Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Edward O. Wilson, 1929-2021: Founder of Sociobiology, Consilience, and Darwinian Natural Right

Edward O. Wilson died Sunday at the age of 92 in Burlington, Massachusetts.  Carl Zimmer has written a good obituary for the New York Times.  Over the years, I have written many blog posts on Ed Wilson, some of which can be found herehereherehere, and here.

I doubt that I would have developed the idea of Darwinian natural right without the influence of Ed Wilson.  I remember the first time I saw his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in the early summer of 1975, on the new book table at the Seminary-Coop Bookstore at the University of Chicago, when I was a Ph.D. student at Chicago, working on a dissertation on Aristotle.  I looked it over, reading a few pages, and bought it.  I remember thinking--if Wilson is right that there is a biological explanation of human nature and human ethics, why wouldn't this support a Darwinian scientific conception of Aristotelian natural right?  This thought was deepened three years later when I read a paper by Roger Masters suggesting that sociobiology could sustain a biological basis for Aristotle's conception of natural right.  For the rest of my life, I have been thinking through that idea.

Early on, from my reading of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, when I was teaching at Idaho State University, I thought Wilson was endorsing a Darwinian version of Nietzshean nihilism that I found unpersuasive.  But later, I changed my mind, and decided that he was arguing--even if he didn't fully understand it--for an Aristotelian ethical naturalism.  I sent him some of my writing on this.  And I was pleased to see in his Consilience (1998) that he had been influenced by my writing to see himself as reviving a Darwinian version of Aristotelian ethics.

Wilson's Consilience was crucial in helping me think about what I have called "Darwinian liberal education", which would unify all knowledge through the intellectual framework of evolutionary biology.

I was concerned, however, that Wilson did not see how the Darwinian science of emergent complexity contradicted the strong reductionism that he professed in some parts of Consilience.  I wrote an essay about this; and when he read it, he called me one night.  I still remember my son yelling down into the basement of my house, saying "Hey, Dad, there's some guy from Harvard calling you, Ed Wilson."  We talked for about thirty minutes, going over my criticisms.  We didn't reach agreement, but it was a rich conversation.  And he was generous in encouraging me to continue my work.

When Wilson argued that science needed to take on a mythopoeic function by creating a grand narrative of the origin and evolution of the universe that would give meaning to life--in such a way that the scientific origin story could take the place of religious myth--I was not initially persuaded because this sounded like Nietzschean myth-making.  But later I saw how the Big History of Everything as an evolutionary epic--developed by David Christian, Eric Chaisson, and others--might plausibly fulfill Wilson's vision.  I have written about this herehere, and here.

I have agreed with much of what Wilson has said, while disagreeing on some points.  I agreed with his embrace late in life of group selection and his claim that Hamilton's inclusive fitness was not sufficient.  But I am still a little undecided about this.

As reported by Zimmer, Wilson disagreed with Deborah Gordon's claim that ants have much more behavioral flexibility than Wilson is willing to concede, who insists that their behavior is genetically determined.  I am inclined to agree with Gordon, but I need to think about this more.  There is a good TED talk by Gordon on this.

In an article that Gordon wrote for the Boston Review some years ago, she briefly indicated her disagreement with Wilson by criticizing his 2010 novel Anthill.  Gordon's fundamental insight about ant colonies is that they are biological systems that function without hierarchy or central control.  Ant colonies are decentralized networks that get things done without anyone being in charge.  That's why some free-market economists and anarchist thinkers are interested in her work: ant colonies show how collective action can emerge as a spontaneous order without any central planning or authority.

Wilson knows this about ant colonies, of course.  But in Anthill, his scientific knowledge is sometimes contradicted by his fictional purpose, which is to tell an environmentalist story about how greed and excessive consumption depletes resources and leads to the death of the colony.  To do this, he speaks of the ant queen as the "fountainhead" of the colony who compels the worker ants to sacrifice their lives for her.  In fact, Gordon observes, no ant really cares if the queen lives or dies, because no ant can direct the behavior of another.

Moreover, Gordon argues, it is not true that each ant is assigned a task for life, because ants move from one task to another in response to the rhythm of their tactile and olfactory interactions with one another, without any ant understanding what they are doing or why.

But while I agree with some of Gordon's criticisms of Wilson and some of the criticisms coming from others, I regret that his voice has now been silenced.

I will miss him.


In his comment, Xenophon has pointed out to me that Carl Zimmer has altered his New York Times obituary for Wilson.  Sometime yesterday (December 29), Zimmer erased the section on Deborah Gordon's disagreements with Wilson.

Since I had printed out a copy of the original version of the article (published on December 27), I was able to compare it with the "updated" version.  I can see that the only change between the two is that Zimmer erased the following four paragraphs, which came just after quoting Sara Hrdy--"No one could have been more supportive than Wilson of this stuff":

"But some scientists found just the opposite.  Among them was Deborah Gordon, a leading expert on ants at Stanford University."

"'Wilson's view of how an ant colony works had every ant genetically programmed to do a certain thing,' Dr. Gordon said in a 2019 interview.  'He wanted everybody to do what they were supposed to do without any mess.'"

"In her own research, Dr. Gordon found that ants can switch from one job to another.  And they do not respond to any particular chemical signal like little robots; instead, they will respond differently under different circumstances.  'The process is messy,' Dr. Gordon said."

"Dr. Wilson vigorously attacked Dr. Gordon's work, both in print and in person.  When Dr. Gordon was at Harvard in the mid-1980s on a fellowship, she recalled Dr. Wilson standing up in the middle of one of her talks to shout his objections.  'He really made a lot of effort to keep me from getting a job,' she said."

I have no idea why Zimmer decided to erase this from his article.  Did Gordon ask him to do this?  Or did someone else object to this section of the article? 


At 9:33 a.m. ET, Zimmer added this "Editor's Note" to his article:

"An earlier version of this obituary included a description of the work of Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford University, and her comments about Dr. Wilson's criticism of it.  The description and comments lacked appropriate context and have been removed from the obituary."

We are left guessing about what that "appropriate context" might be.  Personal academic rivalry?


Xenophon said...

I am certainly not an expert on ant colonies so I'm not able to weigh in on the dispute between Wilson and Deborah Gordon. I'm not even sure what the dispute was about exactly.

What is interesting is that in the original version of the NY Times obituary, it was claimed that Wilson stood up and shouted in the middle of the delivery of one of her papers and that he tried to prevent her from getting an academic job. I have no idea if this is true or even if the claim is correctly ascribed to Gordon. All I know is that it seems to now have been edited out of the NY Times obituary on their website.

According to the original obituary (as a I recall it from about 48 hours ago), Gordon held that the roles of ants were somewhat shifting and flexible based on signals from pheromones (as outlined in her TED talk) while Wilson held more to "one ant-one job". (cf. Plato Republic 370b). Again, I have no idea if this account of the dispute is correct. Maybe you might know more.

Larry Arnhart said...

Thank you for pointing this out. The original paragraph quoting Gordon came just after a quotation from Sara Hrdy--"No one could have been more supportive than Wilson of this stuff."

That paragraph was in the original article published on Dec. 27. But then it disappeared from the "updated" article published Dec. 29. This is strange. I am going to ask some people if they know anything about this.

As I indicated in my post, I am inclined to agree with Gordon in her disagreement with Wilson. If it is true that Wilson tried to keep her from getting a job, as was said in the original article, he should have been condemned for that.