The American biologist EO Wilson was in Britain last week to attend a ground-breaking ceremony on the Isle of Portland in Dorset. The first soil was being turned on the site of what will eventually become the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO), a collaboration between a British educational charity and Wilson’s own Biodiversity Foundation. The idea is to build a “global beacon for biodiversity” on the south coast, and to this end, MEMO has hired the architect David Adjaye to design a conference centre that will be hewn, on a fairly monumental scale, from the local Portland stone.
When I met Wilson, who is a sprightly 85, in London a couple of days after the ceremony, he told me he sees the work that MEMO and his foundation are doing as a moral crusade. “We have to make species survival a moral issue with transcendent, meaning human-wide, acceptance,” he said. “As long as the other eight to ten million species are regarded as in some way fungible against the needs of people, then they’re going to lose. And despite the best efforts of NGOs and global conservation groups, the rate of species extinction is continuing at a high level, and may even be increasing. We could be dooming ourselves by taking the biosphere to a point of no return—a tipping point. And we don’t seem to be capable of [reversing] it any other way except by making [the preservation of biodiversity] a moral precept.”
Wilson, who owes his reputation to his work in the fields of sociobiology and biodiversity, was eager that our discussion stick to terrain that might be thought to be the province of philosophers rather than biologists. His publisher describes his latest book, a terse little volume entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, as his “most philosophical work to date”—presumably because it sets out to explore the “broader meaning of our species”, though Wilson seems to take it for granted that the really interesting questions to ask about human behaviour are genetic ones, questions about its origins as opposed to what we’d usually understand by its “meaning.” And history, he argues in the book, is on his side—or at least intellectual fashion is.
“As late as the 1970s,” Wilson writes, “the orientation of the social scientists was primarily towards the humanities. Their prevailing view was that human behaviour is primarily or even entirely cultural, not biological in origin… By the end of the 20th century the orientation flipped towards biology. Today it is widely believed that human behaviour has a strong genetic component.” (There are, of course, differences of opinion among biologists as to which evolutionary story best fits the facts. The day before I met Wilson, he’d appeared on Newsnight, where he was asked about remarks he makes in the book about Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as an “eloquent journalist.” In 2012, Dawkins reviewed Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth for Prospect and dismissed his theory of “group selection,” which he proposes as an alterntive to “kin selection”, as “implausible” and “unsupported by evidence.” Wilson, though, insists that “no one has… refuted the mathematical analysis” underpinning the theory.)
Wilson declares, in The Meaning of Human Existence, that the “time has come… to make a proposal about the possibility of unification of the two great branches of learning”—science and the humanities (philosophy, in particular). It has to be said, though, that what Wilson calls “unification” actually looks more like submission—of the humanities to the territorial ambitions of the natural sciences. He told me he’d like to see a “rebirth of philosophy,” by which he seemed to mean philosophers learning to ask “just the sort of questions we [biologists] are asking here.”
“In my view,” he went on, “philosophy died, almost, when the logical positivists gave up 50 or so years ago. Philosophy at the present time consists of reviewing the history of philosophy, which consists largely of failed models of the brain. We need a new philosophy, but one that is based on a scientific understanding of the origins and meaning of man.”
But in some cases, surely, modern science is ratifying the insights or intuitions of the great philosophers of the past, not debunking or destroying them—think of Aristotle’s claim that human beings are by nature “political animals,” for which Wilson’s theory might be thought to provide scientific grounding. “Right,” he said when I put this point to him. “But then I don’t know how we would distinguish philosophy from evolutionary biology.”
The best response I could muster to that was to grope for a couple of lines from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
EO Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence” is published by Liveright (£14.99)