Away from the Guns

Richard Seymour in Sidecar (photo by Jim Harrison – PLoS, CC BY 2.5):

Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard-based naturalist who died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 92, was often misunderstood by the left. When he launched the field of sociobiology in 1975, he was charged by the Sociobiology Study Group – a critical group set up by Marxist geneticist Richard Lewontin – with trying to ‘justify the present social order’. His work, applying the modern synthesis of genetics and evolution to the interpretation of behaviour, appeared to give a new gloss to discredited biological determinism, and suggest that there was a natural basis for such undesirable characteristics as xenophobia and male dominance.

Despite the conservative implications of some of his work, Wilson did not consider himself a man of the right. In his own words, he was a ‘Roosevelt liberal turned pragmatic centrist’. He considered himself a feminist, and furiously rejected charges of racism. His major intellectual goal, which he termed ‘consilience’, was to unify the sciences through a narrow version of Darwinism. He hoped that the essential questions about art, society and religion could be addressed, in part, as questions about genetics. His major ethical concern was to defend the biosphere, challenge human exceptionalism and cultivate respect for the non-human species he studied. Awareness of the ‘limits of human nature’, achieved by viewing humanity ‘from a distance’ – from a termite’s-eye-view, one might say ­– would undermine anthropocentrism.

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