It seems that as the old year went out, it took with it a number of famous long-lived people who were exceptional, influential, and in some cases beloved. We are grateful for the gifts they gave us, and appreciate that they were given longevity.
I could write columns appreciating lots of people we lost last year, but I’ll focus this week on Edward O. Wilson, who died at 92. He was a scientist who knew more about ants than anybody, who worked with population genetics, and who won the Pulitzer Prize twice because of his gift for transmitting his wonder with the world into readable prose for a general audience.
He taught at Harvard, and its newspaper, The Crimson, published an obituary that highlighted his contributions and quoted a number of his colleagues and former students attesting to his kindness and dedication. Informative articles also appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian.
Wilson’s career involved controversy. His work with ant colonies and other super-organisms like termites made him change his view of evolution from favoring kin-selection to group-selection. This ruffled some scientists’ feathers and led to the kind of back-and-forth that characterizes scientific innovation.
But there was more. His views on the genetic underpinnings of social behavior in humans were highly unpopular in the 1970s. At one conference someone threw a pitcher of water on him. Orthodox opinion then was that all human behavior was the result of culture, and that biological evolution had stopped a long time ago and was irrelevant in understanding our species.
He coined the term “Sociobiology” in a book in 1975. “On Human Nature” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, as did his textbook “The Ants” in 1990. His view that the evolutionary history of our species means that not only our bodies, but also our minds are determined in part by heredity. The field today is called evolutionary psychology, and much of Wilson’s legacy continues in it.
Evolutionary psychology is anathema to many people in non-scientific academia, who hold that any attempt to ground human behavior in evolutionary genetics risks justifying sexism and racism. Wilson and others point out that our knowledge and culture enable us to deal with our inheritance. “Natural” does not mean “good.”
It is a jumble of incoherent buzzwords, non-sequiturs, guilt by name-check, followed by the obligatory assertion of racism, devoid, as is often the case, of any specific explanation of exactly the racism involved in investigating the evolutionary history of what Wilson explicitly calls one human species.
Accusations of racism are easy to make, and even trying to defend someone from shallow and unsubstantiated allegations makes oneself a target. We’ve seen this play before in Salem and Moscow, and now in the illiberal leftist soft sciences.
She was “disappointed” by reading Wilson’s work, though she liked his novel “Anthill.” She thinks science needs more journalists and academics to decide what should be published and what should be suppressed.
No, they need real scientists who can write well, and E.O. Wilson was certainly one of those.
I was embarrassed that a formerly prestigious publication like Scientific American would publish such flimsy and unscientific claptrap. This editorial suffers from Bad Scholarship, which I often call by its initials.