In natural science … there is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations, and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions.
—George Eliot

Edward O. Wilson. Photo: PLoS

My admirable teacher, L. V. Heilbrunn, liked maxims. Never at a loss in exegesis (he wrote the definitive textbook of General Physiology), L.V.H. nevertheless relied, in ventilating research strategy, upon aphorisms. Badgered by students for expensive instruments, he would say: “When the equipment gets bigger than your arm-span, you’re a biophysicist” (a derogation). Or, when a collaborator grew restless under library work, or endless repetitions of an experiment, Heilbrunn would declare: “You can’t discover new biology until you’ve learned the old.” This he would then expand as: “No organism is insignificant: master it completely, and you will make discoveries.”

He did not follow his own advice. He was delighted, for example, with my ten-foot makeshift for studying the kinetics of hemolysis. He could be contemptuous of scholarly single-mindedness other than his own—of a colleague, for example, who had for decades been at the microscope scanning salivary-gland chromosomes. For field biologists he often had disdain: he called these naturalists “Linnaeans.”

Today’s historians and sociologists of science don’t write books like this.

Some of his advice was sound; his own failure to follow it was fatal. He did make discoveries; he defined the central and universal role of calcium ions in cellular excitation. But he was unwilling to learn much of, let alone completely, the existing, and relevant, chemistry of proteins and ions. He continued to use the abandoned word protoplasm (“the living substance”)—archetype of naming substituted for knowing— until his unseasonable death. Recognition he had earned and desired never came. A new domain of scientific knowledge, rightfully his, was claimed by others.

Wilson was able early in his career to rally to his cause intelligences among the then-declining ranks of naturalists, to encourage and recruit the mathematically gifted and genetically sophisticated to a new company. Thus he oversaw the emergence of a “population biology” that would become the theoretical core of ecology. He extracted some of the universals of animal societies, and applied them boldly (and dangerously) to human behavior—which was from the beginning social behavior. In short, a teacher, a synthesizer, a fount of ideas no significant subset of which he could follow up at any one time; and withal, a writer of books and flawless technical reports, able to inspire belief, or at least the determined testing of his ideas.I begin with that sad story because it is the perfect antithesis to E. O. Wilson’s immensely and deservedly happier one. A “Linnaean” all his life, Wilson has never ceased to identify, sort, classify living things, never rested from the attempt to absorb as much of the biospheric spectacle as possible, to absorb everything known about particular aspects of it, be they as bounded as knowing everything about ants or as vague and quixotic as bridging, single-handedly, the natural and the human sciences. He has never lost his “biophilia”; and he has become the foremost advocate of biodiversity.

To have autobiography from so prolific a scientist while he remains at work is for that reason alone a treat. This accounts for the early interest in this book and makes it ipso facto important. But it is important not simply because of Wilson’s celebrity (among the interleaved photographs are images of the author shaking hands with the King of Sweden, receiving honors from Prince Philip, being presented the National Medal of Science by a grinning Jimmy Carter). It is important not because, as is often the case with tales told by or of famous men, it reveals the principal as a gifted cad, a Picasso or a Brecht, fascinating and repulsive. Wilson is their antithesis, too.

Naturalist is important because it is, first, an account of beautiful science done in the twentieth century, of how and why it was done; and, quite secondarily, of the decent and not-so-decent people who do it for a living. It might be a start toward balancing the now-copious output of science criticism in which the cognitive—the essential—content is slighted in favor of political theorizing.

Today’s historians and sociologists of science don’t write books like this. The younger and more correct among them may sneer at it as Whiggish. Only a few scientists have the literary discipline to write so. Serious philosophers of science (there are non-serious ones) tend to be deductivists at heart even if they try not to be; the twentieth-century unification of natural history, systematics, evolutionary biology, population genetics, and behavioral biology, in which Wilson has played a large part, is an inductivist enterprise. Post-positivists and relativists seem not to have heard of it. Those few scientists who are lucky and become famous tend, like other savants, to stick to their lasts—to the bitter end. Writing stories is not what made them famous. Naturalist is a summing-up of Wilson’s life within the science to which it has been dedicated, in an extraordinarily fruitful period for biology. The story is of an engagement that is nowhere near an end. If Wilson is his own protagonist, then the new evolutionary biology shares that status.

