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He redefined evolution through the lens of social connection, showing the selfishness in sacrifice, the power of the hive, and the behavioral code in our genes


E. O. Wilson on Genetic Destiny

by Tabitha M. Powledge


E. O. Wilson.
E.O. Wilson.
Photo by Jim Harrison (PLoS), via Wikimedia Commons.

The publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975 was — to use a cliché — a landmark event in the history of biology. This enormous volume (697 oversize pages) is a truly remarkable compendium of a vast, widely dispersed literature on the relationship between biology and social behavior throughout the animal kingdom. It ranges from Homo sapiens to the social insects (Wilson is by trade an entomologist: his speciality — he calls them his “totem animal” — is ants). He intended it to be a scientifically respectable, thorough review, so it is full of tables and charts and extensively referenced. On the other hand, it is well written and handsomely illustrated.

The message Sociobiology carried was a startling one: that various kinds of social behavior are genetically programmed into any species, including our own, and that this programming is particularly true of the social behavior human beings label “altruism,” which Wilson defines as “self-destructive behavior performed for the benefit of others.”

The elegant theoretical construct underpinning this assertion was, when Wilson wrote the book, the notion of kin selection. Darwin’s theory of natural selection argued that the organism that possesses traits that help it to cope successfully with its environment is the one that survives and passes its genes on to its offspring. But the altruistic organism, by definition, dies, usually leaving comparatively few offspring. This means, in Darwinian terms, that genes for altruism, if they exist, will continually be wiped out before they can be passed on. The kin selection theory provided an explanation for this apparent paradox by pointing out that altruistic behavior which protects people with whom you have genes in common — your relatives or kin — is equivalent to saving pieces of yourself, and that those pieces will continue to persist in their children, even though you yourself may have died childless.

Sociobiology also argued strongly in favor of the genetic basis for behavior differences between men and women and also for aggressive behavior. This, too, was not a new debate, but the reiteration of these ideas certainly rekindled the fire. It was, of course, the century-old nature-nurture argument: Which is more important in the making of human beings, heredity or environment?

One criticism leveled at Wilson was that, as an expert on human nature, he was a fine entomologist. That criticism, however, did not stop him from writing On Human Nature, published in 1979. It was, Wilson said, “not a work of science, but a work about science and how far the natural sciences can penetrate into human behavior before they will be transformed into something new . . . Its core: a speculative essay about the profound consequences that will follow as social theory at long last meets that part of the natural sciences most relevant to it.”

In 2016, Wilson remains a fierce advocate for harnessing social connections to promote human evolution and the salvation of the Earth. But some things have changed. For one, he has come to reject the concept of kin selection still thought to underpin the mechanism of evolution by most of his peers. Altruism is a driver, he says, but family connections, not so much. Wilson gives the example of a nest of birds. Those who believe in kin selection say that parent birds care for babies, and offspring for other sibs, to protect their genes. But Wilson says the young birds are just being expedient: It is somewhat like a college grad baby-sitting for siblings until she finds a job. It makes economic sense. Likewise, the birds stay around until they start families of their own because nest sites are scarce. Sure, we still sacrifice to protect the social group — but it is about more elemental survival, not protecting some genes.

Wilson has also come out with a radical action plan for countering the climate change humans have visited on the Earth. In his 2016 book, Half-Earth, he insists that fully half the planet must be turned into a preserve to reverse otherwise certain devastation of the biosphere and the eventual extinction of humankind. The idea has attracted a following and launched a movement, a nod to Wilson’s powers of persuasion and his visionary zeal.

Edward Osborn Wilson, an only child, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929, and was raised and educated in Alabama until he went to Harvard to work on his doctorate. He has been in Cambridge ever since and still holds the positions of Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science and curator of entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Much like when Tabitha M. Powledge first interviewed him for OMNI in 1979, he is tall and thin, an enthusiastic and unabashed talker. At the time, he described the people he admired most: “The ones who have great goals they persevere toward over long periods of time in a controlled and fully rational way . . . particularly where they involve discipline and endurance.”

