Arquivo da tag: Sociobiologia

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

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)

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.


  1. Andrew S. Winston, “Scientific Racism and North American Psychology,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2020,; 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,
  2. Scott Neuman, “E.O. Wilson, Famed Entomologist and Pioneer in the Field of Sociobiology, Dies at 92,” NPR, December 27, 2021,; Felicia He, “E.O. Wilson, Renowned Harvard Biologist Known as ‘Darwin’s Natural Heir,’ Dies at 92,” The Harvard Crimson, December 31, 2021,; 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),
  3. Doug Tallamy, “Remembering E.O. Wilson’s Wish for a More Sustainable Existence,” December 27, 2021,
  4. Monica R. McLemore, “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson,” Scientific American, December 29, 2021,
  5. Razib Khan, “Setting the Record Straight: Open Letter on E.O. Wilson’s Legacy,” Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning (blog), January 19, 2022,
  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,
  8. Liz Crampton, “GOP Sees ‘huge Red Wave’ Potential by Targeting Critical Race Theory,” POLITICO, January 5, 2022,
  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,
  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,
  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,
  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,
  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,; 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,
  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,
  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,
  20. R. D. Davis, “Academic Standards in Medical Schools,” The New England Journal of Medicine 294, no. 20 (May 13, 1976): 1118–19, ​​

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

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.


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



Is human behavior controlled by our genes? Richard Levins reviews ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ (Climate & Capitalism)

“Failing to take class division into account is not simply a political bias. It also distorts how we look at human evolution as intrinsically bio-social and human biology as socialized biology.”


August 1, 2012

Edward O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liverwright Publishing, New York, 2012

reviewed by Richard Levins

In the 1970s, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould and I were colleagues in Harvard’s new department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. In spite of our later divergences, I retain grateful memories of working in the field with Ed, turning over rocks, sharing beer, breaking open twigs, putting out bait (canned tuna fish) to attract the ants we were studying..

We were part of a group that hoped to jointly write and publish articles offering a common view of evolutionary science, but that collaboration was brief, largely because Lewontin and I strongly disagreed with Wilson’s Sociobiology.

Reductionism and Sociobiology

Although Wilson fought hard against the reduction of biology to the study of molecules, his holism stopped there. He came to promote the reduction of social and behavioral science to biology. In his view:

“Our lives are restrained by two laws of biology: all of life’s entities and processes are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry; and all of life’s entities and processes have arisen through evolution and natural selection.” [Social Conquest, p. 287]

This is true as far as it goes but fails in two important ways.

First, it ignores the reciprocal feedback between levels. The biological creates the ensemble of molecules in the cell; the social alters the spectrum of molecules in the biosphere; biological activity creates the biosphere itself and the conditions for the maintenance of life.

Second, it doesn’t consider how the social level alters the biological: our biology is a socialized biology.

Higher (more inclusive) levels are indeed constrained by the laws at lower levels of organization, but they also have their own laws that emerge from the lower level yet are distinct and that also determine which chemical and physical entities are present in the organisms. In new contexts they operate differently.

Thus for example we, like a few other animals including bears, are omnivores. For some purposes such as comparing digestive systems that’s an adequate label. But we are omnivores of a special kind: we not only acquire food by predation, but we also producefood, turning the inedible into edible, the transitory into stored food. This has had such a profound effect on our lives that it is also legitimate to refer to us as something new, productivores.

The productivore mode of sustenance opens a whole new domain: the mode of production. Human societies have experienced different modes of production and ways to organize reproduction, each with its own dynamics, relations with the rest of nature, division into classes, and processes which restore or change it when it is disturbed.

The division of society into classes changes how natural selection works, who is exposed to what diseases, who eats and who doesn’t eat, who does the dishes, who must do physical work, how long we can expect to live. It is no longer possible to prescribe the direction of natural selection for the whole species.

So failing to take class division into account is not simply a political bias. It also distorts how we look at human evolution as intrinsically bio-social and human biology as socialized biology.

The opposite of the genetic determinism of sociobiology is not “the blank slate” view that claims that our biological natures were irrelevant to behavior and society. The question is, what about our animal heritage was relevant?

We all agree that we are animals; that as animals we need food; that we are terrestrial rather than aquatic animals; that we are mammals and therefore need a lot of food to support our high metabolic rates that maintain body temperature; that for part of our history we lived in trees and acquired characteristics adapted to that habitat, but came down from the trees with a dependence on vision, hands with padded fingers, and so on. We have big brains, with regions that have different major functions such as emotions, color vision, and language.

But beyond these general capacities, there is widespread disagreement about which behaviors or attitudes are expressions of brain structure. The amygdala is a locus of emotion, but does it tell us what to be angry or rejoice about? It is an ancient part of our brains, but has it not evolved in response to what the rest of the brain is doing? There is higher intellectual function in the cortex, but does it tell us what to think about?

Every part of an organism is the environment for the rest of the organism, setting the context for natural selection. In contrast to this fluid viewpoint, phrases such as “hard-wired” have become part of the pop vocabulary, applied promiscuously to all sorts of behaviors.

In a deeper sense, asking if something is heritable is a nonsense question. Heritability is always a comparison: how much of the difference between humans and chimps is heritable? What about the differences between ourselves and Neanderthals? Between nomads and farmers?

Social Conquest of Earth

The Social Conquest of Earth, Ed Wilson’s latest book, continues his interest in the “eusocial” animals – ants, bees and others that live in groups with overlapping generations and a division of labor that includes altruistic behavior. As the title shows. he also continues to use the terminology of conquest and domination, so that social animals “conquer” the earth, their abundance makes them “dominate.”

The problem that Wilson poses in this book is first, why did eusociality arise at all, and second, why is it so rare?

Wilson is at his best when discussing the more remote past, the origins of social behavior 220 million years ago for termites, 150 million years for ants, 70-80 million years for humble bees and honey bees.

But as he gets closer to humanity the reductionist biases that informed Sociobiology reassert themselves. Once again Wilson argues that brain architecture determines what people do socially – that war, aggression, morality, honor and hierarchy are part of “human nature.”

Rejecting kin selection

A major change, and one of the most satisfying parts of the book, is his rejection of kin selection as a motive force of social evolution, a theory he once defended strongly.

Kin selection assumed that natural selection acts on genes. A gene will be favored if it results in enhancing its own survival and reproduction, but it is not enough to look at the survival of the individual. If my brother and I each have 2 offspring, a shared gene would be doubled in the next generation. But if my brother sacrifices himself so that I might leave 5 offspring while he leaves none, our shared gene will increase 250%.

Therefore, argued the promoters of this theory, the fitness that natural selection increases has to be calculated over a whole set of kin, weighted by the closeness of their relationship. Mathematical formulations were developed to support this theory. Wilson found it attractive because it appeared to support sociobiology.

However, plausible inference is not enough to prove a theory. Empirical studies comparing different species or traits did not confirm the kin selection hypothesis, and a reexamination of its mathematical structure (such as the fuzziness of defining relatedness) showed that it could not account for the observed natural world. Wilson devotes a lot of space to refuting kin selection because of his previous support of it: it is a great example of scientific self-correction.

Does group selection explain social behaviour?

Wilson has now adopted another model in which the evolution of sociality is the result of opposing processes of ordinary individual selection acting within populations, and group selection acting between populations. He invokes this model account to for religion, morality, honor and other human behaviors.

He argues that individual selection promotes “selfishness” (that is, behavior that enhances individual survival) while group selection favors cooperative and “altruistic” behavior. The two forms of selection oppose each other, and that results in our mixed behaviors.

“We are an evolutionary chimera living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. This is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and with it, our own prospects for permanent existence.” [p.13]

But this simplistic reduction of environmental destruction to biology will not stand. Contrary to Wilson, the destruction of the biosphere is not “mindless.” It is the outcome of interactions in the noxious triad of greed, poverty, and ignorance, all produced by a socio-economic system that must expand to survive.

For Wilson, as for many environmentalists, the driver of ecological destruction is some generic “we,” who are all in the same boat. But since the emergence of classes after the adoption of agriculture some 8-10,000 years ago it is no longer appropriate to talk of a collective “we.”

The owners of the economy are willing to use up resources, pollute the environment, debase the quality of products, and undermine the health of the producers out of a kind of perverse economic rationality. They support their policies with theories such as climate change denial or doubting the toxicity of pesticides, and buttress it with legislation and court decisions.

Evolution and religion

The beginning and end of the book, a spirited critique of religion as possibly explaining human nature, is more straightforwardly materialist than the view supported by Stephen J. Gould, who argued that religion and science are separate magisteria that play equal roles in human wellbeing.

But Wilson’s use of evidence is selective.

For example, he argues that religion demands absolute belief from its followers – but this is true only of Christianity and Islam. Judaism lets you think what you want as long as you practice the prescribed rituals, Buddhism doesn’t care about deities or the afterlife.

Similarly he argues that creation myths are a product of evolution:

“Since paleolithic times … each tribe invented its own creation myths… No tribe could long survive without a creation myth… The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival.” [p. 8]

But the ancient Israelites did not have an origin myth when they emerged as a people in the hills of Judea around 1250 B.C.E. Although it appears at the beginning of the Bible, the Israelites did not adapt the Book of Genesis from Babylonian mythology until four centuries after Deuteronomy was written, after they had survived 200 years as a tribal confederation, two kingdoms and the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests— by then the writing of scripture was a political act, not a “Darwinian device for survival.”

Biologizing war

In support of his biologizing of “traits,” Wilson reviews recent research that appears to a show a biological basis for the way people see and interpret color, for the incest taboo, and for the startle response – and then asserts that inherited traits include war, hierarchy, honor and such. Ignoring the role of social class, he views these as universal traits of human nature.

Consider war. Wilson claims that war reflects genes for group selection. “A soldier going into battle will benefit his country but he runs a higher risk of death than one who does not.” [p. 165]

But soldiers don’t initiate conflict. We know in our own times that those who decide to make war are not those who fight the wars – but, perhaps unfortunately, sterilizing the general staff of the Pentagon and of the CIA would not produce a more peaceful America.

The evidence against war as a biological imperative is strong. Willingness to fight is situational.

Group selection can’t explain why soldiers have to be coerced into fighting, why desertion is a major problem for generals and is severely punished, or why resistance to recruitment is a major problem of armies. In the present militarist USA, soldiers are driven to join up through unemployment and the promises of benefits such as learning skills and getting an education and self-improvement. No recruitment posters offer the opportunity to kill people as an inducement for signing up.

The high rates of surrender and desertion of Italian soldiers in World War II did not reflect any innate cowardice among Italians but a lack of fascist conviction. The very rarity of surrender by Japanese soldiers in the same war was not a testimony to greater bravery on the part of the Japanese but of the inculcated combination of nationalism and religion.

As the American people turned against the Vietnam war, increased desertions and the killing of officers by the soldiers reflected their rejection of the war.

The terrifying assaults of the Vikings during the middle ages bear no resemblance to the mellow Scandinavian culture of today, too short a time for natural selection to transform national character.

The attempt to make war an inherited trait favored by natural selection reflects the sexism that has been endemic in sociobiology. It assumes that local groups differed in their propensity for aggression and prowess in war. The victorious men carry off the women of the conquered settlements and incorporate them into their own communities. Therefore the new generation has been selected for greater military success among the men. But the women, coming from a defeated, weaker group, would bring with them their genes for lack of prowess, a selection for military weakness! Such a selection process would be self-negating.


Wilson also considers ethnocentrism to be an inherited trait: group selection leads people to favor members of their own group and reject outsiders.

The problem is that the lines between groups vary under different circumstances. For example, in Spanish America, laws governing marriage included a large number of graded racial categories, while in North America there were usually just two. What’s more, the category definitions are far from permanent: at one time, the Irish were regarded as Black, and the whiteness of Jews was questioned.

Adoption, immigration, mergers of clans also confound any possible genetic basis for exclusion.


