E. O. Wilson in The Atlantic

By Razib Khan | October 16, 2011 3:50 pm

The Atlantic has a huge profile of E. O. Wilson up. The main course is his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. It seems to be an elaboration of some of the ideas in the infamous Martin Nowak paper which resulted in a huge counter-response from biologists. But this part was kind of fun:

Wilson defined sociobiology for me as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Gould savagely mocked both Wilson’s ideas and his supposed hubris in a 1986 essay titled “Cardboard Darwinism,” in The New York Review of Books, for seeking “to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud,” and Wilson still clearly bears a grudge.

“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” he told me. “I believe that he was … seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.” It is easy to imagine Wilson privately resenting Gould for another reason, as well—namely, for choosing Freud as a point of comparison rather than his own idol, Darwin, whom he calls “the greatest man in the world.”

If you read much of my stuff you know that I don’t think much of Gould, but I have to air stuff like this so that readers won’t keep citing the man as an authority. Though perhaps it is ironic that in the case of the evolution of sociality Wilson and Gould probably share more in common in their final conclusion than they do with the evolutionary mainstream.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History
  • http://www.quora.com/Alex-K-Chen Alex K. Chen (InquilineKea)

    I loved that article.

    I actually air Paul Krugman’s critic of Gould since many of Gould’s fans aren’t exactly fans of E.O. Wilson, but they’re more likely to be Krugman fans.

  • Charles Nydorf

    I think Gould was a victim of his own intellectual pessimism. He recognized that scientists often can’t state their opponents’ arguments accurately but this recognition discouraged him from trying to do so rather than making him work harder at it.

  • Justin Loe

    Fair judgments can be made about a person based on their interactions with the public after giving a lecture. Gould was a rude and obnoxious person, based on anecdotal information, to those with whom he disagreed.

  • Ian

    many of Gould’s fans aren’t exactly fans of E.O. Wilson, but they’re more likely to be Krugman fans.

    I’m confused by this statement. I imagine there’d be at least as much overlap between Wilson fans and Krugman fans as there is between Gould fans and Krugman fans…at least among people under 50, I’d be surprised if there were many people who would feel strongly enough the sociobiology spat to feel the need to pick sides. It’d be an event in history, not something you’re going to get terribly invested in.

  • Don
  • Ian

    @Don – that’s a fascinating story, one I unaware of. One quote in the CHE article jumped out at me:
    The rise of the Internet means that whatever scholars write about their field informants—no matter how remote those people might seem—will inevitably be read by the communities they have described.

    I recently came across Colin & Gillian Clarke’s “Post-colonial Trinidad: an ethnographic journal”, which is based on his field journals from 1964 in Trinidad. It was a fascinating read because I knew some of his subjects, either personally, as public figures, or second-hand through their children or other younger relatives. What jumped out at me wasn’t the issue of factual accuracy (a couple minor points that were disputed, or that just seemed a bit odd), but rather, issues of interpretation. Only a direct transcript can preserve what a person actually said. An approximate quote or a more indirect reconstruction can add all sorts of misinterpretations, especially when the researcher and the respondent speak different varieties of the same language. And it gets worse when someone, say, uses standard English to communicate with their informant, but retains certain words that are used differently in their native dialect. Reading the Clarkes’ book, I got the impression a couple times that what they captured probably wasn’t what the informant actually said.

    This all got me thinking about ethnography – how anything I read about Trinidad written by outsiders seems to misinterpret things, but anything written by locals seems to be distorted by the writer’s agenda and prejudice. As scientists, we’re trained to expect people to portray things accurately and dispassionately. I don’t believe that a post-modernist approach to science is at all helpful, but I do suspect that if we were better trained to evaluate our own preconceptions, to identify our agenda or ‘thesis statement’ (to use that odd terminology from the humanities), it might make us better scientists and better science communicators.

  • http://www.jamesgraham.bz James Graham

    I quote from the NYRB of March 29, 1984:

    “I am hopeless at deductive reasoning … I never scored particularly well on so-called objective tests of intelligence because they stress logical reasoning.”

