Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 18-24.
To future generations, the Sociobiology Wars may come as something of a puzzle. The shared beliefs of the disputants were so much more impressive than their disagreements that historians may wonder what the fuss was about. Perhaps the controversy will come to resemble the Wars of the Roses, all of whose contestants believed in the divine right of kings. Their differing opinions as to succession seem rather trivial by comparison. In the case of sociobiology, all the principal actors accept the premise of materialism, sometimes called naturalism. They believe, or at least for the purposes of doing science they believe, that matter in motion is all that exists, and that mind and consciousness are merely special configurations of that matter.
Anyone who believes this must, as a matter of logical necessity, also believe in evolution. No digging for fossils, no test tubes or microscopes, no further experiments are needed. For birds, bats, and bees do exist. They came into existence somehow. Your consistent materialist has no choice but to allow that, yes, molecules in motion succeeded, over the eons, in whirling themselves into ever more complex conglomerations, some of them called bats, some birds, some bees. He “knows” that is true, not because he sees it in the genes, or in the lab, or in the fossils, but because it is embedded in his philosophy.
Sociobiology extended Darwinian insights about bodies to behavior, and may be thought of as having revived the old controversy about nature and nurture. Its participants were, mostly, Harvard professors, and included some of the best science writers of our day. Its two main antagonists, Edward O. Wilson and Richard C. Lewontin, both born in 1929, occupied offices one floor apart in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. For a while, they didn’t speak in the elevator. Oddly enough, Wilson, the naturalist, was on the side of the genes, while Lewontin, the geneticist, was on the side of the environment (to oversimplify). A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Lewontin has recently published under that imprint a collection of his essays, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. His best–known supporter, Stephen Jay Gould, is the author of many books on evolution and natural history. Richard Dawkins of Oxford is only one of the many biologists who have sided with Wilson.
The conflict, therefore, should be thought of as a dispute between like–minded professors whose understanding of life on earth differed in detail, but agreed on a key premise: any reference to a creator or designer must be excluded from biology from the outset, as a matter of principle. Just as creationists have their favorite biblical texts, so do materialists have theirs. It is from the Book of Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker): “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” No matter how much they disagreed with one another, they could all agree on that.
The controversy erupted in 1975, when Harvard University Press published Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. (A twenty–fifth anniversary commemorative edition was recently published, with a new introduction by the author.) The Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard, and an expert on ants, Wilson has defined sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” The zoological chapters of his book, dealing with the social insects, fish schools, birds, elephants, and carnivores, were well received. But the final chapter, on human behavior, “ignited the most tumultuous academic controversy of the 1970s,” as Wilson himself writes in the new edition.
Even before the trouble started, Boyce Rensberger, the science correspondent of the New York Times, wrote a front page article for the newspaper, “Updating Darwin on Behavior,” outlining sociobiology’s principal claim. In the older view, Rensberger wrote, the insect societies of bees and ants and the hierarchies of monkeys were seen as “evidence for the remarkable variety of nature.” Now, however, researchers were coming to a “more profound conclusion.” Beneath the variety there lay “common behavioral patterns governed by the genes and shaped by Darwinian evolution.”
So that was it, then. Genes and evolution had shaped not just our bodies, but our behavior as well. Human behavior and human nature were not exempt. When Tom Wolfe referred to Wilson last year as Darwin II, he was being playful, but he also had a point. For Darwin’s theory of evolution was being adapted to explain almost everything under the sun. That prospect should give good Darwinians pause, however, for a theory so protean that it can account for all observations about life may be little more than a veiled truism.
