E. O. Wilson: “I’m not an atheist—I’m a scientist” (and ant lagniappe)

January 22, 2015 • 3:45 pm

The January 27th issue of New Scientist contains an interview with Ed Wilson that has a few interesting tidbits. The tile, “E. O. Wilson: Religous faith is dragging us down,” makes you think it’s going to be about the problems of faith, but it’s mostly about the loss of biodiversity and about his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence (I haven’t read it and probably won’t). Here’s a few bits of the Q&A, kindly sent by reader Steve, who cut and pasted the interview into an email for me. (I can’t get the latest issue of the journal, even electronically, from my library, so the link above just gives you a paragraph.)

First, I hadn’t realized that this new book was part 2 of a trilogy:

So will you examine humanity’s future next?
I’m writing a trilogy. The first was The Social Conquest of Earth, which dealt with where we come from.The Meaning of Human Existence deals with what we are. And the final part, The End of the Anthropocene, will look at where we are going.

The major theme of that upcoming book will be that we are destroying Earth in a way that people haven’t appreciated enough, and that we are eroding away the biosphere through species extinction, like the death of a thousand cuts. I want to examine the new ideology of the anthropocene – namely those who believe that the fight for biodiversity is pretty much lost and we should just go on humanising Earth until it is peopled from pole to pole; a planet by, of and for humanity. It sounds good, but it’s suicidal.

I read the first book and panned it in the Times Literary Supplement; it just wasn’t very good, even though it disses religion. One of the main problems was that it promoted (in the absence of any evidence) group selection as the major cause of nearly every human trait affecting human and ant social behavior. Perhaps the new book is better, but I wish Wilson would get off his group-selection hobbyhorse and maybe curb the philosophizing.  His call to retain biodiversity and stop destroying the planet is of course worthwhile, but do we need him to tell us what we are, given that his attempt to tell us where we came from was so flawed?

Wilson continues his critique of religion, which I think is great since he’s so widely admired. People have to sit up a bit when such a famous (and affable) scientist says stuff like this:

Is atheism the answer?
In fact, I’m not an atheist – I’m a scientist. Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god: “Come, my fellow atheists, let us march together and conquer those idiots who think there is a god – all these other tribes. We’re going to prevail.”

I would even say I’m agnostic because I’m a scientist. Being an agnostic means saying, dogmatically, that we will never be able to know, so give it up. The important thing is that it appears that humans, as a species, share a religious impulse. You can call it theological, you can call it spiritual, but humans everywhere have a strong tendency to wonder about whether they’re being looked over by a god or not. Practically every person ponders whether they’re going to have another life. These are the things that unite humanity.

If humans have a built-in spiritual yearning, can we do anything about it?
This transcendent searching has been hijacked by the tribal religions. So I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths. But certainly not eliminating the natural yearnings of our species or the asking of these great questions.

As you might have guessed, I’m not 100% on board with his answer to the first question. Yes, I think that acting like a scientist means that one can never say for certain that there is no God. There’s always the possibility that some evidence will come along that will convince us that some kind of supernatural being exists. (Let’s not have any arguments here about aliens and the Matrix tricking us, okay?) But it’s misleading to say that “I’m an agnostic about God because we can never know for sure.” When I hear that, which is fairly often, my response is always the same. I ask the person, “Are you also an agnostic about fairies and the existence of the Loch Ness Monster?” No, nobody is an agnostic about fairies and Nessie. Why? Because while, like God, they are a theoretical possibility (as is everything), there is ample evidence to support the contention that “No, for all practical purposes they don’t exist.” You would bet your house that fairies don’t exist, and that’s what we mean by “confidence.” The same goes for God.

The problem with this construal of “agnostic” is that it makes people think that “Well, Wilson thinks there’s a 50/50 chance that God may exist.” And I think people who say they’re agnostics want people to think that, because it’s not popular to assert that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. (That, after all, was the bus slogan that everyone hated.)

As for the second question, Wilson gives a better answer.

Finally, here’s some biology emanating from a very good question:

From all these big questions to the smallest creatures… I cannot interview the world’s best known ant expert without asking: do you have a favourite?
I do. It’s an ant called Thaumatomyrmex. In all my travels, I’ve only seen three. They’re very rare. It has teeth on jaws that look like a pitchfork. The teeth are extremely long, and when it closes the jaws, they overlap. In at least one species, the teeth actually meet behind the head. So what does this monster eat? What does it use those teeth for? I just had to know, so I sent an appeal out to younger experts in the field, particularly in South America, where these ants are found.

