studying human behavior from an evolutionary perspective, most of them were doctrinaire in their rejection of group selection. On his own, Ed had embraced group selection, converging on my own advocacy, and chose to break the news to the unsuspecting audience in his plenary. You could have heard a pin drop. Afterward, we found a corner of the lobby to talk alone.

“Did you like the grenade that I tossed in their midst?” Ed asked with a conspiratorial smile. On the spot, I suggested that we write a major article together, which became “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology”, published in the Quarterly Review of Biology in 2007. To reach a larger audience, we also wrote “Evolution for the Good of the Group”, which was published in the American Scientist in 2008. These were written by trading drafts and discussing them by email and phone. I still remember his voicemails, which sometimes went on for several minutes and were spoken in flawless extemporaneous prose.

At the end of our “Rethinking” article, we summarized our argument for group selection as the theoretical foundation of sociobiology by stealing from Rabbi Hillel, who was reputedly asked to explain the meaning of the Torah while standing on one foot and replied “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. Everything else is commentary.” Our one-foot version of sociobiology was: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” This meme has become widely known and Ed repeated it all the way up to his final publications and interviews.

After this intense collaboration, Ed and I went our separate ways to continue pursuing our largely overlapping interests. The last time I saw him was at a conference at MIT, which was close enough to his home that he could attend without arduous travel. In the few minutes that we spoke together, he told me excitedly about ecosystems as the next big topic that he planned to synthesize. He retained his youthful spirit of exploration right up to the end.

I have one more story about Ed to tell before turning to his six legacies. In 2014, the evolutionary psychologist Barry X. Kuhle recorded a series of interviews with pioneers of HBES, including both Ed and myself. Ed must have relished the opportunity to talk at a professional level with someone as well informed as Barry because his interview lasted two hours. I was president of the newly founded Evolution Institute and Editor in Chief of its online magazine This View of Life (TVOL), which was named after the final passage of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (“There is grandeur in this view of life…”). I was eager to feature a print version of Barry’s interview with Ed on TVOL, so I offered to transcribe it myself. There is something about transcribing a recording, word by word, that burns it into your memory more than merely listening to the recording or reading the transcription. This experience adds to my knowledge of Ed and his legacies, along with his published work and my personal relationship with him.

The Six Legacies

History—including the history of science–is a complex systemic process involving many actors and environmental (including cultural) contingencies. Attention often becomes focused on a few key people, such Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and B.F. Skinner, which under-represents the contributions of many dozens of others. Iconic status is thrust upon a person as much as actively sought by the person. There seems to be a need to personify ideas as a form of simplification, among the general public and even, to a degree, among the experts.  

A few evolutionary biologists such as Ed Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and the late Stephen Jay Gould have achieved this iconic status. Yes, they made outsized contributions as individuals, but they also represent something larger than themselves. I think that Ed would agree. In his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, for example, he was relying upon the work of many hundreds of scientists to support his claim that there can be a single theory of social behavior informed by evolution.

The world “catalyst” also bears examination. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being used up in the process. The way a catalytic molecule works is by holding other molecules in an orientation that binds them to each other and releases the catalytic molecule to repeat the operation. A person can play a catalytic role in cultural change in much the same way. As we will see, Ed was a catalyst par excellence. He made things happen that otherwise would have occurred much more slowly or not at all.

Against this background, calling Ed an “icon” and a “catalyst” honors the individual while also going beyond the individual to examine systemic trends in the history of science. It is in this spirit that I will review his six legacies.     

1) His contributions to evolutionary biology.

Here is how Ed described his contribution to evolutionary biology in his interview with Barry Khule:

We have to go back to the 1950’s. In the 1950’s, the molecular revolution had begun. It was clear that the golden age of modern biology was going to be molecular and would endure a long time. In fact, it did occupy the second half of the 20th century and beyond. We felt here at Harvard immediately the pressure to start giving up positions to molecular biology. The Dean of the faculty and the President at that time were entirely in accord. We found—I say we, the organismic and evolutionary biologists here, comparative anatomists, comparative zoologists and so on–realized that we would not to be given much additional space anymore, that we probably would not get many if any new positions for a long time. They would be reserved to build up Harvard’s strength in molecular and cellular biology. What this did was have a tremendous impact on me personally because I realized…that those of us, my generation of what we came to call evolutionary biologists and organismic biologists, were not going to get anywhere by complaining by any means but we were going to have to—and we should be tremendously excited to plan this—develop an equivalent to molecular biology on our own. 

Ed then set about trying to modernize the biology of whole organisms, as part of a younger generation following the architects of the Modern Synthesis, which included names such as Ernst Mayr, Julian Huxley, and George Gaylord Simpson. This required finding and collaborating with people who had complementary expertise—especially the ability to build mathematical models of ecological and evolutionary processes. Names that Ed mentions as part of this younger generation include Robert MacArthur, Larry Slobodkin, and Richard Lewontin. These were some of the rock stars whose work I avidly read as a graduate student in the 1970s.

One of Ed’s most productive collaborations was with Robert MacArthur, an ecologist with mathematical training, leading to their landmark book The Theory of Island Biogeography, published by Princeton University Press in 1967 with Ed as the second author. What made the book so important was a theoretical framework that made sense of the great mass of natural history information on the distribution and abundance of species on islands—some of it collected by Ed for ant species around the world. The theory applied not only to actual islands but to all habitats that are island-like, such as mountains separated by valleys or patches of forest separated by deforested areas.  

While Ed played a prominent role in modernizing whole organism biology, he was by no means alone. Also during my time as a graduate student, a Nobel prize was awarded to Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Carl von Frisch for pioneering the study of animal behavior and the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky titled an article for biology teachers “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Evolutionary theory was proving its explanatory scope and many people were taking part in the effort. What this meant to me as a graduate student was that I could choose any topic, begin asking intelligent questions based on evolutionary theory (often with the help of mathematical models), and then test my hypotheses on any appropriate organism. I didn’t need to become a taxonomic specialist and I could change topics at will. In short, I could become a polymath, based not on my personal attributes but on a theory that anyone can learn. This is the legacy of evolutionary biology, to which Ed made an outsized contribution.

