35 Who Made a Difference: Edward O. Wilson

Vindicated for his controversial sociobiology? Yes. Satisfied? Not yet

Edward O. Wilson
Wikimedia Commons

Three decades ago, Edward O. Wilson underwent a bittersweet transformation: from accomplished-but-not-famous Harvard biologist to famous-but-vilified prophet. The man who had spent much of his career holed up in an office writing monographs and got his thrills by tramping through jungles in search of ants became a painfully public figure. As he walked across campus, he heard bullhorn-amplified calls for his dismissal. Protesters handed out leaflets at his lectures. He even got a bucket of water dumped on his head at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The cause of it all was the 1975 publication of his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. This weighty (5.5 pounds) tome proclaimed that recent extensions of Darwinian theory would bring a revolution in our understanding of the behavior of animals, notably including people; if we wanted to grasp the human predicament and unravel the emotions that push and pull us through life, we had to think about human genes and the process that assembled them, natural selection.

With the project to sequence the human genome essentially completed and newspapers awash in stories about genetics, it may seem hard to believe that juxtaposing "genes" and "human behavior" once aroused grave suspicions. Many incoming Harvard undergraduates have "never even heard there was a controversy," Wilson told me the other day. But in the 1970s, psychology departments were still under the sway of B. F. Skinner's behaviorism—the idea that people are almost infinitely malleable and that characteristics such as jealousy and status-seeking could be eliminated through enlightened child rearing. And political activists on the left were mindful of the unsavory characters who had emphasized biological heredity in the not-too-distant past, from American eugenicists to Adolf Hitler. Thus was Wilson linked to racism and Nazism, notwithstanding the absence of any corroborating evidence.

Vindication often comes posthumously in the world of ideas, but Wilson has lived to see his. Theories he hailed as cornerstones of sociobiology—Robert Trivers' "reciprocal altruism" and "parental investment," and William D. Hamilton's "kin selection"—have become powerful tools in the thriving young field of evolutionary psychology, the attempt to explain human emotions and thought patterns as genetically inherited adaptations. And for the record: Wilson's promised revolution in the study of nonhuman animals—a subject that consumed most of Sociobiology's 697 pages and roughly none of the publicity—is proceeding apace.

So Wilson could be excused if, at age 76, he declared victory and settled into self-satisfied retirement. But he isn't the retiring kind. (His wife, Irene Wilson, has long been tolerant of his no-vacations policy, which is one reason that his 1971 classic, The Insect Societies, is dedicated to "Irene, who understands.") Besides, no sooner had Wilson's left-wing antagonists faded than trouble appeared on the opposite horizon. He says that the religious right's increasingly vocal opposition to Darwinian theory is rooted largely in a "dislike of human sociobiology," especially the idea that human values flow from biology rather than from a nonphysical soul.

He doesn't expect a rapprochement between the two worldviews. When it comes to the "meaning of humanity, the meaning of life, which is what the cultural war is all about," says Wilson, "we do differ drastically, and I think insolubly." But that hasn't stopped him from writing about an alliance between science and religion, to be published next year and tentatively titled The Creation. The alliance is political. He's "calling on the religious community," he says, "to join the scientists and environmentalists to save the creation—the world's biodiversity."

The greater acceptance of Wilson's ideas has not buffered him from criticism. Indeed, challenges now come from some allies in the early struggle, some of whom insist that Wilson's role in "the sociobiology revolution" has been oversold. Not one of the key theories was his, they say. Wilson's defenders emphasize the importance of his intellectual synthesis—of Sociobiology's vast web of data and analysis, encompassing species from bacteria to humans.

In a sense, the question isn't whether Wilson's legacy will be robust, but whether it will be cast more in scientific or literary terms. He has written several bestsellers and landed two Pulitzer Prizes (in 1978 for On Human Nature and in 1990 for a coauthored book, The Ants). And not even his detractors deny his gift for prose that is alternately sweet and pungent, and often brilliantly provocative. "Men would rather believe than know," he wrote in Sociobiology.

But Wilson's sharp pen isn't the only reason the last of those books made him so renowned. There's another virtue he has in rare quantity. His 1998 book, Consilience, about the convergence of diverse scientific fields into a unified explanatory framework, was a blast of Enlightenment-era optimism about the scientific project. Someday, Wilson believes, the cause-and-effect principles of psychology will rest solidly and specifically on those of biology, which will rest with equal security on principles of biochemistry and molecular biology, and so on down the line to particle physics. ("Consilience," with its air of interdisciplinary harmony, sounds much nicer than its rough synonym, "reductionism"—another tribute to Wilson's rhetorical prowess.)

This optimism—or even "faith," as Wilson has unabashedly described his conviction about the unity of knowledge—is what propelled him on the epic exercise that produced Sociobiology. In three years, even while teaching, he wrote half a million words—about four normal-sized books. As a result, Wilson was the one who got to trumpet the coming revolution. His book came out a year before Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, which made much the same argument.

Wilson's fervent faith in scientific progress proved more than a motivator; it proved right. Witness advances in fields from neuroscience to genomics to pharmacology—and their increasing interconnection. So even if posterity forgot about Wilson's many contributions to the study of insects and other nonhuman animals, it would have to concede that he is more than a popularizer. He is a visionary, and a visionary whose track record is looking pretty good.

Wilson is a lapsed Southern Baptist—Christianity yielded to Darwinism during his undergraduate years—but in the end his salvation has nonetheless come through faith. And, of course, through works.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.