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Remembering E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology 

Richard Weikart
Photo: E. O. Wilson, by Jim Harrison, CC BY 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: Biologist E. O. Wilson, founder of sociobiology, passed away on December 26, 2021. In his book The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, CSC Senior Fellow Richard Weikart analyzed Wilson’s contributions to thinking about human nature, morality, and religion. The following is republished here with the permission of Professor Weikart.

[Konrad] Lorenz’s stress on biological determinism was not widely shared in the 1950s and 1960s, but biological determinism made a sustained comeback beginning in the 1970s, when Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson founded sociobiology. Wilson, an entomologist specializing in ants, studies their instinctual social behavior. In his seminal work, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), Wilson explains, “Sociobiology is defined as the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” He argues that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is controlled by material processes in the brain that evolved through natural selection. He also admonishes scholars to recast ethics on the basis of biological knowledge.1 After all, as he states in a co-authored article in 1985, “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.”2 However, Wilson does not think ethics would ever be completely adequate until biological knowledge advanced to the point that it could provide a complete materialistic explanation of human behavior.3

A Low View of Humanity

Wilson does not have a very high view of humanity. In Sociobiology he stated that “in evolutionary time the individual organism counts for almost nothing.” The only significance of an individual organism is to reproduce: “the organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”4 Though he was discussing organisms in general here, he always included humans in his analysis (the final chapter in Sociobiology was on humans). Three years later he applied sociobiology to humans in a book-length treatise, On Human Nature. He argued that despite many variations in human behavior, “Human behavior . . . is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function.”5 At the beginning of his memoirs he explains how his worldview shapes his view of humanity: 

When the century began, people could still easily think of themselves as transcendent beings, dark angels confined to Earth awaiting redemption by either soul or intellect. Now most or all of the relevant evidence from science points in the opposite direction: that, having been born into the natural world and evolved there step by step across millions of years, we are bound to the rest of life in our ecology, our physiology, and even our spirit.6

Elsewhere he stated that his empirical, scientific worldview “has destroyed the giddying theory that we are special beings placed by a deity in the center of the universe in order to serve as the summit of Creation for the glory of the gods.”7

Behavior, Morality, Religion

Wilson believes that everything about humans — behavior, morality, and even religion — is ultimately explicable as the result of completely material processes. Even our most deeply held beliefs are simply products of mindless evolutionary processes inscribed on our gray matter: “Perhaps, as I believe, it [religion] can all eventually be explained as brain circuitry and deep, genetic history.”8 Wilson admits that he is a reductionist, and he exudes optimism that scientists will someday explain everything about human behavior. In Consilience (1998), which is a plea to bring the social and human sciences completely under the sway of natural science, he asks, “Given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences?” Wilson claims that ultimately every phenomenon in the cosmos can be reduced to physical laws, so the human mind is simply physical brain activity, and humans have no free will.9

In 2009, on the bicentennial of Darwin’s birthday and the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Wilson pronounced Darwin’s Origin of Species the most important book ever written, because for the first time it provided us an understanding of humanity based on science rather than religion. Darwin’s theory, according to Wilson, forms “the best foundation for human self-understanding and the philosophical guide for human action.” Apparently, Wilson has little regard for the is-ought divide. Further, he argues that all organic processes — and here he clearly includes human behavior — are ultimately reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry. For Wilson evolution has clearly replaced religion as the source of answers about the purpose and destiny of life. He asserted, “The great questions — ‘Who are we?’ ‘Where did we come from?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ — can be answered only, if ever, in the light of scientifically based evolutionary thought.” What Wilson does not explain is why these questions have any importance if we are nothing more than the result of mindless material processes.10

No Ultimate Meaning or Purpose

This problem permeates Wilson’s most recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), too. Therein Wilson explains that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose in life. Rather, he asserts, the only meaning we have is that we are the product of mindless evolutionary processes. He states,

We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free.11

Free to do what? Interestingly, Wilson explains that this freedom gives us options that “empower us to address with more confidence the greatest goal of all time, the unity of the human race.”12

Living a Lie

But why should this human unity be our goal? Wilson explains that everything that makes us human, including morality and religion, is the product of chance mutations and natural selection. He explains that both selfishness and altruism arose through natural selection, because each, in its own way, contributed to human survival and reproduction. He also argues that religion is a trait produced by the evolutionary process. Thus he understands both religion and morality as illusions in the human mind that helped us in earlier phases of evolutionary history. But in modern society, he argues, religion is no longer beneficial, but harmful, so we should dispense with it altogether and face up to the reality that religion is a pernicious fiction. However, while encouraging us to bravely face our loneliness in the cosmos, Wilson is unwilling to jettison his own illusion that he admits was put on him by his evolutionary past: morality. I heartily say amen to Wilson’s moral desire to forge the “unity of the human race,” but given his own worldview, I do not understand why Wilson thinks that he should fight for one illusory product of his evolutionary heritage — morality — at the expense of the other — selfishness. In the end, Wilson is — if his worldview is correct — just as much living a lie as those religionists that he castigates.13

Notes

  1. Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975), 4.
  2. E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse, “The Evolution of Ethics,” New Scientist 108 (17 October 1985): 50-52.
  3. Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975), 575.
  4. Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975), 3.
  5. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 167.
  6. Edward O. Wilson, Naturalist (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994), xi.
  7. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 248.
  8. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 261.
  9. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), ch. 6, quote at 11; see also E. O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of the Earth (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2012), 287-88.
  10. E. O. Wilson, “Foreword,” in Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, ed. Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), vii-viii. Wilson elaborates on these questions further in The Social Conquest of the Earth (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2012).
  11. E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (NY: Liveright, 2014), 173.
  12. E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (NY: Liveright, 2014), 174.
  13. E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (NY: Liveright, 2014), chs. 3, 12-13.