Eventually they discovered the answer: it feeds on polyxenid millipedes. These millipedes have soft bodies, but they’re bristling all over like a porcupine. So the ant drives a spike right through the bristles and nails it. And what we hadn’t noticed is that the ant also has thick little brushes [on some of its limbs], and members of the colony use these to scrub the bristles off – like cleaning a chicken – before dividing it up. That’s my favourite.

Here’s a picture of that Thaumatomyrmex taken by Alex Wild:

atrox8-L Its head:


A polyxenid millipede (from Nature Closeups), showing why the ants need that pitchfork and spine-scraping legs:


An explanation of the behavior from Macromite’s Blog:

Neotropical ants of the genus Thaumatomyrmex (they feign death when disturbed) hunt the polyxenids abundant in leaf litter (Brandão et al. 1991). A polyxenid is seized by the ant’s antennae, snapped by the wicked-looking mandibles, and then stung and carried back to the nest. In the nest the paralyzed polyxenid is turned belly up and stripped of its setae using the fore tarsi which have “small but stout setae” (perhaps too stout to be engaged by the grappling hooks) and the mandibles. This can take 20 minutes, interrupted by bouts of grooming, so it seems the polyxenid setae may still be fighting back. Brandão et al. thought the setae must have a noxious chemical – this being the normal millipede defence – but Eisner & Deyrup have shown that the morphology of the setae themselves can be fatal and no chemical defence need be invoked. The hunter then eats most of the polyxenid and feeds the remains to a larva.

And a diagram of the behavior showing, respectively, discovery, stinging, cleaning, and nomming (from AntyScience):


59 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson: “I’m not an atheist—I’m a scientist” (and ant lagniappe)

  1. “Let’s not have any arguments here about aliens and the Matrix tricking us, okay?”

    Personally, I like using the Matrix argument the other way – that we can be reasonably certain about things even if we can’t be absolutely positive. Just like I can’t absolutely rule out living in a simulation, I can’t rule out the existence of a god. They’re both (extremely remote) possibilities, and if I was ever presented with compelling evidence I would consider them, but for the time being I’ll go on living my life as if they’re not true.

    1. Exactly!

      Clarke’s “superior technology” argument is a philosophical gap argument, meaning ‘Don’t you dare hold up this question to the same standard of evidence that we use everywhere else!’

      It goes nowhere. And if one would try to implement it, statistics of hypothesis testing makes such singular probabilities out to be zero probability mass, inherently of no empirical value.

      On the other hand it is a humorous example to what painful lengths theology goes to propound from a position of know-nothing. It is good for a laugh.

      But that is all it is.

      1. I think you may be missing the point of Clarke’s “law”. It’s not an argument for or against deities/magic, it’s simply an endorsement of skepticism: “Well, what else could be going on here?”

        1. I should add that it in fact relies on a reasonable interpretation of evidence: we have lots of evidence for technology but none for “real” magic, so we should certainly consider the possibility that what superficially looks like magic might just be fancy technology.

    2. The metaphor I use is that “Matrix” and “god” and a few others are “exceptions” in the programming sense for my epistemology. If I am so disastrously wrong, I reserve the right to do the epistemic equivalent of an error handler of some profound level before anything else. In that sense I am a weak pragmatist.

  2. And a diagram of the behavior showing, respectively, discovery, stinging, cleaning, and nomming

    Wouldn’t it be easier to go dine at the local Thaumatomyrmex Tapas bistro? They probably have a nice vintage nectar to go with it.

  3. By the definition of many, agnosticism is a form of atheism. In such a semantic scheme, “strong” atheism or “gnostic” atheism denies the existence of gods; agnostic atheism or agnosticism simply does not make claims, positive or negative, regarding the existence of gods, but just denies that there is any good evidence in favor of their existence. It would help communication and discussion if we could get the semantics straight.

    1. Your scheme fudges “knowledge” & “belief” into one. I’m an agnostic [knowledge claim], atheist [belief claim], anti-theist [cos theism is bad]

      I don’t position agnosticism somewhere on the x axis between atheism & theism – it’s at right angles on the y axis.