2) His contributions to the conservation of biodiversity

As first and foremost a naturalist and ant taxonomic expert, Ed was passionate about the conservation of biological diversity and made room for it alongside his scientific career. His book Biophilia argued that we are genetically adapted to be surrounded by nature, with mental and physical health consequences if we are not. This bold conjecture has been largely supported by research. For example, hospital patients recover faster if their room has a window or is decorated with foliage and flowers.

Ed collaborated with Thomas Lovejoy, who coincidentally passed away just a day earlier at the age of 80, to preserve the biodiversity of the Amazon. According to a remembrance in the New Yorker magazine, it was they who coined the term biological diversity, which became shortened to biodiversity. They even drew upon the theory of Island Biogeography by studying the effect of the size of forest reserves on species loss.

With his gift for marketing whole disciplines and initiatives, Ed coined the term “Half Earth” for the goal of preserving half of the earth for nature and the other half for humankind—not in separation, but in a way that is interdigitated, so that humans can live within nature and nature can flow along corridors. Anyone who values nature should want to continue this legacy but doing so requires changing the minds and hearts of people, along with their cultural practices, in the real world.

3) His contributions to a sociobiology that includes humans

Ed’s 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, was in the same mold as Darwin’s “there is grandeur in his view of life” and Dobzhansky’s “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Ed’s claim was that evolutionary theory provides a single conceptual toolkit for studying the social behaviors of all creatures great and small. Thanks to Ed’s gift for identifying whole fields of inquiry and writing for non-specialists, Sociobiology combined the authority of an academic tome with the look and feel of a coffee table book, complete with over 200 illustrations by the artist Sarah Landry. Thanks to his stature and gift for promotion, its publication was noted on the front page of the New York Times.

It was the last chapter on human social behavior that landed Ed in trouble and a systemic view of the history of science is needed to understand why. For all its explanatory scope, the study of evolution was restricted to genetic evolution for most of the 20th century, as if the only way that offspring can resemble their parents is by sharing the same genes. This is patently false when stated directly since it ignores the cultural transmission of traits entirely, but it essentially describes what became known as the modern synthesis and was consolidated by the molecular biology revolution described by Ed in his interview with Barry Kuhle.

What became of the study of cultural evolution? It was ceded to other disciplines in the human social sciences and humanities. Each discipline developed into a sophisticated body of knowledge, but not in reference and sometimes in perceived opposition to evolutionary theory. And all of those disciplines did not remotely become integrated with each other. Instead, they became an archipelago of knowledge with little communication among the islands. The lack of consilience for human-related knowledge stands in stark contrast with the consilience of biological knowledge, at least when it comes to genetic evolution.

Darwin’s theory is often said to have earned a bad reputation for itself in the human-related disciplines by providing a moral justification for inequality (Social Darwinism). The real history of Darwinism in relation to human affairs is more complex and interesting. Socialists such as Peter Kropotkin and progressive thinkers such as William James and John Dewey were inspired by Darwin along with “nature red and truth in claw” types. The bottom line is that any powerful tool can also be used as a weapon and Darwin’s theory is no different than any other theory in this regard.1

Returning to the reception to Sociobiology, when critics accused Ed of genetic determinism, they were absolutely right. The entire field of evolutionary biology was gene-centric and Ed was no exception. Yet, critics from the human social sciences and humanities had no synthesis of their own.

Only after the publication of Sociobiology did evolutionary thinkers begin to take cultural evolution seriously. Ed was among them with books such as On Human NatureGenes, Mind, and Culture (with Charles J. Lumsden), Promethean Fire (also with Lumsden), and The Social Conquest of Earth. Other major thinkers included Richard Dawkins and his concept of memes, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman (Cultural Transmission and Evolution), and Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson (Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Not By Genes Alone). The importance of symbolic thought began to occupy center stage with books such as The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon and Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb.

Today, Darwinian evolution is widely defined as any process that combines the three ingredients of variation, selection, and replication, no matter what the mechanism of replication. This definition is true to Darwin’s thought (since he knew nothing about genes) and can accommodate a plurality of inheritance mechanisms such as epigenetics (based on changes in gene expression rather than gene frequency), forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human. While human cultural inheritance mechanisms evolved by genetic evolution, that doesn’t make them subordinate, as if genes hold cultures on a leash (one of Ed’s metaphors). On the contrary, as the faster evolutionary process, cultural evolution often takes the lead in adapting humans to their environments, with genetic evolution playing a following role (gene-culture co-evolution).

Part of the maturation of human cultural evolutionary theory is the recognition of group selection as an exceptionally strong force in human evolution—something else that Ed got right. According to Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Richard Wrangham in his book The Goodness Paradox, naked aggression is over 100 times more frequent in a chimpanzee community than in small-scale human communities. This is due largely to social control mechanisms in human communities that suppress bullying and other forms of disruptive self-serving behaviors so that cooperation becomes the primary social strategy (this is called a major evolutionary transition). Nearly everything distinctive about our species is a form of cooperation, including our ability to maintain an inventory of symbols with shared meaning that is transmitted across generations. Our capacity for symbolic thought became a full-blown inheritance system that operates alongside genetic inheritance (dual inheritance theory). Cultural evolution is a multilevel process, no less than genetic evolution, and the increasing scale of cooperation over the course of human history can be seen as a process of multilevel cultural evolution.

While the critique of genetic determinism was accurate for Sociobiology and evolutionary biology as a whole in 1975, this is no longer the case for the modern study of humans from an evolutionary perspective—which brings us to Ed’s next legacy.

4) His contributions to the unification of knowledge.

