E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

E. O. Wilson’s Theory of Everything involves both individual selection and group selection — but what jumped out at me (and Razib Khan) was this passage:

This is hardly the first scientific controversy surrounding Wilson. An even bigger fight erupted around him in the 1970s, as he laid out his ideas on sociobiology in three landmark books, The Insect Societies, Sociobiology, and On Human Nature. At issue throughout were his claims that our genes not only are responsible for our biological form, but help shape our instincts, including our social nature and many other individual traits.

These contentions drew fierce criticism from all across the social sciences, and from prominent specialists in evolution such as Wilson’s late Harvard colleague, Stephen Jay Gould, who helped lead the charge against him.

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.”

“Darwin is the one who changed everything, our self-conception; greater than Copernicus,” Wilson told me. “This guy is irritatingly correct, time and time again, even when he has limited evidence.” In Darwin’s mold, the thrust of Wilson’s life work has been aimed at changing humankind’s self-conception. Indeed it can be difficult, from today’s vantage point, to see what much of the fuss of the 1970s was about, so thoroughly has the Wilsonian idea that our genes shape our nature penetrated the mainstream.


  1. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    But of course, it’s easy to understand what all the fuss was about, most certainly never the less tempestuous to date, which the writer self-consciously passivates, both out of fear, and hope: ‘hahah, look at how silly this all was, cant we put all this sillyness behind us, my fellow thoughtful free-thinking liberals?’

    Naturally, acknowledging the reality that gens has something to do with virtu would have wide ranging implications; for example, it could implicate that the plight of sub-sahran bantus might have something to do with sub-saharan bantus; which in turn could implicate that the bluewhite political project of disenfranchising redwhites might have been a con-job all along; and we certainly can’t have that!

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