      Your scheme doesn’t allow for agnostic atheism nor agnostic theism. And what about apathetic or pragmatic agnosticism too for the win? 🙂

      1. How do I not allow for agnostic atheism? I used the phrase explicitly.

        I do allow for agnostic theism and gnostic theism, I just didn’t address it explicitly.

        1. Your description/definition of “agnostic atheism” places agnosticism as a position [or range] entirely on the line [and only on the line] between atheism & theism as far as I can tell. I don’t agree with that as my first comment makes clear.

          1. So what you actually meant to say was that you disagree with my characterization of agnostic atheism, not that I don’t allow for it.

            People who make strong claims about their beliefs are claiming knowledge, whether of the existence or nonexistence of god(s). I disagree with their knowledge claims, but I assume they are sincere that their beliefs are what they know. Therefore, I don’t see a need to draw a distinction.

            1. So I have characterised your position correctly as being one where you use a sliding scale between atheism/theism – because you equate belief with knowledge.

              I prefer to distinguish the two – one reason for this [there are others] is to tackle arguments regarding the nature of knowledge as used by theists who will often try to place their “belief” & “revelation” & “sensus divinitus” [hope I’ve spelled that correctly] as knowing/knowledge – it makes the target clear to both parties.

              1. What else is knowledge but belief with a certain associated amount of certainty? (in which case I’m of course using ‘belief’ in the sense of ‘mental state of taking something to be true’, not as an equivalent to ‘faith’)

                Atheist is a belief related to the existence of any god or gods. Agnosticism is a belief related to the perceived certainty of a given belief (such as atheism). As a result, the (a)theism and (a)gnosticism can be displayed orthogonally, but because theism and atheism can also be approached as a opposite and discrete(false/true) beliefs, they can be used in combination with (a)gnostism as a continuous variable to produce a single range with expanding certainty away from the center, and theism and atheism representing the two opposing directions on the range.

    2. It isn’t a question of philosophical-theological semantics. EO Wilson gets it right (but perversely can’t see that he comes down on the wrong side of the fence):

      “Being an agnostic means saying, dogmatically, that we will never be able to know, so give it up.”

      This is a theological claim that most agnostics use. Even “denies that there is any good evidence [in favor of their existence]” is a problematic claim along that tradition.

      The other side of that coin is that philosophic theology gets “strong atheism” wrong too. A strong position of atheism can claim that there are no gods beyond reasonable doubt, the same quality of evidence we use for other observations. [Say, from thermodynamics of closed systems we can see that there is no religious magic agencies acting.] But we can’t deny that gods _could_ exist in some perverse form of physical universe.

      I am sure there exist dogmatic atheists out there, as any other fringe idea it should find its support. But those are empirically weak, rejecting the worth of the evidence we have.

  4. Also, that’s an awesome looking millipede. If I encountered it in the wild, at a glance I would have mistaken it for a caterpillar.

  5. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence continues with the group selection business as I recall. He installs an Appendix in the book to go over the thing again. He seems to be upset that many scientist, especially Richard Dawkins does not agree with him.

    1. I can’t understand why group selection in not a factor in evolution. Why, otherwise, would so many species have a propensity to live in groups.

      1. Not sure if this is supposed to be humorous or a genuine question.

        If the latter, then selection for living in groups can be readily explained in terms of advantage to individual group members (i.e. not group selection).

      2. Every member of a herd benefits from the difficulties grouping places on attack minded predators. Herds grow big because isolated individuals are more at risk and (are selected to) seek the herd for added safety. The first act of a predator is often to isolate its quarry from the herd. That is the theory, but other advantages (and disadvantages) exist, depending upon the specific situation.

  6. I was surprised that PCC didn’t jump Wilson over his statement that, “Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god:”- there’s a big difference between a lack of belief in a God or gods (“disbelief” is defined as, “a refusal or reluctance to believe”) and saying, “I believe there is no God”- the latter is used by faithiests to claim, wrongly, that atheism is just another “faith-based belief system, like religion”, in order to make it look unimportant and even hypocritical. It demonstrates Wilson’s ignorance of the subject and I thought it interesting that he seems to think that the “declaration” that there is no God is some sort of necessity for an atheist: am I required to make a “declaration” that there are no fairies, or unicorns, or Loch Ness monster, etc. before I can qualify as having a lack of belief in these things?

