A portrait of Ed Wilson

October 26, 2011 • 10:26 am

If you’re a fan of E. O. Wilson, you’ll want to read his profile (written by Howard W. French) in the latest Atantic: “E. O. Wilson’s theory of everything.

It’s long, combining a vignette of Ed’s trip to Mozambique with a retrospective of his career, and makes absorbing reading.  The man is indefatigable, even at 82. Just a few tidbits:

  • Wilson’s novel, Anthill, is characterized as a “bestseller.”  Has anyone read it?
  • Ed denounces Steve Gould in a big way:

Wilson defined sociobiology for me as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Gould savagely mocked both Wilson’s ideas and his supposed hubris in a 1986 essay titled “Cardboard Darwinism,” in The New York Review of Books, for seeking “to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud,” and Wilson still clearly bears a grudge.

“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” he told me. “I believe that he was … seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.” It is easy to imagine Wilson privately resenting Gould for another reason, as well—namely, for choosing Freud as a point of comparison rather than his own idol, Darwin, whom he calls “the greatest man in the world.”

  • A lot of the piece is devoted to the flap over the Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson paper in Nature, which I’ve posted a lot about before (see here and here, for example).  Although the paper quotes some critics of their misguided attack on kin selection (including me), the article makes it seem as if this paper presages a huge revolution in our study of social behavior.  It doesn’t.  Here’s some of the Atlantic’s uncritical hype:
WILSON TOLD ME the new proposed evolutionary model pulls the field “out of the fever swamp of kin selection,” and he confidently predicted a coming paradigm shift that would promote genetic research to identify the “trigger” genes that have enabled a tiny number of cases, such as the ant family, to achieve complex forms of cooperation. His next book, The Social Conquest of Earth, expands on his theories—and takes up the question left dangling at the end of the Nature article. “It starts with posing the questions that I call the most fundamental of philosophy and religion,” he said. “Where did we come from, what are we, and where are we going?”
  • Wilson, despite being known as faith-friendly, is unsparing of religion, but also of philosophy:
Wilson announced that his new book may be his last. It is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities, as well. Summarizing parts of it for me, Wilson was particularly unsparing of organized religion, likening the Book of Revelation, for example, to the ranting of “a paranoid schizophrenic who was allowed to write down everything that came to him.” Toward philosophy, he was only slightly kinder. Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”
  • Wilson proposes a theory for the origin of human sociality and social behavior, which involves the adoption of fixed campsites early in our evolution. That, he says, promoted much of the repeated human interactions that selected for our social behaviors and fixation on sussing out or fellow humans.  This sounds a lot more plausible to me than the invocation of stuff like fire or tool use as key factors in human evolution
  • Wilson also invokes, less plausibly, the importance of group selection in the evolution of human altruism:
“Within groups, the selfish are more likely to succeed,” Wilson told me in a telephone conversation. “But in competition between groups, groups of altruists are more likely to succeed. In addition, it is clear that groups of humans proselytize other groups and accept them as allies, and that that tendency is much favored by group selection.” Taking in newcomers and forming alliances had become a fundamental human trait, he added, because “it is a good way to win.”
  • Finally, what has always endeared Ed to me is his boyish enthusiasm for nature. Even in his ninth decade, he’s travelling all over the world, still collecting ants, still excited by nature and the prospect of a new field site.  His diligence and sense of wonder are an inspiration to all of us:
A FEW DAYS EARLIER, Wilson, remarkably, had taken his very first helicopter ride, a shuttle run that brought him from the nearby port city of Beira to the park’s immense floodplain, dotted by riverine pools thick with caucusing hippos and crocodiles, and finally to a close view of the mountain itself. “Mount Gorongosa!” he exclaimed to me later. “It has always loomed in my imagination as this dark, brooding mountain, but boy, is it magnificent; so bright, so full of life!”
And the piece, though a tad hagiographic, has a great ending:
“For every organism, there exists a problem, for the solution of which that organism is ideally suited,” Wilson said. We had been talking over lunch for about two hours, and Wilson had barely touched his food. He paused for a moment, taking a bite of chicken. “A lot of my work was done with pheromones; then came island biogeography, because I could collect enough ants in a short enough period of time to get an idea of the nature of fauna on different islands.” Only then “came the question, ‘What are the driving forces of evolution?’” He put down his fork, and gave a slight smile. “Ants are always there, and this has given me an edge,” he said. “I’ve ridden ants the whole way.”
Here’s a picture of Ed I took at lunch in 2007; I was at Harvard for the anniversary meetings of Wilson and MacArthur’s book, The Theory of Island Biogeography:

h/t: Madhave

40 thoughts on “A portrait of Ed Wilson

  1. thanks for the letting me know about upcoming “last book of wilson”

    will definitely check it out and see if it has insights into “where we are coming from and where we are going”

    i doubt it would but one always hopes for such things

  2. Yes, I read Anthill last summer, and while fiction is a departure for Wilson, and certainly not his strong suit, the book was entertaining. It seemed autobiographical, following the adventures of a boy in a wilderness area studying ants. He grows up to become an advocate for nature preserves using his education as a biologist and a lawyer. It’s a quick read and endears the reader to Wilson– for me that was not difficult since nobody is a bigger fan of Wilson than I.

    Thank you for the heads up on the Atlantic piece. As a biology student in the 70’s and 80’s Wilson’s books were a huge influence on me and he has continued to shape my world view.

    1. I read Anthill too, and I am quite enthusiastic about it. In my opinion it is a great achievement in the field of popularization of biology. The fact that it is a novel adds greatly to its readability – and to its explanatory and persuasive ‘power’.

    2. I don’t even remember hearing about “Anthill,” much to my shame.

      It should be noted that it really doesn’t take much to make a novel a “bestseller,” these days, especially when the author is quite well known (& connected).

  3. “Wilson proposes a theory for the origin of human sociality and social behavior, which involves the adoption of fixed campsites early in our evolution. That, he says, promoted much of the repeated human interactions that selected for our social behaviors and fixation on sussing out or fellow humans.”

    Wilson’s theory isn’t all that novel except that it focuses on fixed campsites. The social intelligence hypothesis/theory has often been argued as the primary driver in human evolution, so much so that the emphasis on humans could be hurting the generality of the concept (see Barrett et al. 2007 Phil. Trans. RSB).

    Nonetheless, “fixed campsites” would almost certainly create some genetic structuring among groups – seems I’m still stuck in the fever swamp.

    1. My thoughts exactly, this whole “fixed campsites” is far from novel, just look at some work by Glen Isaac in the early 80s–and Wilson accuses Gould of being a Charlatan! Talk about reducing what others have said to caricature.

      And this frickin kin-selection nonsense won’t die. Gardner et al., (2011) addressed all the “flaws” in the theory and more in J. Evol. Biol.

      1. to be clear, you’re saying that it’s Wilson’s frickin anti-kin selection stuff that’s ‘nonsense’, right?

  4. Want some more aggravation? Tarnita was given a very positive profile in The Scientist

    The suggestion provoked intense professional criticism from the evolutionary biology community, which Tarnita took in stride, according to Nowak. “She sought out people on the other side of the debate to discuss the work, and they were disarmed. They tried to find mistakes. There was no mistake.”

  5. I’ll add this to my growing list of Stupid Shit Smart People and Scientists Say About Philosophy (this is a LOOONNNNGGG list). That’s just ignorant, that philosophy was based on a failed model of the brain. First of all, for much of the history of philosophy we had no such model, so he should have at least said ‘mind.’ (Which is true even if the mind turns out to be some kind of brain.) But even that statement is problematic, for various reasons.

    And when you ask them to explain further, they sound just as silly as Deepok Chopra and as uniformed as Ken Ham.

  6. “Wilson proposes a theory for the origin of human sociality and social behavior, which involves the adoption of fixed campsites early in our evolution. That, he says, promoted much of the repeated human interactions that selected for our social behaviors and fixation on sussing out or fellow humans.  This sounds a lot more plausible to me than the invocation of stuff like fire or tool use as key factors in human evolution.”

    I found Richard Wrangham’s book “Catching Fire” to have some persuasive arguments for human evolution.  Of course much of it also had to assume things for which there’s no evidence for at the moment; like Homo erectus controlling fire 1.8 mya.  But there was still some interesting and persuasive evidence (to me at least) to suggest cooking played some part in human evolution as little as 400 000 years ago where there is evidence of fire have been controlled.  I’d be curious to know what others who’ve read it think of it?

    1. “I found Richard Wrangham’s book “Catching Fire” to have some persuasive arguments for human evolution.”

      Absolutely agree. I thought the physiological changes he detailed were quite compelling. Also enjoyed his takedown of raw food diets, since I know several people who swore by them at one time or another.

  7. In some respects, I think Gould was right about Wilson and Wilson was right about Gould. Both men have/had bright spots and both men have/had bizarre, off the wall stances (NOMA, group selection).