    For me, Gould’s work has itself become a handy-dandy IQ test. Whenever I encounter anyone expressing admiration for his ideas I know I’ve encountered someone whose views are not worth my attention.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    . I imagine there’d be at least as much overlap between Wilson fans and Krugman fans as there is between Gould fans and Krugman fans…at least among people under 50, I’d be surprised if there were many people who would feel strongly enough the sociobiology spat to feel the need to pick sides.

    i was told by friends with liberal arts backgrounds that e. o. wilson was a far right-winger. that was what they had been taught.

  • Jason Malloy

    “I never scored particularly well on so-called objective tests of intelligence”

    Great quote. I’ve never seen it before. I’m tempted to embrace it out of reflexive disrespect for Gould, but of course Gould was extremely smart and did well on IQ tests. This is just one more example of Gould’s true unforgivable flaw as a man, a populist, and a scientist: he was a liar.

    Or, yeah, charlatan. What Wilson said.

  • toto

    Whenever I encounter anyone expressing admiration for his ideas I know I’ve encountered someone whose views are not worth my attention.

    I guess you don’t read much evolutionary work then. Type the words “spandrel evolution” in Google Scholar.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #10, ‘spandrel evolution’ ~2,000, ‘sociobiology’ ~128,000 (‘spandrel’ alone is ~10,000)

  • Charles Nydorf

    I was hoping that someone who knows more about this stuff than me would say something about E O Wilson and his new theory of eusociality .

  • gcochran

    I’d say that Gould’s body of work is perfectly compatible with a non-stellar IQ score. I could say the same of E. O. Wilson.

  • http://sciencepolice2010.com ж

    I’m so pleased people here don’t like Gould. If you take science to be the search for theories that explain well, then scientists studying past evolution must create scenarios that explain what happened, and if possible why. But ever since Gould, any numbskull who doesn’t like your theory only needs to shout “Just-So Story” and your difficulties are multiplied a hundred-fold. The claim “oh, there’s no evidence for that – it’s just a Just-So story” ignores the identity of evidence as that which is better explained by one theory than another; and evidence is strictly speaking never clinching. Gould might have claimed his exact meaning of the phrase covered special cases but he should have been much much more careful about making that criticism. His throwing out of the baby with the bathwater not only illustrated that he didn’t understand the principles of science too well himself but it queered the pitch for many evolutionary fields. John Maynard Smith (that would be a real quality scientist) said Gould’s chief value was as a bulwark against the creationists. But quite often it’s even good scientists who are tempted into the the Just-So story trap. Don’t forget, Henry Gee goes a bundle on Gould. Oh, and Gould wouldn’t be the only charlatan masquerading as an evolutionary scientist.

    A damn a shame Gould wrote such absorbing books. I gave up E. O. Wilson’s Consilience on page 2 as I just got the feeling it wasn’t ever going to say anything useful, despite the undoubted value of the central concept.

    Here’s an article on the people and the arguments, and as a bonus, Hauser makes an appearance (2004), so see how much you believe:

    https://notes.utk.edu/bio/greenberg.nsf/0/8557b855913a46f985256ef7001686f5?OpenDocument

  • Jason Malloy

    A damn a shame Gould wrote such absorbing books

    I prefer Steven Pinker, but I think a lot of non-biased people would choose Gould as the best popular science prose stylist.

  • http://sciencepolice2010.com ж

    I suppose I ought to read Pinker but I’ve heard him on the radio and I just think I make more sense on his topics than he does :-) . For entertainment I wouldn’t normally go to popular science since it inevitably annoys me. I only read a first Gould when a tenant with a guilty conscience ordered one from a book-club just before leaving, and I got it free. Pinker may be more dangerous for society – I guess I’ll never know his appeal :-) – but Gould’s carries a delayed action venom!

  • Careless

    “I actually air Paul Krugman’s critic of Gould since many of Gould’s fans aren’t exactly fans of E.O. Wilson, but they’re more likely to be Krugman fans.”

    I believe Razib wrote the same thing about 6 years ago.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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