The controversy around E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology
Wilson was a synthesizer of ideas from different fields of study. His book The Insect Societies (1971) examined the biological basis of social behaviour in different organisms and was well-received. However, a subsequent book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), provoked a storm of controversy. In the 27th and final chapter of that book, Wilson suggested that human nature was shaped by evolution and that humans, like other animals, have instincts pertaining to bodily functions and reproduction.
Perhaps surprisingly, the controversy that erupted over the book did not come primarily from the religious right. (Years later, with his 2006 book The Creation, written in the form of letters to an imaginary pastor, Wilson called upon the Evangelicals and other conservative religious groups to help save the natural world. He believed that we would not save life on Earth unless science and religion could work together.)
It was the political Left that was infuriated by Wilson’s work. His argument that human behaviour was shaped by evolution contradicted their dogma that the human mind is a blank slate, that everything we do is based on contingency, and that our personalities are shaped only by history and our own experiences. In their view, raising the spectre of a biological basis for human behaviour was a justification for war, sexism, and racism.
In a telephone interview with Alice Dreger conducted in 2009, Wilson says that he thinks he is the only scientist in modern times who was physically attacked for an idea. That attack occurred during a 1978 session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when Wilson was about to give a presentation. Protesters rushed onto the stage and one woman poured a pitcher of water over his head as other protesters chanted “You’re all wet.” Wilson dried himself off with the proffered paper towels, there were calls for calm, and he was able to give his talk. In the interview with Dreger, Wilson says that “we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. That’s a huge problem!” He believed that our predispositions or instincts inherited from our prehistoric past could become dangerous in our modern techno-scientific society. He therefore sought, through biology and the social sciences, to study human nature as it actually is in order to find ways to pull us through. But for minds trapped in ideology, his ideas were unacceptable.
In 1978, Wilson responded to his detractors with another book, On Human Nature, which examined the scientific arguments for the role of biology in human culture, and which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1979.
PIC’s work is also controversial – but that’s why we must carry on
Surely those of us in the population field can empathize with Wilson’s efforts to swim against the politically correct current! Just as the far Left denies the existence of a human nature shaped by evolution, it denies that the world can be overpopulated. It is not that there are too many people, it argues, it is that capitalism has resulted in an unfair distribution of resources. The 20th century saw a tremendous capacity to increase the human food supply through technological and agricultural developments. The human population quadrupled during that century (from ~1.5 to ~6 billion) at the expense of other life forms and environmental sustainability. We might say that this supports the view that humans, just like other organisms, increase their numbers in accordance with the available food supply. Our detractors say that makes us racist (too many black and brown babies), sexist (blaming poor women for our own overconsumption), and neo-colonialists.
But whether some accept it or not, the fact remains that the Earth on which our lives depend is ailing under the weight of our numbers, now approaching 8 billion. As our patron Sir David Attenborough has said, “Human beings have overrun the world.” It’s thanks to your support that PIC continues its efforts to preserve life on Earth, human and otherwise, by campaigning for a sustainable human population through equality for women and girls, universal access to contraception, and education.