By virtue of his staying-power, passion and concern for the evolutionary health of the world, no one fits the bill more than Wilson himself.

OMNI

One of the conclusions in On Human Nature is that there are what you call “modest” differences between the sexes that are genetic; these then become hypertrophied, that is, emphasized by culture, in most places. You then go on to say that those innate differences between men and women could probably be canceled through careful training. Should they be?

Wilson

That’s the question I raise.

OMNI

Answer it.

Wilson

I’ll leave the question open. I say there are three things we could do. We could decide to exaggerate the differences. But that would exacerbate the current circumstances. Domination and injustice would continue, and individual development would be stunted. It would deprive the person who might want to move into roles not ordinarily associated with his or her sex.

The second alternative would be to erase the differences. As the evidence appears to me, they are so slight they could be erased with only a little bit of tinkering. You could probably get statistical equivalence in roles, so that you would have approximately the same percentage of women doctors as men doctors or women senators as men senators or men nurses as women nurses, etc., and approximately the same amount of time being spent by each sex in the home in domestic chores and in raising children and so forth. The evidence seems to suggest that predispositions are modest enough that they could be erased without a great deal of difficulty, but it would require more knowledge than we have.

The third alternative would be laissez-faire, which essentially is what this society has been exploring: equal access, equal opportunity rigidly enforced, but then letting the chips fall where they may. However, if those genetic predispositions that appear to exist do in fact exist, then you probably would get, even with rigidly enforced equal access, some statistical difference in the outcome.

OMNI

One of the examples you cite is the second generation of the kibbutz.

Wilson

Yes. I started off feeling that the Israeli kibbutz was a good piece of evidence of the stubbornness of sex differences, but that has been compromised in my opinion by the evidence of powerful influences from the outside, of Jewish patriarchal ideology. However, the evidence there is still very suggestive. It’s interesting to see the regression of women toward more traditional roles even in a culture that explicitly calls for egalitarianism and equality. And the second generation of daughters has gone further than their mothers. They demand and receive a longer period of time each day with their children, time that is significantly entitled “the hour of love.” Some of the most gifted have resisted recruitment into higher levels of commercial and political leadership.

Laissez-faire, on first thought, might seem to be the most congenial to personal liberty and development. But that’s not necessarily true. With identical education for men and women and equal access to all professions, men are more likely than not to continue to be disproportionally represented in political life, business, and science. Many would fail to participate fully in the formative aspects of child rearing. The result might legitimately be viewed as restrictive on the complete emotional development of individuals.

I should add that this last note entered into my thinking as a result of a discussion with a feminist. It was pointed out to me that males, especially in our society, tend to think of the professions as being the summum bonum, that the purpose of everyone in society is to move toward the professions, and that the entire women’s-liberation movement consists of women demanding or getting access to the professions.

But it cuts the other way, too. The more balanced feminists tend to see that the dichotomization of society according to sex also prevents men from taking part in many activities and many emotional involvements. I had to concede the point.

I don’t feel at this stage there is any basis for suggesting what should be done, only I’d point out that there is a cost connected with each one of these alternatives. I use the sex-role problem as the paradigm in this book for discussing a new kind of calculus for social design that we will have to begin to develop. The fact is that we do have to consider the cost of certain moral standards, or certain societal goals, as opposed to others.

OMNI

Relate what you just said about sex roles to your discussion of homosexuality, which, it seems to me, also has a lot of policy implications.

Wilson

I want to make that a paradigm too. I’m arguing for a whole different view of homosexuals.

OMNI

You base it on an intriguing argument describing what you think sexual relationships are all about. Though your interest is in genetics, you present the fascinating argument that it’s not procreation which is the terribly important function of sexual relationships, but rather —

Wilson

It’s bonding. And once you appreciate that what sexual behavior is all about is primarily bonding — the establishment of particular kinds of human relationships that are needed for the rearing of offspring, for the maintenance of human society, and not for procreation alone — once you appreciate that, then you suddenly get a completely new view. For one thing, it suddenly makes sense why sex and sex relationships and sexual imagery pervade almost all of our social existence. We —

OMNI

It’s not just a creation of Madison Avenue?

