E. O. Wilson Flips


E. O. Wilson is, to me, in the sciences what Harold Bloom is to the Humanities: “a giant who bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus.” Both have a breadth of learning, and a depth of understanding, that surpasses my comprehension. In their presence I feel like a dog contemplating a human.

There’s big fight going on right now among the theologians of evolutionary biology, and there’s a comical aspect to it: ever since Darwin himself, there has been speculation about how empathy arose. The discovery of mirror neurons completely removed the doubts about the origin of morality (a direct product of empathy) from the world of supernatural superstition. It’s factory-installed. But how has it come about?

For years, “kin selection” has been the theoretical answer – that empathy arose from our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for kin who also carried our genes. When a guy named W. D. Hamilton tried to introduce mathematical modeling (1964) in support of the idea, though, it provoked the standard academic firestorm. A newly-ascendant young biologist named E. O. Wilson (Consilience, The Ants, Sociobiology…) supported him, though, and pushed him into the end zone.

But – Wilson’s shit-detector belatedly began sensing some difficulties. After all this time, he has changed his mind! (He was 83 when he did it, but so far has not been seen talking to empty chairs like Clint.) Changed his mind, or at least introduced so many caveats that the discussion has been re-opened. Imagine the frustration of those born to follow – he drags them all over to the other side, and then goes back!

Presently, all the big guns in evolutionary biology are choosing sides and blazing away, like a bunch of Baptists. Wilson thinks Richard Dawkins is confused; and Dawkins has implied that Wilson is ‘round the bend. You may have to wait until all those with vested interests (as well as I) have gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds, as Planck would have suggested, to learn the (always provisional) ending.

I don’t think I’ll be around for the ending, but I’m betting on Wilson. I think guys like him see their quarry so clearly that they find other views not credible, regardless of how many oppose their own. In the meantime, it’s a little disheartening to see scientists trying to change his mind by ganging up and yelling at him – not what I think of first as part ofthe Scientific Method!. Here’s the story: .

http://discovermagazine.com/2011/jan-feb/03

Anyhow, at base, Wilson is trying to understand all the facets of our moral nature. Meantime, I have no horse in this race over kin selection; I just watch it with interest. Evidently, morality has resulted from the other kind of selection that operates in tandem with individual selection: group selection – which fosters concern as well for others beyond kin.

As a youth, I brought my compassionate nature to the church, and tried to graft myself to it; but the church in turn had grafted itself to our moral nature, rather than giving rise to it. It slowly occurred to me that I had been misled about the ultimate origin of my moral nature, which I sensed that I had brought with me into the church, and retained when I left it.

Wilson likes the metaphor of the rowing team. The rowers compete against one another, until another team challenges them. Then they all join together to defeat the enemy. He compares this to the tug-of-war between selfishness (sin), and supporting one another (empathy; morality). Neither side wins decisively, because both instincts are part of our nature. This idea resonates with my own temperament.

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