MONDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2021
...it was major professors gone wild: Edward O. Wilson died yesterday at the age of 92. His stature is captured in the headline in the Washington Post:
Edward O. Wilson, Harvard naturalist often cited as heir to Darwin, dies at 92
Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard naturalist whose mapping of social behavior in ants led him to study social behavior in all organisms and who became one of the greatest naturalists of his generation, died Dec. 26 in Burlington, Mass. He was 92.
The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation announced his death but did not provide a cause.
Often cited as Charles Darwin’s greatest 20th-century heir, Dr. Wilson was an eloquent and immensely influential environmentalist and was the first to determine that ants communicate mainly through the exchange of chemical substances now known as pheromones.
He discovered hundreds of new species by putting his hands in the dirt as a field biologist, synthesized evolving thinking in science and coined new terms, such as biodiversity and biophilia, to explain it. Of his many accomplishments in evolutionary biology, his biggest contribution was probably in the new scientific field of sociobiology, in which he addressed the biological basis of social behavior in animals, including humans.
This "heir to Darwin" had "addressed the biological basis of social behavior in animals." Even in us humans!
Apparently, some of us human didn't like that much. Later, Patricia Sullivan takes us back to 1975, when Wilson published his famous book, Sociobiology.
Uh-oh! Familiar conduct emerged:
SULLIVAN: The controversy came from the last chapter, on humankind. Dr. Wilson proposed that human behavior is genetically based, that humans inherit a propensity to acquire behavior and social structures, including a division of labor between the sexes, parental-child bonding, heightened altruism toward closest kin, incest avoidance, suspicion of strangers, tribalism, male dominance and territorial aggression over limited resources.
He later noted in “Naturalist,” his 1994 autobiography, that his was “an exceptionally strong hereditarian position for the 1970s.”
The response was furious, starting at his own school, where colleagues accused him of genetic determinism and tied the theory to Nazi eugenics, racism, sexism, sterilization and restrictions on immigration. Demonstrators disrupted the campus, calling his theory an apologia for the status quo.
The fact that sociobiology made the cover of Time magazine or that Dr. Wilson debated the proposition on the “Today” show and Dick Cavett’s talk show did not impress them. The protests culminated with a takeover of the stage at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, where one demonstrator was said to have drenched him with a pitcher of ice water, declaring, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”
"Decades later, scientists now acknowledge that genes play some still undefined role in human nature," Sullivan writes. But at that time, Wilson's last chapter had made him a Nazi! Some genius drenched him with ice water, then said he was all wet!
But did that actually happen? Sullivan provides no link, and she cites no source. Indeed, she only says that the drenching is "said to have" occurred.
When we googled around, we found a New York Times review of Wilson's 1994 book, Naturalist. Helen Fisher described the incident and even named some names, apparently citing Wilson's book:
FISHER (10/16/94): How did Edward O. Wilson, one of the foremost scientists of the century, so enrage his colleagues? ...[I]n his 1975 book "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," Mr. Wilson had organized data about hundreds of animals and had discussed the biological underpinnings of their social behaviors. In his conclusion, he contended that many human behaviors, including altruism, hypocrisy and tribalism, also have biological underpinnings—they are part of our animal nature.
With this, Mr. Wilson revived the longest-running controversy in science, nature vs. nurture. Fifteen scholars in the Boston area, including two of Mr. Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, formed the Sociobiology Study Group. In November 1975 they denounced sociobiology in letter to The New York Review of Books, linking it to racism and Nazi ideology. Three years later Mr. Wilson was assaulted during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Demonstrators affiliated with the International Committee Against Racism carried anti-sociobiology placards (at least one displaying a swastika), seized the dais and dumped a pitcher of ice water on Mr. Wilson's head, chanting, "Wilson, you're all wet!" The episode "may be the only occasion in recent American history," Mr. Wilson writes, "on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea."
We're assuming that the ice water drenching incident actually happened. We're more struck by the two major names who rose to confront his Nazism.
We humans! Even at the highest levels, our brains are wired to produce such reactions, disconsolate experts insist, speaking to us from the future.