Wilson

[Laugh] No. Certainly not. And I don’t think it’s just a creation of Western culture either. Sex is pervasive and it’s important in all cultures, though more in some than others, obviously. In cultures that have been sexually repressive and are going through sexual liberation, of course, it probably commands an abnormal amount of attention. But it’s pervasive in most aspects of life in all cultures. In subtle and difficult ways sexuality has confounded psychologists; it’s been the source of endlessly complicated psychoanalytic theory, such as why it pervades the relationship with one’s father, or why sexual images can be transferred so easily to automobiles, and so on. I think the general answer is that sexual behavior in human beings as primarily a bonding mechanism transcends even direct, heterosexual, man-wife relations. And we need to explore the possibility that homosexual bonding might be a biological mechanism In presenting this rather radical hypothesis — I didn’t want to defend it too strongly because I don’t think the evidence is overpowering — I did want to stress that the Judeo-Christian view, that sex exists for procreation, and the particular customs and particular attitudes toward sex which are embodied therein, is a view that is optimal for an expanding, rapidly growing population but inappropriate for stable, steady-state populations.

OMNI

But in your discussion of homosexuality, you tend to be much more prescriptive than you are in your discussions of sex roles.

Wilson

That’s quite true. I felt the need to be more emphatic. Also, it may be that the strength of the predisposition is different.

OMNI

You mean that homosexual proclivities are somehow more genetic than sex roles?

Wilson

That may well be the case. It may be harder to erase homosexuality than to erase sex-role differences. But whether it is true or not, that’s the kind of thing we ought to be considering when we add biological dimensions to social science, the “hardness” of the various predispositions.

I believe the immediate benefit of the sociobiological approach is to put on a much firmer basis what is natural and what is not natural. Sociobiology, then, can aid us In making moral judgments and also in the process of evaluating cost.

Take the case of homosexuality. There is a lot of evidence to support my hypothesis, and furthermore, it should be explored; biology has not been explored properly in the case of homosexuality. One of the great deficits of the social sciences is that they simply do not know how to explore these hypotheses, or at least they haven’t up to now. The hypothesis should be explored, and if it turns out that the evidence favors it, then suddenly we would see that the benefits from suppressing homosexuality, from trying to cure homosexuals, from depriving them of their rights so they cannot teach at school, the benefits would shrink enormously, and we would simultaneously see the cost expand. The results would be — and I believe should be — toleration, a completely different view of homosexuals, acceptance.

OMNI

Okay. Then that leads into what seems to me to be an interesting point, and certainly a source of some worry over sociobiology, and that is the use of genetic explanations to excuse some forms of behavior. Let’s take aggression as an example. You argue fairly strongly for aggression’s being innate. Why can’t you use the same line of reasoning to argue for toleration of aggression as well as of homosexuality?

Wilson

If I am going to say what I am saying about homosexuals, why can’t the same argument be used to save a war? But that is why I refuse to commit the naturalistic fallacy, that is, to say that what is natural is good.

In the case of homosexuality, what I am saying is that you cannot condemn homosexuality on the ground that it is biologically unnatural. I hope I demolish that argument. And then I say that we will have to recognize that there are some things that represent biological predispositions that are extremely difficult to eradicate. Some of them are absurd legacies of the hunter-gatherer society. It’s just one of those crazy things we got stuck with, like hair on the backs of our hands, or the difficulty blue-eyed people have when they go to the tropics. There are certain things we’ve inherited that are inconvenient. Sex-role differentiation may well be one of those. Homosexuality may be one of those. The readiness to switch into violent aggressive behavior surely is one of those. And all I can suggest is the cost-benefit analysis made possible by sociobiology and other biological studies, and then an open discussion of what we want to do about it.