Something that can be said about Ed’s books is that they are all visionary—imagining whole new fields of inquiry—but vary in the degree to which Ed has made progress carrying out the vision. He made the most progress for ants and other social insects, of course, and Sociobiology reflected a thorough reading of the literature on animal social behaviors. A book such as Consilience, however, is long on vision and short on execution.

I do not intend this observation as a criticism. Ed had only 24 hours in a day, like the rest of us, and his visionary gaze is worthwhile even if the execution is left to others. In Consilience, the vision is “a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws (p4)”. While this vision stretches back to antiquity and includes knowledge of the physical world in addition to the living world, there is something about evolutionary theory that fulfills the vision for the living world in an extraordinary way. Here is how Ed describes his first encounter with evolutionary theory in the opening pages of Consilience. He’s an 18-year old kid newly arrived at the University of Alabama, with a passion for identifying plants and animals using field guides.

Then I discovered evolution. Suddenly—that is not too strong a word—I saw the world in a wholly new way. This epiphany I owed to my mentor Ralph Chermock, an intense, chain-smoking young assistant professor newly arrived in the provinces with a Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University. After listening to me natter for a while about my lofty goal of classifying all the ants of Alabama, he handed me a copy of Ernst Mayr’s 1942 Systematics and the Origin of Species. Read it, he said, if you want to become a real biologist.

The thin volume in the plain blue cover was one of the New Synthesis works, uniting the nineteenth-century Darwinian theory of evolution and modern genetics. By giving a theoretical structure to natural history, it vastly expanded the Linnaean enterprise. A tumbler fell somewhere in my mind, and a door opened to a new world. I was enthralled, couldn’t stop thinking about the implications evolution has for classification and for the rest of biology. And for philosophy. And for just about everything. Static pattern slid into fluid process…A new enthusiasm surged through me. The animals and plants I loved so dearly reentered the stage as lead players in a grand drama. Natural history was validated as real science.

Coincidentally, Ernst Mayr’s Animal Species and Evolution was one of the first evolution books that I read as an undergraduate student. While it was not thin (811 pp!), I was similarly enthralled. Compare Ed’s epiphany with passages from Charles Darwin, such as “I can remember the very spot on the road…” and “he who understands the baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke”, which was scribbled in his notebook in 1838. There is something about the simplicity and generality of evolutionary theory that starts working at the very beginning, for Darwin as the originator and Ed Wilson as an unschooled kid. Now recall what I said about being a graduate student in the 1970s—that I could become a polymath, based not on my personal attributes but on a theory that anyone can learn. What this means is that by the 1970s, what Darwin and Ed glimpsed from the start was now proving itself for the length and breadth of the biological sciences. Every time an evolutionary biologist decides to switch to a new topic and/or organism–which happens all the time—consilience is being demonstrated in action.

The prospect that human-related knowledge can become unified in this way is both old and new. It was how Darwin thought and he originated group selection theory as much to explain human morality as “for the good of the group” traits in nonhuman species. But you can’t make sense of humanity without acknowledging its groupish nature and the importance of culturally transmitted symbolic meaning systems. As Emile Durkheim wisely put it: “Social life, then, in every aspect and throughout its history, is only possible thanks to a vast body of symbolism.” Only now are we in a position to synthesize human-related knowledge in the same way as biological knowledge, thanks to an expanded definition of Darwinism as any variation/selection/replication process. Ed’s vision in Consilience is right on and its fulfillment is now in progress.

5) His encouraging stance toward young scientists and other learners.

No remembrance of Ed would be complete without noting the way that he encouraged people to become scientists, to follow their hearts, and to cultivate a reverence for nature. Visit #eowilson on Twitter and you’ll find quotes such as these offered by those whose lives he touched.

“Adults . . . are prone to undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming and aimless wandering.” — The late great Edward O. Wilson

“Nature first, then theory. Love the organisms for themselves first, then strain for general explanations, and with good fortunes discoveries will follow.”

“You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give.”

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.

“There can be no purpose more enspiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”

“The evolutionary epic is the best myth we will ever have.”

“You teach me, I forget. You show me, I remember. You involve me, I understand.”

“Humanity is part of nature, a species that evolved among other species. The more closely we identify ourselves with the rest of life, the more quickly we will be able to discover the sources of human sensibility and acquire the knowledge on which an enduring ethic, a sense of preferred direction, can be built.”

Passages such as these spell the difference between science and a science-based worldview. By itself, science merely tells us what is. A worldview provides a sense of values and motivates action. A science-based worldview does this based on reverence of the natural world rather than a supernatural agency. Ed is remembered at least as much for the science-based worldview that he offered as his scientific discoveries.

6) Ecosystems as Ed’s final frontier

Ed’s next book was to be titled “Ecosystems and the Harmony of Nature”. I don’t know if it will be published posthumously but we can get a glimpse of what he had in mind from its title, a brief article on the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation website,2 and a short lecture on YouTube.3

In the article, Ed is quoted as saying: “We know that ecosystems, which are really what we are trying to protect–not just single species but ensembles of species that have come together and have reached the ability—sometimes over thousands or even in some places millions of years—have formed ecosystems that equilibrate. And we don’t really know how equilibration comes about.” Ed also encourages young people to join “the coming development of a new biological science, one of the next big things, which is ecosystem studies.”

I must confess that I am puzzled by these statements since the study of whole ecosystems dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and has become increasingly integrated with evolutionary ecology over the last 50 years. It turns out that multilevel selection theory is essential for understanding the nature of ecosystems, no less than single species societies. I will be fascinated to know if Ed has converged upon this conclusion.

To explain what I mean, a critical distinction needs to be made between two meanings of the term “complex adaptive system (CAS)”: A complex system that is adaptive as a system (CAS1), and a complex system composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies (CAS2). A human society in the grip of civil war is an example of CAS2. It can be understood in terms of the conflicting interests of the warring factions, but it does not function well at the level of the whole society (CAS1) and no one would expect it to.

