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E.O. WILSON on Cooperation & the Tribal Mind

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2021

Photo: Gerald Forster

by Richard Conniff

Discover Magazine, June 2006


Edward O. Wilson has spent a lifetime squinting at ants and has come away with some of the biggest ideas in evolutionary biology since Darwin. “Sociobiology” and “biodiversity” are among the terms he popularized, as is “evolutionary biology” itself.

He has been in the thick of at least two nasty scientific brawls. In the 1950s, his field of systematics, the traditional science of identifying and classifying species based on their anatomies, was being shoved aside by molecular biology, which focused on genetics. His Harvard University colleague James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA, declined to acknowledge Wilson when they passed in the hall. Then in the 1970s, when Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, other Harvard colleagues attacked the idea of analyzing human behavior from an evolutionary perspective as sexist, racist, or worse. He bore all the hostility in the polite, courtly style of his Southern upbringing, and largely prevailed. Sociobiology, though still controversial, has become mainstream as evolutionary psychology. The molecular biology wars may also be ending in a rapprochement, he says, as the “test tube jockeys” belatedly recognize that they need the “stamp collector” systematists after all.

Wilson, who turns 77 this month, has published three books during the past year that fit his own wry definition of a magnum opus: “a book which when dropped from a three-story building is big enough to kill a man.” Nature Revealed (Johns Hopkins) is a selection of his writings since 1949. From So Simple a Beginning (W. W. Norton) is an anthology of writings by Darwin, and Pheidole in the New World (Harvard) is a reorganization of an entire ant genus, including 341 new species Wilson discovered and more than 600 of his own drawings.

RC: You once wrote that you saw yourself parading provocative ideas “like a subaltern riding the regimental colors along the enemy line.”

Wilson: That’s right, “along the enemy line.” That’s an adolescent and very Southern way of putting it, but I wanted to say that I’m a risk taker at heart.

RC: And a provocateur?

Wilson: Yes, but not a controversialist. There’s a distinction. Once I feel I’m right, I have enjoyed provoking.

RC: Your adversaries from the 1970s would be appalled by how much your ideas about sociobiology have taken hold.

Wilson: The opposition has mostly fallen silent. Anyway, it was promoted by what turned out to be a very small number of biologists with a 1960s political agenda. Most of the opposition came from the social sciences, where it was visceral and almost universal.

RC: The social scientists were threatened by the invasion of their territory?

Wilson: That’s right.

RC: The same way that you were threatened by the molecular biologists invading the biological field in the 1950s?

Wilson: They didn’t invade it so much as they dismissed it. What’s been gratifying is to live long enough to see molecular biology and evolutionary biology growing toward each other and uniting in research efforts. It’s personally satisfying and symbolic that Jim Watson and I now get on so well. We even appeared onstage a couple of times together during the 50th anniversary year of the discovery of DNA.

RC: You once described Watson as “the most unpleasant human being” you’d ever met. (Keep reading)

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