You know, aggression, even violent aggression by itself, is not necessarily an evil thing. All I’m saying is that with the present global situation, it clearly is to be proscribed because it is harmful to everyone, including ourselves. We need to study it more and find ways of getting around it. This cost-benefit analysis I’m talking about, deciding what we want in societies — stabilization, rapid technological progress, whatever — are things which are not going to be decided by reference to our crazy-quilt biological heritage.

OMNI

I find those three examples particularly interesting because it seems to me the implications of what you’re saying are quite different in each case. One is that as far as sex roles are concerned, we might want to choose a route that tended to eliminate the differences. As far as homosexuality is concerned, we might want to do the opposite, that is, grant homosexuals a lot more recognition than we have. And as for aggression, we might sometimes want to curb it and sometimes not, which seems to me to be the hardest possible sort of thing.

Wilson

I would say that on the earth as it is today, we would always want to curb violent aggression.

OMNI

But you and I would not have wanted to curb violent aggression in 1941. You think it is possible to choose to suppress a behavior or not to suppress it or to treat it variably, depending on the circumstances?

Wilson

Exactly. I think it depends on what the circumstances are and what we really want society to move toward. All that sociobiology can do, in my opinion, is to tell us more about where we came from, what we’ve got, what our predispositions are, as an aid in the cost-benefit analysis that goes into any discussion of our future goals. That’s what a large part of politics and social planning is all about: what our goals are, what we want to achieve beyond mere survival.

OMNI

You make some suggestions about channeling aggression. One of the suggestions you appear to be making is that sports, particularly organized sports — professional sports, I think, is the phrase you use — serve part of that function.

Wilson

Well, that was Konrad Lorenz’s idea.

OMNI

How do you differ?

Wilson

I don’t differ. I think that’s a correct argument. Except that I do dispute his basic model, on the basis of new information over the last ten years. He had in his mind his old hydraulic model: the idea that pressure to engage in aggressive behavior was always building up; that you have to find a release for it in one way or another; and that the best way to release it is through sports.

The evidence now seems to go strongly against the building up of the drive, but Lorenz was correct in believing that there is a biological predisposition there. I think there is a strong tendency to engage in competitive sports and to identify chauvinistically with them. You see nationalism at its worst in world soccer meets. Good, kindly Americans can develop a real hatred toward Cincinnati or Seattle at the height of the championship playoffs. It’s so strong that we can identify with it and do it even though the team members are being traded back and forth and come from all over the country. It’s interesting to listen to interviews with athletes who have just been traded into a local franchise. They may come from Texas or have played for UCLA, but now they’re joining the Celtics, and what they say is predictable: “Boston’s a lovely town. I feel a sense of community here. The thing I really like about the Celtics is the feeling of team play I can identify with this place.” And the hearts of people go out. They are just dying to make this guy a member of the family. So we have an overpowering predisposition to do that. The question is, How good is it? Lorenz’s original argument is probably wrong. We don’t have to do it. Indeed, if anything, it can exacerbate the tendency to develop regional rivalries and perhaps even our propensity for violent aggression, but it seems to provide great emotional rewards for human beings.

OMNI

Do the rewards have to do with its xenophobic aspects?

Wilson

That’s right. Yes, we have a predisposition to be xenophobic, to be chauvinistic, to identify with a familylike group that occupies a particular territory. This is all quite naked and open, and it’s not harmful unless it exacerbates nationalistic feelings or racial or ethnic feelings, which can then become deadly.

Another example is what I call biophilia. I am inclined to think of that as a very strong natural predisposition. That’s the desire to be surrounded by other living things, like plants and pets. Pets are not just child surrogates, you know.

OMNI

No, I quite agree. I feel very struck by that idea, in fact.

