E.O. Wilson considered himself the Charles Darwin of our time, but contradicted many basic Darwinian precepts
Edward Osborne Wilson, 92, better known as E.O. Wilson, died on December 26, 2021 in Burlington, Massachusetts, 16 miles north of Cambridge, where he was for 46 years a star member of the Harvard University biology faculty.
Wilson was perhaps the most influential author and thinker from the rise of the late 20th century environmental movement until his death. Wilson was certainly among the most prolific and popular writers on topics relevant to ecology and evolution.
At the same time, Wilson was by the end of his career demonstrably wrong about practically all of the scientific arguments that remain the mainstays of his reputation and enduring popularity.
Came from Alabama with his bug box on his knee
“Wilson was born in 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama,” The New York Times recounted. “His father was an alcoholic who eventually committed suicide. But these hardships were paired with a natural love of the outdoors.”
Wilson, at age seven, “was blinded in one eye in a childhood fishing accident,” The New York Times continued. “But he could hold insects up to his good eye.”
Said Wilson in a 2008 New York Times interview, “I believe that a child is, by nature, a hunter. I started with a butterfly collection when I was nine years old. And I fancied myself an explorer, and decided that I would conduct an expedition and collect insects.”
Wilson in the 2008 interview acknowledged his Southern Baptist upbringing.
“And of course I was devout,” Wilson said, “because everybody was devout, just like everybody in southern Alabama was racist. It was part of the culture that was unquestioned.
Exempt from military service because of the loss of his right eye, Wilson earned his undergraduate and masters degrees from the University of Alabama.
“When I arrived at college,” Wilson added, “I discovered evolution, and combined that with the natural rebelliousness of a 17-and-18-year-old. I drifted away from fundamentalist Protestantism,” Wilson said, and apparently believed, seemingly unaware of the extent to which his subsequent work departed from Darwinian basics to instead loosely follow Southern Baptist theology.
Wilson vs. Watson
Arriving at Harvard to pursue his Ph.D. in 1951, Wilson in 1953 journeyed to Cuba, Mexico, New Guinea, and various remote islands in the South Pacific to research his thesis on the biodiversity of ants. The expedition became the foundation of his career as scientist and theorist.
While Wilson was studying ants, molecular biologists Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953 discovered the DNA helix.
Wilson and Watson, both Harvard faculty members, both notoriously arrogant, and both repeatedly accused of racism and sexism, Watson voicing his views more bluntly and blatantly, bitterly clashed for years before reconciling in alliance against their critics.
Alleged Wilson in the 2008 New York Times interview, Watson earlier “was insistent that all that old biology [based on field and laboratory research on whole animals and habitat] needs to go away, because now the future of biology lay with molecular biology.”
“I think I’m the best approach”
More accurately, Watson contended that conclusions based on field and laboratory research should harmonize with the DNA record; a theory cannot be accurate if the record of molecular evolution contradicts it.
Of the two, Watson and Wilson, Watson produced the more Darwinian body of work, demonstrating how small changes at the molecular level could, over time, produce distinctly new species. But it was Wilson who reveled in being often acclaimed as the Charles Darwin of his time, even though many of his theories were essentially pre-Darwinian and counter-evolutionary.
“Of course, [Darwin] being the pioneer and a man of just almost unbelievable acuity,” Wilson told The New York Times, “I think he’s matchless. But among current living people, I think I’m the best approach.”
History likely will not see either Wilson or Watson in that light; but in Wilson’s heyday many people did.
Wilson in The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) contributed to the concept of “island ecology,” which uses the interactions of limited numbers of species in isolated habitat as a model and metaphor for how ecological change occurs in general.
The “island ecology” model postulates that mainland habitats are also “islands” for the species living in each place. This notion overlooks that animals and plants in mainland habitats, unlike those on actual islands, are continually challenged throughout their existence by abundant rivals and predators, and have omnipresent opportunity to either migrate or adapt to new habitat niches.
But Wilson’s timing in publishing The Theory of Island Biogeography could scarcely have been better.