Wilson draws on the work of Herbert Simon to argue that hierarchy is a result of human nature: there will always be rulers and ruled. His argument fails to distinguish between hierarchy and leadership.

There are other forms of organization possible besides hierarchy and chaos, including democratic control by the workers who elect the operational leadership. In some labor unions, leaders’ salaries are pegged to the median wage of the members. In University departments the chairmanship is often a rotating task that nobody really wants. When Argentine factory owners closed their plants during the recession, workers in fact seized control and ran them profitably despite police sieges.

Darwinian behavior?

Wilson argues that “social traits” evolved through Darwinian natural selection. Genes that promoted behaviors that helped the individual or group to survive were passed on; genes that weakened the individual or group were not. The tension between individual and group selection decided which traits would be part of our human nature.

But a plausible claim that a trait might be good for people is not enough to explain its origin and survival. A gene may become fixed in a population even if it is harmful, just by the random genetic changes that we know occur. Or a gene may be harmful but be dragged along by an advantageous gene close to it on the same chromosome.

Selection may act in different directions in different subpopulations, or in different habitats, or in differing environmental. Or the adaptive value of a gene may change with its prevalence or the distribution of ages in the population, itself a consequence of the environment and population heterogeneity.

For instance, Afro-Americans have a higher death rate from cancer than Euro-Americans. In part this reflects the carcinogenic environments they have been subjected to, but there is also a genetic factor. It is the combination of living conditions and genetics that causes higher mortality rates.

* * *

Obviously I am not arguing that evolution doesn’t happen. The point is that we need a much better argument than just a claim that some genotype might be beneficial. And we need a much more rigorous understanding of the differences and linkages between the biological and social components of humanity’s nature. Just calling some social behavior a “trait” does not make it heritable.

In a book that attempts such a wide-ranging panorama of human evolution, there are bound to be errors. But the errors in The Social Conquest of Earth form a pattern: they reduce social issues to biology, and they insist on our evolutionary continuity with other animals while ignoring the radical discontinuity that made us productivores and divided us into classes.

“Nobres Selvagens” na Ilustríssima (Folha de S.Paulo) de domingo, 22 de fevereiro de 2015

Antropólogos, índios e outros selvagens

ilustração ANA PRATA

22/02/2015  03h05

RESUMO Livro do antropólogo Napoleon Chagnon que aborda suas pesquisas entre os ianomâmis é lançado no Brasil. Em entrevista, autor, que direcionou sua carreira para uma interpretação evolutiva do comportamento indígena, fala sobre suas conclusões e comenta a recepção, muitas vezes negativa, de sua obra entre seus pares.


Sobre Napoleon Chagnon, 76, há só uma unanimidade: trata-se do pesquisador mais polêmico da antropologia contemporânea.É

Nesta entrevista, o americano –que lança agora no Brasil o livro “Nobres Selvagens: Minha Vida entre Duas Tribos Perigosas: os Ianomâmis e os Antropólogos” pelo selo Três Estrelas, do Grupo Folha– afirma que a antropologia brasileira representa o que há de mais atrasado no pensamento anticientífico nessa área.

Chagnon critica ainda alguns brasileiros ligados à temática indígena, como o líder ianomâmi Davi Kopenawa, “manipulado por antropólogos e ONGs”, e o cineasta José Padilha, autor do documentário “Segredos da Tribo”, que “deveria se limitar a filmar Robocop”.

Ana Prata

Chagnon estudou os ianomâmis do Brasil e, principalmente, da Venezuela a partir de 1964 e ao longo de 35 anos, em 25 viagens que totalizaram 5 anos entre os índios. Foi o pioneiro no contato com várias tribos isoladas, que acredita serem uma janela para as sociedades pré-históricas nas quais o gênero Homo viveu por milhões de anos.

Foi visto com antipatia por diversos colegas antropólogos por propor explicações darwinianas para o comportamento dos índios –e dos humanos em geral– e ao escrever, em 1968, um livro em que tratava amplamente da violência entre os índios e no qual, desde o título, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People” (sem tradução no Brasil), chamava os ianomâmis de “o povo feroz”. Despertou inimizades ao se afastar dos colegas antropólogos, que acreditava mais interessados em fazer política do que ciência, e se aproximar de geneticistas.

Foi em 1988, porém, que causou a fúria dos colegas, ao publicar na revista “Science” um estudo mostrando que os homens ianomâmis com assassinatos no currículo eram justamente os que tinham mais mulheres e descendentes. Em termos biológicos, a violência masculina e certo egoísmo humano seriam estratégias reprodutivas bem-sucedidas, ideia que desagradou fortemente seus colegas das humanidades.

O antropólogo sempre defendeu que os índios que estudou guerreavam movidos por uma insaciável vontade de capturar mulheres, enquanto os livros tradicionais de antropologia diziam que a guerra primitiva tinha motivos como a escassez de alimentos ou de terra.

Chagnon diz que seus críticos são marxistas movidos pela ideologia de que os conflitos humanos se explicam pela luta de classes ou por disputas materiais, e não por motivos mais animalescos, como a busca por sucesso sexual.

Ele afirma que nenhum colega pôde apontar falhas nos dados publicados na “Science”. No entanto, antropólogos questionam seu procedimento não só nesse caso como em outros trabalhos (leia ao lado).

Em 2000, o jornalista Patrick Tierney publicou o livro “Trevas no Eldorado” (lançado no Brasil em 2002, pela Ediouro), acusando Chagnon e colegas, entre outras coisas, de terem espalhado sarampo deliberadamente entre os índios. As acusações foram investigadas pela Associação Americana de Antropologia, que inocentou os pesquisadores da grave acusação.

Na entrevista abaixo, feita por telefone, Chagnon trata ainda de temas como a higiene dos índios e os riscos da selva.


Folha – O antropólogo Eduardo Viveiros de Castro criticou na internet a publicação do seu livro no Brasil, dizendo que o sr. está ligado à “direita boçalmente cientificista”.

Napoleon Chagnon – A ideia de que o comportamento humano tem uma natureza biológica, moldada pela evolução, além da cultura, sofreu muita oposição nas últimas décadas de quem tem uma visão marxista. Está havendo uma mudança de paradigma, mas os antropólogos brasileiros são o último reduto dessa oposição e sempre tentaram impedir meu trabalho.

Marxistas não gostam de explicações que não envolvam a luta por recursos materiais. Para eles, isso explica tudo. Eles diziam, por exemplo, que a causa da guerra entre os ianomâmis era a escassez de proteína –uma tribo atacaria a outra em busca de carne. Nossas observações mostraram, porém, que não havia correlação. Eles tinham abundância de proteína; lutavam, na verdade, por mulheres.

Nos EUA, cientistas importantes, como meu grande amigo Steven Pinker e o professor Jared Diamond, escreveram recentemente livros demonstrando a relevância crescente da psicologia evolutiva.

Os antropólogos latino-americanos me atacam, mas não têm dados para rebater as conclusões que proponho, porque não gostam de trabalho de campo. Eles gostam de argumentos teóricos, de ficar sentados nas suas cadeiras na universidade fazendo ativismo. No entanto, para entender o mundo, você tem de coletar informações a fim de testar suas previsões e teorias. Essa é a base do método científico. A tendência pós-modernista é dizer que não há verdade, que tudo é social ou político. Isso é a morte da ciência.

Esses críticos dizem que sua visão dos ianomâmis é muito negativa. Citam trechos do seu livro em que o sr. descreve criticamente os hábitos de higiene dos índios, dizendo que eles espalhavam muco em tudo.

Tenho muitas críticas à minha própria civilização também, como o excesso de filas. Os ianomâmis não têm uma teoria da transmissão de doenças via germes. Então assoam o nariz na mão e passam no cabelo, nos outros, até na minha bermuda [risos]. A primeira coisa que quis aprender na língua deles foi “não encoste em mim, suas mãos estão sujas”, mas não adiantou. Você se acostuma.

Na verdade, você percebe que há coisas mais sérias com que se preocupar. A vida na tribo é perigosa. Há muitas cobras. Um bebê de uma tribo ianomâmi em que vivi sumiu, e os pais concluíram que a única explicação era que tivesse sido comido por uma anaconda. Há ainda muitos insetos, há onças, muitos outros incômodos.

Como é a sua relação com o líder ianomâmi Davi Kopenawa?

Ele é manipulado pelos seus mentores, seus conselheiros políticos, a maioria antropólogos e ONGs, que dizem a ele o que ele deve declarar. Ouço que muitos jornalistas brasileiros têm essa percepção, mas sabem que é impopular dizer isso em público.

As entrevistas com ele costumam ser mediadas por antropólogos.

Pois é. Veja, em uma das minhas visitas aos ianomâmis no Brasil, Kopenawa proibiu o piloto do meu avião de utilizar o combustível que tinha guardado perto de uma das tribos em que ele tinha influência. Ele queria a todo custo que eu ficasse isolado na floresta, fez isso deliberadamente. O piloto teve de conseguir combustível com outros colegas. Essa é uma das razões que me levaram a não ter uma opinião muito positiva a respeito dele.

Kopenawa critica vocês por não devolverem amostras de sangue que coletaram entre os índios em 1967 para estudos científicos na área de genética e que foram parar em bancos de universidades dos EUA.

Sou simpático a esse pedido. Mas essas amostras são 99% de tribos venezuelanas, não brasileiras. Seria horrível se entregássemos tal sangue para os ianomâmis brasileiros, como Kopenawa. Uma tribo ficaria muito assustada de saber que seus vizinhos têm o sangue de seus ancestrais, eles acreditam que isso poderia ser utilizado para fazer magia negra, por exemplo.

É importante dizer que, influenciadas por antropólogos, lideranças ianomâmis tornaram impossível hoje, para qualquer pesquisador, ir a suas tribos e coletar amostras de sangue; foram convencidos de que isso foi um crime terrível que cometemos. Dessa forma, nenhum pesquisador da área biomédica pode agora fazer estudos que envolvam coleta de amostras. Os ianomâmis vetaram para sempre qualquer pesquisa que possa beneficiar a sua saúde e dependa de exames de sangue.

Eu gosto muito dos ianomâmis. Fiquei muitos anos com eles. Eles merecem ser mais bem representados. É nítido que eles precisam de instituições que permitam acesso à medicina moderna, por exemplo. Eles precisam de ajuda.

De qualquer forma, eu não coletei amostras de sangue. Eu só ajudei os médicos a fazê-lo. Eu sou antropólogo. Não estou nem aí para o que acontecerá com as amostras de sangue congeladas nos EUA. Mas seria irresponsável se fossem entregues aos índios errados.

O sr. assistiu ao documentário “Os Segredos da Tribo” (2010), do brasileiro José Padilha?

Padilha mentiu para mim, foi muito desonesto. Ele disse que faria um filme equilibrado, mas nunca mencionou que as acusações feitas contra mim foram completamente desmentidas [pela Associação Americana de Antropologia]. Ele contratou um missionário que falava a língua ianomâmi para fazer as entrevistas com os índios. Esse missionário, amigo meu, depois veio me avisar que Padilha direcionava as entrevistas contra mim, que tudo era feito para criar a impressão de que os ianomâmis me odiavam. O filme é ridículo.

Além disso, Padilha lançou o filme e desapareceu, nunca respondeu às minhas ligações. Na apresentação do filme no festival de Sundance, ele não só não me convidou como chamou três antropólogos inimigos meus para debater. Um deles, Terence Turner, que teve participação ativa na elaboração do filme, me acusava de ser o Mengele das tribos ianomâmis. É doentio. Padilha deveria se limitar a filmar “Robocop”.

Depois de trabalhar muitos anos nas universidades do Michigan e de Missouri, o sr. agora é professor aposentado. Aposentou-se também da pesquisa científica?