Wilson

Yes. And I think that all these things we’ve been talking about — sports, sexual bonding, biophilia, the things that occupy our existence and make us uniquely human — ultimately have a pragmatic basis. That’s the whole point of my book, that human beings are unique. Their behavior is much more narrowly circumscribed than most people realize. But when you start comparing us with other kinds of animal societies, you realize we are really peculiar, and that these peculiarities are based to a large extent on early pragmatic adaptations. Those adaptations are not the simple-minded gene-to-behavior pattern that some people think I mean. That would be true in the case of an ant or a mosquito; but for us, they are the learning rules, the predispositions to learn one thing as opposed to another, to seek immediate and large rewards from doing one thing instead of the other. In other words, we are much more predisposed to learn to play soccer, or to watch soccer, than we are to, shall we say, cumulate prime numbers.

OMNI

Well, the emotional reward might be the immediate reason why we do something, but you’re saying there’s an underlying functional reason which gave rise to the emotion that promotes the behavior.

Wilson

And which doesn’t come completely clear unless you consider that valuation in the genetic coinage, particularly in early human history. This is kind of a crazy thing, but it really is at the root of the absurdity of human existence

OMNI

Let’s not get too existential! But while we’re on the subject, just as another example of this, one of the things that’s likely to provoke the most discussion and most controversy around the new book is what you say about religion. You make a case for the genetic origins of religion, including why it has been maintained and what its future is.

Wilson

That’s possibly the most original chapter in the book.

OMNI

I found it original and striking. It may end up overshadowing what you say about sex as far as public discussion is concerned.

Wilson

I think you’re right. There’s a rule about dinner conversation, that you don’t discuss sex or religion, and, I might add, aggression.

OMNI

The biological origins of both sex and aggression are subjects that have now been discussed an awful lot in the last ten years or so, but a biological origin of religion really has not.

Wilson

I agree with you and think you’ve put your finger on something very important. I have tussled with people, critics, and others in endless reviews and seminars and so on on sex and aggression. I really think I understand virtually all the concerns that people have about these: the people who think that talking about aggression as a natural predisposition is dangerous or the ultrafeminists who think that talking about any difference in biological predisposition is sinful.

But in the case of religion there is a yawning pit. Religion’s really the pivot of all that we do and all that we really fight about, particularly when you incorporate ideology into it, the propensity people have to identify with a particular ideology, with a world view which becomes absolute in their minds. In my view, such identification is tribalistic, so I have looked at it that way.

Religion has not been examined by biologists or sociobiologists or evolutionists at all carefully. One of the main reasons is that it’s so uniquely human. This is one subject, one area of behavior, where you can’t draw any principles from ants or baboons. But that doesn’t lower the value of taking a more biological approach to religion. One can look through all the animal kingdom and plant kingdom and see case after case of unique structures or unique behavior patterns that have developed. They make sense only when you study the particular biology of that species.

Along with our productive, semantic language, I think religion is the unique human trait, sui generis. It has to be studied on its own terms, but it has to be looked at as a biological phenomenon, not just a cultural phenomenon, nor as an aberration, nor, as some would like to have it, the conduit for divine guidance to man.

So with that proposition in mind, I then explored in that chapter an interesting hypothesis: that religion is essentially an extension of tribalism and of the need for human beings to be able to subordinate themselves, at least temporarily, to concerted, irrational, and even frenzied group activity.

This view has forerunners in some of the anthropological studies of religion, where the students of the subject, like Anthony Wallace and even going back all the way to Durkheim, have looked for functional explanations of religion: the group-activity hypothesis is one of the primary functions they see in it. There are also other explanations, such as the psychoanalytic one, which is, to me, just an intermediate-function explanation, like looking for why we eat in terms of metabolism and digestive enzymes. Sure, those are important, and I’m sure psychoanalytic explanations are important for understanding the full range of religious behavior, but we are interested in the ultimate understanding — where did it come from and why is it so powerful? What the chapter attempts to do is to examine the main features of religious behavior, from magic to witchcraft to ritual to mythology, in light of the hypothesis that among our learning predispositions are almost certainly strong predispositions to xenophobia, to attention to charismatic leadership, to subordination, to group sacralization, to the ability to regard a covenant and a set of dogmas and rituals as beyond question. These may be unique human behavioral properties that have to be studied on their own, but genetic predispositions nonetheless. I’m thinking of the ability to go through an epiphany toward religious conversion. Or the powerful tendency to identify with a religious group you think has the absolute truth, especially embodied by the utterances of a principal leader in it.