The nascent environmental movement, introduced to the concept of carrying capacity by Barbara Ward in Spaceship Earth (1966), quickly grasped The Theory of Island Biogeography as a model for fusing the preservationist approach of traditional conservation with the eschatological fears of the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation, who grew up in dread of a nuclear apocalypse.
Brought hunter/conservationists & ban-the-bombers together
Traditional conservation grew out of gamekeeping, a large part of which involved killing predators who might jeopardize the abundance of deer, boar, rabbits, grouse, and other “game” favored by wealthy landowners.
The Theory of Island Biogeography provided a pretext for continuing “wildlife management” as it had long been practiced, but now to protect “island habitats” from “invasive species,” which Darwin would have recognized, and appreciated, as “adaptive” species, precipitating evolutionary change.
At the same time, The Theory of Island Biogeography furnished a scientific rationale for the anxiety of young environmentalists that any change in habitat use might, at least metaphorically, be the end of the world for some species or subspecies that might be lost from “Spaceship Earth,” never to be recovered or found elsewhere.
Wilson & the Ehrlichs formed “DNA spiral” around which the environmental movement grew
A year later, in 1968, Stanford University biologist Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife Anne Ehrlich produced their best-seller The Population Bomb.
The Ehrlichs postulated a near-future world populated by humans beyond carrying capacity, resulting in famine and ecological destruction.
Woven together, the misanthropic and dystopian nightmares offered by Wilson and the Ehrlichs formed the double helix “DNA spiral” around which environmental activism has evolved ever since.
The Ehrlichs, nominally associated with the political left, have now seen their arguments misappropriated for more than half a century by the radical right, in opposition to immigration––especially from Latin America and the Islamic world.
Wilson meanwhile endeared himself to conservatives with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), either taken or mistaken by many people as a quasi-scientific rationale for racism and sexism.
Wilson himself insisted Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was neither, and was simply a science-based rebuttal of the notion, long favored by the political left, that “nurture” trumps “nature” in influencing human behavior.
Extrapolated to dogs, the “left” notion would be that if pit bulls are dangerous, “It’s all in how you raise them.” The “right” notion would hold that pit bulls are inherently dangerous because they have been bred and inbred for centuries to whet their fighting instincts.
Common sense suggests that both notions are simultaneously true and not mutually exclusive. While “nurture” cannot overcome “nature,” “how you raise them” can make an inherently dangerous dog even more dangerous.
Charlie D. rejected “social Darwinism”
In Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Wilson argued for what others had termed, since Charles Darwin’s own time, “social Darwinism.”
Unlike any theory that Charles Darwin himself advanced, “Social Darwinism” asserts––as the pre-Darwinian “Teutonic Naturist” philosophers believed––that the socio-economic status quo exists as an inevitable outcome of evolutionary processes which better equip the affluent ruling classes for success in life.
Darwin himself detested what he argued was the misapplication of evolutionary theory in defense of social, economic, and political constructs.
Stephen Jay Gould
Darwin, pointed out American Museum of Natural History paleontologist and “punctuated equilibrium” evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, in direct rebuttal to Wilson, was aware that changing circumstance could dramatically change the requirements for evolutionary success, so as to doom the mighty dinosaurs while enabling meek rodents to inherit the earth.
As Wilson’s arguments for “social Darwinism” faded in political currency toward the end of the Ronald Reagan presidency, he left cultural punditry and returned to his previous role as a guru of the environmental movement.
Wilson had already been lecturing about a purported “extinction crisis” for several years before detailing his case for it The Diversity of Life (1992).
Extrapolating from the “island ecology” theorem, Wilson projected that tens of thousands of never detected and never to be detected insects and microbes nonetheless exist in unique “biological islands” of mainland habitat, and are being lost to habitat destruction at astronomical rates.
Further drawing from actual island examples, Wilson blamed species not native to “biological islands” for much of his projected and wholly hypothetical species loss rate.
In The Creation (2009) Wilson proposed that “Science and religion…should come together to save the creation” of either evolution or God.