As late as 1963, the Columbia University geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky had stated the older view of human behavior. “Culture is not inherited through genes, it is acquired by learning from other human beings,” he wrote. “In a sense, human genes have surrendered their primacy in human evolution to an entirely new, nonbiological or superorganic agent, culture.” The tendency of Wilsonian sociobiology was to put the genes back in charge. Wilson’s life–long “dream of a unifying theory” materialized between hard covers in his 1998 bestseller Consilience. Ever–widening fields of knowledge were united in single “Ionian Enchantment.” Everything is material, everything can be reduced to the laws of physics, everything that is alive ipso facto evolved. Mind is matter. Things exist because they were selected for in life’s struggle. If they hadn’t been selected for, they wouldn’t exist. Everything is explained because everything is connected. In the “unification metaphysics” of Wilson’s late period, one may say, the insights of Himalayan gurus received the imprimatur of cutting–edge science.
For earlier researchers the word “instinct” seemed a satisfactory explanation of much animal behavior. Then it fell out of favor—it glossed over complex mechanisms that were not remotely understood. The history of science has repeatedly shown this tendency. A new word or concept creates the illusion of explanation—for a while. Then it wears thin, and philosophers must come up with something new. The current mania is for genes, thought of as the material cause of a vast range of human behavior, character, and malady. “Genomania,” as Lewontin has called it, began at about the same time as the sociobiology controversy. The almost magical powers imputed to genes reached what may have been a crescendo with the recently announced “decoding” of the human genome.
Fortified with the new terminology, the study of instinct was revived in the 1960s. Somehow, animals just did whatever was required: find food, avoid predators, make nests, reproduce. They didn’t have to learn—“only obey,” as Wilson put it. His own ants were “hard wired”; once born, they marched off and did their thing without trial or error. When Konrad Lorenz allowed that all these marvels must have developed through material evolution, by natural selection, the youthful Wilson was well pleased. “He secured my allegiance.”
A key contribution to sociobiology was made by an Englishman, William Hamilton. He would repair from his depressing graduate–student digs to the relative comforts of Waterloo railway station, and there was rewarded with a monumental insight. Darwin’s theory of evolution had implied that natural selection would generate a selfish world. It was “the fittest” that survived, after all, and that presumably meant looking out for No. 1. Yet, undeniably, there was a lot of altruistic behavior out there. Darwin himself had viewed with alarm the elaborate cooperation of the social insects. Hamilton’s explanation, published in 1964, took time to sink in, but once it did, the evolutionists sang his praises and have continued to do so without end. Kin selection—of course!
A gene exists not just in one organism, Hamilton argued, but also in others, closely related. Siblings share half their genes, first cousins share one–eighth of theirs, and so on. (These ratios were arrived at not by comparing the actual DNA of individuals, but as a deduction from the postulates of Mendelian genetics.) Consequently, Hamilton argued, an action that endangers the individual but promotes the survival of more than two siblings, or more than eight first cousins, would nonetheless be advantageous: it would promote the spread of the gene that triggered the behavior which otherwise seemed so ill–advised.
Hamilton’s argument became the backbone of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, and it was a lifesaver for Wilson. The Darwinian scheme had been preserved intact. It had given away nothing by taking a more “inclusive” view of fitness. Then Robert Trivers expanded the analysis to more distantly related animals, positing genes for “reciprocal altruism.” That was judged to be less successful, but with the costs and benefits appropriately assigned, it could be invested with an air of plausibility.
The kin selection theory, published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, was expressed in obscure mathematics, but that was one of its triumphs. It all seemed so precise, so up to date, and yet so mystifying to the hoi polloi. Nature had rejected it! Hamilton was rapidly promoted from his waiting–room outpost. And when he died of malaria in the course of a research expedition to Africa last year, his funeral oration in the chapel of New College, Oxford, was not just delivered by the atheist Richard Dawkins, but reprinted by the Times Literary Supplement. Tom Wolfe didn’t quite get it right, apparently. Not E. O. Wilson, but William D. Hamilton was truly Darwin II. “Those of us who wish we had met Charles Darwin can console ourselves,” Dawkins began his eulogy. “We met W. D. Hamilton.”