I think these capabilities can be related back to the behavior in prehistory of human beings who were required to develop a covenant, a social contract, such that they followed certain rules absolutely even though many of the rules were arbitrary. They had the ability to subordinate themselves temporarily to the unity of the group they belonged to for the welfare of the tribe. And this, of course, redounded to their own ultimate genetic welfare.

In many cases you can see the evidence of benefits to the votaries, but even that isn’t necessary, as long as the family, the genetic allies within the tribe, are being benefited in the long term through the devotion of the votary. That’s kind of a stark, and perhaps to some people even an unpleasant, way of viewing religion. Yet I find it fascinating. To me, it explains an enormous amount about religious belief, the phenomenon of the true believer, the ease with which people use ideologies for tribalism and for self-seeking, and the capacity, the endless capacity human beings have for hypocrisy and self-deception when they give a religious reason for selfish or group- centered behavior.

OMNI

Assuming that’s the reason for the origin of religious practices, do those reasons still apply? What’s the future?

Wilson

I was just reading Anthony Wallace’s book Religion an Anthropological View last night. He addressed exactly the same question. In 1966, when it was written, he came up with that very unsatisfactory answer that others, going back to Auguste Comte, had come up with, namely, that we need a secularized religion: We have to recognize the power of religion, but we need to have ritual without God. That, to me, is very unsatisfactory. We need a real myth. The one I adopted is scientific materialism as a mythology and whatever we can make of it. You must realize that most scientists think about the world about as much as bank clerks do. They get pleasure from working on neutrinos or polyglycosides, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, they have very little knowledge and very little interest. Most scientists think of science as being a kind of purifying intellectual machinery that leads to honesty, to the withering away of ignorance and wrong ideas, including, providing they are of the atheistic persuasion, those of religion. They see the scientific method as a mechanism for getting at certain kinds of truth.

But the greatest scientists have always looked on scientific materialism as a kind of religion, as a mythology. They are impelled by a great desire to explore mystery, to celebrate mystery in the universe, to open it up, to read the stars, to find the deeper meaning. Many of them have found total philosophical satisfaction in this conception, particularly when it can be harnessed to humanism, to the viewing of the human species as central.

What I’ve done in this book is to simply make all this much more explicit. That is, I’ve said the religious impulse is a uniquely human impulse, but it is biological nonetheless. But the religious faith, in the hundred thousand forms it has taken, is almost always linked to imaginary scenarios and false mythology, false stories. It’s a part of the predisposition to make complete stories about the universe and about the tribe. But they are almost always false; they are arguments of convenience to achieve another ultimate purpose. Science tends to wipe them out, one after the other. Whenever science comes into contact with these more traditional mythologies they are destroyed, but science itself has not been the appropriate substitute for the mythologies it’s been destroying. It is not true that scientific methodology, the scientific viewpoint, the desire to be discovering truth, is a sufficient substitute, because the thing it is supposed to be substituting for is one of the most powerful forces in the human mind, this tribalistic, myth-producing force. We have to recognize that the most dedicated and inspired of all scientists have been the people who are entertaining, explicitly or implicitly, a mythology of their own, a belief that the world is thus and so, and that there are unchanging laws, and that they are exploring them.

The trick is to capture religious energies. This is where I think the natural sciences and the humanities will really come together at last. We can’t abolish those energies. They are overpowering, they are magnificent, they are the source of many wondrous parts of our own culture, they can’t be abolished. But they can be captured, and science itself can be transformed in its intention and in its philosophy by recognizing that it can serve this function. But how far can it go?

OMNI

Give me an example of how you think one might do science differently to make it more mythical.