Não. Continuo trabalhando com os dados que coletei nas tribos ao longo desses anos todos. Estou para publicar vários artigos em revistas importantes, como a “Science”, mostrando o impacto de conceitos caros à biologia, como o parentesco, na organização das tribos ianomâmis. Se os antropólogos brasileiros não gostam do meu trabalho, ainda não viram nada [risos]. No caso do público brasileiro, espero que os leitores encontrem no meu livro agora publicado uma melhor compreensão da natureza humana, seja no comportamento dos povos indígenas ou no de um vizinho.

RICARDO MIOTO, 25, é editor de “Ciência” e “Saúde” da Folha.

ANA PRATA, 34, é artista plástica.

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Livro contribui para distanciar ciências humanas e biológicas

André Strauss

22/02/2015  03h09

Por sua alegada coragem em sustentar hipóteses fundamentadas em princípios darwinianos, o antropólogo americano Napoleon Chagnon, que dedicou sua carreira a estudar a violência entre os índios ianomâmis, apresenta-se em “Nobres Selvagens” [trad. Isa Mara Lando, Três Estrelas, 608 págs., R$ 89,90] como vítima dos mais diversos ataques e preconceitos por parte de seus pares.

Os antropólogos culturais, os religiosos salesianos, os ativistas políticos e os próprios ianomâmis são retratados como grupos ferozes ou biofóbicos. Já Chagnon seria apenas um inocente antropólogo de Michigan. A tese não convence.

Embora o antropólogo pretenda ser um expoente da síntese entre biologia e antropologia, suas proposições são bastante limitadas e, muitas vezes, equivocadas. Exemplo disso é partir do princípio de que uma sociedade não contatada é o mesmo que uma sociedade não impactada, atribuindo aos ianomâmis condição análoga à de sociedades paleolíticas. Propor um contratualismo hobbesiano baseado na luta por mulheres também soa ingênuo.

Em seu livro, Napoleon Chagnon insiste na noção anacrônica de “ciência pura”, desmerecendo a militância pró-indígena dos antropólogos brasileiros como um capricho do politicamente correto.

Mesmo reconhecendo-se que em diversas ocasiões seus detratores exageraram, esse tipo de postura maniqueísta do autor não contribui para a necessária superação dos conflitos epistemológicos e políticos que seguem existindo, ainda que ligeiramente mitigados, entre as chamadas ciências humanas e biológicas.

Um famoso filósofo darwiniano certa vez reconheceu que as teorias antropológicas de cunho biológico têm, inegavelmente, o péssimo hábito de atrair os mais indesejáveis colaboradores. Daí a importância da cada vez maior politização dos bioantropólogos e o movimento explícito por parte deles para impedir que esses associados participem de seus círculos.

Ainda assim, provavelmente Chagnon não é culpado das acusações mais graves que lhe foram imputadas, tal como a de disseminar propositalmente uma epidemia de sarampo entre os indígenas ou a de incentivar, por escambo, que eles declarassem guerras uns contra os outros a fim de que ele pudesse incluir as cenas de violência em um documentário que estava produzindo.

Por outro lado –e isso não se pode negar a Chagnon–, é verdade que as humanidades muitas vezes parecem apresentar aquilo que se convencionou chamar de um “desejo irresistível para a incompreensão”, resultando em acusações injustas e de caráter persecutório.

Algumas décadas atrás, ainda era possível negar a relevância de campos como a genética comportamental, a ecologia humana, a neurociência cognitiva ou a etologia de grandes símios. Atualmente, entretanto, qualquer tentativa de mantê-los fora da esfera antropológica é um exercício vão.

Mais importante, a estratégia comumente utilizada no passado de atrelar os desdobramentos oriundos dessas áreas a implicações nefastas para a dignidade humana, torna-se, além de injusta, muito perigosa.

Juntos, antropólogos e biólogos precisam elaborar uma narrativa capaz de ressignificar esses novos elementos através de uma ótica benigna. Afinal, eles passarão, inevitavelmente, a fazer parte do arcabouço teórico de ambas as disciplinas.

ANDRÉ STRAUSS, 30, é antropólogo do Laboratório de Estudos Evolutivos Humanos da USP e do Instituto Max Planck de Antropologia Evolutiva, na Alemanha.

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Trajetória do pesquisador é marcada por querelas

Marcelo Leite

22/02/2015  03h13

Não é trivial resumir as objeções que a antropologia cultural levanta contra Napoleon Chagnon. A controvérsia tem quase meio século, e a tarefa fica mais complicada quando muitos dos antropólogos relevantes do Brasil se recusam a dar entrevistas sobre o caso.

O panorama se turvou de vez em 2000, com o livro “Trevas no Eldorado”. Nele o jornalista Patrick Tierney acusava Chagnon e o médico James Neel de, em 1968, terem causado uma epidemia de sarampo entre os ianomâmis da Venezuela e experimentado nos índios um tipo perigoso de vacina, além de negar-lhes socorro médico.

Chagnon e Neel foram depois inocentados dessas acusações graves. Bruce Albert, antropólogo e crítico de Chagnon que trabalha há 36 anos com os ianomâmis, já escreveu sobre a ausência de fundamento das alegações de Tierney.

Ana Prata

Nem por isso Albert deixa de assinalar sérios erros éticos da dupla. Para ele, os ianomâmis foram usados, sem saber, como grupo de controle para estudos sobre efeitos de radiação nuclear no sangue de sobreviventes de bombardeios em Hiroshima e Nagasaki.

Chagnon, capataz de Neel na expedição, obtinha amostras de sangue em troca de machados, facões e panelas. Embora essa prática perdurasse nos anos 1960-70, Albert ressalva que regras exigindo consentimento informado já vigiam desde 1947 (Código de Nuremberg) e 1964 (Declaração de Helsinque).

Os reparos ao trabalho de Chagnon abarcam também a própria ciência. Ele se diz superior aos antropólogos tradicionais, que acusa de relativistas pós-modernos, xingamento comum nos setores cientificistas da academia americana.

A polêmica teve início com o livro “Yanomamö: The Fierce People”, em que Chagnon apresentou sua tese de que ianomâmis são uma relíquia ancestral da espécie humana: selvagens com compulsão pela guerra como forma de obter mulheres, escassas devido à prática do infanticídio feminino.

Os críticos da etnografia de Chagnon afirmam que ele nunca comprovou o infanticídio seletivo. Com efeito, a explicação foi abandonada em outros estudos, como um famigerado artigo de 1988 no periódico científico “Science”.

O trabalho recorre a dados demográficos coletados por Chagnon para corroborar sua noção, bem ao gosto da sociobiologia, de que os homens mais violentos eram os que tinham mais mulheres e filhos. Esses seriam os que os ianomâmis chamam “unokai” –segundo o autor, os mais temidos no grupo (e, por isso, mais prolíficos).

Albert, Jacques Lizot e outros antropólogos consideram que ele misturou alhos com bugalhos. “Unokai” não seria um atributo individual, mas o estado de impureza (simbólica) daquele que mata alguém com armas ou feitiçaria, ou mesmo só entra em contato com o sangue de cadáveres de inimigos.

Além disso, em incursões contra outras aldeias, os guerreiros muitas vezes dão golpes e flechadas em adversários já mortos. Isso os tornaria “unokai”, não homicidas.

Os mais admirados não seriam esses, mas os “waitheri”, algo como “valorosos”, que se distinguem não só pela valentia, mas também pela capacidade de liderar, de falar bem, até pelo humor.

Não bastasse isso, os críticos apontam manipulação de números. Para inflar seus dados e chegar a 44% de homens que teriam participado de mortes e tinham até o triplo de filhos na comparação com os não “unokai”, Chagnon teria excluído da amostra jovens de 20 a 25 anos e homens mortos –violentos ou não, com ou sem filhos.

Em fevereiro de 2013, o antropólogo Marshall Sahlins renunciou à Academia Nacional de Ciências dos EUA após o ingresso de Chagnon. Num artigo em que explicava o ato, defendeu que um antropólogo alcança entendimento superior de outros povos quando toma seus integrantes como semelhantes –e não objetos naturais, “selvagens”, ao modo de Chagnon.

“É claro que esse não é o único meio de conhecer os outros. Podemos também utilizar nossa capacidade simbólica para tratá-los como objetos físicos”, escreveu. “Mas não obteremos o mesmo conhecimento dos modos simbolicamente ordenados da vida humana, do que é a cultura, ou até a mesma certeza empírica.”

MARCELO LEITE, 57, é repórter especial e colunista da Folha.

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Morte sistemática de Ianomâmis é um tabu

Leão Serva

23/02/2015  02h00

Folha publicou com grande destaque na edição de domingo (22) a notícia do lançamento do livro “Nobres Selvagens” (pela Três Estrelas, selo do Grupo Folha), de autoria do antropólogo norte-americano Napoleon Chagnon. Títulos na capa e no caderno da Ilustríssima chamaram a obra de “livro tabu”.

Trata-se de um exagero baseado no discurso persecutório do autor, que sempre responde às críticas a seu trabalho com alegações de perseguição pessoal ou boicote. Uma pesquisa no Google News apresenta 872 respostas com notícias sobre o antropólogo e 64 referências ao livro, incluindo veículos de grande prestígio internacional como “The New York Times” e “Washington Post”.

No Brasil, certamente a obra não foi tema de reportagens simplesmente porque não havia sido lançada.

Na edição, textos de Marcelo Leite e André Strauss compilam as principais fragilidades apontadas pelos críticos da obra de Chagnon.

Uma bem importante, no entanto, não foi mencionada: o antropólogo dá pouca importância ao caráter simbólico das expressões da cultura que aparecem nos depoimentos de índios (e de brancos também, é bom que se diga), o que o leva a tomar o que ouve literalmente. Assim, em sua entrevista, é quase infantil a descrição dos perigos de uma aldeia Ianomâmi. Os medos que Chagnon menciona que concentrariam a atenção dos índios para longe dos cuidados médicos (risco de onças e cobras) são próprios de um alienígena. Já os índios criam cobras em casa para comer ratos; sabem que onças têm medo dos homens e, em situações raras, quando se aproximam furtivamente da periferia da aldeia para tocaiar uma criança, logo são capturadas pelos índios, como eu mesmo testemunhei. Não quer dizer que não haja medo, mas o antropólogo o amplifica para reforçar o estereótipo de atraso.

A história de que um casal ianomâmi teria atribuído o desaparecimento de seu filhinho a uma anaconda esfomeada é bizarra: o bebê na aldeia não fica um minuto longe dos outros e uma sucuri no lento processo de engolir uma criança seria vista por dúzias de pessoas e morta. Chagnon certamente não entendeu o que lhe foi dito ou tomou por verdade uma mentira (vale lembrar que um “civilizado” banqueiro suíço também mente).

Em texto mais antigo, Chagnon apontava o gesto de bater no peito, comum em festas de ianomâmis como expressão da violência da cultura desses grupos. Ora, o mesmo movimento pode ser encontrado diariamente em culturas mais “evoluídas”, segundo seu critério, das grandes cidades da Europa e dos EUA (nas missas católicas quando se diz “Minha culpa, minha culpa, minha máxima culpa”) à Mesopotâmia, berço das civilizações (onde soldados contemporâneos reproduzem o gesto antes de ataques de infantaria). Chagnon não leva em conta o alicerce básico do estudo da antropologia, que as culturas humanas são simultâneas, embora diferentes na expressão material.

Por fim, para desfazer as críticas feitas pelo líder Davi Kopenawa, criou a história de que ele é manipulado por antropólogos. A Folha parte dessa premissa para questionar Chagnon: “As entrevistas com ele costumam ser mediadas por antropólogos”, ao que o autor diz: “Pois é”, e segue sua catilinária.