It’s a sign of our times that when Wilson tried to show that an elaborated version of Darwinism could as easily explain human behavior and nature as it could the behavior of wasps and ants, the cry of indignation arose not from dismayed Christians but from a handful of leftist scientists, mostly secular Jews, based in Cambridge, Mass. The battle over sociobiology was sometimes construed as left versus right. But Ullica Segerstråle, the sociologist from the Illinois Institute of Technology whose book Defenders of the Truth: the Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond was recently published by Oxford, writes that “the actual dividing line went, rather, between a particular type of New Left activist on the one hand and traditional liberals and democrats on the other.” There is much to disagree with in her tome, but that judgment seems to be correct. The political spectrum went from left (Lewontin) to center (Wilson). The right was nowhere represented. (And don’t even think about the “religious right,” which had by then been banned in Boston.)
You might think that the left would welcome the inclusion of altruism and cooperation in the Darwinian scheme. But sociobiologists had framed the argument in terms of genes, which seemed too deterministic. How could a New Society be built if our tiny masters, lurking inside every cell, hold us (as Wilson said) “on a leash”? Such a vision could only discourage the advocates of revolutionary change. So there was a counterattack, led by the Sociobiology Study Group of “Science for the People.” Their various statements were signed by up to thirty–five names, often preceded by initials only (to discourage sexist thoughts). In addition to Lewontin and Gould, three or four other Harvard professors from time to time signed the statements.
Today, the left’s critique seems a curious mixture, ranging from the irresponsible to the astute. Brilliant observations are submerged beneath wild political judgments. Their vehemence stands in marked contrast to Wilson’s moderate and carefully hedged views. The low point came in 1978. At a meeting in Washington of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a protester dumped a jug of water over Wilson’s head while others denounced his putative encouragement of genocide, racism, and sexism. Even as the ice cubes were sliding down his back, Wilson had the presence of mind to note that a biologist in the audience, a member of the International Committee Against Racism named Garland Allen, had taken the floor to say why the attack had been justified.
“He said it was all of a piece,” Wilson recalled. “Since the nineteenth century there had been a strong bias toward genetic determinism, the claim being that human beings are fixed in their destiny by their genes, therefore there was nothing we could do about it. Therefore the existing order is the best possible order, thereby validating the ruling class in their position. It was all a part of the continuing conspiracy by scientists in the ruling class.” Gould, who was present, criticized the attack as illustrating what Lenin had called socialism’s “infantile disorder.”
On paper, the critics were sometimes just as extreme. Fifteen cosigners of a statement in the New York Review of Books dismissed Wilson’s book as the latest attempt to reinvigorate theories which in the past “provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and . . . the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.” By the time Wilson deplored “this ugly, irresponsible, and totally false accusation,” he surely had the vast majority of scientists on his side. He was accused of being a “determinist,” but nowhere had he said that human behavior was determined by the genes. “In rough terms,” he explained, “I see maybe 10 percent of human behavior as genetic and 90 percent as environmental.”
Here he ran into real difficulties, however. Such hedged statements have little value if the effective cause (whether genetic or environmental) cannot be effectively established. If one thing happens, the genes are said to dominate; if another, it’s the environment. No outcome can falsify the theory. Meanwhile, the genes that are said to cause the behavior (or cause it a little bit, or cause it 10 percent of the time) have not been identified in a single instance. Lewontin and his allies did make such criticisms along with their political charges. But suggesting that sociobiology could lead to the gas chambers and saying that it violated the protocols of science was a poor strategy indeed. The scientific criticism, often excellent, was buried beneath political comments so ill–advised that the New York Times, normally sympathetic to left–wing opinion, didn’t hesitate to take Wilson’s side.