Wilson

Well, I wouldn’t do science differently. I would simply be more explicit about the employment of the scientific method in exploring the labyrinths of the human mind and in providing additional explanations and new depth and understanding to subjects that have hitherto been the provinces of the humanities.

OMNI

One of the arguments you make in the book is that the “big bang” cosmology theory is really a lot more interesting and exciting than any biblical or other religious theory of the origin of the universe.

Wilson

There are a lot of those things. You know, the way a cell is put together is more intricate and wondrous than any preliterate or early religious conception of what life is all about. I felt that science should be addressing these more humanistic subjects directly — or shall we say in order not to seem imperialistic, that humanistic scholars and social scientists should be utilizing the natural sciences more fully and efficiently to account for the phenomena they are most interested in.

OMNI

Yet you predict a long and happy future for traditional forms of religion.

Wilson

Not theology, but for religion. I did that because I am not at all certain that the emotional rewards from scientific materialism would be sufficient for most people. I don’t envision the ritualization of scientific materialism or science. What I envision is a secular development where the drive for knowledge and the enrichment of the humanities by the natural sciences, and of the natural sciences by the humanities, can become a much more compelling and exciting endeavor. This is the great challenge for scholars and for writers. But I just don’t see this as being formalized or ritualized in any way that would be as completely emotionally satisfying as the traditional religions. I foresee many people maintaining, as an emotional refuge, belief in God and ties with formal religion because the final readout of Deism is something that scientific materialism cannot, at least as I see it, touch: the belief in the original, creative God.

OMNI

Even a “big bang” needs somebody to light the fire?

Wilson

You might go further than that. You might want to argue in the way of process theology and think of a more personal God who has actually set the clockwork going, with the whole thing developing toward an ultimate expression of some transcendental mind set or goal.

OMNI

For me the ritual is by far the most appealing part of religion. The ritual and the rites de passage ceremonies, which I think are terribly important and which culturally we just don’t have any substitutes for.

Wilson

I think those things will endure, even though there will be increasing uncertainty, in cold, rational moments, about the explicit claims that these rituals make about the nature of God and the nature of a particular church.

OMNI

At one point I think you argue that Marxism is likely to fail because its biological base was not explored — which presumably you would not argue vis-a-vis Roman Catholicism. Maybe you can make that distinction?

Wilson

Yes, I think that the secular ideologies, like Marxism, are more vulnerable than the traditional religions because the traditional religions depend upon a transcendental explanation of human existence, whereas Marxism in particular, which is now the all-encompassing secular ideology, depends upon historicism and materialism and is meant to be a scientific explanation of human history.

OMNI

You say it’s sociobiology without the biology

Wilson

Yes; well, that’s what I meant. It was trying to explain the way societies are and the way they are going in entirely materialist ways. But it increasingly has neglected the substructure of biology, to its own peril.

OMNI

One of the things that really struck me about this book was the way it proceeds from some ideas you have expressed before to become more and more sweeping. And in that last chapter, which you nicely entitle “Hope,” you talk about these ideas you have just talked about, and then you also talk as if sociobiology will eventually lead us to reliable laws of history.

Wilson

That is, of course, my most extended speculation. That is to say, I wanted to toy with the idea and —

OMNI

I don’t think you really explore it much.

Wilson

No, I wanted to toy with it and then leave it at that because I knew the intense interest that humanists and others have about prediction of history.

You know, sociobiology is not an easy subject to understand, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that a full and sensible discussion of it has not, in spite of articles, like the one in Time, entered into the public domain. It takes a little bit of thinking and learning about genetics and what the evolutionary process is before you can really start applying ideas like these systematically. Most people are much more prone to respond with gut feelings about it. They say, “Oh, sociobiology says we’re programmed by instinct to do that and do this, but I know I’m not that way; I’m a human being with free choice.” But, of course, that’s a completely erroneous way of talking about it.

OMNI

You have an extensive discussion in the book about your definitions of free will and determinism.