Trata-se de uma inverdade que qualquer repórter que fale bem português ou ianomâmi pode comprovar. Eu entrevistei Kopenawa três vezes em épocas e lugares diferentes, duas delas sem aviso prévio. Me aproximei, pedi para falar e conversamos sem mediação. Uma vez, em seu escritório em Boa Vista, ele pediu que outras pessoas (que eu não conhecia, índios e brancos) saíssem da sala para ser entrevistado. Fala fluentemente um português simples (de brasileiro não universitário) com forte sotaque. É preciso ter calma e prestar atenção, por vezes pedir que repita para entender a pronúncia de algumas palavras.

A última vez que o encontrei foi numa entrevista para a revista Serafina, com hora marcada. Também ficou só, enquanto eu estava acompanhado da jovem fotógrafa Helena Wolfenson, da Folha. É possível que estrangeiros que falem mal ou não falem português precisem de tradutor. E são certamente raras as pessoas que falam português, ianomâmi e línguas estrangeiras. Talvez daí a história de que ele se faça acompanhar de “antropólogos” ou gente de ONG.


O que de fato é um “tabu” (aquilo de que não se fala) na imprensa brasileira é o lento processo de abandono dos Ianomâmi à morte, em curso por incompetência ou (depois de tanto tempo) decisão do governo federal.

Como noticiei nesta coluna em maio do ano passado, as mortes de Ianomâmi por problemas de saúde cresceram nos dois governos do PT (Lula e Dilma). Muitas das doenças são simples de evitar, como provam as estatísticas da segunda metade dos anos 1990.

O aumento se deve em grande medida à interrupção dos trabalhos de medicina preventiva nas aldeias e ao crescimento dos gastos com transporte dos doentes das aldeias para a capital de Roraima, Boa Vista.

A maior parte dos custos do Ministério da Saúde com a saúde indígena em Roraima tem sido despejada em frete de aviões para levar índios a Boa Vista. São poucas as empresas de táxi aéreo, as mesmas que levam políticos locais em seus deslocamentos.

Em janeiro do ano passado, quando a entrevistei, a coordenadora do Ministério da Saúde para as áreas indígenas de Roraima, Maria de Jesus do Nascimento, explicou o aumento das mortes dizendo: “Não, dinheiro não falta… Foi problema de gestão, mesmo”.

Na área Ianomâmi, uma médica cubana do programa Mais Médicos se desesperava: “Não tenho antibióticos, não tenho oxigênio, não tenho equipamentos”. Eu perguntei o que fazia: “Não quero mas sou forçada a mandar os índios de avião para Boa Vista”. O meio se tornou o fim. A saúde dos índios se tornou desculpa para enriquecer as empresas de táxi aéreo.

Quem procura no mesmo Google News notícias sobre as mortes de Ianomâmi pela improbidade dos órgãos de saúde local só encontra quatro notícias, uma delas do espanhol El País, as demais noticiando os protestos dos índios e um debate no Congresso.

Esse genocídio lento e discreto é o verdadeiro tabu.

Another Weird Story: Intentional, Post-Intentional, and Unintentional Philosophy (The Cracked Egg)

JANUARY 18, 2015

I was a “2e” kid: gifted with ADHD but cursed with the power to ace standardized tests. I did so well on tests they enrolled me in a Hopkins study, but I couldn’t remember to brush my hair. As if that wasn’t enough, there were a lot of other unusual things going on, far too many to get into here. My brain constantly defied people’s expectations. It was never the same brain from day to day. I am, apparently, a real neuropsychiatric mystery, in both good and bad ways. I’m a walking, breathing challenge to people’s assumptions and perceptions. Just a few examples: the assumption that intelligence is a unitary phenomenon, and the perception that people who think like you are smarter than those who think differently. Even my reasons for defying expectations were misinterpreted. I hated the way people idolized individuality, because being different brought me only pain. People mistook me for trying to be different. Being different is a tragedy!

And it got weirder: I inherited the same sociocognitive tools as everyone else, so I made the same assumptions. Consequently, I defied even my own expectations. So I learned to mistrust my own perceptions, always looking over my shoulder, predicting my own behavior as if I were an outside observer. I literally had to re-engineer myself in order to function in society, and that was impossible to do without getting into some major philosophical questions. I freely admit that this process has taken me my entire life and only recently have I had any success. I am just now learning to function in society–I’m a cracked egg. Cracked once from outside, and once from inside. And just now growing up, a decade late.

So it’s no surprise that I’m so stuck on the question of what people’s brains are actually doing when they theorize.

I stumbled onto R. Scott Bakker’s theories after reading his philosophical thriller, Neuropath. Then I found his blog, and I was blown away that someone besides me was obsessed with the role of ingroup/outgroup dynamics in intellectual circles. As someone with no ingroup (at least not yet), it’s very refreshing. But what really blew my mind was that he had a theory of cognitive science that could explain many of my frustrating experiences: the Blind Brain Theory, or BBT.

The purpose of this post is not to explain BBT, so you’ll have to click the link if you want that. I’ll go more into depth on the specifics of BBT later, but for a ridiculously short summary: it’s a form of eliminativism. Eliminativism is the philosophical view that neuroscience reveals our traditional conceptions of the human being, like free will, mind, and meaning, to be radically mistaken. But BBT is unique among eliminativisms in its emphasis of neglect: the way in which blindness, or lack of information, actually *enables* our brains to solve problems, especially the problem of what we are. And from my perspective, that makes perfect sense.

BBT is a profoundly counterintuitive theory that cautions us against intuition itself. And ironically, it substantiates my skeptical intuitions.  In short, it shows I’m not the only one who has no clue what she’s doing. If BBT is correct, non-neurotypical individuals aren’t really “impaired.” They simply fit differently with other people. Fewer intersecting lines, that’s all. Bakker has developed his theory further since he published this paper, building on his notion of post-intentional theory (see here for a more general introduction). BBT has stirred up quite a lot of drama.

While we all argue over BBT, absorbed in defending our positions, I feel like an outsider, even among people who understand ingroups. Why? Because most of the people in the debate seem to be discussing something hypothetical, something academic. For me, as I’ve explained, the question of intentionality is a question of everyday life. So I can’t shirk my habit of wondering about biology: what’s going on in the brains of intentionalists? What’s going on in the brains of post-intentionalists? And what’s going on inside my own brain? Bakker would say this is precisely the sort of question a post-intentionalist would ask.

But what happens if the post-intentionalist has never done intentional philosophy? Allow me to explain, with a fictionalized example from my own experience. I use the term “intentional” in both an everyday and philosophical sense, interchangeably:

Intentional, Post-Intentional, and Unintentional Philosophy

Imagine you’re an ordinary person. You just want to get on with your life, but you have a terminal illness. It’s an extremely rare neuropsychiatric syndrome: in order to recover, you must solve an ancient philosophical question. You can’t just come up with any old answer. You actually have to prove you solved it, and convince everyone alive you at least have to convince yourself that you could convince anyone whose counterargument could possibly sway you. You’re skeptical to the marrow, and very good at Googling.

Remember, this is a terminal illness, so you have limited time to solve the problem.

In college, philosophy professors said you were a brilliant student. Plus, you have a great imagination from always being forced to do bizarre things. So naturally, you think you can solve it.

But it takes more time than you thought it would. Years more time. Enough time that you turn into a mad hermit. Your life collapses around you and you’re left with no friends, family, or work. But your genes are really damn virulent, and they simply don’t contain the stop codons for self-termination, so you persist.

And finally, after many failed attempts, you cough up something that sticks. An intellectual hairball.

But then the unimaginable happens: you come across a horrifying argument. The argument goes that when it comes to philosophy, intention matters. If your “philosophy” is just a means to survive, it is not philosophy at all; only that which is meant as philosophy can be called philosophical. So therefore, your solution is not valid. It is not even wrong.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for you. You have to find a new solution that makes your intention irrelevant. A solution that satisfies both the intentional philosophers, who do philosophy because they want to, and the unintentional philosophers who do it because they are forced to.

And then you run across something called post-intentional philosophy. It seems like a solution, but…

But post-intentional philosophy, as you see, requires a history: namely, a history of pre-post-intentional philosophy. Or, to oversimplify, intentional philosophy! The kind people do on purpose, not with a gun to their head.

You know that problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them, so you try to escape what intentional and post-intentional philosophy share: theory. You think you can tackle your problem by finding a way out of theory altogether. A way that allows for the existence of all sorts of brains generating all sorts of things, intentional, post-intentional, and unintentional. A nonphilosophy, not a Laruellian non-philosophy. That way must exist, otherwise your philosophy will leave your very existence a mystery!

What do you do?

Are Theory and Practice Separate? Separable? Or something completely different?

Philosophy is generally a debate, but as an unintentional thinker I can’t help but remain neutral on everything except responsiveness to reality (more on that coming later). In this section I am attempting neither to support nor to attack it, but to explore it.

Bakker’s heuristic brand of eliminativism appears to bank on the ability to distinguish between the general and the specific, the practical and the theoretical. Correct me if I am wrong.

As the case of the “unintentional philosopher” suggests, philosophers themselves are counterexamples to the robustness of this distinction, just like people with impaired intentional cognition offer counterexamples that question folk psychology. If BBT is empirically testable, the practice-vs-theory distinction must remain empirically testable. We should be able to study everyday cognition (“Square One”) independently of theoretical cognition (“Square Two”) and characterize the neurobiological relationship of the two as either completely modular, somewhat modular, or somewhere in between. We should also be able to predict whether someone is an intentionalist or a post-intentionalist by observing their brains.

From a sociobiological perspective, one possibility is that Bakker is literally trying to hack philosophers’ brains: to separate the neural circuitry that connects philosophical cognition with daily functionality.

If that were the case, their disagreement would come as no surprise.

But my real point here, going back to my struggles with my unusual neurobiology, is that I am personally, neurologically, as close to “non-intentional” as people get. And that presents a problem for my ability to understand any of these philosophical distinctions regarding intentionality, post-intentionality, etc. But just as a person with Aspergers syndrome is forced to intellectually explore the social, my relative deficit of intentionality has simultaneously made it unavoidable–necessary for me to explore intentionality.  My point about theory and practice is to ask whether this state of affairs is “just my problem,” or whether it says something about the entire project of theory.

If nothing else, it certainly questions the assumption that the doctor is never the patient, that the post-intentional theorist is always, necessarily some sort of detached intellectual observer with no deviation from the intentional norm in his own neurobiology.

Come back later for a completely different view…

Parasite-schizophrenia connection: One-fifth of schizophrenia cases may involve the parasite T. gondii (Science Daily)

Date: October 29, 2014

Source: University of Pennsylvania

Summary: Many factors, both genetic and environmental, have been blamed for increasing the risk of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Some, such as a family history of schizophrenia, are widely accepted. Others, such as infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite transmitted by soil, undercooked meat and cat feces, are still viewed with skepticism. A new study used epidemiological modeling methods to determine the proportion of schizophrenia cases that may be attributable to T. gondii infection. The work suggests that about one-fifth of cases may involve the parasite.

The parasite T. gondii has been shown to alter behavior in rodents. Smith’s study supports a link to schizophrenia in humans. Credit: Image courtesy of University of Pennsylvania

Many factors, both genetic and environmental, have been blamed for increasing the risk of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Some, such as a family history of schizophrenia, are widely accepted. Others, such as infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite transmitted by soil, undercooked meat and cat feces, are still viewed with skepticism.

A new study by Gary Smith, professor of population biology and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, used epidemiological modeling methods to determine the proportion of schizophrenia cases that may be attributable to T. gondii infection. The work, published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine, suggests that about one-fifth of cases may involve the parasite.

“Infection with Toxoplasma is very common, so, even if only a small percentage of people suffer adverse consequences, we could be talking about problems that affect thousands and thousands of people,” Smith said.

In the United States, just over a fifth of the population is infected with T. gondii. The vast majority aren’t aware of it. But there are some populations that need to be concerned. For example, if a woman becomes infected for the first time during pregnancy, her fetus can die or suffer serious developmental problems. People with HIV or other diseases that weaken the immune system are susceptible to a complication of T. gondii infection called toxoplasmic encephalitis, which can be deadly.

