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E.O. Wilson reflects on the 1970s controversy around sociobiology

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E. O. Wilson 2003/ Jim Harrison

In those days, students could be anti-Darwinist.

Readers may recall E.O. Wilson, founder of sociobiology (which was the predecessor of evolutionary psychology). Recently, he achieved fame/notoriety by renouncing his group selection evolution theory (after leading many of Darwin followers to devote careers to them). Here’s a profile of him in the Harvard Gazette:

Sociobiology was far more than what many of its critics wanted to call it: just the belief that human beings have genetic-based instincts. Sociobiology is the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior in all kinds of animals, and that’s how I developed it in those two books. It was very simple. I did say that maybe the same principles that we’re learning from comparative studies of social behavior and the evolution of social behavior in animals might apply to human beings. But if it applied to human beings, the only way it can be applied meaningfully is that human beings have instincts. We have drives that are inborn, that people inherit, and there may be variation among people. I stepped into a minefield by finishing this big book, “Sociobiology,” with a chapter saying how it could be applied to people. I tried to be cautious. I should have been more politically careful, by saying this does not imply racism, it does not imply sexism, I’m not trying to defend capitalism, so don’t drop the world on top of me. If I’d added that in the book, then I might have gotten off a little easier. More.

Naturally, the interviewer doesn’t ask him to explain why his theory doesn’t imply racism or sexism. Perhaps it doesn’t, but that’s hardly self-evident.

Evolutionary psychology, he admits, was so named explicitly to distance itself from sociobiology (yes, it was that controversial).

And curiously there is no mention in the profile of the 2012 group selection uproar either.

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5 Replies to “E.O. Wilson reflects on the 1970s controversy around sociobiology

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    Sigh.

    Controversy? What controversy?

  2. 2
    Blue_Savannah says:

    Mung said:

    Sigh.

    Controversy? What controversy?

    Hmmm, maybe they mean THIS one from the article, linked:

    Q: Were you surprised at the response? Did you have no idea it would be controversial?

    A: I had no idea. I really wish I could say I knew it was coming, but it really blindsided me. And it took me a while to figure out how to respond.

    Q: Did you have an emotional reaction? Did you feel hurt or was it more intellectual?

    A: It was more intellectual. The first time I saw one of these counterattacks appear in The New York Review of Books, I saw I was going to win this one. With the reasoning and evidence, I felt confident. It was science versus political ideology.

    But I really was upset at being called a racist, promoting racism and sexism. I was accused of trying to reintroduce a retrograde, outmoded, dangerous philosophy. There was nothing in “Sociobiology” to suggest such a thing. The words had to be taken out of context and tweaked.

  3. 3
    ScuzzaMan says:

    What nobody in the evolutionary camp want to face is that their redefining of species (for purely ideological reasons) to mean any “reproductively isolated” populations, means that for centuries (perhaps longer) many people around the world belonged to different species. Same still do.

    Logically, if an Australian aborigine is of a different species to me, it cannot be “racism” to treat him as such.

    But what is daily applied to animals, in every biology textbook and in every online dispute over OoL, is absolutely verboten to apply to humans.

    For Wilson to pretend he doesnt understand this seems more than a little disingenuous.

    And, of course, it oughtn’t need to be said, but definitely does: I do not agree that mere isolation either defines separate species, nor produces them, so I treat every person I meet as a brother or sister, since we ARE all related.

    Apparently, Darwin’s finches agree with me, too …

  4. 4
    News says:

    But note, Blue Savannah, the interviewer never follows up with this. Why was Wilson surprised, never mind upset? He is claiming that people inherit certain sensitive qualities and then is surprised at being called a racist?

    What DID Wilson understand inheritance to mean if not classic Darwinism? His point of view had to be racist to make any sense.

    This interview is a classic in attempting to defuse a controversy by presenting your subject as an overall nice-guy and not asking the OBVIOUS questions.

    No wonder legacy media are failing. If you want news, you must go to the new media.

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    No way around it. Evolution is founded on traits leading to success. so they must accept the option that race/sex did affect humans differently on earth and so was selected on. They must say it for colours and shapes. So they can’t deny it for brains or morals etc etc. At least an option.
    This is why evolutionism from the start advocated racial and sexual differences in intelligence based on biology or genes etc.
    Darwin insisted chicks were dumber by biology affecting thjeir minds. he didn’t say race but didn’t disown the majority of evolutionists who bang off went there.
    Evolution was accepted by the educated classes as the reason for racial and sexual differences. tHey still do like these jews like Stephen Pinker and others.

    evolutionism leads easily to saying this or that race/sex is superior .
    sure it does, did, do.
    creationists should strike them on this point.
    evolution came here on dumb arguments that were liked by the old establishment and evolution could go by the present establishment hating these racial/sexual dumb ideas.
    YEC?ID should press the point. I do. i find evolutionist shy away.

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