It is more than 20 years since Edward O Wilson first presented sociobiology as a Darwinian meta-theory. His latest book still aims to reconcile culture and biology and is as over-ambitious as everby Andrew Brown / July 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
When EO Wilson was a small boy in Florida, he put out one of his eyes with a fish. It was a spiney Caribbean minnow and he managed to swing it into his right eye while trying to unhook it. The way he tells the story in his autobiography is characteristic: “The pain was excruciating and I suffered for hours. But, being anxious to stay outdoors, I didn’t complain very much. I continued fishing.” The pain from his eye went away after a few days, but a couple of months later he developed a traumatic cataract in that eye and had to have the lens removed in a barbarous operation, held down on a table and anaesthetised by ether dripping on his face.
The story encapsulates a great deal about the man. There is the extraordinary physical and mental toughness necessary to go on fishing in such circumstances, coupled with a romantic conviction that it is better to be fishing on the beach than to return to human company. In passing, he lets us know that his parents were splitting up that summer. The accident was also important for his career. It meant that when his boyish interest in hunting animals began to tip over into a naturalist’s interest in finding and classifying them, he could not study birds. His hearing had always been too poor to distinguish their high notes; and now his eyesight would not let him spot them. He turned his fierce monocular vision on to insects instead, with huge success. By the age of 26 he was an associate professor at Harvard (younger even than James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, whom he loathed) and by 1971, aged 42, he bestrode the world of ants like a colossus. In that year he published an enormous study synthesising everything important that was known about social insects.
Hardworking and ambitious, he decided to follow this feat with a synthesis of everything known about social behaviour in animals, including man. He was one of the first to appreciate the significance of the Oxford zoologist WD Hamilton’s theory of kin selection when the original, impenetrably mathematical papers were published in 1964. These solved one problem of interest to entomologists: why worker ants and bees are always female. But they changed intellectual history because they laid out a general solution to the problem of how altruistic behaviour might spread in a…