The cover photograph is of the man we know, admired friend of presidents and emperors, middle-aged and trim, scholarly-looking, his brow decorated by an untamable forelock, examining with his one good eye, through a magnifying glass—an ant. Of course: he made himself, by ceaseless work, the world’s greatest ant-man. For that alone, however, he would have attained to professorship only in a lesser place than Harvard, to a curatorship, perhaps, in one of the more respectable museums. No; the photograph that tells Wilson’s story follows page 112, the one taken in 1944, in Brewton, Alabama—one of his sadly many home towns in the Old South. It must have been made soon after this serious-looking boy was promoted to Eagle Scout. A fine image: the hair neatly combed, a clean, probably new uniform, neckerchief, troop insignia— all those merit badges! There is no hint of pride or foolishness in this boy’s face, but there is determination, and—remarkably— peace.

Peace and the merit badges are giveaways. They fly in the face of psychobabble on ineluctable failure if upbringing is less than 100 percent secure. This boy’s upbringing was anything but secure. Son of divorced parents, brought up amidst financial hardship, for a time by a father alone who drank too much and failed in all his endeavors, later by father and stepmother in homes moved abruptly from one Southern town to another, sent away to military school, avoiding some but not all fist-fights, he managed nevertheless to indulge his passions—zoology; collecting, classifying, the abounding life of field, forest, and stream:

So inevitably, and given that I was looking at the world with only one visually acute eye, I came to be an entomologist, a scientist who specializes in insects. To put the matter as simply as possible: most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine.

Wilson was steeled by the modest virtues that are also the official undertakings of scouting: honesty, cleanliness, hard work, courage. Among the most touching passages, in a book with many such, are Wilson’s statements, generous like his words even about enemies, on his father:

In early 1951 my father grew noticeably depressed and his behavior erratic. I was not able to read the signs … Early in the morning of March 26, he wrote a calm note of apology to his family, drove his car to an empty section of Bloodgood Street near the Mobile River, seated himself by the side of the road, put his favorite target pistol to his right temple, and ended his pain. He was forty-eight years old when he died… .

No son knows his father well enough to matter until it is too late; then understanding comes in fragments. I can say of him that he was an intelligent man who cheated himself of his own potential.

A scout’s virtues, so easily derided, were the qualities that overcame difficulties that would have thwarted a boy less fortunate in the values shaping his character. They allowed him a full, happy, and productive childhood. They did not erase self-doubt; nor did they in any way inhibit what Wilson calls the “amphetamine of ambition,” without which there would not have been the astonishing labors that brought him early a chair in a great university and, later, honors piled upon honors. To those who know him, he remains a scout.

To many new biologists, natural history was a harmless anachronism, intellectually unchallenging.

Systematics—the naming, analysis of relationships among, and, much later, the evolutionary histories of plants and animals— an activity of ancient and decidedly unsystematic origins, came via Linnaeus in the eighteenth century to naturalists of the nineteenth and ours. In the early decades of this one, a naturalist’s work was primarily in the field, only secondarily indoors. A naturalist specialized in a particular category of plants or animals, or aimed at an encyclopedic grasp of the biota of a particular place. Either way, the naturalist took the world as laboratory. As a young entomologist, Wilson was to be found, whenever it was possible for him to go, in forests, jungles, and wild places of the Americas and the South Pacific, on islands and in the depths of continents. This is the legacy of the great nineteenth-century expeditions. No literate young naturalist fails, to this day, to dream the cramped cabin of H.M.S.Beagle, shared by Darwin and FitzRoy, with Darwin’s proliferating specimen-collection and notebooks crowding out FitzRoy’s chronometers.

But a different kind of life science was replacing such biology even before the nineteenth century closed. The triumphs of physics and chemistry, soon thereafter of physiological chemistry, inspired a search for explanations of life, not in the historical relationships of organisms but in physics and chemistry that might distinguish life from non-life, in the atomistic processes by which cells and organisms accomplish what seemed (but is not) a thermodynamic impossibility —the creation of living order from disorder.

