Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

E.O. Wilson Is on Top of the World

Presents an interview with scientist Edward O. Wilson, as he discusses life, death, free will, the 'self' and ants. Information on the launch of Wilson's monumental book 'Sociobioloby: The New Synthesis'; Achievements of Wilson; What Wilson has learned from observing ants; Views of Wilson on the development of his ideas; In-depth look at the interview. INSET: From consilience.

The father of SOCIOBIOLOGY and grandfather of EVOLUTIONARYpsychology sounds off on LIFE, death, faith, FREE WILL, the "self"—and his beloved ANTS.

Einstein and relativity. Edison and the light bulb. Newton and that ripe red apple—falling, it seems, from the tree of knowledge itself. If anyone can change the way we live, scientists can. One such scientist is Edward O: Wilson, the man whose name is wedded forever to the word sociobiology, the study of nature's role in determining human behavior. Wilson, a professor of biology at Harvard University, launched a revolution with his monumental 1975 book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. There were 26 chapters covering the biology and behavior of animals and insects—Wilson is the world's leading authority on the 9,500 species of ants—but it was the 27th, arguing that genes plays a central role in human behavior, that ignited a public fire and remapped our world.

Like Galileo, who was put under house arrest for saying the earth moves around the sun, Wilson was ostracized before being canonized. Colleagues at Harvard excoriated him as a racist and 15 top scientists damned him in a letter printed in the New York Review of Books for subscribing to the same genetic determinism that led to "the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi. Germany." The two decades since have seen a remarkable turnaround. Wilson has won two Pulitzers, for On Human Nature and The Ants. He's been named to one of the most prestigious professorships at Harvard and elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Today, he is lauded as the world's most eloquent biologist and the grandfather of evolutionary psychology, a field that explores the links between genetic and cultural evolution and that helps explain what makes us what we are.

In his newest book, Consilience (Knopf), Wilson looks up from the ants once again and argues for the unity of all knowledge. He suggests that a small number of natural laws underlie far-flung disciplines--from the arts and religion to biology, anthropology, and psychology—and that it's time for cross-fertilization. PT's Jill Neimark caught up with the 69-year-old scientist recently at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City for a lively discussion of life, death, the universe, ants, faith, free will, and whether there is even such a thing as the "self."

PT: Back in 1978, you gave a talk at the Association for the Advancement of Science and were picketed with placards bearing swastikas. An angry young woman even poured a pitcher of water over your head. Twenty years later, you write a cover story for the Atlantic called "The Biology of Morality," and nobody blinks. What's changed in two decades?

EO: The entire political climate of the world has changed. Twenty years ago, leftist activists in particular felt science was being used to justify the policies of colonialist governments. There was a moral outrage that has now passed almost completely. The fall of the Berlin wall had something to do with that. There's also the mounting evidence from genetics and neurobiology

PT: Your theory has actually become mainstream.

EO: It's very respectable now. I was reading a complaint not long ago by an anthropologist who said, "If you want to get a grant, you'd better put some biology in your anthropology." Twenty years ago if you wanted not to get a grant, you put it in.

PT: You've said that ants have given you everything, and it's to them you always return. What have they taught you?

EO: One thing is that natural selection is brutal. It is "brutal to see strong, beautiful ant queens and males go forth and to realize that they're all going to be devastated, that one out of 10,000 queens will make it into the ground to start a new colony. Every little advantage that an organism has can make an enormous difference.

The other thing is that natural selection grinds exceedingly small. It doesn't allow for foul-ups in an ant colony any more than in a hunter-gatherer society. Real biologists who actually do the research will tell you that they almost never find a phenomenon, no matter how odd or irrelevant it looks when they first see it, that doesn't prove to serve a function. The outcome itself may be due to small accidents of evolution.

Ants are very good for telling us about chemical communication. For instance, one ant may use a heptanone and another a methylheptanone as an alarm substance. What's fascinating is that different species will not intermingle, even though they are so closely related that all that separates them is one isomer of one organic substance. Their gene pools are isolated.

PT: Are there ever accidental spinoffs of evolution? Could there be some traits that really don't seem to serve an obvious function, but persist anyway?

EO: There are no accidental spinoffs, and there is very little probability that inferior traits will survive.

If you told an armchair theorist about the tiny differences in chemical communication in ants, his inclination would be to say, "Well, it's an accident, a spin-off. Evolution is full of accidents." Not when you get down to the nitty-gritty and find that these tiny differences have a major function in separating species.

PT: But what if one particular variation had such a huge benefit that it generated a huge number of spin-offs and those survived? Like the human brain. The benefit you get from a brain like ours is so large that maybe it can pay for all the spin-offs because of the gain. For instance, is the capacity to make music a spin-off?

EO: Some scientists suggest that music is an accidental spin-off of rhythmicity and speech. But I feel music has a very important role in ritual activity, and that being able to join in musical activity, along with dancing, could have been necessary at a very early stage of human culture. It probably served then, as it does today, to bind the society together, especially during rites of passage and reaffirmation of tribal communion.

PT: Could both accounts be true? What if it was initially an accidental spin-off, and then the system found a use for it?