Though the medical community has long believed that most healthy people suffer no adverse effects from a T. gondii infection, recent studies have found evidence of worrisome impacts, including an association with schizophrenia because the parasite is found in in the brain as well as in muscles. Other work has shown that some antipsychotic drugs can stop the parasite from reproducing. In addition, field and laboratory studies in mice, rats and people have shown that infection with T. gondiitriggers changes in behavior and personality.

To further investigate this connection, Smith sought to calculate the population attributable fraction, or PAF, a metric epidemiologists use to determine how important a risk factor might be. In this case, Smith explained that the PAF is “the proportion of schizophrenia diagnoses that would not occur in a population if T. gondii infections were not present.”

The usual method of calculating the PAF was not well suited to examining the link between schizophrenia and T. gondii, because some of the variables are constantly in flux. For example, the proportion of people infected by T. gondii increases with age. Using a standard epidemiological modeling format, but taking into account all of the age-related changes in the relevant factors, Smith found the average PAF during an average lifetime to be 21.4 percent.

“In other words, we ask, if you could stop infections with this parasite, how many cases could you prevent?” Smith said. “Over a lifetime, we found that you could prevent one-fifth of all cases. That, to me, is significant.”

Smith noted that in some countries, the prevalence of T. gondii infection is much higher than in the U.S., and these countries also have a higher incidence of schizophrenia.

People with schizophrenia have greatly reduced life expectancies, and many are unable to work. Family members may also leave the workforce to care for relatives with the disease. For these reasons and others, schizophrenia acts as a large drain on the economy, responsible for $50 to $60 billion in health-care expenditures in the U.S. each year.

“By finding out how important a factor T. gondii infection is, this work might inform our attitude to researching the subject,” Smith said. “Instead of ridiculing the idea of a connection between T. gondii and schizophrenia because it seems so extraordinary, we can sit down and consider the evidence. Perhaps then we might be persuaded to look for more ways to reduce the number of people infected with Toxoplasma.”

The study was supported by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

Journal Reference:

  1. Gary Smith. Estimating the population attributable fraction for schizophrenia when Toxoplasma gondii is assumed absent in human populations.Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2014.10.009

Cientistas descobrem dois genes relacionados a crimes violentos (Zero Hora)

A característica estava presente em 10% dos 900 criminosos finlandeses analisados em estudo de instituto sueco

Mais um estudo científico conclui que a genética pode estar relacionada a crimes violentos. Desta vez, a partir da análise de quase 900 criminosos na Finlândia, pesquisadores descobriram dois genes que ampliaram em 13 vezes as chances de a pessoa ter comportamento violento repetidamente.

Veja a matéria completa em:

(Zero Hora)

In Amazon wars, bands of brothers-in-law (University of Utah)

[Chagnon is restless.Gosh]


Contact: Lee J. Siegel

How culture influences violence among the Amazon’s ‘fierce people’

IMAGE: In this mid-1960s photo, men from two Yanomamo villages in the Amazon engage in nonhostile combat to determine the strength and fighting prowess of potential alliance partners. A new study…

Click here for more information.

SALT LAKE CITY, Oct. 27, 2014 – When Yanomamö men in the Amazon raided villages and killed decades ago, they formed alliances with men in other villages rather than just with close kin like chimpanzees do. And the spoils of war came from marrying their allies’ sisters and daughters, rather than taking their victims’ land and women.

Those findings – which suggest how violence and cooperation can go hand-in-hand and how culture may modify any innate tendencies toward violence – come from a new study of the so-called “fierce people” led by provocative anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and written by his protégé, University of Utah anthropologist Shane Macfarlan.

Macfarlan says the researchers had expected to find the Yanomamö fought like “bands of brothers” and other close male kin like fathers, sons and cousins who live in the same community and fight nearby communities. That is how fights are conducted by chimpanzees – the only other apes besides humans that form coalitions to fight and kill.

Instead, “a more apt description might be a ‘band of brothers-in-law,'” in which Yanomamö men ally with similar-age men from nearby villages to attack another village, then marry their allies’ female kin, Macfarlan, Chagnon and colleagues write in the study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study provides a mechanism to explain why Yanomamö warriors in a 1988 Chagnon study had more wives and children than those who did not kill.

“We are showing these guys individually get benefits from engaging in killing,” Macfarlan says. “They’re getting long-term alliance partners – other guys they can trust to get things done. And they are getting marriage opportunities.”

Since his 1968 book “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” Chagnon has been harshly criticized by some cultural anthropologists who claim he places undue emphasis on genes and biology as underpinnings of human violence, based on his 1964-1993 visits to the Yanomamö. Defenders such as Macfarlan say Chagnon takes a much more balanced view, and that “it’s never a genes-versus-culture argument. They operate in tandem.”

Chagnon got what was seen as vindication in 2012 when he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The new study, with Macfarlan as first author and Chagnon as senior author – is Chagnon’s inaugural PNAS article as a member.

Macfarlan joined the University of Utah faculty this year an assistant professor of anthropology. He worked as Chagnon’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri from January 2013 to June 2014. Chagnon and Macfarlan conducted the study with two Missouri colleagues: anthropologists Robert S. Walker and Mark V. Flinn.

Models of Warfare

The Yanomamö – hunters and farmers who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil – once gained social status as “unokai” for killing.

Up to 20 Yanomamö (pronounced yah-NO-mama, but also spelled Yanomami or Yanomama) would sneak up on another village at dawn, “shoot the first person they saw and then hightail back home,” Macfarlan says. Some Yanomamö men did this once, some up to 11 times and some never killed. (Data for the study, collected in the 1980s, covered somewhat earlier times when spears, bows and arrows were the primary weapons.)

IMAGE: University of Utah anthropologist Shane Macfarlan, shown here, is first author of a new study with provocative anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon about the Yanomamo, or so called ‘fierce people’ of…

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Macfarlan says the classic debate has been, “does warfare in small-scale societies like the Yanomamö resemble chimpanzee warfare?” – a theory known as the “fraternal interest group” model, in which bands of brothers, fathers, sons and paternal uncles all living in the same community fight other similar communities.

The new study asked whether Yanomamö killing follows that model or the “strategic alliance model,” which the researchers dub the “band of brothers-in-law” model. This model – supported by the study’s findings – indicates that Yanomamö men form alliances not with close kin from the same community, but with men from other communities. After killing together, a bond is formed and they often marry each other’s daughters or sisters and move into one or the other’s village or form a new village.

“When we started off this project, we all assumed it would be the chimpanzee-like model. But in human groups we have cultural rules that allow us to communicate with other communities. You certainly don’t see chimpanzees doing this.”

Is the study a retreat from what Chagnon’s critics see as too much focus on genetic and biological underpinnings of violence? Macfarlan says no, that Chagnon “has never been as all-biology as people have painted him. Most of his published research shows how unique cultural rules make the Yanomamö an interesting group of people.”

Earlier research suggested that for chimps, warfare is adaptive in an evolutionary sense, and that it also benefits small-scale human societies. The new study asked, “If warfare is adaptive, in what way do the adaptive benefits flow?” Macfarlan says.

“Some people, myself included, said, to the victor goes the spoils, because if you conquer another territory, you might take their land, food or potentially their females.”

But the new study indicates “the adaptive benefits are the alliances you build by perpetrating acts of warfare,” he adds. “It’s not that you are taking land or females from the vanquished group, but for the Yanomamö, what you acquire is that you can exchange resources with allies, such as labor and, most importantly, female marriage partners.”

The study’s findings that the Yanomamö form strategic alliances to kill suggest that “our ultracoooperative tendencies tend to go hand-in-hand with our ultralethal tendencies,” Macfarlan says. “We show a relationship between cooperation and violence at a level unseen in other organisms.” That may seem obvious for allied nations in modern wars, but “we’re saying that even in small-scale societies this is the case.”

IMAGE: Men from one Yanomamo village in the Amazon ‘dance’ in a neighboring village to show off their military prowess, weaponry and group cohesion after they were invited to a…

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How the Study was Conducted

The new study analyzed data collected by Chagnon in the 1980s, when about 25,000 Yanomamö lived in about 250 villages ranging from 25 to 400 people.

The study examined 118 Yanomamö warriors or unokai who had killed a total of 47 people by forming raiding parties of two to 15 men. The researchers analyzed the relationships between every possible pair of men in those raiding parties. Among the 118 unokai men, there were 509 possible pairs. Macfarlan says the findings revealed surprises about the relationship between co-unokai – pairs of men who kill together:

  • Only 22 percent of men who kill together were from the same lineage.
  • Only 34 percent of co-unokai pairs were from the same place of birth. “Guys who come from different places of birth are more likely to kill together.”
  • Among co-killers known to be related, a majority were related on their mother’s side rather than their father’s side – more evidence of forming alliances beyond the immediate paternal kinship group. In Yanomamö culture, true kin are viewed as being on the paternal side, while maternal relatives are seen as belonging to another social group.
  • The Yanomamö preferred forming coalitions with men within a median of age difference of 8 years. “The more similar in age, the more likely they will kill multiple times,” Macfarlan says.
  • Of the 118 unokai, 102 got married in a total of 223 marriages to 206 women. Of married killers, 70 percent married at least one woman from the same paternal line as an ally in killing. And “the more times they kill together, the more likely they are going to get marriage partners from each other’s family line,” Macfarlan says.
  • As a result, “The more times the guys kill together, the more likely they are to move into the same village later in life, despite having come from different village.”

The study found allies-in-killing often are somewhere between maternal first and second cousins, Macfarlan says. Under Yanomamö rules, a man’s ideal marriage partner is a maternal first cousin, who would be the offspring of your mother’s brother. He says Yanomamö rules allow marriage to a maternal first cousin, but not a paternal first cousin.

Despite debate over the biological roots of deadly coalitions in chimps and humans, the new study shows how culture can make it “uniquely human” because if Yanomamö men “kill together, they are plugged into this social scene, this marriage market,” Macfarlan says. “They are playing the game of their culture.”

Chimpanzees Are Rational, Not Conformists, Researchers Find (Science Daily)

Dec. 13, 2013 — Chimpanzees are sensitive to social influences but they maintain their own strategy to solve a problem rather than conform to what the majority of group members are doing. However, chimpanzees do change their strategy when they can obtain greater rewards, MPI researchers found. The study was published in PLOS ONE on November 28, 2013.

Chimpanzees are sensitive to social influences but they maintain their own strategy to solve a problem rather than conform to what the majority of group members are doing. (Credit: Image courtesy of Max-Planck-Gesellschaft)

Chimpanzees are known for their curious nature. They show a rich palette of learning behaviour, both individually and socially. But they are also rather hesitant to abandon their personal preferences, even when that familiar behaviour becomes extremely ineffective. Under which circumstances would chimpanzees flexibly adjust their behaviour? Edwin van Leeuwen and colleagues from the MPI’s for Psycholinguistics and Evolutionary Anthropology conducted a series of experiments in Germany and Zambia to answer this question.

Wooden balls for peanuts

The researchers studied 16 captive chimpanzees at the Wolfgang Kohler Primate Research Center in Germany (Leipzig) and 12 semi-wild chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust, a sanctuary that houses more than a hundred chimpanzees under nearly natural conditions in the north-western part of Zambia. Chimpanzees were trained on two different vending machines. A minority of the group was made familiar with one machine and the majority of group members with the other machine. Wooden balls were thrown into their enclosure; the chimpanzees could insert these balls into the machines to receive one peanut for each ball.

Van Leeuwen and his colleagues first aimed to replicate previous research and looked whether the chimpanzees in the minority group would change their behaviour toward using the vending machine that the majority of group members used. However, neither the German nor the Zambian chimpanzees gave up their strategy to join the majority. In the second study, the profitability of the vending machines was changed so that the vending machine that the minority used became more profitable, now spitting out five rewards for every ball inserted. Over time, the majority chimpanzees observed that the minority chimpanzees received more peanuts for the same effort and all but one gradually switched to using this more profitable machine.

