Posted by: Dan | July 24, 2010

E.O. Wilson’s Genius

NOVA — “Every so often a giant emerges on the stage of science, someone who transcends the narrow boundaries of a particular line of research and alters our perspective on the world. E.O. Wilson is such a man.”

He’s been called the Lord of the Ants, the Ant Whisperer, and the greatest biologist of the last 50 years. Edward Osborne Wilson‘s work laid the groundwork for animal sociology* and island biogeography, and if you haven’t heard of him, you haven’t been paying attention to modern ecology.

* = Yes, I mean sociobiology. I understand the criticisms of it – it is often associated with adaptationism and pre-determinism. I don’t think that the lessons of sociobiology need incorporate these long-debunked concepts, i.e., as much as I respect Gould and Lewontin as giants of science, I think they made up a bit of a sociobiology strawman in their criticisms of Wilson. Disagree or want to correct me? That’s what the comments are for.

** Sorry, just realized that I egregiously forgot to send a tip-o-the-hat to Southern Fried Science for this.


  1. Beautiful.

    I can watch documentaries about ants (my favorite nature documentary subject) for hours without getting bored.

    About the attacks on sociobiology or evolutionary biology – that is plane ludicrous.

    You have probably heard about Paul Ekman, the expert on facial emotions? When he set out to explore what emotions and expressions there existed in different cultures the consensus was that people are blank slates: that facial expressions are cultural and learned. Well he proved that that wasn’t the case: they are innate and universal. An established truth today.

    I’m not saying Wilson was necessary correct, however, the accusations and fear of eugenics does not hold up. In that case no one should study genetics or differences between ethnic groups or the sexes (hot topics, but should not be shunned because of political sensitivity).

    “a sociobiology strawman” seems an adequate description.

  2. Yeah, pretty much. I’m not familiar with Ekman actually, but I’m looking him up tomorrow morning.

    The one thing is that one must be extremely careful in these disciplines – sociobiology and especially evo-psych – because of the tendency to build an adaptationist “just-so” story. But this is a problem with sociology and psychology overall, not just with sociobiology.

    But you say that studying genetic differences between human populations or genders should be off limits… that doesn’t hold water either. Oh sure, people in these fields should also be extremely careful about ethical considerations (I did mention a warning about pre-determinism), but calling an area of study off-limits?! Uh-uh.

  3. it is often associated with adaptationism
    you don’t think … no need to incorporate these long-debunked concept?
    well genetic adaptations exist and are important in sociobiology

  4. a wilsonian man….

    why cyprus?????

  5. island theory
    ergo a work field?

  6. “But you say that studying genetic differences between human populations or genders should be off limits”

    No, no you misunderstood me. I don’t think that at all. Nothing should be off-limits in my opinion.

    My point was: criticizing Wilson because the science can be misused is as stupid as criticizing studies of genetics overall. All science can be misused.

    But I agree as soon as we thread the field of evolutionary biology/psychology we have to be careful, but that’s what peer-reviews are therefore to make sure scientist don’t start to conflate things or make over zealous assumptions. At the same time making guesses is a part of it, and the political taboo against evolutionary biology/psychology is doing more harm than good.

  7. @Tofan – Oooh, yes, in that case I agree completely. Sorry for mis-reading you.


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