Edward O. Wilson does not have the wild-eyed countenance of an Albert Einstein to make him a caricature of the mad scientist, the persona that Einstein so fastidiously crafted. In fact, he’s only just one eye with which to reckon the world, but it’s hard to tell right off hand when looking at him which is the bad one. And outside of his bad eye, he’s a rather ordinary looking fellow. One who would appear could be an insurance agent, possibly, or maybe the neighbor with a winter garden of fresh greens you pass by on a walk.
Wilson is not from an exotic locale and he doesn’t speak only haltingly passable English. He grew up on Mobile Bay, in South Alabama, and his command of English is utterly brilliant, rivaling even his command and understanding of the social insects, particularly ants, which first gained him notoriety as a Harvard biologist.
Outside of his monocular disadvantages, he’s not afflicted with any peculiar wasting diseases slowly turning him into a disembodied mind such as the leading popular physicist of today endures with a resolve sufficient to contribute to his celebrity.
Edward O Wilson is today only a minor deity in the pantheon of science, popular and otherwise. But one day, undoubtedly posthumously as he’s getting along in age, he will be lionized as the genius who first had the courage to revolutionize and synthesize the various studies of human beings, from anthropology to sociology to economics, around the theory of evolution by natural selection, the abiding principle governing all of life. It is Wilson who first popularized the notion that all behavior in animals, including man, has a discoverable basis in genetics. It is Wilson who set the social sciences academy on its ear by speculating, and then backfilling with proof, that the mind is not a tabula rasa, to be written upon at will by social scientists. It is Wilson who first had the temerity to claim that the human mind arrives innately attributed, not capable of being pliantly molded in any manner a Skinnerian behaviorist might wish.
Ultimately, Wilson may one day remembered as the prophet who warned the world that its zeal for solutions to social problems was leading it in the wrong direction; that the progressive engineering of social environments can have only the level of impact as the genes allow; that practically all of what we believe about human beings is wrong, and so practically all our attempts at modifying behavior is wrong.
Edward O. Wilson might be vilified instead of lionized, if in some future Dark Ages, people forget everything that objective inquiry into human nature has revealed, and revert to the mysticism of shamans and priests in providing their reason to endure the pain of existence.
The picture Wilson paints is undoubtedly a bleak one in some quarters. He accounts for religion and the notion of higher power and purpose in the same manner as all other human attributes are accounted, as relevant and important only because of how such beliefs tend to contribute to genetic fitness, to the individual and collective ability to survive and prosper.
In the end, in what Wilson calls the ‘second dilemma’ that would befall a psychically adult humanity, is the realization that all we are is imperfect vessels for seeing our genes through this generation to the next as purely and preciously as possible. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians they carried the eternal word of God in jars of clay in order so that they might protect and propagate it. In Paul’s day, jars of clay were considered to be sturdy and dependable vessels. Nature gives us nothing but these corruptible bodies to carry along its holy and eternal writ, the genes written into our DNA. Though Wilson doesn’t explicitly say as much, the moralities of biology and theology are concerned with the same things. Whatever enhances the survival and propagation of God’s eternal word accomplishes the same for Mother Nature’s genes.
On Human Nature is the third in what Wilson says unwittingly became a trilogy, commencing with The Insect Societies in 1971, continuing with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, and particularly its last chapter on applying sociobiological principles to the social behaviors of man. On Human Nature is a succinct masterpiece that won Wilson a Pulitzer Prize. Running to only 260 pages, including glossary, notes and index, it synthesizes to a compact form, suitable to carry in every social scientist’s briefcase, what we’ve learned about human behaviors. The book is so good in dispensing so efficiently and effectively so much muddle-headed thinking in the humanities that it ought be required reading for every humanities major or biologist. And it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to read it, because everyone needs some insight as to how humans behave and why. Even the most astute physical scientist needs to understand the inherent imperfections of the vessel with which he is investigating the world. And he needs to understand that he is investigating the world with a vessel that was intended for a different purpose, and one whose biases are inescapable.
If you are interested in the biological sources of human behavior (who isn’t?) get the book and read it. And then go backwards, and read Sociobiology. And keep on to The Insect Societies, as I intend to do. The ideas propounded by sociobiology make it something like the Rosetta Stone for the humanities, translating them all into the language of evolution theory, as must be done if they are to have any hope of making sense. The theory of evolution is not just one of the most powerful theories in science, it is the most powerful theory in science. Regarding its specific application to life (and it is not just applicable to life), there is no hope of understanding without it.