On this score, Segerstråle’s treatise, over which she labored for at least twenty years—testament, if any is needed, to the padded state of the American academy today—includes a comment so inappropriate that it puts her entire judgment under suspicion. She charges, prominently, at the outset of a nearly five–hundred–page book, and without basis, that Lewontin and Gould “need[ed]” a scandal, “wanted to be heard [and] wanted to make a mark scientifically. Solution: create a [stir] around sociobiology, present it as both morally dubious and scientifically wrong—and in this way create a climate where people will want to hear what you have to say.”
There is much about the left–wing worldview to disagree with, but the idea that its proponents’ views are insincerely held for reasons of personal advantage is about as wrong as you can get. Leftists have had so much impact on modern thought above all because they really do believe what they say they believe, and with rather more passion than most conservatives. As for the idea that they “wanted to be heard,” both were already on the Harvard faculty, Gould had his column at Natural History, and Lewontin had made a mark with The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change. My guess is that neither “needed” the controversy. In the case of the less cautious Lewontin, whose views about science have been strongly colored by his political worldview, it probably worked to his disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, Wilson, and Dawkins had pulled off a coup of sorts—one that would prove to be of immense value to all of evolutionary biology. If you wanted to explain anything at all, whether physical or behavioral, you could henceforth assert that there were genes “for” that thing or behavior. Then you could bring in Darwin: natural selection had “acted on” those genes, causing them to spread. That took just three words: the genes in question “were selected for.” After all the rancor and hostility and theatrics, this seemed to be genuinely scientific. In due course genes were supplemented by other units of selection: “memes,” invented by Dawkins, and “modules,” a creation of Steven Pinker of MIT. A good materialist himself, Pinker thinks “modules” have a physical existence. “Probably,” he writes, in a characteristic passage of How the Mind Works, “they look like roadkill, sprawling messily over the bulges and crevasses of the brain.”
After Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix of DNA, genes were no longer Mendelian abstractions. Now they were physical entities—specific segments along the DNA chain. It was but a small step from that to the indulgent agreement in the Halls of Biology that genes for anything could be postulated. If they had not yet been discovered, one day they surely would be. Yet as far back as 1976, Lewontin was causing trouble, telling visitors to his Harvard lab that “we don’t have genes for noses”—meaning that the DNA segments called genes code for proteins, not for external features of the body. Just how the cells of the nose (or any other body part) know that they are in fact part of the nose, nobody knows . . . to this day. In one of his recent essays Lewontin says that we still haven’t found the genes for skin color (but it is assumed they must exist because the trait is hereditary).
You didn’t (and still don’t) have to know anything about the environment in which the fortunate gene/meme/module was selected for. You could make up your own story. Lewontin and Gould dismissed these scenarios as Just–So stories: How did the leopard get its spots? Well, one leopard accidentally had a “spots” mutation (call it a gene from now on) and it survived better, because the camouflage helped. So spotted leopards survived better than plain vanilla ones, and eventually displaced them. So that was how the leopard got its spots. (Next question?) The same argument could be applied to any trait that the sociobiologist desired to explain, whether animal or human. “The method consists essentially of contemplating the trait and then making an imaginative reconstruction of human history that would have made the trait adaptive,” wrote Lewontin (and coauthors Steven Rose and Leon J. Kamin) in Not in Our Genes (1984).
Sociobiology purported to explain diverse aspects of human nature, thought to be universal in human society. A partial list includes: dancing, cooking, religion, territoriality, entrepreneurship, indoctrinability, blind faith, xenophobia, aggression, and warfare. In The Origin of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, Matt Ridley adds generosity, sympathy, kindness, and selflessness, qualities “unambiguously concerned with the welfare of others.” Some behaviors do seem very ill–suited to the theory—masturbation, adoption, homosexuality, contraception, celibacy of the clergy. Don’t they reduce the chance of propagating one’s genes? “It’s a stretch,” Pinker allows, to say that the celibate “will have more time to care for nephews and nieces and so propagate their genes that way.” Especially when they retreat to monasteries and shut out the world.