Many single-species societies in nature are like my human civil war example. Members of social groups are largely in conflict with each other and at most cooperate in specific contexts. We need look no further than chimpanzee communities for an example, where naked aggression is over 100 times more frequent than in small-scale human communities and the main context for community-wide cooperation is aggression against neighboring communities. Social strife in chimpanzee communities is stable—there is no reason to expect it to change, given the selection pressures that are operating—but that doesn’t make them harmonious or desirable from a human perspective.

Many multispecies ecosystems are also like this. For example, if you want to understand the nature of beaver ecosystems, ask the question “what’s in it for the beavers?” They are modifying the environment for their own benefit, flooding it to protect themselves from predators and eating the most palatable plants. Consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling are collateral effects of beavers pursuing their interests. There is no reason to expect the whole ecosystem to be functionally organized and harmonious, any more than a chimpanzee community or a human society in the grip of civil war.

This is a hard lesson to learn about nature. We want it to be harmonious. Religious cosmologies often portray nature as harmonious (e.g., the Garden of Eden) except when disturbed by humans. The early study of ecosystems often treated them axiomatically as harmonious.  But Darwin’s theory of evolution tells a different story. It tells us that functional organization for any given system, at any given scale, requires a process of selection at that scale. That is the only way to achieve the status of CAS1 rather than merely CAS2, where functionally organized agents impose suffering on each other in the course of pursuing their respective adaptive strategies. That statement goes for human society, single-species animal societies, and multispecies ecosystems.   

Are there examples of whole ecosystems that have evolved into superorganisms? Yes! Microbiomes are an example. Every multicellular organism is not only a collection of mostly identical genes but also an ecosystem composed of trillions of microbes comprising thousands of species. When the host organisms differentially survive and reproduce, this is due in part to variation in their microbiomes along with variation in their genes. Thanks to selection at this level, microbiomes have evolved to be largely mutualistic with their hosts. There is also potential for selection among microbes within each host, however, leading to the evolution of pathogenic strains. It all depends on the level of selection.

Nowadays, whole forests are being imagined as mutualistic networks, with trees connected into a network by mycorrhizal fungi. Is such a thing possible? Yes, but only if selection has operated at the scale of whole forests with sufficient strength to counteract selection at lower scales. Otherwise, forests become merely CAS2 systems, composed of species that interact at cross purposes, rather than CAS1 systems.

Above all, it is important to avoid confusing “harmony” with “equilibrium”. Ecologists have started to use the word “regime” to describe stable assemblages of species. This is a well-chosen word because it evokes what we already know about human political regimes. All political regimes have a degree of stability, or we wouldn’t call them regimes, but they span the range from despotic (benefitting a few elites at the expense of everyone else) to inclusive (sharing their benefits with all citizens). Some of the worst regimes are also depressingly the most stable. Using the language of complex systems theory, there are multiple local stable equilibria and positive change requires escaping the gravitational pull of one local equilibrium to enter another local equilibrium. This requires active management and will not necessarily happen by itself. The management of ecosystems must itself be a human cultural evolutionary process informed by multilevel selection theory.

Combining the legacies

In this remembrance of Ed Wilson, I have tried to honor the person while also placing him in the context of broad trends in the history of science. Without mentioning Ed, we can say that Darwin’s theory of evolution has an amazing explanatory scope, that this scope was largely restricted to the study of genetic evolution for most of the 20th century, but now is rapidly expanding to include all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life. As I put it in my own book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, Dobzhansky’s statement “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” can be extended to include everything associated with the words “human”, “culture”, and “policy”.

Without mentioning Ed, we can also say that evolutionary theory is capable of functioning as a worldview in addition to a body of scientific knowledge. Science only tells us what is, whereas a worldview inspires us psychologically and moves us to action. Creating a worldview informed entirely by science, as opposed to supernatural belief, is part of the enlightenment project that led to humanism as a philosophical worldview and social movement. While humanists accept Darwin’s theory as a matter of course, the recent developments that I have recounted have not been incorporated into the humanist movement for the most part. Thus, humanism and what it stands for is due for a renaissance, along with a renaissance of basic scientific knowledge.

Some simple calculations will help to put Ed’s career into historical perspective. Starting from when he received his Ph.D. in 1955 to his death in 2021, his career lasted for 66 years. If we mark the beginning of evolutionary science with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, then Ed was present for 40% of the history of evolutionary thought. If we mark the beginning of the scientific revolution with the publication of Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, then Ed was present for 14% of the scientific revolution. As 20 years Ed’s junior, my numbers work out to 28% and 10% respectively.

These numbers remind us that evolutionary science and the scientific revolution are still works in progress. If science in general and evolutionary science, in particular, have revolutionized the way we see and therefore act upon the world, then we can look forward to further improvements in the near future. This leads to a form of hope and optimism, even in the darkest of times, that is part of Ed’s legacy.

For me, the next frontier is not just ecosystems but becoming wise stewards of evolution in all its forms. Variation/selection/replication processes are taking place all around us at different time scales, including genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and intra-generational personal evolution. Without wise stewardship, these evolutionary processes result merely in CAS2—complex systems composed of agents following their respective adaptive strategies, often inflicting harm on each other and on the entire system over the long term. Work is required to transform CAS2 into CAS1—systems that are adaptive as whole systems. This work will be required for all forms of positive change—individual, cultural, and ecosystemic. The ability to see this clearly and to act upon it has only become available during the last few decades and is currently shared by only a tiny fraction of those who need to know about it. Catalysis is needed, so that positive evolution can take place in a matter of years rather than decades or not at all. The best way to honor Ed’s combined legacies is to join in this catalysis.

References:

[1] For more, see the TVOL special edition titled “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism”.

