Thoughts on E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature
The last time I considered sociobiology seriously was probably 2015-16 after having read Naturalist (1994), before I had any real exposure to the challenges of modern biology. On Human Nature was written in 1979, four years after Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Seems appropriate that it is the first book I read in close proximity to Harvard.
Wilson presents a grand vision for sociobiology. The book is beautifully written, and vaguely reminescent of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, though, unlike Morris’s focus on physiology, Wilson speculates about the genetics and culture. This book is primarily an attempt to formulate a case for what Wilson calls Scientific Humanism, a culture of science directed by scientific materialism, one that accepts and embraces the biologically-constrained cultural trappings of humans. Wilson develops his ideas eloquently.
- In chapters 2-4 (“Heredity”, “Development”, “Emergence”), Wilson takes on the nature-nurture debate and introduces his vision for expanding Waddington’s landscape metaphor to represent the constrained genetic space of all human behaviors.
- In chapters 5-8 (“Aggression”, “Sex”, “Altruism”, “Religion”), he expounds on the now rather well-known tenets of sociobiology, providing ethnographic, anthropological, and some statistical genetic evidence exemplifying his arguments for the creation of a framework of sociology.
In Religion, Wilson criticizes Marxism, building a case from his outline of hereditary ideological systems to show that Marxism’s ultimate failure is that despite its “scientific” origins, it falls into the very trappings of dogma that it seeks to overthrow. Wilson’s approach of treating culture as a process undergoing Darwinian evolution is refreshing. The text is peppered with glorious statements like this one
Man’s destiny is to know, is only because societies with knowledge culturally dominate societies that lack it. Luddites and anti-intellectuals do not master the differential equations of thermodynamics or the biochemical cures of illnessess. They stay in thatched huts and die young. Cultures with unifying goals will learn more rapidly than those that lack them, and an autocatalytic growth of learning will follow because scientific materialsim is the only mythology that can manufacture great goals from the sustained pursuit of pure knowledge.
The final chapter Hope has Wilson extrapolating from his position, a myrmecologist reflecting on human societies trapped in his Western tradition, to claim that Progress is inevitable. That, disappointingly is Wilsons’ failing.
In the final pages of the book, (in hindsight ironically titled “Hope”), Wilson reveals his aspirations for eugenics. There are two mentions of the word “eugenics” in this chapter, (in fact the only two in the whole book), and I believe it is important to understand what Wilson was trying to get at here:
The first is his belief in scientific progressivism, coupled with a utilitarian aspiration derived from throwing the moral arrow in to the well-mixed gene pool.
I believe that a correct application of evolutionary theory also favors diversity in the gene pool as a cardinal value. If variation in mental and athletic ability is influenced to a moderate degree by heredity, as the evidence suggests, we should expect individuals of truly extraordinary capacity to emerge unexpectedly in otherwise undistinguished families, and then fail to transmit these qualities to their children…. Like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up and over to the top of the hill only to have it tumble down again, the human gene pool creates hereditary genius in many ways in many places only to have it come apart the next generation. The gene of the Sisyphean combinations are probably spread throughout the populations. For this reason alone, we are justified in considering the preservation of the entire gene pool as a contingent primary value until such time as an almost unimaginably greater knowledge of human heredity provides us with the option of a democratically contrived eugenics.
The second mention is essentially the same progressivist dream, expressed as his foresight in the direction in which genetics was headed combined with his optimism of the success of the sociobiology project.
Then mankind will face the third and perhaps final spiritually dilemma. Human genetics is now growing quickly along with all other branches of science. In time, much knowledge concerning the genetic foundation of social behavior will accumulate, and techniques may become available for altering gene complexes by molecular engineering and rapid selection through cloning. At the very least, slow evolutionary change will be feasible through conventional eugenics. The human species can change its own nature. What will it choose? Will it remain the same, teetering on a jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations? Or will it press on toward still higher intelligence and creativity, accompanied by a greater- or lesser- capacity for emotional response?
Genetics has arrived at Wilson’s vision, but not the social sciences.
Wilson’s insistence on progressivism explains the political backlash of recent decades 1. Is he a eugenicist? By his own admittance, he hopes for cultural-genetic “progress” in his scientific humanist project. But is he a racist, with unscientific claims of cultural/ethnic/racial superiority? I think not.
Wilson still has a lot to offer in terms of understanding cultural evolution. From my more recent readings (for example Michael Muthukrishna’s “A Problem in Theory”, or his talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7SvrC15AMo&feature=youtu.be), I was quite surprised to find the prominence, or possibly the resurgence of Dual Inheritance Theory.
Some interesting perspectives from the book
- Wilson takes an aggressively anti-church stand in his defense of sexuality.
- The writing style is interesting. At multiple points Wilson proposes many alternative hypotheses/proposals for moving ahead in an area of research. Though he ultimately favors only one of these, the intention is to invite the reader to explore the alternatives.
- While I am unaware of contemporary anthropological standing on the measure of evidence used by Wilson, he does a remarkable job in attempting to relate human anthropology with primate behavior and animal behavior at large. The encyclopedic approach is striking, and Wilson himself is excited by the possibilities of unexplored avenues of research. Examples include: analysis of slave trade, cultures of slaves, reflections on hunter-gatherer societies through the ages and in contemporary tribes, comparisons between religions and philosophies.
- The book betrays its era by admitting its naive optimism in the promise of genetics and molecular biology. Wilson mentions the “hundreds of thousands” of genes in the human genome multiple times, and is confident that the genetic complexity hides within it the keys to sociobiology. I would love to read a later reflection by Wilson on the state of human genetics.
Overall, On Human Nature makes for a great read, providing insight into the promise that modern biology held at the brink of the era of genetic engineering. The first seven chapters make for a classic reading in progressivism, and Wilson’s optimism is contagious.
1 He mentions the Yanamamo people, in Aggression and seems to foretell the controversies that would befall the anthropological studies that describe them, as described in Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger.