The battle over biology

May 26, 2000

Kam Patel talks to veteran zoologist Edward O. Wilson, whose controversial classic, Sociobiology , is 25 years old.

The Harvard zoologist Edward O. Wilson has few regrets about writing Sociobiology , a book that, when first published a quarter of a century ago, unleashed one of the more ferocious rows in 20th-century science. The controversy still reverberates and is the more remarkable for having been caused largely by the book's final chapter, barely 40 out of 600 pages. Wilson used it to try to extend studies of the behaviour of insect and vertebrate societies into the human domain. Leftwingers particularly feared that Wilson's championing of inherited behaviour in humans would provide credibility to eugenicists and racists. The author was labelled by some critics as hardly more than a closet Nazi.

Twenty-five years on, with a 25th anniversary edition of Sociobiology just published and the book now a standard textbook on university courses worldwide, Wilson remarks that he was completely unprepared for the furious response to that chapter, since the rest of the book was much better received, and political ideology was far from his mind when he was writing. He says: "It was almost added as an afterthought. As I was writing the manuscript, particularly the material on animal behaviour, it kept occurring to me that these ideas were applicable to human behaviour, because after all humans are transformed animals... I fully expected it would be picked up by social scientists and maybe put to use, but it did not turn out to be that simple."

Wilson's most recent major work, Consilience (1998), in which he envisages a future where the divisions between the humanities and natural sciences dissolve to create a "unity of knowledge", has so far sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. Other big sellers are The Diversity of Life (1992), Wilson's autobiography Naturalist (1994), which has notched up sales of 40,000 in hardback, and Biodiversity (1988). Current projects include a monograph on ant species and The Future of Life , which looks at the future of biology and what can be done to preserve biodiversity.

Wilson's phenomenal success means he is financially well off, a situation he has exploited to set up a foundation that supports further research, writing and expeditions and provides backing for younger researchers working in his fields of interest. His success has also meant honours and prizes from learned societies around the world.

Though 71, Wilson, still maintains his long-established schedule of working seven days a week. Laboratory work and field research have tapered off with the years, but he makes a point of writing every morning, starting at 7am and finishing at lunchtime. At his home in Lexington, a small town west of Boston, where he lives with his wife, Renee, he has duplicated his Harvard library and laboratory, allowing him to work at home. "The point with writing is to keep at it," he advises. "It is a real big mistake to lay a work down, say to yourself you will pick it up when you feel better about it. Once you acquire the discipline of writing regularly it becomes surprisingly easy and actually difficult to break with." It is important not to be ruled by one's moods, Wilson adds. His experience has been that whenever he has felt he has put in a mediocre writing performance, it eventually turned out he had written some of his better material.

Wilson says he has not consciously modelled his style on other writers. He is a "ruthless" editor: "You have to try to place yourself in the position of the reader and remember always there is a great surfeit of writers and the competition for audience is great." In his experience, writers are sharply divided: there are those who can write in the middle of a crowd, on a train, at an airport, and those who cannot stand distractions and noise. Laughing, Wilson says he is firmly in the first camp, counting himself extremely lucky to be able "treat the screams of a child two seats down on a crowded train as background noise".

The roar of protest that greeted the arrival of Sociobiology was, of course, rather harder to ignore. "I had to scramble," he recalls. "I literally had to extend my education into political science and ideology and, in particular, learn what on earth Marxism was all about." His major response to the attacks came three years later with On Human Nature (1978), which won a Pulitzer prize. "The critics have only themselves to blame for that one... I have always said that if the evidence pointed the way they claimed, I could quite easily adopt their socialist perspective on the issue," says Wilson, who classes himself politically as "a pragmatist and liberal democrat with great faith in democratic institutions".

"What the stir was really all about was that it dealt a blow to the tradition that social scientists - virtually all of them from economics and anthropology to sociology - had milked for most of the 20th century. This was fundamentally based on the idea of a blank-slate mind and the human brain being an all-purpose computer with simple drives and very little biological history." Wilson argues that since the initial furore, opposition to his stand has narrowed down to just a handful of the original critics: Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in the United States and Steven Rose in the UK. "That is really a very short list of what is now an ageing band of critics. Their criticisms were pretty lightweight, they were not in the field or anywhere near it, and when they tried to be substantial they were offtrack. I soon realised when it all took off that what I was dealing with was a remarkable ideological, allergic response and not a scientific one, so I was not too worried."

Wilson insists that the field of sociobiology has transformed the study of animal behaviour. It has, he says, at least a thousand researchers in the US working on it and another few hundred on its human aspects. He admits that his critics' concerns that references to biology and human social behaviour would lead to a resurgence of support for eugenics were legitimate. Might he, with hindsight, have decided not to proceed with the controversial aspects of the book? He replies that he would certainly have stressed the cultural dimension more and made a demurral about ideology. But apart from that he would not have changed anything. "Basically, what I wrote in that last chapter was what we knew about connections. I was not prepared to place more emphasis on gene-culture coevolution because I did not know enough to make a sound, scholarly connection between the two - I don't think anybody did in 1975.

"An alternative to writing the chapter would have been to do what Darwin did and stop (in my case at chimpanzees) and then a few years later written - as I eventually did - a book on human sociobiology that stressed gene-culture coevolution."

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