What can evolution tell us, if anything, about human achievements in the arts? Not as much as EO Wilson thinksby Philip Ball / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Edward O Wilson, the octogenarian Harvard biologist and ethologist, is one of the most productive, broad-thinking and important scientists of the past century. The central question of his work is why animals do what they do, and how evolution has shaped their behaviour. His new book, The Origins of Creativity, seeks to draw lessons from that understanding about “the unique and defining trait of our species”: creativity, which he defines, not without controversy, as “the innate quest for originality.”
Like Charles Darwin, Wilson’s research has mainly focused on non-human behaviour. His specialism is social insects, especially ants. His monumental book The Ants (1991), written with fellow myrmecologist Bert Hölldobler, won a Pulitzer Prize—his second such award—a testament to the fact that Wilson writes as eloquently as he thinks.
His first Pulitzer was for On Human Nature (1978), in which his readiness to generalise the lessons of natural history to humankind made him both influential and notorious. He was a pioneer of evolutionary psychology, which explains our impulses and instincts from a Darwinian perspective. These are, in this view, hardwired into our brains because of the reproductive success they conferred on our ancestors.
Public resistance to this idea, which he called “sociobiology,” has been widespread and vociferous. In the 1970s, Wilson was denounced as a crypto-fascist who was attempting to offer scientific justification for racism, sexism and bigotry. There were demonstrations at his lectures; during one talk he had water poured over his head.
The opposition wrongly assumed that sociobiology presented a rigidly deterministic view in which everything we do is preordained by genes. While there is reason to believe that much human behaviour—sex drive, aggression, violence and tribalism, as well as altruism and the nurturing of offspring—is instilled by evolutionary demands, genes are not destiny and our autonomy and free will are not at stake. What’s more, Wilson and his associates never made the mistake identified by David Hume of confusing what “is” the case with what “ought” to be.