Higher rewards

“Where chimpanzees do not readily change their behaviour under majority influences, they do change their behaviour when they can maximise their payoffs,” Van Leeuwen says. “We conclude that chimpanzees may prefer persevering in successful and familiar strategies over adopting the equally effective strategy of the majority, but that chimpanzees find sufficient incentive in changing their behaviour when they can obtain higher rewards somewhere else.” “So, it’s peanuts over popularity” he jokingly adds.

The researchers emphasise that these results may be dependent upon the specific trade-offs that were created by the experimental design and that chimpanzees could act differently under the pressures of life in the wild. Van Leeuwen: “Conformity could still be a process guiding chimpanzees’ behaviour. Chimpanzee females, for instance, disperse to other groups in the wild. For these females, it is of vital importance to integrate into the new group. Conformity to local (foraging) customs might help them to achieve this integration.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Edwin J. C. Van Leeuwen, Katherine A. Cronin, Sebastian Schütte, Josep Call, Daniel B. M. Haun. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) Flexibly Adjust Their Behaviour in Order to Maximize Payoffs, Not to Conform to MajoritiesPLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (11): e80945 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0080945

Transgendered Males Seen as an Asset to Some Ancestral Societies (Science Daily)

Oct. 2, 2013 — Transgendered androphilic males were accepted in traditional hunter-gatherer cultures because they were an extra set of hands to support their families. Conversely, by investing in and supporting their kin, these males ensured that their familial line — and therefore also their own genetic make-up — passed on to future generations despite their not having children of their own. This is according to an ethnographic study led by Doug VanderLaan of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, published in Springer’s journal Human Nature. The study reports that this “kin selection” is still at play in pro-transgender societies today.

‘Androphilia’ refers to a predominant sexual attraction towards adult males, and takes on one of two possible gender roles depending on the cultural context: sex-gender congruent male androphilia (the typical male gender role) or transgendered androphilia (a gender role markedly similar to that of females in a given culture). Typically one of these variations is dominant within a society. For example, sex-gender congruency is more common in Western cultures, whereas the transgendered form is more typical of non-Western cultures, such as that of the Polynesian island nation of Samoa. The researchers also wanted to test predictions that enhanced kin-directed altruism is prominent in societies in which transgendered male androphilia is predominant.

To answer this question, VanderLaan and his colleagues compared the sociocultural environment of contemporary transgendered societies with ancestral small-group hunter-gatherers. Ancestral group size, sociopolitical systems, religious beliefs and patterns of residency were analyzed in 146 non-transgendered societies, and 46 transgender societies.

The analysis utilized ethnographic information about well-described nonindustrial societies from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample.VanderLaan and his colleagues found that transgendered male androphilia is an ancestral phenomenon typically found in communities with certain ancestral sociocultural conditions, such as “bilateral descent.” This term refers to societies in which the families of both one’s father and mother are equally important for emotional, social, spiritual and political support, as well as the transfer of property or wealth.

Also, the acceptance and tolerance of same-sex behavior evolved within a suitable, accepting environment in which discrimination against transgendered males was rare. Importantly, kin selection might have played a vital part in maintaining genes for male androphilia these societies. For example, it continues to be a driving force in contemporary Samoan fa’afafine transgender communities.Unless transgendered androphilic males are accepted by their families, the opportunities for them to invest in kin are likely limited. What was true of our ancestors still holds true. A society’s specific social organization and its general acceptance of transgenderism and homosexuality is even important today. When supported by society, transgendered males invest their time and energy in their kin in turn.

Journal Reference:

  1. Doug P. VanderLaan, Zhiyuan Ren, Paul L. Vasey. Male Androphilia in the Ancestral EnvironmentHuman Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s12110-013-9182-z

Notas sobre a violência – De antropólogos e outras tribos ferozes (Folha de S.Paulo)



RESUMO Antropólogo Napoleon Chagnon retoma em novo livro teoria sobre agressividade ianomâmi e ataca adversários da sociobiologia. Jared Diamond escreve obra de bases semelhantes, mas mais generosa com ‘primitivos’, aproximando-se de adversários de Chagnon, como Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, que lança coletânea.

É preciso ter estômago forte para digerir a narrativa de um antropólogo que escolhe iniciar o relato de seu primeiro dia de campo entre os ianomâmis -meio século depois- com a frase: “Nunca antes tinha visto tanto ranho verde”. Não é a antropologia, porém, a disciplina que ensina a combinar o máximo de disciplina com o mínimo de conforto em benefício do entendimento do homem?

Leia-se então com dose generosa de bonomia antropológica a obra mais recente do americano Napoleon Chagnon, “Noble Savages – My Life among two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists” [Simon & Schuster, 531 págs., R$ 87,50]. Em desagravo, que seja, porque Chagnon pagou um preço alto demais por sua crença nas explicações ultradarwinistas do comportamento, cuja matriz -a natureza humana- acredita ter desvendado nas selvas do Orinoco.

O estudioso americano dedicou pelo menos duas décadas de sua vida a longas permanências em terras ianomâmis, quase sempre na Venezuela (com desastradas incursões também do lado brasileiro). As três seguintes ele ocupou em defesa da carreira e da reputação quase arruinadas por dois outros livros: “O Povo Feroz” (1968), trabalho acadêmico de sua própria lavra, e “Trevas no Eldorado”, um panfleto do jornalista Patrick Tierney (2000).

Os que desconhecem a crônica dessa guerra entre os clãs cultural e biológico da antropologia encontrarão um resumo devastador das acusações mútuas no documentário “Os Segredos da Tribo”, de José Padilha. Não se recomenda o consumo de pipoca na sessão de barbaridades que a fita apresenta.

O povo feroz do título de Chagnon são os ianomâmis. Sua caracterização pelo antropólogo como uma etnia violenta, de homens “maliciosos, agressivos e intimidadores”, que acumulam homicídios para obter mais mulheres e maior sucesso reprodutivo, despertou a ira dos antropólogos culturalistas.

Primeiro, Chagnon foi acusado de distorcer a imagem do grupo e, assim, facilitar sua dizimação por brancos dos dois lados da fronteira. Depois, foi denunciado por Tierney como genocida, pois teria -intencional ou negligentemente, sob a tutela do médico americano James V. Neel- contribuído para uma epidemia de sarampo que matou centenas de índios.

BOM SELVAGEM “Noble Savages” (“bons selvagens”) é um acerto de contas com as duas tribos que infernizaram sua vida. A partir da descrição para o público não especializado de seu convívio de cinco anos com os ianomâmis, Chagnon retoma sua conclusão de que o “bom selvagem” concebido por Rousseau é um mito politicamente correto e que só há uma resposta biológica (evolucionista) -e simploriamente hobbesiana- para a questão de por que seres humanos são sociais: a luta de todos contra todos para aumentar a própria prole (ou pôr mais cópias dos próprios genes no mundo, na vulgata sociobiológica).

Não faltam páginas desairosas para os ianomâmis no livro. “Olhei para cima e arfei, em choque, quando vi uma dúzia de homens corpulentos, nus, suados e pavorosos nos encarando por trás dos caniços de suas setas apontadas!” -conta sobre a primeira visita a uma casa coletiva dos índios.

“Imensos rolos de tabaco verde estavam enfiados entre os dentes e os lábios inferiores, tornando sua aparência ainda mais pavorosa. Veios de ranho verde escuro pingavam ou pendiam de suas narinas -tão longos que se desprendiam de seus queixos, caíam sobre os músculos peitorais e escorriam preguiçosamente sobre seus ventres, mesclando-se com a pintura vermelha e o suor.”

Chagnon também não economiza relatos sobre tentativas mal sucedidas de engodo dos ianomâmis contra ele. Sempre eficazes, por outro lado, eram seus próprios ardis para levá-los a ceder amostras de sangue (para Neel) e a revelar nomes de ancestrais mortos -um tabu- para rechear suas genealogias e estatísticas. As mesmas informações, pagas com machados, facas e panelas de metal, que lhe permitiriam afirmar, depois, serem os homens com mais homicídios nas costas também os de prole mais numerosa.

Muito antes das acusações de Tierney, as conclusões sociobiológicas e os métodos traficantes de Chagnon já vinham sendo questionados por seus pares na comunidade antropológica. Até a correlação estatística entre ferocidade e fertilidade masculina, formulada num famigerado artigo de 1988 para a revista acadêmica “Science”, teve seus dados postos em dúvida (o autor foi acusado de excluir da amostra aqueles pais que já haviam sido mortos por vingança, portanto sem meios de multiplicar descendência).

Os antropólogos culturais, refratários à moldura biológica em que Chagnon queria enquadrar o painel exuberante das culturas, já estavam no seu encalço. Nada se compara, porém, com a virulência do ataque de Tierney. Assim que um capítulo do livro foi publicado na revista “New Yorker”, em outubro de 2000, a Associação Antropológica Americana entrou na briga -do lado dos culturalistas. Foi montado um comitê de investigação, que acabou por inocentar o médico Neel e descartar a epidemia intencional, mas recriminou Chagnon por desvios éticos.

O caso teve enorme repercussão na imprensa mundial, brasileira inclusive. Contudo, quando a obra do “jornalista investigativo” Tierney e os próprios investigadores da AAA passaram a ser investigados, a começar pela historiadora da ciência Susan Lindee, o vento virou.

Forçada por um referendo entre seus membros, a associação renegaria o relatório. As acusações de Tierney não paravam de pé, como reconstitui com farta documentação um ensaio demolidor da também historiadora Alice Dreger publicado em 2011 no periódico acadêmico “Human Nature”, sob o título “Darkness’s descent on the American Anthropological Association. A cautionary tale” (trevas sobre a Associação Antropológica Americana – uma fábula moral; leia em

Dreger puxa vários fios da teia de perseguição a Chagnon. Levanta a suspeita, intrigante, de que a cruzada de Tierney pode ter ocorrido sob o patrocínio da Igreja Católica, mais especificamente da ordem de padres salesianos, que já mantinha missões junto aos ianomâmis da Venezuela quando o antropólogo por lá baixou.

Após alguns meses de convívio e cooperação, cientista e religiosos se estranharam. Na versão fantástica narrada em “Noble Savages”, isso ocorreu depois de um hierarca pedir a Chagnon ajuda para matar um padre amasiado com índia. Na passagem do livro que mais se avizinha do estilo de Tierney, o antropólogo também acusa os salesianos de distribuir espingardas cartucheiras entre os índios para conquistar seu favor.

A inconsistência mais relevante da obra, porém, não decorre do ânimo retaliatório, e sim da pretensão de ter localizado entre os ianomâmis as nascentes da agressividade que supõe inerente à natureza humana. A antropóloga Elizabeth Povinelli assinalou, numa resenha escaldante de “Noble Savages” para o “New York Times”, que a tese se assenta sobre a premissa falaciosa de que os ianomâmis sejam relíquias de uma infância neolítica da humanidade.

FÓSSEIS Desde esse ponto de vista, compreende-se melhor o esforço retórico de Chagnon em degradar os ianomâmis, acentuando nas suas descrições uma animalidade que serve para relocar sua cultura na vizinhança da biologia. Ora, não há básica empírica nenhuma para afirmar que sociedades “primitivas” como a dos ianomâmis se mantiveram à margem da história, fósseis de um passado inaugural da espécie humana.

Como lembra Manuela Carneiro da Cunha -que presidia a Associação Brasileira de Antropologia quando esta cerrou fileiras contra Chagnon- na coletânea de ensaios “Índios no Brasil – História, Direitos e Cidadania” [Claro Enigma, 160 págs., R$ 29,50], essa é uma visão originária do século 19, que atribui “à natureza e à fatalidade de suas leis o que é produto de política e práticas humanas, […] consoladoras para todos à exceção de suas vítimas”.