    1. yup.

      btw, I recall Dawkins saying that EO’s misunderstanding of kin selection goes back all the way to when he and Gould were battling head to head; even before he wrote “Sociobiology”.

  8. I seem to recall that Gould poured a pitcher of ice water over Wilson’s head at some conference. Or maybe it was Lewontin. I would hold a grudge too.

    1. Hmmm. I just googled this. It was neither–it was a “protestor”. Maybe Gould or Lewontin applauded the action? I can’t recall.

      1. Actually Gould pretty vehemently condemned the action from the podium directly afterwards.

        There’s a first-hand account from an audience member/leftist science commentator out there somewhere.

        Wilson blames Gould for putting the conversation on that footing. With cause.

        Gould got a bit over-excited about what Wilson was proposing at the end of Sociobiology. OTOH Wilson had a long list of fields that he was going to revolutionize having very little notion of what they did and the work that had already been done in them–see his Con-silly-ence. He’s more than a little blinkered.

  9. I dont see how a group is being considered seriously by some scientists on par with individuals as a unit of selection. I of course realise that even individuals are a collection of cells, but looking at an individual as a monolithinc entity makes some sense, since there is a reproductory bottleneck in individuals thereby forcing selfish “members” in a body to cooperate with the rest. But, there is no such bottleneck in a group, as each individual can reproduce on his/her own thus leading to selfish individuals having an advantage.

    Let me say here, that I have no academic background in Biology and that whatever little I know comes from Richard Dawkins and other popular science writers.
    (That hat tip was for me. Yay!)

    1. There are indeed also such reproductory “bottlenecks” in groups (ant species have excellent examples where only the queen and males reproduce). But Dawkins is still able to explain this to be gene-driven.
      However, I still find it likely that the spread of cultural traits are an exception from such very-close, pure “kin” selection. As an explanatory example I would like to hypothesize a “meme”, e.g. in humans the idea of a religion (believe in e.g. god), which is affecting the cost to benefit ratio for performing a (religious) task, with eventually forming (religious) units. Although members of these units could benefit from one another, in turn there might be the risk of costs attached if there are conflicts with “outsiders”.
      So in the example with humans and religion: ultimately the tradition within families and tribes for sticking on specific believes would be driven by the need to cohere as a group, and the cost (C) or benefit (B) connected to it if you are behaving as such an in- or outsider. Certainly such a trait was first made possible by the current set of genes in their environment. But it should be able to easily jump over the family/tribe boundary (at least in humans).
      I don’t know if this was already done (I am off from university since 7 years now and could not follow the scientific discussions anymore), but couldn’t this be easily incorporated via an extension of Hamilton’s relatedness term (R)? E.g. hypothesize:
      C < B x (R + M),
      with "M" having the proximate meaning of "membership" to a group (although ultimately there might stick some "meme" behind).
      This could also apply to social behaviour where M and/or R are zero. And there should be also found behaviors which developed because a factor M decreased the cost to benefit ratio and therefore made it evolutionary stable.

  10. Jerry, I love it when you post about famous scientists and stress the importance of considering the entire ouevre of their work and note the importance of their contributions, warts and all notwithstanding.

    It is humanizing and it is refreshing in the current internet culture of immediate damning for one mis-step. Most of our lives are so much more than any one error; those on the public dais are bound to commit a few here and there, but that should not diminish the importance of their other accomplishments.

    It’s funny how seldom Island Biogeography comes up in discussions of Wilson anymore, when I find it hard to think of anything more responsible for moving ecology/evolutionary science into a quantitative and prediction-generating era.

    1. You should read “Here be dragons: How the Study of Animal and Plant Distributions Revolutionized Our Views of Life and Earth” by
      Dennis McCarthy – all about (island) biogeography.

      1. Also Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, about the evolutionary and conservation applications of island biogeography.

        1. Oh, I have that one! 🙂

          I didn’t so much mean to say that island biogeography was being slighted by biologists as that present-day discussions about Wilson tend to dwell on sociobiology, group selection, etc. (Of course, that does follow his progression.)

  11. I love this, and can say it’s also the case for me. Ants are the endless fascination that I always return to, after all the other nearly as interesting (and not so much so) distractions take me away. For others it’s something else or some other taxon, but I think this sort of recurrent fascination is what inspires many if not all naturalists.

  12. Adopting fixed campsites and the control of fire need not have been independent, of course. I think that’s Wrangham’s view.

  13. Sociobiology was ground breaking, not so much now. What can we say bad about someone who loves social insects.

    Generalizing to human and social policy issues is just dum but predictable as scientists, especially the guys, get older and their glory days lie in the fading past.

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