Wilson

Three chapters, yes. I worked a lot on that. I didn’t want to get into that philosophical discussion but was forced to because of the sort of criticism that has been mounted against sociobiology. It goes right to the heart of free will and determinism. But even people who are favorably inclined really haven’t thought it through either. They don’t really understand what’s being said. I’m hoping that subjects like homosexuality and religion, and maybe altruism, which are the gut issues that people worry a lot about, will cause them to think more about the basic ideas.

OMNI

One thing growing out of your discussion of religion, but which you’ve also talked about in other places, is your belief that ethics has to be biologized.

Wilson

Yes. I have a go at what I think might be cardinal values. I didn’t want to go too far with that, because you start getting on very slippery ground, but I did want to discuss some primary values that I thought we might arrive at right now. My point in taking on what I call the cardinal values in the last chapter was to show, by taking perhaps the safest and hardest cases, that biological knowledge really will help us arrive at a firmly based moral code.

One of the values is diversity; that’s one of the most controversial. If you take an elitist’s or extreme eugenicist’s point of view, what we should be doing is looking for the ideal human type. If the whole world could be made up of that type of person, then we’d be far more intelligent and far more moral, far better off. That would be the eugenicist’s ideal.

What I am suggesting, however, is that modern biology seems pretty strongly to indicate that we ought to want to go, at least temporarily, in the opposite direction, that is, that we ought to want to preserve genetic diversity. The reason for that is that the very process of sexual reproduction tears down and rebuilds genotypes each generation. We are being torn apart and reassembled in such a terrific and unpredictable manner with each generation that it would be extremely dangerous to narrow the genetic basis for humanity as a whole. If we had some great world congress of politicians, scientists, philosophers, and so on, it is very likely that we would arrive at the position I am suggesting, namely that, for the time being, we would want to preserve genetic diversity and even cherish it until such time as we can come to a better understanding of human heredity. Then we might talk about eugenics, but that will not be within our generation.

OMNI

Yes, but what you’re saying is that even diversity might not necessarily be anything like a permanent value, that ultimately our state of knowledge might be such that we might want to practice eugenics. It’s exactly the sort of statement which leads your critics to charge that you are serving conservative racist interests. When you imply that in the 23rd century, or even in the 28th century, we may know enough genetics to practice eugenics, that’s going to offend a lot of people.

Wilson

Yes. That’s not saying that I believe we should, that our great-grand-to-the-eighth-power descendants should do that. I’m just stating what may well be a fact, which is that our knowledge may be sufficient then to make that choice. We won’t make it, not in our lifetime. But it’s there to be made. And I think it’s worth saying, or worth extrapolating, just as a part of our understanding of what we are. If you refuse to think about it, then I think you are closing your mind to an important part of what the human species really is.

You know, that reaction does occur from the most extreme of the critics. And they make the same argument about recombinant DNA. That may be the reason they want to close off debate. Their ace card always seems to be that if we let people go ahead with their research, or we let them go ahead with a discussion of these subjects, then the next thing you know they’re going to be redesigning the human species, controlling humanity through genetics. That seems to be the real fear in the back of their minds.

OMNI

I think that fear is also central to the recombinant DNA argument.

Wilson

Yes. They weren’t really worried so much about monsters or runaway viruses, although they had that in mind, as they were about one more step toward genetic control of the human species. So one has to put them at ease by simply saying that we have to think these things through. We’re not talking about anything that could be done for generations. And even then it will be done, I hope, by free choice, by an electorate, with careful thought and preparation. I closed my last chapter by saying I think it’s very likely there’s something in our nature which will make us decide we’ll never change, even though we’re lumbering along on a jerry-built Pleistocene vehicle.

I think the scientists themselves need to be more explicit in addressing what they are doing to the effects it will have on human emotion. I don’t know whether you noticed it, but I did try to tie those things together throughout the book. To the best of my ability, I made allusions to literature; I have used quotes from Yeats and Joyce and so forth. I was saying, in effect, that science now addresses the sources of human nature and that’s where the two cultures come together. Science and the humanities can enormously enrich each other.

[end]


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