The “Sixth Extinction”
Wilson in 1997 popularized the hypothesis that the earth is now approaching a “Sixth Extinction” caused by humans, comparable in scope and consequence to the Permian extinction, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and several other great extinctions caused by massive natural disasters.
The “Sixth Extinction” was, and remains, wholly based on mathematical modeling, using input data now decades obsolete.
Over the years since 1997, and indeed throughout recorded history, to the extent that paleo-archaeology permits species counts, the numbers of identified species have exponentially increased, the numbers of known extinctions have been dwarfed by the numbers of rediscoveries of species believed to have been extinct, and––despite well-publicized declines of large, charismatic megafauna in the oceans and Southern Hemisphere––net biodiversity has increased on every continent if one counts “non-native” species.
Which are the vast majority of species in most habitats.
Between writing his other books Wilson produced four tomes about ants, of which the most influential may be Success & Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects (1990).
Stanford University entomologist Deborah Gordon, however, found that some of Wilson’s key presumptions about ants were incorrect.
Explained Gordon in a 2019 New York Times interview, “Wilson’s view of how an ant colony works had every ant genetically programmed to do a certain thing. He wanted everybody to do what they were supposed to do, without any mess.”
“The process is messy”
Gordon discovered that ants can change jobs, depending on colony needs, and do not always respond the same way to the same biochemical signals, much as humans interpret social cues differently in differing situations.
Emphasized Gordon, “The process is messy.”
Summarized The New York Times, “Wilson vigorously attacked Gordon’s work, both in print and in person. When Gordon was at Harvard in the mid-1980s on a fellowship, she recalled Wilson standing up in the middle of one of her talks to shout his objections.”
Wilson “really made a lot of effort to keep me from getting a job,” Gordon told The New York Times.
Garden of Eden
Though not a eugenicist, creationist, or climate change denier in the simplistic, fundamentalist sense, Wilson’s work as a whole reinforces the Teutonic Naturist notion that all species and human socio-economic strata have a particular and relatively unchanging place in the natural order, and ideally function with each element in that place––like Wilson’s view of an ant hill.
Wilson in essence postulated that the world was a perfect Garden of Eden until humans began moving species around contrary to the natural order.
Critics, feminists especially, noted by Wilson’s mid-career that his world view appeared to reflect both his upbringing in then-segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and his subsequent success as a tenured faculty member at Harvard University, a gender-segregated institution for most of the first half of his career.
Among Wilson’s earliest and strongest critics was Gaia Institute founder Mary Midgely (1919-2018), whose environmental views could also be traced back to the influence of Barbara Ward and Spaceship Earth, but whose interpretations of the implications of Earth as “spaceship for all known life” sharply differed.
Summarized New York Times obituarist John Motkya, “Midgley unhesitatingly challenged scientists like the entomologist Edward O. Wilson and the biologist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins.”
Dawkins, best known for his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, was initially an ally of Wilson and later among his bitter critics, especially after Wilson published The Creation.
“By her lights,” Motkya wrote, “they practiced a rigid ‘academic imperialism’ when they tried to extend scientific findings to the social sciences and the humanities. In place of what Midgely saw as their constricted, ‘reductionistic’ worldview, she proposed a holistic approach in which ‘many maps’ — that is, varied ways of looking at life — are used to get to the nub of what is real.
Emphasized Midgely, “We do not need to esteem science less. We need to stop isolating it artificially from the rest of our mental life.”
Alluding to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), noted for inflexible conservatism, Midgely described the whole premise of sociobiology as “biological Thatcherism.”
Midgely argued alongside the molecular biologist Lynn Margulis (1938-2011) and others that cooperation is at least as influential an engine of evolution, even at the cellular level, as competition––a belief expressed by Darwin himself, though Darwin lacked the scientific tools to demonstrate the point.
As Midgely recognized, Wilson’s central ideas, though now canon among both mainstream conservationists and many political conservatives, were in truth considered the best ideas of the 18th century, and were largely rendered obsolete by Darwin, with refinements added by Crick and Watson, Gould and Niles Eldridge, Lynn Margulis, the Australian “compassionate conservationist” Arian Wallach, and by now legions of other researchers.