Those accomplishments had been taken for granted, attributed still to deity or to unknowable vital forces, during the ascendancy, following Darwin, of “evolutionary morphology.” But the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws at the dawn of the new century, the identification of chromosomes as carriers of “genes,” the explosive advance of genetics in the succeeding twenty years, led to a shift of interests among enterprising investigators. By the late 1930s, a chemistry of life was established; dispersal to England and America of refugee-biochemists, following the Nazi takeover, strengthened the life sciences of both countries: biochemistry became a core language of biology and catalyst of a sharply upward trajectory of scientific medicine.

After World War II the streams of genetics and biochemistry became confluent, fed later by such others as cell biology and neurophysiology, those in turn capitalizing upon wartime advances in electronics and imaging. The combined flow became a torrent. With it came the biological theory-of-everything soon named molecular biology, its consequent discoveries ramifying through all the sciences. DNA entered the vernacular as the naturalist’s “analogy” and “homology” had never done. In upwardly-mobile departments of biology and medical schools, the molecular level became the level of interest. Prominent naturalists grew old. Younger ones clustered for protection in less-than-stellar departments of less-than-opulent universities and state colleges.

There were honorable exceptions. Naturalists, or at least “evolutionary biologists,” retained power—and students—in a few top institutions, Harvard, to its credit, among them. It was to this Harvard and its resident notables in natural history that Wilson, the bug-loving scout from Alabama, came after preliminary graduate and professional work in entomology at the University of Alabama. He arrived at a time when, despite those notables, the shift of prestige from descriptive and speculative natural history to molecular biology was in full career. To many new biologists, natural history was a harmless anachronism, intellectually unchallenging. Wilson is not loath to name here some very famous examples of this snobbery, or to discuss them, albeit in a generous spirit.

“Biological determinism” is, to some social scientists and all ideologues of the Left, blasphemy.

The irresistible flood brought with it, as floods do, destruction and fragmentation; only later were the newly-fertile fields to reappear. At the start of the century there had been separate departments of botany and zoology, sometimes also of entomology, mammalogy; the postwar unification converted most of them to departments simply of biology. Their common languages were biochemistry, genetics, and—with inexorable advances in microscopy—a “cell biology” incorporating cytology, cytogenetics, and general physiology. The results are with us; and grateful we should be for it! Leave aside the intellectual prizes, the clear answers to questions—Preformation or Epigenesis? —that troubled thinkers since Aristotle. Consider only the practical benefits, the lifespan increase, the disasters for human and animal life on this planet reduced or averted by its products.

Harvard Biology too was, literally, fragmented. For a time it could be said that the naturalists had lost. That can no longer be said, about Harvard or any other university with a claim to comprehensiveness. The amalgam of disciplines hammered out of natural history, bio-geography, and systematics, conjoined with an ecology advanced beyond the imagining of the Romantic Ernst Haeckel, who invented the name on the stem oikos (Gr., “house”), rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes. It did so illustrating one of Wilson’s own discoveries: the rise to dominance of those species adapted to reproduction in marginal environments. It did so because it became clear, even to skeptics, that natural history remains indispensable to the explanation of life on earth.

Wilson’s projects and books trace that rise and were important to it, although the contributors were soon no small band of visionaries but a company, assimilating to itself old and new knowledge, recruits young and obscure and old and famous. His bibliography is a record of the transformation: The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967, with the brilliant and tragically short-lived Robert MacArthur); A Primer of Population Biology (1971, with William H. Bossert); The Insect Societies (1971); the successful introductory textbook Life On Earth (1975, with distinguished co-authors); Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975, of which more below).

It is fashionable to describe such intellectual movements as “paradigm shifts,” “revolutions,” referring to Thomas S. Kuhn’s seminal (1962) account of theory-change in physics. This is an important error. Later theorists (not Kuhn himself) have taken his account as empirical support for social constructivism and epistemological relativism. Wilson himself misuses the term. He describes as “what historians of science call a paradigm shift” the changes forced upon his thought by the 1964 publication of William Hamilton’s luminous theory of kin selection, a theory that convinced Wilson, in fact, of the possibility of a sociobiology.

