In his 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures,” British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow famously lamented the gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals—thinkers who, although comparable in intelligence and social circumstance, shared such mutual incomprehension that in a trip from the scientific societies of South Kensington to the bohemian haunts of Chelsea, “one might have crossed an ocean.”
And if one actually traversed the Atlantic, Snow continued, “one found Greenwich Village talking precisely the same language as Chelsea, and both having about as much communication with MIT as though the scientists spoke nothing but Tibetan.”
But if Snow had visited MIT in 1959 and walked but two miles west, he would have found one newly appointed Harvard Professor of Zoology whose work on ants was about to catapult him toward both a prolific scientific and literary career: Edward O. Wilson.
After a half-century’s work at Harvard, Wilson is regarded as the father of sociobiology—the biological study of behavior. He has written over 25 books, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes. Now, at the age of 82, he presents his summa work, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” which will be released on April 9. It is a radical treatise on the human condition, and an attempt to overturn the very evolutionary ideas that have distinguished him as “Darwin’s natural heir.”
Wilson frames “The Social Conquest of Earth” as a dialogue with painter Paul Gauguin, who penned on the canvas of his 1897 Tahitian masterpiece: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
The painting, which graces the book’s cover, provocatively depicts Wilson’s dual identity as a man of science and letters.
“Innovators in both of two domains are basically dreamers and storytellers,” Wilson writes. “In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story…some [parts] which are discarded and new ones added.”
SCHOPENHAUER’S THREE STAGES
Wilson discards and adds evolutionary ideas aggressively in “The Social Conquest of Earth.” In a professional about-face, he argues that “eusociality”—which describes a group of organisms with members that forego reproduction to carry out specialized labor—does not evolve through kin selection, a theory which he helped champion at the height of his career.
First proposed by British biologist W.D. Hamilton in 1964, kin selection explains that under certain circumstances, an organism will forego reproduction—the ultimate Darwinian sacrifice—to promote the survival of those who are genetically related to it. Kin selection explains the existence of sterile female worker castes of ants, wasps, and bees—who peculiarly share more genetic similarity with each other than they would with their offspring. According to Hamilton, this altruism is a façade: it is in the sisters’ evolutionary interest to care for their queen, who would bear them more sisters, than to propagate their genes through their own reproduction.
If Hamiltonian kin selection was sociobiology’s gospel, Wilson was its evangelist—he advocated the theory in his field-defining 1975 work, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.” In the work, Wilson applied kin selection to the persistence of altruistic behavior from insects to the higher vertebrates.
It was in his final extension of kin selection to human beings—proposing that altruism and morality were in fact evolutionary adaptive, and employed in one’s self-interest—that Wilson came under fire.
“I thought my ideas would be welcomed, but boy, no person in the history of science was ever more wrong,” Wilson says.
“It was the white heat of the Cold War,” he continued, and he faced vicious animosity from leftist social intellectuals who recoiled at his proposal of a genetically determined human nature. The idea of “nature over nurture”—that one’s nature was shaped by genes—uncomfortably echoed the eugenic bigotry of the Nazis.
Nearly four decades later, Wilson remains unafraid to advocate unpopular ideas. Furthermore, he has shown, with the mark of a scientist, that he is willing to change his mind.