The great evolutionary biologist and author E.O. Wilson died on Sunday. He was 92. He had been publishing new books right up to the end, with Tales from the Ant World in 2020. Several of his earlier books, from On Human Nature in 1978 to The Meaning of Human Existence in 2014, have over the decades profoundly influenced my thinking.
I saw this news first on Jerry Coyne’s site, on my iPhone this morning before I’d even gotten out of bed (he’d linked his post to Fb).
Why Evolution Is True, 27 Dec 21: E. O. Wilson died
Coyne offers some personal background: he worked with Richard Lewontin, at Harvard, where Wilson occupied the fourth floor and Lewontin, who “intensely disliked” Ed (as he was known), occupied by floor below. Wilson had philosophical differences about evolution with both Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, also at Harvard.
This is not to discredit evolution, of course; it is I think a matter of almost different subjective takes on the relative importance of various ways evolution might work. Broadly, Wilson, after studying the social insects like ants, proposed that aspects of human nature could be seen as evolutionary adaptations to living in groups — altruism, the balance between cooperation and competition, the differing sexual strategies of males and females, and so on. He drew on the work of others, of course, but Wilson was the great synthesist. Gould and others thought this was too deterministic. Ironically, much criticism of Wilson came from the left, who at the time liked to imagine human nature as infinitely malleable, and the notion that humans were predestined to some to degree toward certain types of behavior was anathema to them. This resistance resulted in the famous story of someone dumping a pitcher of water over Wilson’s head as he was about to deliver a speech.
Decades later, taking the 10,000 foot view, Wilson’s ideas have prevailed. No one thinks human minds are blank slates, anymore.
NYT, Carl Zimmer, 27 Dec 2021: E.O. Wilson, a Pioneer of Evolutionary Biology, Dies at 92.
Subtitle: “A Harvard professor for 46 years, he was an expert on insects and explored how natural selection and other forces could influence animal behavior. He then applied his research to humans.”
This obit, by a scientist and science writer himself, does a good job summarizing the phases of Wilson’s career, from the study of insects to evolutionary biology, to sociobiology, and later biodiversity and group selection. The last idea was quite controversial for a while — Coyne, in his post, still dismisses it — but seems to be taking hold, with critics like Dawkins tempering their opposition to the idea in recent years.
Many other links via Google News, of course.
NYT now offers up The Last Word: E.O. Wilson, a never-before-seen video interview from 2008.
I’ve said before how Wilson’s books, especially On Human Nature (1978) and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014), have had profound influences on my thinking; they are summarized near the bottom of my Nonfiction reviews page, with links to my longer blog posts about them. (On Human Nature here; The Meaning of Human Existence here, here, here, here, and here.)
His perhaps most profound (and perhaps most difficult) book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), was a grand attempt to synthesize scientific thinking with thinking in all other lines of human knowledge. I did several short posts about it, ending with this one in 2016, but have never finished a complete summary. I need to go back and reread most of it.
And since The Meaning of Human Existence in 2014, there have been four books, three of which I’ve read. I have notes on all of them and should summarize them here. Most important is Half-Earth (2016), as I mentioned; two later ones are The Origins of Creativity (2017) and Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies (2019). These books got increasingly thin… full of wonderful ideas and deep insights, but shorter and shorter and lacking the kind of grand syntheses Wilson achieved in earlier works.
Still, I’ll post summaries of them here shortly. One highlight in Origins is Wilson’s discussion of science fiction novels that he’s liked…. all the way up to Stephenson’s Seveneves.