[2] https://eowilsonfoundation.org/inspiring-a-new-generation-to-fight-for-biodiversity/

[3] https://thefestivalofdiscovery.com/session/watch-now-e-o-wilson-ecosystems-and-the-harmony-of-nature/

Why E O Wilson is wrong about how to save the Earth (AEON)

01 March, 2016

Robert Fletcher is an associate professor at the Sociology of Development and Change Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His most recent book is Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism (2014).

Bram Büscher is a professor and Chair at the Sociology of Development and Change Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. His most recent book is Transforming the Frontier: Peace Parks and the Politics of Neoliberal Conservation in Southern Africa (2013).

Edited by Brigid Hains

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A member of the military-style Special Ranger Patrol talks to a suspected rhino poacher on 7 November 2014 at the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by James Oatway/Sunday Times/Getty

Edward O Wilson is one of the world’s most revered, reviled and referenced conservation biologists. In his new book (and Aeon essayHalf-Earth, he comes out with all guns blazing, proclaiming the terrible fate of biodiversity, the need for radical conservation, and humanity’s centrality in both. His basic message is simple: desperate times call for desperate measures, ‘only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilisation required for our own survival’. Asserting that ‘humanity’ behaves like a destructive juggernaut, Wilson is deeply concerned that the current ‘sixth extinction’ is destroying many species before scientists have even been able to identify them.

Turning half of the Earth into a series of nature parks is a grand utopian vision for conservation, perhaps even a hyperbolic one, yet Wilson seems deadly serious about it. Some environmental thinkers have been arguing the exact opposite, namely that conservation should give up its infatuation with parks and focus on ‘mixing’ people and nature in mutually conducive ways. Wilson defends a traditional view that nature needs more protection, and attacks them for being ‘unconcerned with what the consequences will be if their beliefs are played out’. As social scientists who study the impact of international conservation on peoples around the world, we would argue that it is Wilson himself who has fallen into this trap: the world he imagines in Half-Earth would be a profoundly inhumane one if ever his beliefs were ‘played out’.

The ‘nature needs half’ idea is not entirely new – it is an extreme version of a more widespread ‘land sparing’ conservation strategy. This is not about setting aside half the Earth as a whole but expanding the world’s current network of protected areas to create a patchwork grid encompassing at least half the world’s surface (and the ocean) and hence ‘about 85 per cent’ of remaining biodiversity. The plan is staggering in scale: protected areas, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, currently incorporate around 10-15 per cent of the Earth’s terrain, so would need to more than triple in extent.

Wilson identifies a number of causes of the current ecological crisis, but is particularly concerned by overpopulation. ‘Our population,’ he argues, ‘is too large for safety and comfort… Earth’s more than 7 billion people are collectively ravenous consumers of all the planet’s inadequate bounty.’ But can we talk about the whole of humanity in such generalised terms? In reality, the world is riven by dramatic inequality, and different segments of humanity have vastly different impacts on the world’s environments. The blame for our ecological problems therefore cannot be spread across some notion of a generalised ‘humanity’.

Although Wilson is careful to qualify that it is the combination ofpopulation growth and ‘per-capita consumption’ that causes environmental degradation, he is particularly concerned about places he identifies as the remaining high-fertility problem spots – ‘Patagonia, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, plus all of sub-Saharan Africa exclusive of South Africa’. These are countries with some of the world’s lowest incomes. Paradoxically, then, it is those consuming the least that are considered the greatest problem. ‘Overpopulation’, it seems, is the same racialised bogeyman as ever, and the poor the greatest threat to an environmentally-sound future.

Wilson’s Half-Earth vision is offered as an explicit counterpoint to so-called ‘new’ or ‘Anthropocene’ conservationists, who are loosely organised around the controversial Breakthrough Institute. For Wilson, these ‘Anthropocene ideologists’ have given up on nature altogether. In her book, Rambunctious Garden (2011), Emma Marris characteristically argues that there is no wilderness left on the Earth, which is everywhere completely transformed by the human presence. According to Anthropocene thinking, we are in charge of the Earth and must manage it closely whether we like it or not. Wilson disagrees, insisting that ‘areas of wilderness… are real entities’. He contends that an area need not be ‘pristine’ or uninhabited to be wilderness, and ‘[w]ildernesses have often contained sparse populations of people, especially those indigenous for centuries or millennia, without losing their essential character’.

Research across the globe has shown that many protected areas once contained not merely ‘sparse’ inhabitants but often quite dense populations – clearly incompatible with the US Wilderness Act’s classic definition of wilderness as an area ‘where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’. Most existing ‘wilderness’ parks have required the removal or severe restriction of human beings within their bounds. Indeed, one of Wilson’s models for conservation success – Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique – sidelined local people despite their unified opposition. In his book Conservation Refugees (2009), Mark Dowie estimates that 20-50 million people have been displaced by previous waves of protected-area creation. To extend protected areas to half of the Earth’s surface would require a relocation of human populations on a scale that could dwarf all previous conservation refugee crises.

Would these people include Montana cattle ranchers? Or Australian wheat growers? Or Florida retirees? The answer, most likely, is no, for the burden of conservation has never been shared equitably across the world. Those who both take the blame and pay the greatest cost of environmental degradation are, almost always, those who do not have power to influence either their own governments or international politics. It is the hill tribes of Thailand, the pastoralists of Tanzania, and the forest peoples of Indonesia who are invariably expected to relocate, often at gunpoint, as Dowie and many scholars, including Dan Brockington in his book Fortress Conservation (2002), have demonstrated.

How will human society withstand the shock of removing so much land and ocean from food-growing and other uses? Wilson criticises the Anthropocene worldview’s faith that technological innovation can solve environmental problems or find substitutes for depleted resources, but he simultaneously promotes his own techno-fix in a vision of ‘intensified economic evolution’ in which ‘the free market, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology’ will solve the problem seemingly automatically. According to Wilson, ‘products that win competition today… are those that cost less to manufacture and advertise, need less frequent repair and replacement, and give highest performance with a minimum amount of energy’. He thus invokes a biological version of Adam Smith’s invisible hand in maintaining that ‘[j]ust as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy’ and asserting, without any evidence, that ‘[a]lmost all of the competition in a free market, other than in military technology, raises the average quality of life’.