    1. I see this misconception (esp. in laypeople, i.e. those that have not ever thought much about epistemology) as an unfortunately permanent state of affairs. It’s really depressing to me when scientists, who really should know better get it so wrong.

      1. A quote from Bertrand Russell:

        I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

        On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

        I suspect that no matter how carefully you define anti-theist, atheist, agnostic and theist, different audiences will override those definitions with unconsciously primed definitions of their own. And that is the reason why we get into these unproductive debates…

  7. “Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god”

    Precisely, but it’s an evidence-based belief, just like any other scientific “belief.”

    I’m an atheist because of the overwhelming and conclusive evidence against the existence of the omnipotent & loving God. The presence of genetic diseases like progeria syndrome, Down syndrome, all kinds of pediatric cancers, flesh eating bacteria, brain eating amoebas, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc in our world, is enough to discard the hypothesis of a perfect and human-loving creator.

    It seems to me that agnostics are simply scared to look at the cold hard facts on the ground.

    1. Another aspect of claiming the agnosticism label over atheism is the propaganda that has been put out by theists for literally millenia. Namely that any atheist is immoral, evil, in league with the Devil and not the sort of person to employ or do business with, let alone get married to or vote for.

      No wonder anyone letting go of their faith doesn’t want to use that label, which is the whole point of the slurs anyway.

  8. In fact, I’m not an atheist – I’m a scientist. Atheism is the belief that there is no god, and you declare there is no god: “Come, my fellow atheists, let us march together and conquer those idiots who think there is a god – all these other tribes. We’re going to prevail.”

    Okay, so Wilson seems to be saying here that he’s not part of an atheist movement, that he’s against the idea that atheists should be declaring they are atheists and trying to argue against faith. He’s not going to do that, no sir. That’s just like tribalism, that “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Not for him, he’s staying away from that whole topic and letting the religious follow their religious impulses.

    Ah, yes. Okay.

    This transcendent searching has been hijacked by the tribal religions. So I would say that for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.

    Wait — what???

    Sorry, I just hurt my neck. “The best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”

    Uh huh. And how pray tell are we supposed to do this if we sneer and shake our wise gray heads over “come my fellow atheists, let’s march together and blah blah blah conquer and prevail?” As in “diminish to the point of eliminating?”

    Is it just me or is E. O. Wilson contradicting himself here?

    1. I had the same reaction. Wilson’s thoughts on the matter don’t seem terribly clear or well thought through, or even particularly educated on the subject.

      Love the bit about the ant though!

  9. Interesting that polyxenids,pretty much identical to those shown, are common in forest litter of coastal coniferous forest and oak woodland in the Pacific Northwest. Probably among the few forest floor arthropods in common with the South American tropics.

  10. No, nobody is an agnostic about fairies and Nessie

    Actually it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you could still find agnostics and even full-blown believers in Nessie. There were certainly still plenty of them in the 1980’s (including my mother), though perhaps not in the USA.

    1. I have Spiritual-but-not-religious friends who hover between belief and agnosticism on fairies and Nessie. Their respect for faith and their scorn for skepticism is so high that if they don’t believe then they seem to see that as an inadequacy on their part. You should at least want to try: it opens your mind to “possibilities.”

      Coming up with analogies involving “things which we all recognize as false” in this group is a major challenge.

        1. No, analogies for weird, bizarre, fringe beliefs which they reject. “Holocaust denial” seems to be the safest bet.

          When asked for examples directly they react like deer in the headlights. They think ALL beliefs which trip any sort of “spiritual” or “deeply-held” sensor should be smiled upon graciously by tolerant, accepting people, regardless of how “fringe” it is. Being rejected by the Establishment is actually a benefit. They admire the rebel mindset — and use it to rebel against the idea that one can or should separate a belief from the believer.

          1. That’s why when sufficiently exasperated by this move, I make up something totally ridiculous. For example, someone once said they’d be willing to investigate *anything* for cancer treatment. So I said something like, “would you investigate a mixture of car battery acid, Skittles candy and vaseline?” Needless to say I got a rather pointed silence as a result.

