Monday, February 26, 2024

Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature

This biography of Edward O. Wilson, by Richard Rhodes, was published in 2021, just before Wilson died at the age of ninety-two. I was reluctant to read it initially, because it is short and was probably timed to coincide with Wilson's death. The book itself does supply an adequate account of Wilson's life and sums up his work reasonably well. However, since I have already read seven of Wilson's books, this one didn't add much to my knowledge. Because Wilson was one of the most significant biologists to follow Charles Darwin, I think that a more complete biography may appear within the next few decades.

Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1929. Neither of his parents attended college, but his father had reasonably good jobs as an auditor of rural electrification programs and as an accountant. His assignments required periodic moves. One of the major shortcomings of this book is that Wilson grew up in what I think was a highly dysfunctional household, and this fact isn't specifically examined. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was seven. That year, he had an accident in which his fishing bait struck his right eye and damaged it. The wound wasn't treated properly at the time, and he later became blind in that eye. This was significant, because he was already spending time outdoors observing small objects such as ants.

From an early age, Wilson was exceptionally industrious. After his parents divorced, he stayed with his father, who remarried. His mother moved away and also remarried. He became an Eagle Scout. Because of his father's moves, he attended several different schools, and he skipped a year. His birth parents supplied financial support for college, though they were not wealthy. At the University of Alabama, he completed both bachelor's and master's degrees in four years and then went to graduate school. Eventually he transferred to Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D. At Harvard, the atmosphere was highly competitive, but he received a teaching position there and stayed for the remainder of his career. One of his colleagues was James Watson, author of The Double Helix and co-discoverer of DNA, who was dismissive of field biologists like Wilson. Wilson was initially somewhat dismissive of genetics, which he called "reductionist." However, he became more interested in genetics when William Hamilton published his theory of kin selection. 

Wilson's research interests changed over time, which you can see in the titles of his main books: The Theory of Island Biogeography; The Insect Societies; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; On Human Nature; The Ants; The Diversity of Life; Concilience: The Unity of Knowledge; The Social Conquest of Earth; and Half-Earth

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, became extremely controversial in 1975, when it was published. It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books, which prompted a group called the Sociobiology Study Group to submit a letter of protest titled "Against Sociobiology." That group included two of Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. They were ideologically Marxists and became a model for later politically-correct groups that automatically reject theories that present deterministic models for human behavior, which they immediately link to racism and eugenics. In 1978, at a symposium, when Wilson was about to speak, protesters interrupted, and one of them dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head. Wilson was not psychologically prepared to be the victim of protests such as this, and he disliked this period in his career. I think that Wilson did tend to favor deterministic models, which, after all, is what scientists generally do, and, coming from the South, may have internalized some racial stereotypes, but the protest against him was unfair, because he certainly had no racist agenda and was shocked by this treatment. This was probably a cautionary lesson to later biologists who chose to adopt deterministic models – Robert Sapolsky, for instance – and may explain some of the obliqueness of their writings. In my view, the New York Review of Books permanently tarnished its intellectual reputation by publishing a purely ideological criticism of Wilson that made life difficult for him for several years, even when his ideas were clearly more tenable than those presented by his critics.

Wilson later had run-ins with Richard Dawkins, after Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins, following the arguments of William Hamilton, advocated a position in which evolution is driven by the multiplication of genes rather than organisms or species. From his work on ants and his observations of humans, Wilson advocated eusociality as a driving force in evolution. It is not entirely clear who won this argument – they may both be wrong – but eusociality is not currently seen as a suitable explanation for evolution in general. First of all, there are very few eusocial species, and one would expect far more of them if that were a driving force. However, it is clear that the eusocial characteristics of ants permitted them to become dominant species. Similarly, it is clear that human cooperation permitted humans to survive when all of the other Homo species perished. Also, humans are the only primates that are flourishing now. I think that the "grand theory" model in science has become obsolete. To a certain extent, it is the result of pointless competition among scientists: everone wants to be the next Darwin or the next Einstein. I think that recent scientific findings indicate that, while the physical world may behave according to a set of rules, those rules, if they exist, are probably too complex for human understanding. Every language that we use, including mathematics, exists as a product of human evolution, and is ultimately not suited to answering fundamental questions about the nature of reality. Language is best suited to activities such as exchanging information, finding food, escaping enemies, building bridges and engaging in cooperation. In order to survive as a species, you don't have to understand the universe. Furthermore, even if we wanted to, recent findings indicate that humans are not fundamentally rational.

The main thing that I think is missing from this book is a meaningful discussion of Wilson's personal life. His father served in World War I, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was forty-eight. This sounded familiar to me, because my father served in World War II, became an alcoholic, with ulcers, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head when he was fifty. This behavior is now routinely referred to as PTSD, yet Rhodes has nothing to say about it. Near the end of the book, he recounts interviews that Wilson had with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Wilson said that he enjoyed being alone very much, and, more tellingly I think, said:

I want to feel that I'm in control, that I cannot be driven out of it, that I cannot be stopped, that I will be well regarded for being in it, and that entails control, and control means ambition. It means constantly extending one's reach, renewing, extending, innovating.

I don't have enough information to say this with much certainty, but it seems possible that Wilson's unstable childhood caused him to compulsively seek control for the rest of his life.  Rhodes says almost nothing about Wilson's adult personal life. It sounds as if Wilson did not pursue women at all until he arrived at Harvard. Once there, he seems to have dated only one woman, Irene Kelley, who did not have a college degree and worked in the Harvard admissions office. They married in 1955. She did not have any children, and they adopted a daughter, Catherine, about whom Rhodes says almost nothing. Irene died shortly before Wilson in 2021. So, to a certain extent, this book is opaque regarding Wilson's inner life.

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