Remarkably, this utopian optimism about technology and the workings of the free market leads Wilson to converge on a position rather like that of the Anthropocene conservationists he so dislikes, advocating a vision of ‘decoupling economic activity from material and environmental throughputs’ in order to create sustainable livelihoods for a population herded into urban areas to free space for self-willed nature. The Breakthrough Institute has recently promoted its own, quite similar, manifesto for land sparing and decoupling to increase terrain for conservation.

In this vision, science and technology can compensate for some of humanity’s status as the world’s ‘most destructive species’. And at the pinnacle of science stands (conservation) biology, according to Wilson. He argues: ‘If people are to live long and healthy lives in the sustainable Eden of our dreams, and our minds are to break free and dwell in the far more interesting universe of reason triumphant over superstition, it will be through advances in biology.’ How exactly humans are to ‘break free’ is not explained and is, in fact, impossible according to Wilson himself, given ‘the Darwinian propensity in our brain’s machinery to favour short-term decisions over long-range planning’. As far as Wilson is concerned, any worldview that does not favour protected-area expansion as the highest goal is by definition an irrational one. In this way, the world’s poor are blamed not only for overpopulating biodiversity hotspots but also for succumbing to the ‘religious belief and inept philosophical thought’ standing in the way of environmental Enlightenment.

Let us finish by making a broader point, drawing on Wilson’s approving quotation of Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century German naturalist who claimed that ‘the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world’. In viewing the world, we also construct it, and the world Wilson’s offers us in Half-Earth is a truly bizarre one. For all his zeal, (misplaced) righteousness and passion, his vision is disturbing and dangerous, and would have profoundly negative ‘consequences if played out’. It would entail forcibly herding a drastically reduced human population into increasingly crowded urban areas to be managed in oppressively technocratic ways. How such a global programme of conservation Lebensraum would be accomplished is left to the reader’s imagination. We therefore hope readers will not take Wilson’s proposal seriously. Addressing biodiversity loss and other environmental problems must proceed by confronting the world’s obscene inequality, not by blaming the poor and trusting the ‘free market’ to save them.


Half-Earth (AEON)

29 February, 2016

Half of the Earth’s surface and seas must be dedicated to the conservation of nature, or humanity will have no future

by Edward O Wilson

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The Serengeti National Park. Photo by Medford Taylor/National Geographic

Edward O Wilson is a professor emeritus in entomology at Harvard. Half-Earth concludes Wilson’s trilogy begun by The Social Conquest of Earth and The Meaning of Human Existence, a National Book Award finalist. 

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Unstanched haemorrhaging has only one end in all biological systems: death for an organism, extinction for a species. Researchers who study the trajectory of biodiversity loss are alarmed that, within the century, an exponentially rising extinction rate might easily wipe out most of the species still surviving at the present time.

The crucial factor in the life and death of species is the amount of suitable habitat left to them. When, for example, 90 per cent of the area is removed, the number that can persist sustainably will descend to about a half. Such is the actual condition of many of the most species-rich localities around the world, including Madagascar, the Mediterranean perimeter, parts of continental southwestern Asia, Polynesia, and many of the islands of the Philippines and the West Indies. If 10 per cent of the remaining natural habitat were then also removed – a team of lumbermen might do it in a month – most or all of the surviving resident species would disappear.

Today, every sovereign nation in the world has a protected-area system of some kind. All together the reserves number about 161,000 on land and 6,500 over marine waters. According to the World Database on Protected Areas, a joint project of the United Nations Environmental Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they occupied by 2015 a little less than 15 per cent of Earth’s land area and 2.8 per cent of Earth’s ocean area. The coverage is increasing gradually. This trend is encouraging. To have reached the existing level is a tribute to those who have led and participated in the global conservation effort.

But is the level enough to halt the acceleration of species extinction? Unfortunately, it is in fact nowhere close to enough. The declining world of biodiversity cannot be saved by the piecemeal operations in current use alone. The extinction rate our behaviour is now imposing on the rest of life, and seems destined to continue, is more correctly viewed as the equivalent of a Chicxulub-sized asteroid strike played out over several human generations.

The only hope for the species still living is a human effort commensurate with the magnitude of the problem. The ongoing mass extinction of species, and with it the extinction of genes and ecosystems, ranks with pandemics, world war, and climate change as among the deadliest threats that humanity has imposed on itself. To those who feel content to let the Anthropocene evolve toward whatever destiny it mindlessly drifts, I say please take time to reconsider. To those who are steering the growth of reserves worldwide, let me make an earnest request: don’t stop, just aim a lot higher.

see just one way to make this 11th-hour save: committing half of the planet’s surface to nature to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it. Why one-half? Why not one-quarter or one-third? Because large plots, whether they already stand or can be created from corridors connecting smaller plots, harbour many more ecosystems and the species composing them at a sustainable level. As reserves grow in size, the diversity of life surviving within them also grows. As reserves are reduced in area, the diversity within them declines to a mathematically predictable degree swiftly – often immediately and, for a large fraction, forever. A biogeographic scan of Earth’s principal habitats shows that a full representation of its ecosystems and the vast majority of its species can be saved within half the planet’s surface. At one-half and above, life on Earth enters the safe zone. Within half, existing calculations from existing ecosystems indicate that more than 80 per cent of the species would be stabilised.

There is a second, psychological argument for protecting half of Earth. The current conservation movement has not been able to go the distance because it is a process. It targets the most endangered habitats and species and works forward from there. Knowing that the conservation window is closing fast, it strives to add increasing amounts of protected space, faster and faster, saving as much as time and opportunity will allow.

