Haidt & Gazzinaga on E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, has generated the usual firestorm. Wilson couldn’t publish a bus schedule without complaints from a large group of angry scientists who prefer the train.

So it’s a little unusual to encounter so close together two predominately positive references to Wilson.

The first is admiring passages in Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Self. (Review to come — I’m still reading.) The second is last week’s Wall Street Journal article, “Evolution Revolution,” by Michael Gazzaniga.

Haidt and Gazzaniga are heavyweights themselves, so when they speak, I tend to pay attention. I may not always agree with them, but I’m always interested in what they have to say.

So interested, in fact, that I have now acquired Wilson’s 2010 novel, Anthill. And when more than the opening chapter of The Social Conquest of Earth begins circulating freely as an e-book, I’ll read it, too.

Most of the controversy over Wilson’s new book is not new. Last spring, Nature published a letter, signed by 137 of Wilson’s colleagues, slamming him for dismissing (he didn’t) or downgrading (he did) kin selection in favour of group selection. For more on the details of that clash, you might wish to read my April article on the tiff.

Jonathan Haidt brooks no ambiguity when it comes to Wilson. Early in The Righteous Self, Haidt calls the 1975 attacks on Wilson’s first suggestion that human behaviour is genetically determined nothing less than a “betrayal of science.” The key objection to Wilson then is the key objection to Wilson now: he believes that there is an innate “human nature” and that we can act only within its limitations. Blank slate relativists could think of nothing more evil than to suggest limits to human progress, and Wilson has been paying for his claim ever since.

Instead of scorn, Haidt believes, Wilson deserves elevation to the highest level of the scientific pantheon. “Prophets challenge the status quo, often earning the hatred of those in power. Wilson therefore deserves to be called a prophet of moral psychology.” Moral psychology being, of course, Haidt’s field of interest. Haidt credits Wilson with kick-starting the current interest in how emotions are the basis of our moral sense.

Wilson had prophesied in 1975 that ethics would soon be “biologicized” and refounded as the interpretation of the activity of the “emotive centers” of the brain. When he made that prophecy he was going against the dominant views of his time. Psychologists such as Kohnberg said that the action in ethics was in reasoning, not emotion. And the political climate was harsh for people such as Wilson who dared to suggest that evolutionary thinking was a valid way to examine human behavior.

I’m not going to try to assess Wilson’s claims in this space. I’d like to read his actual works first. So please don’t assume that because I quote Haidt’s praise I agree with it — or disagree with it. We’ll see about all that later. All that I’ll say for now is that there’s a crucial difference between speculative theories that are conceptually useful and empirical theories that are directly testable. Back to the topic at hand.

Gazzaniga’s article isn’t as gushing, but it is clearly admiring. He compares Wilson to a great jazz musician who, having fully explored one style and greatly influenced many other musicians, insists on going off on his own into new kinds of playing, new interpretations of the music. Concertgoers will be confused, and some of them will be angered, but the artist must go his own way and ignore the criticism.

This seems rather too lyrical to describe a man who made his mark studying ants, but its very excess suggests Wilson’s visibility and impact. Love him or hate him seem to be the only options. In either case, he’s hard to ignore.

Gazzaniga briefly covers the familiar story of the fallout following the publication of Sociobiology. The usual suspects — the entire political left and almost all social scientists — decried Wilson as an apologist for “biological determinism.” The dispute is still strong, with much of the emotion that surrounds attacks on “scientism” taking similar form, defending free will and human potential from the shackles of the “merely mechanical.” Even many self-proclaimed materialists stop short of including the human experience in the mix of the empirically discoverable.

Gazzinaga notes how far Wilson’s thinking has come since Sociobiology, in which “only one of the 27 chapters … was devoted to humans.” Now, Gazzaniga writes, Wilson believes that “not only social insects but humans too—especially art, religion and other unique facets of the human condition—are better viewed … through the lens of group selection.” In fact, Wilson now argues, in eusocial species like ants and bees, it’s best to consider the entire hive as an extension of the genome of the queen, turning the group into a super-organism that operates for the greater benefit, leaving individual insects with no more significance to the whole than a single blood cell has to the human body.

And if similar genetics operate in an analogous way in human groups? What would that do to the concept of human dignity, not to mention the Enlightenment idea of the rational, empowered individual? The claim is even more radical, for if true it repositions much of the territory of the social sciences as more properly the domain of biology.

It’s easy to see why Wilson continues, in his 80’s, to stir the biological pot. So now I’m off to read Anthill — as soon as I finish The Righteous Mind, that is.

One thought on “Haidt & Gazzinaga on E. O. Wilson

  1. Is it the cozy feeling of group belonging built into humans that Wilson refers to that is responsible for the group outrage at his defaulting from their camp?

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