But that’s okay. The theory serenely rides out this (or any other) storm. Evolution happened eons ago, you see, so “we are adapted to the Stone Age,” not the computer age. Genes/memes/modules evolved in one environment, and we live in another. If the observed behavior corresponds to the adaptation story, the theory is confirmed. If not, it’s because the environment is different now and culture is in charge. (Heads I win. Tails you lose.) It fails Karl Popper’s well–known test: theories must in principle be falsifiable if they are to be judged scientific. When Robert Wright says in The Moral Animal that Darwinian selection “inspires a kind of faith,” and that “one” reaches a point where “one no longer entertains the possibility of encountering some fact that would call the whole theory into question,” he speaks more wisely than he knows. For there is indeed no possibility of such a fatal encounter with a fact. Wright fails to realize, however, that a field that smoothly “explains” whatever exists, with no experimental outcome that would call it into question, is no longer a part of science.
A peculiar omission from the sociobiologists’ subdivisions of human nature is the faculty of reason itself. Stephen Jay Gould indirectly drew attention to this in his criticism of a claim that Eskimo behavior sometimes validates altruist genes. When food is scarce and an Eskimo family must move, grandparents sometimes stay behind to die rather than slow down the entire family. Here, genes are redundant, Gould points out. Old Eskimos can simply figure it out for themselves, and may be given an incentive to stay behind in families where “sacrifice is celebrated in song and story; aged grandparents who stay behind become the greatest heroes of the clan.” Once reason is admitted as a characteristic of human nature—and in truth it is the characteristic, along with freedom of the will—it can be shown to do the work imputed to phantom genes in almost any example that sociobiologists want to bring up.
Nonetheless, in the biology departments and in the academy more generally, Wilson and his supporters resoundingly won the debate. The claim by Wilson and Trivers that sociobiology would soon take over the field of sociology has not been borne out, but it has had considerable success in academic psychology, where it has advanced under the rubric of evolutionary psychology. Here, the seminal work was The Adapted Mind (1992), edited by Jerome H. Barkow and the husband–and–wife team from U.C. Santa Barbara, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. A prominent recent addition to the genre has been A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, published by MIT Press last year.
In 1975, it’s safe to say, Cambridge collectives would have been on the march at the mere suggestion of a book about rape–specific “adaptations.” The authors have wisely skirted the gene word, but that is because the field is so lax that authors can invent and multiply their own entities at will. “Adaptations” are vaguely said to be “in” bodies, but Thornhill and Palmer don’t say where. (How would one go about finding them?) In a foreword, Margo Wilson assures us that the authors “passionately embrace the scientific method,” but she doesn’t see (any more than Robert Wright does) that theories that “explain” everything explain nothing. Ev–psych is currently fashionable, but the vogue will end, as it did with “instinct,” once its all–embracing character is recognized.
Explaining something by saying that “genes for it existed, and were selected for,” is little more than a reassertion of the facts whose explanation we are looking for. Analogously, if the stock market drops, investors, seeking an explanation in the newspapers, may find a headline like this: “Selling Pressure Causes Stock Drop.” That doesn’t help—it merely redescribes the phenomenon. We want a reason why it dropped—adverse political news, or perhaps an Alan Greenspan speech. “Genes arose and were selected for” has the same defect. It merely asserts that the phenomenon appeared, then became more common. It arose, one might say, because it arose, and then copies of it were made. That’s all there is to it. In a devastating review of the rape book in the New Republic, Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago pointed out that the authors’ evidence is so adverse to their thesis that it is consistent with a simpler and more obvious hypothesis: that rape is not “adaptive” at all. “As with most sociobiological arguments,” Coyne added, “only some level of concordance with prediction need be found to brand an act as an adaptation.”