Kuhn’s model, proposed for all science, does not apply. It is not true here, as the model requires, that the new and the old, the molecular and the organismal, were “incommensurable.” It is not true that significant old knowledge was lost or abandoned. It is not true that old men stuck doggedly to the old theories while the young took to the new like ducks to water. It is not true that social and personal factors weighed heavily in the making and acceptance of new natural history, responding to socio-cultural imperatives. Naturalist is therefore important, above all, because this first-hand account of scientific theory demonstrates that the stimuli were, as they have been in serious science for three hundred years, the internal ideas, the inexorable logic, the constraint of experiment and observation; the way things are. Even naturalists need experiments: Wilson and Simberloff had to sterilize an island and watch its repopulation before they could be confident of a theory!

And so to the single ugly part of the story, unique only in the eminence of the victim. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was a truly Wilsonian undertaking, hubris for any lesser workaholic. But it was no longer a lonely one. Aided by talented collaborators and the publications of colleagues around the world, Wilson plunged into a comprehensive treatment of social behavior in animals. One chapter—the twenty-sixth and last—dealt with prospects for a human social biology, a continuity, as it were, of all products of organic evolution. One marvels at his naïveté in politics and academic territoriality. He does so, now, himself.

Perhaps I should have stopped at chimpanzees when I wrote the book. Many biologists wish I had. Even several of the critics said that Sociobiology would have been a great book if I had not added the final chapter, the one on human beings.

Wilson had touched a raw nerve of the intelligentsia, of which he, Eagle Scout, was unaware. “Biological determinism” is, to some social scientists and all ideologues of the Left, blasphemy. It has been so since Karl Marx argued vaguely, in 1859, that it is not man’s consciousness that makes society, but society that makes consciousness. That heredity has anything to do with human behavior is anathema: it is taken to imply either that the oppressed are so because by nature deficient, or that the fortunate are so because of natural selection for good qualities. Either way, the idea seems to deny perfectibility of the social order through politics, and to deny that power for the exploited will redeem social life. This was, moreover, the 1970s: the notion that human evolution has included a division of labor between the sexes that must have conferred selective advantage violates the anti-essentialism of official feminist thought. There could be no biological element of “gender”; no important biological differences between the sexes. Wilson, somehow, failed, in the delight of his work, to see how terrible a challenge that last chapter would be.

And so secret meetings were held, some in the building that housed him. Petitions were circulated. Wilson was denounced as reactionary, racist, sexist. His name was besmirched by whispering that reached the West Coast and Europe. His classroom was invaded; he was denounced by bullhorn in Harvard Square. At a symposium in Washington, he was shouted down, doused with ice-water. It became necessary, for the safety of his family, to consider leaving Harvard for some less-political venue.

There could be no biological element of “gender”; no important biological differences between the sexes.

Wilson survived these indignities with his work, his generosity, and his reputation intact. Colleagues, true to form, had been unhelpful in the long interval of trouble. Professors are Confucians by adherence to the dictum “Shun the Unfortunate,” unless speaking up carries no risk. The fuss died down, although the ideological furies did not: their descendants are forms of political correctness now so entrenched in universities that we no longer notice them. Ironically, the campaign against species impoverishment, of which Wilson is now the world’s leading spokesman, is one of those forms.

The closing chapter of Sociobiology has been vindicated. Ideological anti-hereditarians now take the high ground, insisting that they mean only to show that the effect of genes on human behavior—that is, all of development and neurophysiology—is importantly alterable by environment. A senior editor of The New Republic has published The Moral Animal, a valuable popular account of evolutionary psychology. That discipline, in its current configuration, was predicted by the sociobiology of twenty-five years ago. Wilson’s books, such as the splendid On Human Nature (1978), expanding the thesis of that last chapter, have received the highest honors books can get. Sociobiology thrives. The issues of biodiversity are more and more seriously examined.

How fortunate E. O. Wilson has been to win recognition so well-deserved! (How rare that is!) But more: how fortunate we are to have him among us, adding to the records of natural science this story that is, in the end, not his alone, but ours.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 5, on page 67
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