Today is the birthday (1929) of Edward Osborne “E. O.” Wilson, a U.S. biologist specializing in myrmecology, the study of ants. He applied his research into ants to human social behavior, and developed the field known as sociobiology. It had a vogue in the 1970s and re-opened the so called nature versus nurture debate for a while in academic and popular circles. As ever, I’ll present my biases up front. It’s a very big leap intellectually to go from documenting the social life of ant colonies to discussions of human religion and the existence of God. I’m sure his work on ants is wonderful; his views on human behavior are ill thought out, simplistic, and speculative at best. You can drive a truck through the holes in his arguments. Still, I think it’s always useful to examine what we know about biology and society. I also acknowledge that Wilson has played an important role in raising awareness concerning the importance of conservation and the maintenance of biodiversity.
Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. According to his autobiography Naturalist, he grew up mostly around Washington, D.C. and in the countryside around Mobile, Alabama. From an early age, he was interested in natural history. His parents, Edward and Inez Wilson, divorced when he was seven. The young naturalist grew up in several cities and towns, moving around with his father and his stepmother.
In the same year that his parents divorced, Wilson blinded himself in one eye in a fishing accident. He suffered for hours, but he continued fishing. He did not complain because he was anxious to stay outdoors, so he never went in for medical treatment. Several months later, his right pupil clouded over with a cataract. He was admitted to Pensacola Hospital to have the lens removed. Wilson writes, in his autobiography, that the “surgery was a terrifying 19th century ordeal”. He was left with full sight in his left eye, with a vision of 20/10. The 20/10 vision prompted him to focus on “little things”: “I noticed butterflies and ants more than other kids did, and took an interest in them automatically.”Although he had lost his stereoscopy, he could see fine print and the hairs on the bodies of small insects. His reduced ability to observe mammals and birds led him to concentrate on insects.
At age nine, Wilson undertook his first expeditions at the Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. He began to collect insects and he gained a passion for butterflies. He would capture them using nets made with brooms, coat hangers, and cheesecloth bags. Going on these expeditions led to Wilson’s fascination with ants. He describes in his autobiography how one day he pulled the bark of a rotting tree away and discovered citronella ants underneath. The worker ants he found were “short, fat, brilliant yellow, and emitted a strong lemony odor”. Wilson said the event left a “vivid and lasting impression on me”. He also earned the Eagle Scout award and served as Nature Director of his Boy Scout summer camp. At the age of 18, intent on becoming an entomologist, he began by collecting flies, but the shortage of insect pins caused by World War II pushed him to switch to ants, which could be stored in vials. With the encouragement of Marion R. Smith, a myrmecologist from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, Wilson began a survey of all the ants of Alabama. This study led him to report the first colony of fire ants in the US, near the port of Mobile.
Wilson used sociobiology and evolutionary principles to explain the behavior of the social insects and then to try to understand the social behavior of other animals, including humans, thus established sociobiology as a new scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is the product of heredity, environmental stimuli, and past experiences, and that free will is an illusion. He has referred to the biological basis of behavior as the “genetic leash.” The sociobiological view is that all animal social behavior is governed by genetic rules worked out by the laws of evolution.
As far as I am concerned the nature vs nurture debate is a false dichotomy. The behavior of ALL animals is a complex interplay of biology and learning. In my ever so humble opinion, natural and social scientists have a bad habit of basing their hypotheses concerning behavior on their preconceived ideas, and then using their research to bolster these ideas. Even when I agree with their ideas I hate this “method.” Generally in the nature vs nurture “debate,” some, such as the school of American anthropology founded by Franz Boas, are rooted firmly in the nurture camp. Hence we get Margaret Mead arguing in Coming of Age in Samoa that adolescent turmoil is a human invention using highly questionable field data on a very limited population, and Wilson taking a herculean leap from social insects to all social behavior. Shame on both of you. When you go down the path of “biology is destiny” you end up with racism, sexism, and other nasty beliefs. When you insist on the human mind as starting out life as a tabula rasa (blank slate), you ignore the inherently obvious fact that we are born with biological needs and drives. It’s the interplay of these two which is the key to understanding.
In the final chapter of Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that there are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior. No quarrel. Our biology most certainly limits us. But then he goes on to talk about animal behavior in anthropomorphic terms. Wilson, along with Bert Hölldobler, carried out a systematic study of ants and ant behavior, culminating in the encyclopedic work The Ants (1990), where he talks about the “self-sacrificing” behavior of some members of the colony. But the death of some ants for the benefit of the whole colony is hardly the same mental or social act as a parent jumping into a raging river to save a drowning child.
Wilson, referring to ants, once said that “Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species”, meaning that while ants and other social species appear to live in communist-like societies, they do so because they are forced to by their basic biology, as they lack reproductive independence: worker ants, being sterile, need their ant-queen in order to survive as a colony and a species, and individual ants cannot reproduce without a queen and are thus forced to live in centralized societies. But even here the use of the word “queen” is an anthropomorphic misnomer leading to misinterpretations of the role of the queen. She’s just an egg factory. “Worker,” “soldier,” even “social” are words that give a loaded (human) meaning to ant behavior driving Wilson to unwarranted conclusions.
On the question of God, Wilson has described his position as “provisional deism” and explicitly denied the label of “atheist”, preferring “agnostic”. He has explained his faith as a trajectory away from traditional beliefs: “I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist & Christian no more.” Wilson argues that the belief in God and rituals of religion are products of evolution. He argues that they should not be rejected or dismissed, but further investigated by science to better understand their significance to human nature. In his book The Creation, Wilson suggests that scientists ought to “offer the hand of friendship” to religious leaders and build an alliance with them, stating that “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth and they should come together to save the creation.”
When discussing the reinvigoration of his original fields of study since the 1960s, Wilson has said that if he could start his life over he would work in microbial ecology. He studied the mass extinctions of the 20th century and their relationship to modern society, arguing strongly for an ecological approach:
Now when you cut a forest, an ancient forest in particular, you are not just removing a lot of big trees and a few birds fluttering around in the canopy. You are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you. The number of these species may go to tens of thousands. … Many of them are still unknown to science, and science has not yet discovered the key role undoubtedly played in the maintenance of that ecosystem, as in the case of fungi, microorganisms, and many of the insects.
His understanding of the scale of the extinction crisis has led him to advocate a number of strategies for forest protection, including the Forests Now Declaration, which calls for new markets-based mechanisms to protect tropical forests. In 2014, Wilson called for the global set aside of 50% of the earth’s surface for other species to thrive in as the only possible strategy for solving the extinction crisis which is impacting humans in ways we barely understand.
Ants are eaten in many cultures worldwide and I am reasonably sure (not certain) that most species are sustainable. Maybe if they catch on in the West I will have to revise my opinion !! I thought this recipe for chocolate covered ants was hilarious – from this site:
Chocolate Covered Ants
1742 large ants (if they are small, use 2,044)
3 cups melted chocolate
Catch ants at a picnic site and keep them in a glass jar to which you have added a teaspoon of sugar to keep them happy. (Unhappy ants are liable to go sour before processing.)
At home, pick up each ant with tweezers and remove entrails with a small, very sharp knife edge.
This will take about 400 hours.
If you are in a hurry, eliminate this step; you’ll never know the difference.
Dip each ant into melted chocolate and place to drain on waxed paper.
If any of them are still able to crawl off the paper, let them go– be a good sport!
Chocolate covered ants are, in fact, found in a number of countries. They taste mostly of chocolate.