The key is the ecological footprint, defined as the amount of space required to meet the needs of an average person

Half-Earth is different. It is a goal. People understand and prefer goals. They need a victory, not just news that progress is being made. It is human nature to yearn for finality, something achieved by which their anxieties and fears are put to rest.

The Half-Earth solution does not mean dividing the planet into hemispheric halves or any other large pieces the size of continents or nation-states. Nor does it require changing ownership of any of the pieces, but instead only the stipulation that they be allowed to exist unharmed. It does, on the other hand, mean setting aside the largest reserves possible for nature, hence for the millions of other species still alive.

The key to saving one-half of the planet is the ecological footprint, defined as the amount of space required to meet all of the needs of an average person. It comprises the land used for habitation, fresh water, food production and delivery, personal transportation, communication, governance, other public functions, medical support, burial, and entertainment. In the same way the ecological footprint is scattered in pieces around the world, so are Earth’s surviving wildlands on the land and in the sea. The pieces range in size from the major desert and forest wildernesses to pockets of restored habitats as small as a few hectares.

But, you may ask, doesn’t a rising population and per-capita consumption doom the Half-Earth prospect? In this aspect of its biology, humanity appears to have won a throw of the demographic dice. Its population growth has begun to decelerate autonomously, without pressure one way or the other from law or custom. In every country where women have gained some degree of social and financial independence, their average fertility has dropped by a corresponding amount through individual personal choice.

There won’t be an immediate drop in the total world population. An overshoot still exists due to the longevity of the more numerous offspring of earlier, more fertile generations. There also remain high-fertility countries, with an average of more than three surviving children born to each woman, thus higher than the 2.1 children per woman that yields zero population growth. Even as it decelerates toward zero growth, population will reach between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion, up from the 7.2 billion existing in 2014. That is a heavy burden for an already overpopulated planet to bear, but unless women worldwide switch back from the negative population trend of fewer than 2.1 children per woman, a turn downward in the early 22nd century is inevitable.

And what of per-capita consumption? The footprint will evolve, not to claim more and more space, as you might at first suppose, but less. The reason lies in the evolution of the free market system, and the way it is increasingly shaped by high technology. The products that win are those that cost less to manufacture and advertise, need less frequent repair and replacement, and give highest performance with a minimum amount of energy. Just as natural selection drives organic evolution by competition among genes to produce more copies of themselves per unit cost in the next generation, raising benefit-to-cost of production drives the evolution of the economy. Teleconferencing, online purchase and trade, ebook personal libraries, access on the Internet to all literature and scientific data, online diagnosis and medical practice, food production per hectare sharply raised by indoor vertical gardens with LED lighting, genetically engineered crops and microorganisms, long-distance business conferences and social visits by life-sized images, and not least the best available education in the world free online to anyone, anytime, and anywhere. All of these amenities will yield more and better results with less per-capita material and energy, and thereby will reduce the size of the ecological footprint.

In viewing the future this way, I wish to suggest a means to achieve almost free enjoyment of the world’s best places in the biosphere that I and my fellow naturalists have identified. The cost-benefit ratio would be extremely small. It requires only a thousand or so high-resolution cameras that broadcast live around the clock from sites within reserves. People would still visit any reserve in the world physically, but they could also travel there virtually and in continuing real time with no more than a few keystrokes in their homes, schools, and lecture halls. Perhaps a Serengeti water hole at dawn? Or a teeming Amazon canopy? There would also be available streaming video of summer daytime on the coast in the shallow offshore waters of Antarctica, and cameras that continuously travel through the great coral triangle of Indonesia and New Guinea. With species identifications and brief expert commentaries unobtrusively added, the adventure would be forever changing, and safe.

The spearhead of this intensive economic evolution, with its hope for biodiversity, is contained in the linkage of biology, nanotechnology, and robotics. Two ongoing enterprises within it, the creation of artificial life and artificial minds, seem destined to preoccupy a large part of science and high technology for the rest of the present century.

The creation of artificial life forms is already a reality. On 20 May 2010, a team of researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute in California announced the second genesis of life, this time by human rather than divine command. They had built live cells from the ground up. With simple chemical reagents off the shelf, they assembled the entire genetic code of a bacterial species, Mycoplasma mycoides, a double helix of 1.08 million DNA base pairs. During the process they modified the code sequence slightly, implanting a statement made by the late theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, ‘What I cannot create, I do not understand,’ in order to detect daughters of the altered mother cells in future tests.

If our minds are to break free and dwell in the far more interesting universe of reason triumphant over superstition, it will be through advances in biology

The textbook example of elementary artificial selection of the past 10 millennia is the transformation of teosinte, a species of wild grass with three races in Mexico and Central America, into maize (corn). The food found in the ancestor was a meagre packet of hard kernels. Over centuries of selective breeding it was altered into its modern form. Today maize, after further selection and widespread hybridisation of inbred strains that display ‘hybrid vigour’ is the principal food of hundreds of millions.

The first decade of the present century thus saw the beginning of the next new major phase of genetic modification beyond hybridisation: artificial selection and even direct substitution in single organisms of one gene for another. If we use the trajectory of progress in molecular biology during the previous half century as a historical guide, it appears inevitable that scientists will begin routinely to build cells of wide variety from the ground up, then induce them to multiply into synthetic tissues, organs, and eventually entire independent organisms of considerable complexity.

If people are to live long and healthy lives in the sustainable Eden of our dreams, and our minds are to break free and dwell in the far more interesting universe of reason triumphant over superstition, it will be through advances in biology. The goal is practicable because scientists, being scientists, live with one uncompromising mandate: press discovery to the limit. There has already emerged a term for the manufacture of organisms and parts of organisms: synthetic biology. Its potential benefits, easily visualised as spreading through medicine and agriculture, are limited only by imagination. Synthetic biology will also bring onto centre stage the microbe-based increase of food and energy.