The left–wing animus against sociobiology becomes understandable once we look at its major defect in a political light. Sociobiology “explains” (in a very weak sense of that word) whatever exists. But as Marx said, the left wants to change the world, not explain it. The world that exists, filled as it is with injustice, must be replaced by something better; a world without inequality, for example. Existing qualities of human nature—the dissimilar attitudes of men and women toward sexual intercourse, for example—can be explained by the usual, unvarying, and unfalsifiable formula. The trait arose by accident, then was selected for. But the raison d’être of the left is to champion states, conditions, and attitudes that do not exist—gender egalitarianism, say. The sociobiologists’ retort that these things don’t exist either because the requisite genes never did exist, or (fatal flaw) were not selected for, puts the left on the defensive. So the whole field of sociobiology suffers from a bias against the potential and in favor of the actual, and in that sense it’s true that it does have a “conservative” bias.
We can see the same thing in the assignment of costs and benefits in kin selection. In a plain–language section of his famous article, William Hamilton wrote as follows: “The alarm call of a bird probably involves a small extra risk to the individual making it by rendering it more noticeable to the approaching predator, but the consequent reduction of risk to a nearby bird previously unaware of danger must be much greater. We need not discuss here just how risks are to be reckoned in terms of fitness: for the present illustration it is reasonable to guess that . . . [mathematical symbols follow].”
The point to notice here is not just that the relevant costs and benefits have not been measured, but that there is no way of measuring them other than by observing the behavior that they are said to determine. The fact that the bird emits the alarm call itself demonstrates that the benefits (to the bird’s genes) exceed the costs to those genes. QED. The theory is “proved,” but it never really gets off the page and out into the measurable world. Not for nothing was it published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
The critics of sociobiology were using arguments that threatened to undermine the whole of Darwinian evolution, since the physical, the mental, and the behavioral are (in the materialist’s world) parts of one material whole. Phillip E. Johnson, the U.C. Berkeley law professor whose most recent book on the problems of evolution is The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism (InterVarsity Press; reviewed in this issue), thinks that the critics may have “burned down the Darwinist house in order to roast the sociobiological pig.” They were certainly playing with fire. The same critical scrutiny “might have far–reaching consequences if it were ever applied to the generally accepted Darwinian theory that complex adaptive organs came into existence through the accumulation of micro–mutations by natural selection,” Johnson writes. “Here, too, the prevailing practice is to assume that stories of adaptive evolution require no confirmation from genetics, or paleontology, or anything else except the adaptationist community’s prevailing sense of plausibility.”
But the critics of sociobiology also accepted the premise of materialism, and that put them in a weak position. How else did minds appear, if not by evolution? Lewontin gave points to the opposition when he conceded the “undoubted truth” that “behavior must, like morphology and physiology, be subject to the forces of natural selection.” (More recently, he has written: “No biologist now doubts that organisms are chemico–electrico–mechanical systems.”) Gould makes a similar concession: “How can an evolutionary biologist deny that Darwinian processes can work on behavior as well as form?” Game and set to Wilson!
The critics of adaptive rape were similarly weakened. Thornhill and Palmer had written: “When one considers any feature of living things, whether evolution applies is never a question. The only legitimate question is how to apply evolutionary principles. This is the case for all human behaviors—even for such by–products as cosmetic surgery, the content of movies, legal systems, and fashion trends.” The critics were disarmed by their shared worldview. “If Thornhill and Palmer want to lump rape together with tummy tucks and Titanic as evolutionary phenomena, God (or Darwin) bless them,” Jerry Coyne wrote, his frustration showing. But he was not about to quit the Church of Materialism either, so what alternative could he offer?
After a while, Stephen Jay Gould seemed to pull back. He surely saw the danger—that an attack on sociobiology could damage Darwinism itself. This was far from what he wanted. The overriding impression created by Gould’s work is that Darwin is his hero because his theory of evolution has provided intellectuals with a wonderful battering ram in the war against religion. Gould has himself been very much a leader in America’s culture war. Here, his antagonist in the sociobiology skirmish, the aggressively atheistic Richard Dawkins, is his natural ally. By 1994, when Wilson’s book Naturalist was published, Gould was cited in the acknowledgments, along with Hamilton, Trivers, and others, for “reading portions of the manuscript and generously providing help and advice.”
