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The Second Wave Hits Wilson


By Christopher B. Daly

When Edward O. Wilson, professor of Zoology, published his 575-page treatise, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, this summer, he knew it would draw criticism. He said he expected an initial wave of favorable response from scientists who were "primed" for the appearance of the book and who share many of Wilson's assumptions about the importance of evolutionary biology for understanding human behavior.

Lately, however, a less pleasant "second wave" of response has started to hit Wilson.

But with the publication of a long critical letter in the latest New York Review of Books signed by four of his colleagues at Harvard and an hour of mostly hostile questions during a jammed Thursday afternoon talk at Burr Hall, Wilson is being forced to defend many of the conclusions he reached in Sociobiology.

Essentially, Wilson claims that human social behavior appears in such consistent forms under such a wide variety of circumstances and pressures that there is at least a "strong suggestion" that behavior operates with constraints that must be genetically determined.

The current debate, not surprisingly, is a mixture of genuine academic debate, ad hoc hominem vitriol and political fulminations. Many scientists and non-scientists accuse Wilson of falling prey to the "naturalistic fallacy:" what exists helps the species survive and is thus right.

Wilson specifically rejects this criticism, arguing that by the logic of evolutionary thought the opposite is as often true: what is may be destructive to the species.

His critics object most strenuously to his assertions that such phenomena as sex-linked behavioral differences, territoriality and aggression are fundamental aspects of what Wilson calls "human nature" and have a genetic basis.

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