Each passing year sees advances in artificial intelligence and their multitudinous applications – advances that would have been thought distantly futuristic a decade earlier. Robots roll over the surface of Mars. They travel around boulders and up and down slopes while photographing, measuring minutiae of topography, analysing the chemical composition of soil and rocks, and scrutinising everything for signs of life.

In the early period of the digital revolution, innovators relied on machine design of computers without reference to the human brain, much as the earliest aeronautical engineers used mechanical principles and intuition to design aircraft instead of imitating the flight of birds. But with the swift growth of both fields, one-on-one comparisons are multiplying. The alliance of computer technology and brain science has given birth to whole brain emulation as one of the ultimate goals of science.

From the time of the ancient human-destined line of amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals, the neural pathways of every part of the brain were repeatedly altered by natural selection to adapt the organism to the environment in which it lived. Step-by-step, from the Paleozoic amphibians to the Cenozoic primates, the ancient centres were augmented by newer centres, chiefly in the growing cortex, that added to learning ability. All things being equal, the ability of organisms to function through seasons and across different habitats gave them an edge in the constant struggle to survive and reproduce.

Little wonder, then, that neurobiologists have found the human brain to be densely sprinkled with partially independent centres of unconscious operations, along with all of the operators of rational thought. Located through the cortex in what might look at first like random arrays are the headquarters of process variously for numbers, attention, face-recognition, meanings, reading, sounds, fears, values, and error detection. Decisions tend to be made by the brute force of unconscious choice in these centres prior to conscious comprehension.

Next in evolution came consciousness, a function of the human brain that, among other things, reduces an immense stream of sense data to a small set of carefully selected bite-size symbols. The sampled information can then be routed to another processing stage, allowing us to perform what are fully controlled chains of operations, much like a serial computer. This broadcasting function of consciousness is essential. In humans, it is greatly enhanced by language, which lets us distribute our conscious thoughts across the social network.

What has brain science to do with biodiversity? At first, human nature evolved along a zigzag path as a continually changing ensemble of genetic traits while the biosphere continue to evolve on its own. But the explosive growth of digital technology transformed every aspect of our lives and changed our self-perception, bringing the ‘bnr’ industries (biology, nanotechnology, robotics) to the forefront of the modern economy. These three have the potential either to favour biodiversity or to destroy it.

I believe they will favour it, by moving the economy away from fossil fuels to energy sources that are clean and sustainable, by radically improving agriculture with new crop species and ways to grow them, and by reducing the need or even the desire for distant travel. All are primary goals of the digital revolution. Through them the size of the ecological footprint will also be reduced. The average person can expect to enjoy a longer, healthier life of high quality yet with less energy extraction and raw demand put on the land and sea. If we are lucky (and smart), world population will peak at a little more than 10 billion people by the end of the century followed by the ecological footprint soon thereafter. The reason is that we are thinking organisms trying to understand how the world works. We will come awake.

Silicon Valley dreamers of a digitised humanity have failed to give much thought at all to the biosphere

That process is already under way, albeit still far too slowly – with the end in sight in the 23rd century. We and the rest of life with us are in the middle of a bottleneck of rising population, shrinking resources, and disappearing species. As its stewards we need to think of our species as being in a race to save the living environment. The primary goal is to make it through the bottleneck to a better, less perilous existence while carrying through as much of the rest of life as possible. If global biodiversity is given space and security, most of the large fraction of species now endangered will regain sustainability on their own. Furthermore, advances made in synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, whole brain emulation, and other similar, mathematically based disciplines can be imported to create an authentic, predictive science of ecology. In it, the interrelations of species will be explored as fervently as we now search through our own bodies for health and longevity. It is often said that the human brain is the most complex system known to us in the universe. That is incorrect. The most complex is the individual natural ecosystem, and the collectivity of ecosystems comprising Earth’s species-level biodiversity. Each species of plant, animal, fungus, and microorganism is guided by sophisticated decision devices. Each is intricately programmed in its own way to pass with precision through its respective life cycle. It is instructed on when to grow, when to mate, when to disperse, and when to shy away from enemies. Even the single-celled Escherichia coli, living in the bacterial paradise of our intestines, moves toward food and away from toxins by spinning its tail cilium one way, then the other way, in response to chemosensory molecules within its microscopic body.

How minds and decision-making devices evolve, and how they interact with ecosystems is a vast area of biology that remains mostly uncharted – and still even undreamed by those scientists who devote their lives to it. The analytic techniques coming to bear on neuroscience, on Big Data theory, on simulations with robot avatars, and on other comparable enterprises will find applications in biodiversity studies. They are ecology’s sister disciplines.

It is past time to broaden the discussion of the human future and connect it to the rest of life. The Silicon Valley dreamers of a digitised humanity have not done that, not yet. They have failed to give much thought at all to the biosphere. With the human condition changing so swiftly, we are losing or degrading to uselessness ever more quickly the millions of species that have run the world independently of us and free of cost. If humanity continues its suicidal ways to change the global climate, eliminate ecosystems, and exhaust Earth’s natural resources, our species will very soon find itself forced into making a choice, this time engaging the conscious part of our brain. It is as follows: shall we be existential conservatives, keeping our genetically-based human nature while tapering off the activities inimical to ourselves and the rest of the biosphere? Or shall we use our new technology to accommodate the changes important solely to our own species, while letting the rest of life slip away? We have only a short time to decide.

The beautiful world our species inherited took the biosphere 3.8 billion years to build. The intricacy of its species we know only in part, and the way they work together to create a sustainable balance we have only recently begun to grasp. Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world. Our own ultimate future depends upon that understanding. We have come a very long way through the barbaric period in which we still live, and now I believe we’ve learned enough to adopt a transcendent moral precept concerning the rest of life.

Reprinted from ‘Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life’ by Edward O Wilson. Copyright © 2016 by Edward O Wilson. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.