nybooks.com/ 5-2-2022 Ideology as Biology – E. O. Wilson corresponded for years with a notorious proponent of race science, advocating for his research behind the scenes. What does it tell us about his most controversial work? by Mark Borrello, David Sheepskin
More than once, he was described as a “modern-day Darwin.” Yet few of his eulogizers cared to dwell on a central preoccupation of his career: the development of the field of “sociobiology” in the mid-1970s, which he defined as the study of the biological aspects of animal behavior. In the years that followed, Wilson became embroiled in a very public controversy over his application of sociobiology to human evolution and behavior. That dispute is very much alive today—and without reckoning with it no account of Wilson’s legacy can be complete.
In 1975, Wilson published a lengthy treatise on the evolution of social behavior in animals titled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. While Wilson’s primary focus in the book was on nonhuman animals, in its final chapter he extended sociobiological analysis to humans. Here he suggested, among other things, an evolutionary and genetic basis for “the behavioral qualities that underlie the variations between cultures,” as well as for “marked racial differences in locomotion, posture, muscular tone, and emotional response that cannot be reasonably explained as the result of training or even conditioning within the womb.”
The publication of Sociobiology triggered an immediate, fierce reaction from liberal-minded scientists and commentators, in the form of campus protests and charges of racism and sexism. In a group letter responding to a review of Sociobiology in these pages, the signatories, including two of Wilson’s departmental colleagues at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, contended that Wilson’s “supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions,” drawing a line from the biological determinism that supported the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century to Wilson’s latest work. Other scientists, notably Richard Dawkins and Robert Trivers, staunchly defended Wilson and insisted it was, rather, his critics who were “politically motivated.” (Lewontin was an avowed Marxist, and Gould had socialist leanings.) Wilson himself angrily denounced his critics, both publicly and in private correspondence. Refusing to budge on the hereditarian implications for humans outlined in Sociobiology, he published On Human Nature in 1978 to great acclaim. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.
The aftermath of Wilson’s work in sociobiology and the controversy surrounding it can best be described as an uneasy truce. Eventually, the antagonists moved on to other issues, and Wilson became one of the chief proponents of biodiversity conservation, for which he is now probably best known. The question of whether Wilson espoused racist ideas was left unresolved. So, too, was the larger question of how genetically determined human behavior is, and whether racial categories are even useful for describing genetic variations. Today, it is less common to call the study of racial or hereditarian differences in human behavior “sociobiology,” but fields ranging from evolutionary psychology to anthropology to molecular genetics have been influenced, often subtly, by Wilson’s framework. …”…
newscientist.com 12/2021 E. O. Wilson: Extraordinary scholar who warned of biodiversity crisis – Naturalist and ant expert Edward O. Wilson, who died on 26 December, made at least five seminal contributions to ecology and was passionate about finding a more sustainable way for humans to live on Earth – By Doug Tallamy
razib.substack.com 19-1-2022 Setting the record straight: open letter on E.O. Wilson’s legacy – Response to Scientific American’s “The Complicated Legacy…” Razib Khan