Os ianomâmis, por exemplo, só permaneceram mais ou menos isolados (na realidade, longas redes de contatos já lhes garantiam acesso a artefatos de metal) porque suas terras montanhosas não interessavam a colonizador algum.

A perspectiva adotada por Chagnon -um engenheiro convertido para a antropologia- faz tábula rasa de tudo que há de peculiar no modo de vida ianomâmi. Por que cargas d’água esses índios cremam seus mortos, moem os ossos calcinados e ingerem as cinzas com um mingau de banana? É esse tipo de manifestação simbólica que a antropologia cultural se esforça por sistematizar e elucidar, mas que a obra de Chagnon relega à penumbra dos detalhes irrelevantes para a “natureza humana”.

Ótica semelhante anima o último best-seller de outro adepto declarado da sociobiologia (rebatizada psicologia evolucionista), Jared Diamond, mas com resultados muito diversos, se não opostos. Em “The World until Yesterday – What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” [Viking, 512 págs., R$ 96,90], Diamond acredita piamente ter aberto uma janela para o passado nas suas décadas de visitas à Nova Guiné para estudar pássaros.

A ilha, fervilhante com centenas de tribos e línguas em contato e conflito, constitui um continente cultural descoberto como tal por ocidentais só nas primeiras décadas do século 20. Fornece a Diamond, portanto, o equivalente dos ianomâmis para Chagnon, em matéria de isolamento e primitivismo.

As diferenças entre esses dois generalizadores prodigiosos, contudo, salta já do título de Diamond. Ao contrário de Chagnon, ele está aberto -mais que isso, interessado- a aprender algo com os nativos, e não só sobre eles. São muitas as lições úteis que o observador de pássaros e homens extrai para o aperfeiçoamento marginal do indubitavelmente superior modo de vida ocidental: ingerir menos sal, aleitar bebês à vontade até os três anos, dar educação bilíngue às crianças, fazer refeições lentamente com amigos…

Até das ameaças constantes da natureza e do estado de guerra crônica entre os primitivos Diamond retira um ensinamento, centro de gravidade do livro, que chama de “paranoia construtiva”: o estado de vigilância permanente para os muitos perigos que a vida oferece aos homens. Depois de embasbacar multidões com as generalizações audazes de “Armas, Germes e Aço” (livro pelo qual ganhou o Pulitzer em 1998), Diamond corteja com leveza o gênero da autoajuda e compila um volume de leitura bem mais amena que

“Noble Savages”. Os ilhéus são feios e sujos como os ianomâmis, mas simpáticos e sábios.

Já a paranoia de Chagnon, se cabe falar assim, é corrosiva. Nos termos da controvérsia que animou o Brasil escravizador de índios nos séculos 18 e 19, relatada por Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, eles podem ser encarados como cães, canibais e ferozes, ou como homens, diferentes e por isso exemplares de capacidade adaptativa e perfectibilidade. É uma questão de escolha, ou de ponto de vista.

Como diz a antropóloga, repetindo o que ouviu em conferência de Claude Lévi-Strauss, a sociodiversidade pode ser tão preciosa quanto a biodiversidade: “Creio, com efeito, que ela constitui essa reserva de achados na qual as futuras gerações poderão encontrar exemplos -e quem sabe novos pontos de partida- de processos e sínteses sociais já postos à prova”.


Em 2012, Napoleon Chagnon foi eleito para a prestigiada Academia Nacional de Ciências (NAS) dos Estados Unidos. Ato contínuo, em protesto, o antropólogo Marshall Sahlins -que em 2000 se engajara na campanha contra ele- renunciou à sua cadeira na NAS.

Manifesto de 17 antropólogos que trabalham com ianomâmis deblaterou mais uma vez contra a noção de “povo feroz” reiterada no novo livro, que poderia ser usada por governos para prejudicar a etnia. Uma nota do líder ianomâmi David Kopenawa sobre a obra aponta as guerras dos brancos como muito mais ferozes que as de seu povo -uma observação antropologicamente perspicaz, ao menos no que respeita às tribos dos culturalistas e dos sociobiólogos.

Edward O. Wilson: The Riddle of the Human Species (N.Y.Times)

THE STONEFebruary 24, 2013, 7:30 pm


The task of understanding humanity is too important and too daunting to leave to the humanities. Their many branches, from philosophy to law to history and the creative arts, have described the particularities of human nature with genius and exquisite detail, back and forth in endless permutations. But they have not explained why we possess our special nature and not some other out of a vast number of conceivable possibilities. In that sense, the humanities have not accounted for a full understanding of our species’ existence.

So, just what are we? The key to the great riddle lies in the circumstance and process that created our species. The human condition is a product of history, not just the six millenniums of civilization but very much further back, across hundreds of millenniums. The whole of it, biological and cultural evolution, in seamless unity, must be explored for an answer to the mystery. When thus viewed across its entire traverse, the history of humanity also becomes the key to learning how and why our species survived.

A majority of people prefer to interpret history as the unfolding of a supernatural design, to whose author we owe obedience. But that comforting interpretation has grown less supportable as knowledge of the real world has expanded. Scientific knowledge (measured by numbers of scientists and scientific journals) in particular has been doubling every 10 to 20 years for over a century. In traditional explanations of the past, religious creation stories have been blended with the humanities to attribute meaning to our species’s existence. It is time to consider what science might give to the humanities and the humanities to science in a common search for a more solidly grounded answer to the great riddle.

To begin, biologists have found that the biological origin of advanced social behavior in humans was similar to that occurring elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Using comparative studies of thousands of animal species, from insects to mammals, they have concluded that the most complex societies have arisen through eusociality — roughly, “true” social condition. The members of a eusocial group cooperatively rear the young across multiple generations. They also divide labor through the surrender by some members of at least some of their personal reproduction in a way that increases the “reproductive success” (lifetime reproduction) of other members.

Leif Parsons

Eusociality stands out as an oddity in a couple of ways. One is its extreme rarity. Out of hundreds of thousands of evolving lines of animals on the land during the past 400 million years, the condition, so far as we can determine, has arisen only about two dozen times. This is likely to be an underestimate, due to sampling error. Nevertheless, we can be certain that the number of originations was very small.

Furthermore, the known eusocial species arose very late in the history of life. It appears to have occurred not at all during the great Paleozoic diversification of insects, 350 to 250 million years before the present, during which the variety of insects approached that of today. Nor is there as yet any evidence of eusocial species during the Mesozoic Era until the appearance of the earliest termites and ants between 200 and 150 million years ago. Humans at the Homo level appeared only very recently, following tens of millions of years of evolution among the primates.

Once attained, advanced social behavior at the eusocial grade has proved a major ecological success. Of the two dozen independent lines, just two within the insects — ants and termites — globally dominate invertebrates on the land. Although they are represented by fewer than 20 thousand of the million known living insect species, ants and termites compose more than half of the world’s insect body weight.

The history of eusociality raises a question: given the enormous advantage it confers, why was this advanced form of social behavior so rare and long delayed? The answer appears to be the special sequence of preliminary evolutionary changes that must occur before the final step to eusociality can be taken. In all of the eusocial species analyzed to date, the final step before eusociality is the construction of a protected nest, from which foraging trips begin and within which the young are raised to maturity. The original nest builders can be a lone female, a mated pair, or a small and weakly organized group. When this final preliminary step is attained, all that is needed to create a eusocial colony is for the parents and offspring to stay at the nest and cooperate in raising additional generations of young. Such primitive assemblages then divide easily into risk-prone foragers and risk-averse parents and nurses.

Leif Parsons

What brought one primate line to the rare level of eusociality? Paleontologists have found that the circumstances were humble. In Africa about two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian australopithecine evidently shifted its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely dispersed source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young like present-day chimpanzees and bonobos. It was more efficient to occupy a campsite (thus, the nest) and send out hunters who could bring home meat, either killed or scavenged, to share with others. In exchange, the hunters received protection of the campsite and their own young offspring kept there.

From studies of modern humans, including hunter-gatherers, whose lives tell us so much about human origins, social psychologists have deduced the mental growth that began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation among the members. The process was ceaselessly dynamic and demanding. It far exceeded in intensity anything similar experienced by the roaming, loosely organized bands of most animal societies. It required a memory good enough to assess the intentions of fellow members, to predict their responses, from one moment to the next; and it resulted in the ability to invent and inwardly rehearse competing scenarios of future interactions.

The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored prehumans evolved as a kind of non-stop game of chess. Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated across the past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences variously of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.

The definitive part of the long creation story evidently began with the primitive Homo habilis (or a species closely related to it) two million years ago. Prior to the habilines the prehumans had been animals. Largely vegetarians, they had human-like bodies, but their cranial capacity remained chimpanzee-size, at or below 500 cubic centimeters. Starting with the habiline period the capacity grew precipitously: to 680 cubic centimeters in Homo habilis, 900 in Homo erectus, and about 1,400 in Homo sapiens. The expansion of the human brain was one of the most rapid episodes of evolution of complex organs in the history of life.

Still, to recognize the rare coming together of cooperating primates is not enough to account for the full potential of modern humans that brain capacity provides. Evolutionary biologists have searched for the grandmaster of advanced social evolution, the combination of forces and environmental circumstances that bestowed greater longevity and more successful reproduction on the possession of high social intelligence. At present there are two competing theories of the principal force. The first is kin selection: individuals favor collateral kin (relatives other than offspring) making it easier for altruism to evolve among members of the same group. Altruism in turn engenders complex social organization, and, in the one case that involves big mammals, human-level intelligence.

The second, more recently argued theory (full disclosure: I am one of the modern version’s authors), the grandmaster is multilevel selection. This formulation recognizes two levels at which natural selection operates: individual selection based on competition and cooperation among members of the same group, and group selection, which arises from competition and cooperation between groups. Multilevel selection is gaining in favor among evolutionary biologists because of a recent mathematical proof that kin selection can arise only under special conditions that demonstrably do not exist, and the better fit of multilevel selection to all of the two dozen known animal cases of eusocial evolution.

The roles of both individual and group selection are indelibly stamped (to borrow a phrase from Charles Darwin) upon our social behavior. As expected, we are intensely interested in the minutiae of behavior of those around us. Gossip is a prevailing subject of conversation, everywhere from hunter-gatherer campsites to royal courts. The mind is a kaleidoscopically shifting map of others, each of whom is drawn emotionally in shades of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability. We are compulsively driven to create and belong to groups, variously nested, overlapping or separate, and large or small. Almost all groups compete with those of similar kind in some manner or other. We tend to think of our own as superior, and we find our identity within them.

The existence of competition and conflict, the latter often violent, has been a hallmark of societies as far back as archaeological evidence is able to offer. These and other traits we call human nature are so deeply resident in our emotions and habits of thought as to seem just part of some greater nature, like the air we all breathe, and the molecular machinery that drives all of life. But they are not. Instead, they are among the idiosyncratic hereditary traits that define our species.

The major features of the biological origins of our species are coming into focus, and with this clarification the potential of a more fruitful contact between science and the humanities. The convergence between these two great branches of learning will matter hugely when enough people have thought it through. On the science side, genetics, the brain sciences, evolutionary biology, and paleontology will be seen in a different light. Students will be taught prehistory as well as conventional history, the whole presented as the living world’s greatest epic.

We will also, I believe, take a more serious look at our place in nature. Exalted we are indeed, risen to be the mind of the biosphere without a doubt, our spirits capable of awe and ever more breathtaking leaps of imagination. But we are still part of earth’s fauna and flora. We are bound to it by emotion, physiology, and not least, deep history. It is dangerous to think of this planet as a way station to a better world, or continue to convert it into a literal, human-engineered spaceship. Contrary to general opinion, demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. We are self-made, independent, alone and fragile. Self-understanding is what counts for long-term survival, both for individuals and for the species.

