They Couldn’t Cancel Him

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Have you ever wondered just what those ants are so busy doing all the time? Edward O. Wilson did, and by the time he was 30, he was the world’s leading authority on the subject. In a career that spanned 70 years, most of them at Harvard University, Dr. Wilson became one of the most influential — and, for a time, controversial — scientists in the world. When he died on December 26 in Burlington, Mass., he was hailed as “Darwin’s natural heir” by the foundation that bears his name. And that is no exaggeration. Wilson was perhaps the greatest zoologist in history, and certainly one of the finest writers the sciences have ever produced.

Wilson’s study of zoology and genetics widened his lens far beyond the study of insects, and he followed the science fearlessly. In 1975, he published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he theorized that the major aspects of social behavior among animals — from aggression and altruism to hierarchies and parenting — can all be explained by natural selection. He then demonstrated his theory by looking at the animal kingdom, starting with colonial microorganisms and social insects, and working his way systematically to primates and humans.

Sociobiology dives right into the great philosophical questions it raises. Here are the opening sentences:

Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. The biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain. These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions — hate, love, guilt, fear, and others — that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection.

Written in a literary and often riveting prose style, the book was clearly calculated to make its author famous, and it worked. It also caused a firestorm at Harvard University, where left-leaning colleagues led by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould published a letter of a type that has become drearily familiar in recent years: Through facile distortion and false analogy, these early harbingers of cancel culture associated Wilson with the biological determinism that had been used to justify forced sterilization, restrictive immigration, and even the Holocaust.

But Wilson never claimed that all human behavior is biologically determined. He merely pointed out that behavioral tendencies observable in all social species have evolutionary consequences, and therefore have an evolutionary dimension that must be explored. Sociobiology was just evolutionary psychology on a grander scale.

In a new preface to the 2004 edition of On Human Nature, Wilson recalled the initial reaction to Sociobiology:

The fashionable mood in academia was revolutionary left. Elite universities invented political correctness, enforced by peer pressure and the threat of student protest. Marxism and socialism in this ambience were all right. Communist revolutions were all right. The regimes of China and the Soviet Union were, at least in ideology, all right. Centrism was scorned outside the dean’s office. Political conservatives, stewing inwardly, for the most part dared not speak up. Radical left professors and visiting activists, the heroes on campus, repeated this litany: The Establishment has failed us, the Establishment blocks progress, the Establishment is the enemy. Power to the people it was — but with an American twist. Because ordinary working people remained dismayingly conservative throughout this sandbox revolution, the new proletariat in the class struggle had to be the students. And, unable to picture their futures as stockbrokers, bureaucrats, and college administrators, many of the students complied.

This is all even more true today than it was in the 1970s, with the sad difference that the Marxists and socialists have all but taken over the establishment at those elite universities. Wilson prevailed against the woke mob of the 1970s because his scientific contributions were so pioneering and important, and because he had so many admirers both in the academy and outside it. But it’s a real question whether he could survive cancellation in today’s ambience of unprecedented intolerance on campus.

Read the full article at National Review.