A Different Take on E.O. Wilson

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is a Roman joke: Two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while happen to meet in the street. One says to the other: “Oh, hi! I thought you were dead!”

“What on earth makes you say so?”

“Well, all of a sudden people were speaking well of you …”

That joke came to my mind when I read three short tributes to biologist E.O. Wilson in Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 2022). Wilson passed away on December 26, 2021, at age ninety-two. The tributes are by evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll, and cognitive linguist Steven Pinker. Predictably, all three portraits are very positive. Just as predictably, they are somewhat flawed.

Let me first acknowledge where I agree with Dawkins, Carroll, and Pinker. Wilson, whom I’ve met a few times during my career as an evolutionary biologist first and a philosopher of science later, was indubitably one of the towering figures in late-twentieth-century biology. His expertise on social insects, and ants in particular, was unparalleled. As a science writer, he won two Pulitzer Prizes. Right there that’s more than enough to enshrine him in the history of biology, which is no small thing. For more (well justified) praise, see Ken Frazier’s in-depth biographical essay in the May/June 2022 SI (Frazier 2022).

That said, some of his scientific ideas were questionable, and some of his personal ethics were borderline despicable; this ought to be acknowledged as well. After all, as skeptics we are presumably interested in the truth about the man, not in mythologizing him. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

14 Comments

  1. This was a fascinating article/assessment of Wilson but I have to admit I know too little to form a useful opinion other than endorsing your article as persuasive and well reasoned.

    But of course I do have some tangential opinions.

    The tributes are by evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll, and cognitive linguist Steven Pinker. Predictably, all three portraits are very positive. Just as predictably, they are somewhat flawed.

    When Dawkins, Carroll and Pinker (plus of course Coyne) align their planetary orbits I begin to think the solar system is in trouble. They are case studies in the kinds of ideologically directed thinking they criticise in others.

    The basic notion is perfectly sound: human beings are animals; therefore, it is likely that at least some aspects of our behavior are genetically grounded and evolved in part as a result of natural selection

    Yes, there could not have been a step change from genetically controlled behaviour to cognitively controlled behaviour. That raises some very interesting questions. There must have been a transitional period. How long did this transition last? How complete is the transition? How far along the transitional path have we come? What was the shape of that path? Was it exponential with rapid initial changes and a long tail of slow changes?

    And then if we are still left with a substantial remnant of genes that modify our behaviour might that mean they still confer survival advantages? Or perhaps it just means that not enough time has gone by for these genes to wash out of our system.

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    1. Dear Massimo, Peter and Tim,

      That Wilson has come under severe criticism is not new, insofar as sociobiology, epigenetics and group selection have fallen foul with certain scientists, whether rightly or wrongly. How racist or misguided he had actually been will remain to be determined. One matter that is quite beyond dispute is how prolific Wilson had been able to maintain. Had he lived for another ten years, perhaps another two or three books could have materialized.

      One of my recent posts entitled “We have Paleolithic Emotions; Medieval Institutions; and God-like Technology” is a tribute to Wilson. I have been improving this post lately, and welcome your esteemed feedback and thoughts there, and I would be delighted if you were to be so kind as to submit comment(s) there. It is available at

      http://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2022/01/24/illustrating-paleolithic-emotions-medieval-institutions-and-god-like-technology/#top

      Wishing you a productive September doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most, whether aesthetically, physically, intellectually, spiritually or philosophically!

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

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  2. Thanks for that book recommendation. It looks good.

    Kevin Laland shows how the learned and socially transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback.

    This is a fascinating idea. A positive feedback loop developed, greatly amplifying the process, making it self sustaining as it reaches resonance. However the gains are precarious as the resonant state can be easily disturbed by external circumstances(as evidenced by our deadly history). However, as you say, the rather slow moving biological biological evolution always stays in play. In that case biological evolution will eventually reinforce the cognitive evolution, making the resonant state more stable. In perhaps another 12,000 years?

    But I better read the book before I say more :)

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  3. OK, one more comment, because this issue has my juices stirring. It’s funny, or maybe something else, that Coyne was in the teacher-student “tree” of Gould, as you say in the piece. Coyne has claimed at times to be some sort of leftist himself politically, but in my eyes, is far from that. Rather, when he uses the word “liberal” about himself politically, I think he’s right — if by that he means “classical liberal” like Andrew Sullivan. I don’t think he, unlike Sully, is a racist. And, I’m not sure that he’s a fellow traveler with racialists, though his blog post (which I’d read a couple of times when the caca, to go Spanish, hit the fan on Wilson), is really not condemnatory. It’s more like “look at what these people are saying.”

    And, of course, starting with his mental determinism, but not ending there, he knows no more of philosophy than Dawkins or Pinker. (I don’t know how bad Sean Carroll is in that regard.)

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  4. And, of course, starting with his mental determinism, but not ending there, he knows no more of philosophy than Dawkins or Pinker. (I don’t know how bad Sean Carroll is in that regard.

    That kind of determinism is in such obvious contradiction of experience , observation and logic that it should simply be laughed out of court.

    But it isn’t and the inherent reason is the ideological determinism that infects so many minds. This strange condition directs all their thinking but the sufferer is seemingly unaware of it, claiming instead a mantle of intellectual superiority. In this sense it is similar anasognosia or the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Ideological determinism has the strange property of being able to override intellectual capacity while at the same time reinforcing a conviction of intellectual superiority.

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