Edward O. Wilson is Honorary Curator in Entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University. He has received more than 100 awards for his research and writing, including the U. S. National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize and two Pulitzer Prizes in non-fiction. His most recent book is “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

*   *   *

Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals (Spiegel)

February 26, 2013 – 01:23 PM

By Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle

American sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson is championing a controversial new approach for explaining the origins of virtue and sin. In an interview, the world-famous ant reseacher explains why he believes the inner struggle is the characteristic trait of human nature.

Edward O. Wilson doesn’t come across as the kind of man who’s looking to pick a fight. With his shoulders upright and his head tilting slightly to the side, he shuffles through the halls of Harvard University. His right eye, which has given him trouble since his childhood, is halfway closed. The other is fixed on the ground. As an ant researcher, Wilson has made a career out of things that live on the earth’s surface.

There’s also much more to Wilson. Some consider him to be the world’s most important living biologist, with some placing him on a level with Charles Darwin.

In addition to discovering and describing hundreds of species of ants, Wilson’s book on this incomparably successful group of insects is the only non-fiction biology tome ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Another achievement was decoding the chemical communication of ants, whose vocabulary is composed of pheromones. His study of the ant colonization of islands helped to establish one of the most fruitful branches of ecology. And when it comes to the battle against the loss of biodiversity, Wilson is one of the movement’s most eloquent voices.

‘Blessed with Brilliant Enemies’

But Wilson’s fame isn’t solely the product of his scientific achievements. His enemies have also helped him to establish a name. “I have been blessed with brilliant enemies,” he says. In fact, the multitude of scholars with whom Wilson has skirmished academically is illustrious. James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix in DNA is among them, as is essayist Stephen Jay Gould.

At 83 years of age, Wilson is still at work making a few new enemies. The latest source of uproar is a book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” published last April in the United States and this month in a German-language edition. In the tome, Wilson attempts to describe the triumphal advance of humans in evolutionary terms.

It is not uncommon for Wilson to look to ants for inspiration in his writings — and that proves true here, as well. When, for example, he recalls beholding two 90-million-year-old worker ants that were trapped in a piece of fossil metasequoia amber as being “among the most exciting moments in my life,” a discovery that “ranked in scientific importance withArchaeopteryx, the first fossil intermediary between birds and dinosaurs, and Australopithecus, the first ‘missing link’ discovered between modern humans and the ancestral apes.”

But that’s all just foreplay to the real controversy at the book’s core. Ultimately, Wilson uses ants to explain humans’ social behavior and, by doing so, breaks with current convention. The key question is the level at which Darwinian selection of human characteristics takes place. Did individuals enter into a fight for survival against each other, or did groups battle it out against competing groups?

Prior to this book, Wilson had been an influential champion of the theory of kin selection. He has now rejected his previous teachings, literally demolishing them. “The beautiful theory never worked well anyway, and now it has collapsed,” he writes. Today, he argues that human nature can only be understood if it is perceived as being the product of “group selection” — a view that Wilson’s fellow academics equate with sacrilege. They literally lined up to express their scientific dissent in a joint letter.

Some of the most vociferous criticism has come from Richard Dawkins, whose bestselling 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” first introduced the theory of kin selection to a mass audience. In a withering review of Wilson’s book in Britain’s Prospect magazine, Dawkins accuses a man he describes as his “lifelong hero” of “wanton arrogance” and “perverse misunderstandings”. “To borrow from Dorothy Parker,” he writes, “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force.”

SPIEGEL recently sat down with sociobiologist Wilson to discuss his book and the controversy surrounding it.

SPIEGEL: Professor Wilson, lets assume that 10 million years ago some alien spacecraft had landed on this planet. Which organisms would they find particularly intriguing?

Wilson: Their interest, I believe, would not have been our ancestors. Primarily, they would have focused on ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Their discovery is what the aliens would report back to headquarters.

SPIEGEL: And you think those insects would be more interesting to them than, for example, elephants, flocks of birds or intelligent primates?

Wilson: They would be, because, at that time, ants and termites would be the most abundant creatures on the land and the most highly social creatures with very advanced division of labor and caste. We call them “eusocial,” and this phenomenon seems to be extremely rare.

SPIEGEL: What else might the aliens consider particularly interesting about ants?

Wilson: Ants engage in farming and animal husbandry. For example, some of them cultivate fungi. Others herd aphids and literally milk them by stroking them with their antennae. And the other thing the aliens would find extremely interesting would be the degree to which these insects organize their societies by pheromones, by chemical communication. Ants and termites have taken this form of communication to extremes.

SPIEGEL: So the aliens would cable back home: “We have found ants. They are the most promising candidates for a future evolution towards intelligent beings on earth?”

Wilson: No, they wouldn’t. They would see that these creatures were encased in exoskeletons and therefore had to remain very small. They would conclude that there was little chance for individual ants or termites to develop much reasoning power, nor, as a result, the capacity for culture. But at least on this planet, you have to be big in order to have sufficient cerebral cortex. And you probably have to be bipedal and develop hands with pulpy fingers, because those give you the capacity to start creating objects and to manipulate the environment.

SPIEGEL: Would our ancestors not have caught their eye?

Wilson: Ten million years ago, our ancestors indeed had developed a somewhat larger brain and versatile hands already. But the crucial step had yet to come.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Wilson: Let me go back to the social insects for a moment. Why did social insects start to form colonies? Across hundreds of millions of years, insects had been proliferating as solitary forms. Some of them stayed with their young for a while, guided them and protected them. You find that widespread but far from universal in the animal kingdom. However, out of those species came a much smaller number of species who didn’t just protect their young, but started building nests that they defended …

SPIEGEL: … similar to birds.

Wilson: Yes. And I think that birds are right at the threshold of eusocial behaviour. But looking at the evolution of ants and termites again, there is another crucial step. In an even smaller group, the young don’t only grow up in their nest, but they also stay and care for the next generation. Now you have a group staying together with a division of labor. That is evidently the narrow channel of evolution that you have to pass through in order to become eusocial.

SPIEGEL: And our ancestors followed the same path?

Wilson: Yes. I argue that Homo habilis, the first humans, also went through these stages. In particular, Homo habilis was unique in that they already had shifted to eating meat.

SPIEGEL: What difference would that make?

Wilson: When animals start eating meat, they tend to form packs and to divide labor. We know that the immediate descendants of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, gathered around camp sites and that they actually had begun to use fire. These camp sites are equivalent to nests. That’s where they gathered in a tightly knit group, and then individuals went out searching for food.

SPIEGEL: And this development of groups drives evolution even further?

Wilson: Exactly. And, for example, if it now comes to staking out the hunting grounds, then group stands against group.

SPIEGEL: Meaning that this is the origin of warfare?

Wilson: Yes. But it doesn’t take necessarily the forming of an army or a battalion and meeting on the field and fighting. It was mostly what you call “vengeance raids”. One group attacks another, maybe captures a female or kills one or two males. The other group then counterraids, and this will go back and forth, group against group.

SPIEGEL: You say that this so called group selection is vital for the evolution of humans. Yet traditionally, scientists explain the emergence of social behavior in humans by kin selection.

Wilson: That, for a number of reasons, isn’t much good as an explanation.

SPIEGEL: But you yourself have long been a proponent of this theory. Why did you change your mind?

Wilson: You are right. During the 1970s, I was one of the main proponents of kin selection theory. And at first the idea sounds very reasonable. So for example, if I favored you because you were my brother and therefore we share one half of our genes, then I could sacrifice a lot for you. I could give up my chance to have children in order to get you through college and have a big family. The problem is: If you think it through, kin selection doesn’t explain anything. Instead, I came to the conclusion that selection operates on multiple levels. On one hand, you have normal Darwinian selection going on all the time, where individuals compete with each other. In addition, however, these individuals now form groups. They are staying together, and consequently it is group versus group.

SPIEGEL: Turning away from kin selection provoked a rather fierce reaction from many of your colleagues.

Wilson: No, it didn’t. The reaction was strong, but it came from a relatively small group of people whose careers are based upon studies of kin selection.

SPIEGEL: Isn’t that too easy? After all, 137 scientists signed a response to your claims. They accuse you of a “misunderstanding of evolutionary theory”.

Wilson: You know, most scientists are tribalists. Their lives are so tied up in certain theories that they can’t let go.

SPIEGEL: Does it even make a substantial difference if humans evolved through kin selection or group selection?

Wilson: Oh, it changes everything. Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We’re all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection.

SPIEGEL: Is this Janus-faced nature of humans our greatest strength at the end of the day?

Wilson: Exactly. This inner conflict between altruism and selfishness is the human condition. And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It’s that eternal conflict that makes us unique.

SPIEGEL: So how do we negotiate this conflict?

Wilson: We don’t. We have to live with it.

SPIEGEL: Which element of this human condition is stronger?

Wilson: Let’s put it this way: If we would be mainly influenced by group selection, we would be living in kind of an ant society.

SPIEGEL: … the ultimate form of communism?

Wilson: Yes. Once in a while, humans form societies that emphasize the group, for example societies with Marxist ideology. But the opposite is also true. In other societies the individual is everything. Politically, that would be the Republican far right.

SPIEGEL: What determines which ideology is predominant in a society?

Wilson: If your territory is invaded, then cooperation within the group will be extreme. That’s a human instinct. If you are in a frontier area, however, then we tend to move towards the extreme individual level. That seems to be a good part of the problem still with America. We still think we’re on the frontier, so we constantly try to put forward individual initiative and individual rights and rewards based upon individual achievement.

SPIEGEL: Earlier, you differentiated between the “virtue” of altruism and the “sin” of individualism. In your book you talk about the “poorer and the better angels” of human nature. Is it helpful to use this kind of terminology?

Wilson: I will admit that using the terminology of “virtue” and “sin” is what poets call a “trope”. That is to say, I wanted the idea in crude form to take hold. Still, a lot of what we call “virtue” has to do with propensities to behave well toward others. What we call “sin” are things that people do mainly out of self-interest.

SPIEGEL: However, our virtues towards others go only so far. Outside groups are mainly greeted with hostility.

Wilson: You are right. People have to belong to a group. That’s one of the strongest propensities in the human psyche and you won’t be able to change that. However, I think we are evolving, so as to avoid war — but without giving up the joy of competition between groups. Take soccer …

SPIEGEL: … or American football.

Wilson: Oh, yes, American football, it’s a blood sport. And people live by team sports and national or regional pride connected with team sports. And that’s what we should be aiming for, because, again, that spirit is one of the most creative. It landed us on the moon, and people get so much pleasure from it. I don’t want to see any of that disturbed. That is a part of being human. We need our big games, our team sports, our competition, our Olympics.

SPIEGEL: “Humans,” the saying goes, “have Paleolithic emotions” …

Wilson: … “Medieval institutions and god-like technology”. That’s our situation, yeah. And we really have to handle that.


Wilson: So often it happens that we don’t know how, also in situations of public policy and governance, because we don’t have enough understanding of human nature. We simply haven’t looked at human nature in the best way that science might provide. I think what we need is a new Enlightenment. During the 18th century, when the original Enlightenment took place, science wasn’t up to the job. But I think science is now up to the job. We need to be harnessing our scientific knowledge now to get a better, science-based self-understanding.

SPIEGEL: It seems that, in this process, you would like to throw religions overboard altogether?

Wilson: No. That’s a misunderstanding. I don’t want to see the Catholic Church with all of its magnificent art and rituals and music disappear. I just want to have them give up their creation stories, including especially the resurrection of Christ.

SPIEGEL: That might well be a futile endeavour …

Wilson: There was this American physiologist who was asked if Mary’s bodily ascent from Earth to Heaven was possible. He said, “I wasn’t there; therefore, I’m not positive that it happened or didn’t happen; but of one thing I’m certain: She passed out at 10,000 meters.” That’s where science comes in. Seriously, I think we’re better off with no creation stories.

SPIEGEL: With this new Enlightenment, will we reach a higher state of humanity?

Wilson: Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Wilson, we thank you for this conversation.

Interview conducted by Philip Bethge and Johann Grolle