Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

February 26, 1999

There were two views of human nature when I was a student. One, promulgated by the church, was that humans are fundamentally bad, even if redeemable. The other derived its weight from the profoundly influential British empiricist philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Though they varied in detail, Locke, Berkeley and Hume, but especially Locke, held that there was no such thing as a human nature.

However much we like to think that our own age is new and above all else correct, for most of the 20th century Locke's tabula rasa dominated those disciplines charged with telling us about ourselves. Academic psychology (the behaviourists), sociology (Marxist analyses of class differences), anthropology (the arbitrariness of cultural practices), and even jurisprudence (the extent of personal responsibility) all subscribed at some deep level to the notion that humans are born freshly formatted like some floppy disk, waiting to be written on.

In 1975, a 697-page behemoth of a book rumbled off the Harvard University Press. The author was a gentlemanly specialist on ants called E .O. Wilson. The title of his book, Socio-biology: The New Synthesis , did not fully hint at what was to come. Almost 25 years on, the universe that Wilson's big bang created is still expanding, and possibly at an increasing rate.

What did he say? Most of Socio-biology explores the possibility that animal social behaviour - group living, kinship, attraction and mating, reciprocity and sharing, cooperation, conflict, and cheating, to name just the most familiar - has a genetic basis and can be shaped by natural selection: genes can code for social behaviours in the same way that they code for body parts such as hands, hooves, eyes, antlers and ears. But, in an audacious final chapter, Wilson extended the analysis to humans: biology had grabbed our kinship, cooperation, mate preferences and the rest.

Some branded Wilson and his ideas fascist, others as racist or guilty of genetic determinism. They are none of those things and, two Pulitzer prizes later, Wilson has been vindicated. Psychology, anthropology, economics, philosophy, linguistics, medicine, not to mention biology, all have serious Darwinian schools of thought in their ranks.

For someone like me - who worries about evolutionary theory for a living - Wilson's Socio-biology laid the foundations for a lifetime of meditations. We do have a human nature. None of us would wish to live like a baboon or a honey bee no matter how we were brought up, and many of our various faculties, predilections, practices and weaknesses may have a basis hidden somewhere in our genes. A distasteful thought to many, but one that we are now compelled by its success to investigate. It may, in Wilson's own words, bring about a new Enlightenment.

Mark Pagel is at the School of Animal and Microbial Sciences, University of Reading.

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