EO: That's entirely possible. We don't know where rhythm comes from, but we do know it has great meaning for us.

PT: What was the big evolutionary trigger that produced the human brain?

EO: That's the mother of all questions. The paleoanthropologists put a lot of emphasis on climate change. I don't believe that for a minute, because geological history is full of vast climatic changes and large numbers of animal species that lived through them unchanged. I think evolution came up with a fairly big animal, the primate, with a fairly big brain, and then this animal somehow got on its hind legs. Once it was erect, it had the freedom of hands. It could carry things. It could try out tools. This was the takeoff point. Nothing like that had ever happened before. Climatic change could have speeded the process, but it was not critical.

PT: What about dinosaurs? They had hands.

EO: We don't know why they didn't go the distance. There was one line of dinosaurs that were big-bodied and big-brained, though not as neurally well-endowed as primates, and they had free hands, but they didn't take off the way humans did.

PT: Can you talk about taking big risks in science? You've called it steering through the blue waters and abandoning sight of land.

EO: You either hug the coast or you head for blue water.

PT: Did you start out hugging the coast?

EO: Very much.

PT: When did you shift?

EO: It started in my twenties. I wrote a very controversial paper showing that it's almost impossible to define a geographic race. If you define a race on skin color, you can do that neatly. Red people here and white people there. But if you throw in noses, you've got white people with short noses and long noses, and then you throw in another trait and pretty soon you've got chaos.

I published that when I was twentyfour. At that point, I tasted genuine controversy and I liked it. Then when I wrote Sociobiology, I knew what it was like to be in blue water during a typhoon!

PT: Did you develop your biggest ideas gradually, or did they hit all at once?

EO: Each time, the whole thing came within minutes. You've got..the beginnings of a pattern in your mind and at first it doesn't seem much out of the ordinary. Then you start expanding the implications, and during the few minutes of expanding, you sense that the: idea may be important. Those moments don't happen very often in a career, but they're climactic and exhilarating.

PT: In Consilience, you say that our essential spiritual dilemma is that we evolved to accept one truth--God-and discovered another--evolution.

EO: And the struggle for men's souls in the 21st century will be to choose between the two. The transcendentalist view was so powerfully advantageous in early paleolithic and agricultural societies. If there's anything disagreeable about secular humanism, it's that it's bloodless. Secular humanists can sit around and talk about their love of humanity, but it doesn't stack up against a two-millennium-old funeral high mass. I used a phrase-"evolutionary epic"--back in 1978 to try and convey the grandeur of biology, and it's beginning to catch on. A colleague of mine speaks of "the sacred depths of nature" to evoke that same reverence.

PT: Scientists are trying to capture the awe that religion has, while theologians have had to move a long way from the communities that they're supposed to represent to make theology consistent with science.

EO: Theology today is really two separate worlds. There's the world of the fundamentalists who have a set of absolute beliefs that do not need to be justified. They're armored against any logical argument or evidence. If logic seems compelling, it's the voice of the devil.

Then there is the theology of the searchers, the thinkers about the meaning of human existence. They're trying to accommodate pretty wellrounded views of how the real world works without surrendering the mystery of the Almighty and the need for communal liturgy.

PT: You've said that the brain is really a kind of ever-shifting network, a republic of responses to information. Yet we walk around with a sense of a core self. Isn't that peculiar?

EO: I'm aware of you, you're aware of me. There's a sense of self. But there is no transcendental center of the brain somewhere that is in control of the machinery, pulling the levers and possessed of the capacity to float free of our mortal coil when that moment comes.

PT: How does the brain create that sense of self?

EO: You'll hear the voice of the neurobiologist emerging from me on this. It's natural we feel there's a self because of the body that we're in. Our brain is mapping the world. Often that map is distorted, but it's a map with constant immediate sensory input. The brain is organized heavily around sensations coming from the body, and that is so intense, so much at the center of conscious experience--including all the input coming from our body--that it's seen as the principal protagonist. That's what the self is.

PT: One of the most precious beliefs of the "self' is that it has free will.

EO: A lot of philosophers and thinkers have believed that the human mind was not based in material reality. They had a vague notion of angelic transcendent activity that they never could define because, of course, they coudn't translate it into any materialist terms and make sense.

That's really the basis of the notion of free will, that there is a whole different faculty, probably true for human beings only, a human quality that helps lift us up above the animals, somewhere between here and the angels.

PT: But when you talk about free will, you describe it only in the sense that the brain is so complex, so constantly bombarded with input, that it's able to cascade in any direction at any time. That's freedom, but not self-determined free will.

EO: There are really two meanings of free will. One we all agree on is that you have your own mind, you make your own decisions, your soul is your own. No matter what is done to you, that's the one thing that cannot be surrendered. Of course, now we know that with the right pharmaceutical or biochemical manipulation, you can get people to shift moods, attitudes, and maybe even beliefs. So that view isn't holding up quite so well anymore--but let's say that's what we mean by free will.

The other kind of free will stops people cold in their attempt at selfunderstanding. We don't know our own minds. We don't know all the processes inside, and we can't predict what kind of responses and decisions we'll eventually make. Even if we believed we could, there is so much chaos in the mind brought about by tiny perturbations or external events. Not even with a gigantic computer could we predict what any of us sitting at this table will do precisely one hour from now.