Lewontin was not in that number, however. Unlike Gould, he has at times given the impression that he wouldn’t mind if the Darwinian house did burn down—provided the materialist order could be preserved intact. As a committed leftist, Lewontin was ambivalent. On the one hand he could see that “evolution by natural selection bears an uncanny resemblance to the political economy theory of early capitalism. . . . What Darwin did was take early nineteenth century political economy and expand it to include all of natural economy.” Darwin had admitted as much when he acknowledged the influence of Thomas Malthus. In Bertrand Russell’s caustic phrase, Darwinism was “laissez–faire economics applied to the animal and vegetable kingdoms.” On the other hand, Lewontin could also see that Darwinism had done the job—it had completed “the unfinished Cartesian revolution that demanded a mechanical model for all living processes.”
To those outside the materialist citadel, Lewontin is interesting not just because he is willing to treat Darwinism with a disdain that is rarely found in the Halls of Biology. He seems primarily committed to a remade political order—to a new society based on egalitarian ideals (a recipe for disappointment, surely). He sees a thoroughgoing materialism as indispensable to science, and in an oft–quoted passage (the New York Review article in which it appeared has not been reprinted, alas) he wrote that that materialism must be absolute, “for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” Nature, as he sees it, “is at constant risk before an all–powerful God who at any moment can rupture natural relations. For sufficient reason, He may just decide to stop the sun, even if He hasn’t done so yet. Science cannot coexist with such a God. If, on the other hand, God cannot intervene, he is not God; he is an irrelevancy.” Few biologists in our day have spoken so forthrightly.
Lewontin’s 1992 essay “The Dream of the Human Genome” is one of the best critical treatments of the genome project yet to appear, and my guess is that its strictures will eventually seem understated. Wilson won the sociobiology war, at least in the academic departments and in the press, but in another sense it is not over yet. For there is a book that cries out to be written—a debunking of the whole “genomania” upon which sociobiology was largely based. Perhaps we should think of it as the astrology of the modern academy, with the fashionable microcosm now replacing the heavenly spheres. Just as mysterious emanations from celestial objects were once thought to shape character (with a role reserved for free will), so today mysterious emanations from molecular objects are thought to do the same (with a role reserved for the environment). What we need is a book that tells us what exactly we do know about genes, what we do not, and whether (as I am beginning to suspect) the whole concept of the gene is so overburdened that it may have to be re–thought entirely. Lewontin, the rare geneticist who is not inclined to make exaggerated claims about his own field, is ideally qualified to write such a study.
As for Edward O. Wilson, he grew up as a believing Baptist in Alabama, read the Bible through twice, began to study science, and then lost his faith. But unlike many others in that position, he has “no desire to purge religious feelings.” Materialism itself replaced them. Earnestly, he has tried to make something grandiose out of that bleak philosophy by piecing its parts into a consilient whole. “Preferring a search for objective reality over revelation is another way of satisfying religious hunger,” he candidly writes. I doubt it will satisfy him, or others.
One afternoon, years ago at Harvard, he showed me the ant armies penned in his office, patrolling about behind clear glass without paying us any heed. He talked most interestingly about them for an hour or more. Like other visitors before and since, I went away wanting to know more. God is in those details, after all. And when Wilson is studying his ants, discovering their pheromones, writing papers about olfactory communication among animals, he is also doing excellent science. He is being what he calls himself—a naturalist. In his consilient mode, on the other hand, not only will God elude him, but synthesizing the –isms and –ologies of the modern academy is bad science into the bargain. In trying to explain everything, one might say that he is not really doing science at all. Wilson’s career reminds us that not only do science and religion not conflict, but that they actually work together rather well.
Tom Bethell is Senior Editor of the American Spectator and a Hoover
Institution media fellow.