            1. Heh.

              Prior scientific plausibility is one of the things that separates Science-Based medicine from Evidence-based medicine. Given enough trials done by hopeful researchers there will eventually be some sort of positive results for using car battery acid, Skittles, and Vaseline on cancer — enough at least to “call for more research.”

              I once used “drinking Coke” as an example of a proposed cure for the common cold — in order to illustrate the distinction between personal experience and scientific methodology. The attitude towards soft drinks among the crunchy granola altie set seems somewhat similar to their attitude towards battery acid.

      1. Aparently Mohammed Yusuf (the founder of Boko Haram) said in In a 2009 BBC interview that the concept of a spherical Earth is contrary to Islamic teaching and should be rejected, along with Darwinian evolution, and the concept of rain originating from water evaporated by the sun.

  11. Wilson says, “The important thing is that it appears that humans, as a species, share a religious impulse.” Lately, I have been wondering about this. Is it true, or did it come because/after we started gathering in groups? It’s the chicken and the egg (at least, before evolution solved that problem), but I think the point deserves some examination. If we do not really have such impulses, but they have been pushed on us by society, say by those in power wanting to keep us in line (much as they use nationalist sentiment: “X is a great country!”, where x is the name of yours), then maybe there is a way out.

    1. I’ve often speculated that ‘the religious impulse’ is only a philosophical construct – but one that arises from low level instincts of a troop or social species.

      If you are subconsciously aware of ‘socially acceptable behaviour’, and the possibility that the alpha male (or female) may see you doing something unacceptable, it is only a short step to summarizing the feelings arising from this subconscious awareness as an external invisible agent that ‘wants you to behave certain ways’.

      1. And keep in mind that the “subconscious awareness of an external invisible agent that wants you to behave in certain ways” is learned from experience by babies, when they touch a no-no and a caregiver seemingly swoops in from nowhere with an inexplicable knowledge of what they just did. And it has ever been so …

      2. The ‘religious impulse’ is only ever seen, now, in people previously exposed to the religion of others. There is absolutely no basis to think of it as innate (or having particularly deep roots in our lineage), any more than art or science or the vocabulary and grammar of any particular language. Art, science, language and religion are things that are out there (as Harry might have said to Sally) but what we do about them is optional.

  12. In fact, I’m not an atheist – I’m a scientist.

    I like the comment by JBS Haldane when asked a similar question:

    My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

  13. Amazingly Wilson seems to be an ‘agnostic’, in almost the exact same way that a great many atheists are ‘atheist’, and very much unlike a great many agnostics are ‘agnostic’.

    It’s strange that someone who has written so much still falls over the basic concept of adherence to common parlance: when using a word, always keep in mind how it’s typically used, and if you’re using it definitely (e.g. as a matter of jargon) then make sure to emphasize that. He does not seem to realize it, let alone emphasize it :-/.

  14. Wilson needs a new term to describe his position, something like “evidence based atheist”.

    When using the word “scientist”, which is noble and straightforward, the general public sees that designation as being readily compatible with faith. Wilson is not really distinquishing himself, if that was his aim.

    1. I tend (when needed) to describe myself as an atheist due to empirical considerations (that’s not all of it, but covers the fundamentals, as I see it).

  15. I don’t think Wilson is espousing agnosticism here.

    I think “would” is a misprint and should read “wouldn’t”. I think he’s saying that because agnosticism means (according to his own definition) knowing anything about the god question is a priori proscribed, and because being a scientist (again, according to his own def) means not closing off any possible avenue down which the evidence may lead, that he can’t even say he’s “agnostic”.

    1. Not that I agree with him, because I don’t. I think there’s more than enough evidence to lead us down the avenue “religion is man-made and atheism is the proper conclusion”.

  16. I suppose when it comes to the existence of Santa Claus, E.O. Wilson can similarly plead agnosticism on scientific grounds…

    Though what I don’t get is why people just don’t think the question is settled already. Show me a conception of God that we should be genuinely agnostic about… I don’t think there is one, because most conceptions of God either fail in terms of coherence (the claims about God are “not even wrong”) or fail because they make claims about the world that contradict the evidence already (such as the problem of evil, or the problem of physical minds). Is there any serious case for God out there we should be genuinely agnostic about?

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