On Human Nature

by Edward Wilson


Disappointing. Wilson uses very dry language throughout, which makes it difficult to stay interested. And while the subject might have been groundbreaking when it came out in the 70s, now it’s just kind of boring. There are some interesting observations on sexuality, witchcraft, and the pastoral nature of the Judeo-Christian monodeity, but they are not nearly enough to make up for the various ideological and literary shortcomings.

First, it’s difficult to even tell what Wilson is trying to say, what his overarching point is. It takes careful reading to parse from some short comments what his true intentions are. For example, on page 54 he refers to a human infant as a “marvellous robot.” So okay, we know he’s a biological determinist, which also could have been evident given his acknowledgement to B.F. Skinner, among others, in the beginning. The only problem is that judging by Walden Two , Skinner was a sociopath who advocated the creation of a behaviorally engineered utopia, a la Brave New World.

After this you know what Wilson is but you’re not sure what he’s after, and he takes you on a sometimes-interesting journey through the biological origins of aggression, sexuality, altruism and religion. Only towards the end do you begin to catch sight once more of what his goal might be. He says in the last chapter on p. 201:

What I am suggesting, in the end, is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.

He says this in comparison to religion. So now we know that — despite his mild protestation — he’s out to replace religion with science. He is so intellectually enamored with the truth-seeking capacity of science that he imagines it to be the only worthwhile human pursuit. Another passage on p. 205 is telling:

Such a view will undoubtedly be opposed as elitist by some who regard economic and social problems as everywhere overriding. There is an element of truth in that objection. Can anything really matter while people starve in the Sahel and India and rot in the prisons of Argentina and the Soviet Union? In response it can be asked, do we want to know, in depth and for all time, why we care?

Here he is implying that mere academic investigation is a justifiable substitute for helping less fortunate human beings. This is the problem with academia and science in general: they are too preoccupied by theoretical possibilities to bother with practical reality. And then they’re shocked when the rest of the world isn’t awed by their amazing ideas.

So now we know that Wilson is a biological determinist who would not mind seeing science replace religion as the world’s great faith, but he takes his views even further just a couple of pages later. He says on page 207:

I believe that a remarkable effect will be the increasingly precise specification of history. One of the great dreams of social theorists — Vico, Marx, Spencer, Spengler, Teggart, and Toynbee, among the most innovative — has been to devise laws of history that can foretell something of the future of mankind. . . Now there is reason to entertain the view that the culture of each society travels along one or the other of a set of evolutionary trajectories whose full array is constrained by the genetic rules of human nature.

So now he’s gone from promoting science to promoting scientific historicism. Instead of going into the many dangers of historicism (i.e. the idea that we can somehow predict the future based on historical patterns), I’ll just refer any interested readers to Karl Popper, who argued convincingly against it in The Open Society and Its Enemies  (see my reviews of Vol.I and Vol.II). But then on the next page Wilson goes even further:

Human genetics is now growing quickly along with all other branches of science. In time, much knowledge concerning the genetic foundation of social behavior will accumulate, and techniques may become available for altering gene complexes by molecular engineering and rapid selection through cloning. At the very least, slow evolutionary change will be feasible through conventional eugenics. The human species can change its own nature. What will it choose? Will it remain the same, teetering on a jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations? Or will it press on toward still higher intelligence and creativity, accompanied by a greater — or lesser — capacity for emotional response? New patterns of sociality could be installed in bits and pieces. . .

Hmm, loaded question much? I wonder which Wilson prefers? He ends the genetic engineer’s wet dream with a weak word of caution:

But we are talking here about the very essence of humanity. Perhaps there is something already present in our nature that will prevent us from ever making such changes.

And then he passes the buck to the folks a hundred years down the road:

In any case, and fortunately, this third dilemma belongs to later generations.

Let’s be clear about what Wilson is saying here. He is advocating genetic engineering, selective cloning, and a massive scale eugenics program, he is just too cowardly to come out and say it directly. Instead he prevaricates and whimpers about our humanity, but only after providing a ridiculous choice between two completely lopsided options. He’s trying to cover his ass with half-hearted lip service. There’s not much that bothers me more than a scientist who won’t take responsibility for his/her ideas.

While only a minor problem in comparison with the dangerous dogma he’s deceptively espousing, I must also take issue with Wilson’s patronizing treatment of “primitive” hunter-gatherer tribes. He seems to take it for granted that these people are the vestigial remnants of pre-civilization humanity, but a competent scientist would have to question this premise. Is it not also possible that modern society split from its hunter-gatherer brethren back in the day, taking a divergent and parallel evolutionary path (e.g. what Daniel Quinn proposes)?

Also, his treatment of “primitive” aggression and egalitarianism betrays an ignorance on the subject. He cites Levi-Strauss but I found Pierre Clastre’s interpretations (particularly his Archeology of Violence) both more intriguing and convincing. And though Wilson repeats it frequently, he never fully explains how an egalitarian society could possibly contain the “seeds” of tyranny and oppression. Probably because an explanation would give away that his statement (and thus his premise) doesn’t hold water. It seems equally reasonable that modern-day oppression and hunter-gatherer egalitarianism are two completely different beasts.

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