Lessons From Ants to Grasp Humanity
Richard Perry/The New York Times
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Published: April 8, 2012
To the biologist Edward O. Wilson, the Metropolitan Museum of Art encapsulates some of the conflicting impulses natural selection has instilled in humans: the innate drive for expression that spurs some of us to make art, the selfishness that motivates others to earn the riches needed to collect it, and the altruism that compels the donation of collections for the public good — as long as the donors’ names are inscribed on the walls too.
But asked to imagine the museum from the perspective of ants, whose intricate social world he has built a towering reputation by studying, Dr. Wilson painted a scene that was less a lesson in evolution than a chaotic free-for-all.
“To them the crowds would just be a flank-to-flank herd of enormous elephants you have to dodge around,” he said with a boyish giggle from the museum’s teeming steps during a recent visit to New York to promote his 27th book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” which is being published Monday by Liveright. “I don’t think ants would have any aesthetic or intellectual interest in the museum, though they would certainly find a happy home in Central Park.”
An ant’s-eye view of an art museum may seem odd. But Dr. Wilson, 82, has made a grand scientific and literary career by bringing Homo sapiens and the natural world we emerged from closer together, uniting phenomena great and small under the grand perspective of evolution. “Human history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology,” he said, echoing a line from the new book, which offers a sweeping account of the human rise to domination of the biosphere, rounded out with broad reflections on art, ethics, language and religion.
It’s the kind of calmly imperial claim that has been getting Dr. Wilson in trouble since the days of “Sociobiology,” the mammoth 1975 study that was hailed by many scientists as a landmark effort to explain behaviors like altruism, aggression and parental care as products of natural selection but was denounced by others as justifying racism, sexism and — “horror of horrors,” he recalled — capitalism.
That book, only a short chapter of which was about human beings, inspired one protester to dump a pitcher of water over Dr. Wilson’s head at a scholarly conference. But these days Dr. Wilson — a courtly man with a touch of an Alabama drawl and a palpable eagerness to comment on even casually encountered flora and fauna — is more likely to be hailed as the nation’s leading advocate for biodiversity and an all-around eco hero.
Not that his days as a controversialist are entirely behind him. “The Social Conquest of Earth,” presented by his publisher as the capstone work of his career, is written in the graceful style that has won him two Pulitzer Prizes but grounded in a view of evolution that has already prompted sharp criticism from his fellow scientists.
Specifically Dr. Wilson argues that the tendency toward cooperation and collaboration that has powered our spectacular success as a species is explained not by kin selection — in which evolution favors the genes of individuals who sacrifice themselves for the sake of relatives — but by group selection, the tendency of evolution to favor groups that work together altruistically, beyond what might be predicted by simple genetic relatedness.
If no one is quite ready to dump a pitcher of water over Dr. Wilson’s head, many colleagues are mystified and dismayed by his late-life embrace of group selection — a highly controversial notion among biologists — and rejection of the kin-selection theory that he helped popularize in “Sociobiology.”
“ ‘Sociobiology’ is still a very great book, and now he’s trashing it all,” said Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. “It’s crazy.” Dr. Coyne was one of more than 150 scientists who signed four letters published last spring in the journal Nature criticizing a 2010 paper by Dr. Wilson, written with the mathematicians Martin A. Nowak and Corina E. Tarnita, outlining his group-selection arguments.
But Dr. Wilson, putting on a fleece vest under his professorial green tweed jacket in preparation for a rainy walk through Central Park, seemed unruffled by the fracas, which is only passingly acknowledged in the new book. “I don’t mind it,” he said of the criticism, adding that he had full confidence in his co-authors’ complex math. “I actually expect it for any important change. No pain, no gain.”
Dr. Wilson, who retired from teaching in 1996 but remains on the Harvard faculty, was more bothered by the suggestion that his new arguments compromised his scientific legacy, which he said rested not on “Sociobiology” but on his many “fundamental” discoveries about ants and other social insects.
Certainly few living biologists can match Dr. Wilson’s record, which includes identifying some 450 new ant species, including one he turned up in a potted plant in the Washington offices of the World Wildlife Fund. (On closer re-examination, alas, it turned out to be a mere variant.) On the walk through Central Park, there was no sign of the new frog species a team of biologists recently identified on Staten Island, though the prospect of a previously unknown creature lurking somewhere in the park, he said, was “virtually certain.”
“I’d look in the soil, among the mites, or maybe the springtails,” he said, enthusiastically using his forearm to imitate that tiny bug’s rear appendage. “They are among the least understood and most obscure creatures.”
That sense of never-ending discovery fuels Dr. Wilson’s globe-trotting mission to promote biodiversity preservation, which in recent months has taken him as far as Mozambique and the South Pacific. Saving the natural world, he said, is more important to him now than winning any intellectual fights.
Not that he shies away from alienating potential allies. Religious readers, for example, may not take kindly to a chapter in the new book depicting religion as an archaic “trap” kept alive today by “purveyors of theological narcissism,” from the pope to the Dalai Lama.
“We’ve been spinning our wheels trying to talk about ways to bring the best of religion and science together,” he said in the interview, dismissing organized religion as fostering tribalism we no longer need.
And while some humanities scholars have embraced evolutionary ideas, many others will roll their eyes at his declaration, in a chapter on the arts, that the humanities will achieve a “full maturing” only when they take account of findings in cognitive science and genetics.
In conversation Dr. Wilson is more modest. Asked what sciences has to learn from the arts, he responded, “Everything.” He declined to comment on favorite pieces at the Metropolitan Museum, insisting that his knowledge is too limited to say anything very useful about individual works. (When he met Harper Lee last year, during a during a trip to his home state, Alabama, with a group hoping to establish a national park there, he had not read her “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he sheepishly admitted.)When it comes to nature, however, Dr. Wilson remains easily and infectiously wonder-struck. Before heading out of Central Park he paused by the statue of Balto, the sled dog who became a national hero after carrying medicine to diphtheria-stricken Nome, Alaska, in 1925. “It’s good to see a monument to an animal,” he said, looking up and smiling.