PT: So we're free like the weather.

EO: Or like the wind. We will get up when we are ready to get up. That will be our free will. And we will go out that door and events will happen and we will think about them and make decisions that we can't predict right now. This thing we're walking around in is not in complete control. It could do marvelous things. It could encounter disasters.

PT: A world where the brain gives rise to the mind is a world where when we die physically, we're dead forever. That's one of the difficult truths of evolutionary biology.

EO: We've all descended from a common ancestor, and our genes are moving on into future generations in very closely the same manner as they would if you as an individual were the particular conduit. Looked at that way, you get a sense of near immortality from the human species.

Homo sapiens is 500,000 years old, give or take a hundred thousand years. That's a long time. That's virtual immortality as far as human beings are concerned. If we last another halfmillion years, then that's almost time out of mind, time beyond our personal imagining. However, that notion of immortality is still part of a secularist world view. That's what humanism really is, you know, concentration on the continuity of the human spirit.

PT: But what do you do as an individual, faced with death? Remember Dylan Thomas' lines, "Do not go gentle into that good night .... Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

EO: I think what he was telling us was, "Stay healthy, don't smoke, and be as vigorous and involved as you can." No...I think that's what he ought to have told us.

I don't think it would be wise to say that, as the time approaches, you should start raging against death. I don't think there's any greater fear of death among atheists or secularists than there is among the devoutly religious.

As Francis Bacon has said, "Men fear not death, but the moment of the strike thereof." If I tell you, "It won't be too long before you're dead," that's okay You can imagine a time when there's no consciousness, when there's no you. But if I say, "On May 2nd, 2040, you are going to be executed for having been wrongly accused of murder" or "On that date you are going to die of a huge heart attack"--that's more distressing, isn't it?

PT: Right. The date itself doesn't matter, but knowing the exact moment does .... You call yourself a deist. What do you mean by that?

EO: A deist is a person who's willing to buy the idea that some creative force determined the parameters of the universe when it began.

PT: And a theist is someone who believes that God not only set the universe in motion, but is still actively involved.

EO: I've been doing a kind of Pascalian waffling as a deist. I think being an atheist is to claim knowledge you cannot have. And to say you're agnostic is to arrogantly dismiss the whole thing by saying that it's unknowable. But a provisional deist is someone like myself who leaves it open. You see, evolutionary biology leaves very little room for a theistic God.

I'd like it to be otherwise. Nothing would delight me more than to have real proof of a transcendental plane.

PT: Why?

EO: If the neurobiologists came through with enough evidence and said, "There is another plane, and it is quite conceivable that the individual essence somehow implanted there is immortal"--wouldn't you be happy? I'd be very, very happy I'd congratulate my colleagues when they went to Stockholm to get the Nobel Prize for making one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, and I'd be personally relieved.

PT: Relieved of what?

EO: It would mean that human existence really is exalted and that immortality is a prospect, providing this God is not a God of irony and cruelty who is going to send everybody the other way.

That reminds me of an argument I like to give. Maybe God is sorting the saved from the damned--the opposite of what most traditionalists believe-and the saved will be those ,who have the intellectual courage to press on with skepticism and materialism. They would be His most independent and courageous creations, would they not? Particularly the ones who faced the charges of heresy

PT: They get to heaven because they still wanted to, even though they believed there was no heaven.EO: Right.

PT: I would be deeply disappointed if there were a God. The universe looks so stunningly impressive because it can do this trick all by itself. A deity undercuts it.

EO: I understand what you're saying. That the human soul was selfcreated in such an astonishing way that we're only just beginning to understand.

PT: A universe that needs a push to get it right every now and then--that's just a second class universe.

EO: So the universe that made itself after it got started, however it got started, is a first class universe. This is what I say, actually, in Consilience. We're free, thank God.

PHOTOS (COLOR): E. O. Wilson



For many the urge to believe in transcendental existence and immortality is overpowering. Transcendentalism, especially when reinforced by religious faith, is psychically full and rich; it feels somehow right. In comparison empiricism seems sterile and inadequate. That is why, even as empiricism is winning the mind, transcendentalism continues to win the heart. Science has always defeated religious dogma point by point when the two have conflicted. But to no avail. In the United States there are fifteen million Southern Baptists, the largest denomination favoring literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, but only five thousand members of the American Humanist Association, the leading organization devoted to secular and deistic humanism ....

Science has taken us far from the personal God who once presided over Western civilization. It has done little to satisfy our instinctual hunger...The essence of humanity's spiritual dilemma is that we evolved genetically to accept one truth and discovered another. Is there a way to erase the dilemma, to resolve the contradictions between transcendentalist and empiricist world views?

No, unfortunately, there is not .... For centuries the writ of empiricism has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately first fled the rocks and trees, then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized. They will find a way to keep ancestral spirits alive.

The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all the religious cosmologies combined. The continuity of the human line has been traced through a period of deep history a thousand times older than that conceived by the Western religions. Its study has brought new revelations of great moral importance. Such are the conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.