E. O. Wilson and the Evolutionary Epic

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Edward O. Wilson (1929 – ) is a biologist, theorist, naturalist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author for general non-fiction. He is the father of sociobiology and as of 2007 was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and one of the world’s most famous living scientists.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book On Human Nature (1978), Wilson extended sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of human social behavior, into the realms of human sexuality, aggression, morality, and religion. Deploying sociobiology to dissect religious myths and practices, led him to affirm: “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.”[i] Religion is a universal of social behavior, recognizable in every society in history and prehistory, and skeptical dreams that religion will vanish are futile. Scientific humanists, consisting mostly of scholars and scientists, organize into small groups which try to discredit superstition and fundamentalism but “Their crisply logical salvos, endorsed by whole arrogances of Nobel Laureates, pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog. The humanists are vastly outnumbered by true believers … Men, it appears, would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”[ii]

Other scholars have tried to compartmentalize science and religion—one reads the book of nature, the other the book of scripture. However, with the advance of science, the gods are now to be found below sub-atomic particles or beyond the farthest stars. This situation has led to process theology where the gods emerge alongside molecules, organisms and mind, but, as Wilson points out, this is a long way from ancient religion. Elementary religion sought the supernatural for mundane rewards like long life, land, food, avoiding disasters and conquering enemies; whereas advanced religions make more grandiose promises. This is what we would expect after a Darwinian competition between more advanced religions, with competition between sects for adherents who promotes the religion’s survival. This leads to the notorious hostility between religions where, “The conqueror’s religion becomes a sword, that of the conquered a shield.”[iii]

The clash between science and religion will continue as science dismantles the ancient myths that gave religion its power. Religion can always maintain that gods are the source of the universe or defend esoteric arguments, but Wilson doubts the strategy will ultimately succeed, due to the power of science.

It [science] presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion … the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.[iv]

Still, religion will endure because it possesses a primal power that science lacks. Science may explain religion, but it has no apparent place for the immortality and objective meaning that people crave and religion claims to provide. To fully address this situation, humanity needs a way to divert the power and appeal of religion belief into the service of scientific rationality.

However, this new naturalism leads to a series of dilemmas. The first is that our species has no “purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”[v] In other words, we have no pre-arranged destiny. This suggests the difficulty human society will have in organizing its energy toward goals without new myths and new moralities. This leads to a second dilemma “which is the choice that must be made among the ethical premises inherent in man’s biological nature.”[vi] Ethical tendencies are hard-wired, so how do we choose between them? A possible resolution to the dilemmas combines the powerful appeal of religion and mythology with scientific knowledge. One reason to do this is that science provides a firmer base for our mythological desires because of:

Its repeated triumphs in explaining and controlling the physical world; its self-correcting nature open to all competent to devise and conduct tests; its readiness to examine all subjects sacred and profane; and now the possibility of explaining traditional religion by the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology.[vii]

When the latter has been achieved religion will be explained as a product of evolution, and its power as an external source of morality will wane. This will leave us with the evolutionary epic, and an understanding that life, mind and universe are all obedient to the same physical laws. “What I am suggesting … is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[viii]  (Myth here means grand narrative.) None of this implies that religion will be fully eradicated, for rationality and progressive evolutionism hold little affection for most, and the tendency for religious belief is hard-wired into the brain by evolution. Still, the pull of knowledge is strong—technologically skilled people and societies have tremendous advantages and they tend to win out in the struggle for existence.

Our burgeoning knowledge of human nature will lead in time to a third dilemma: should we change our nature? Wilson leaves the question open, counseling us to remain hopeful.

The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[ix]

[i] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 169.
[ii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-71.
[iii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 175.
[iv] Wilson, On Human Nature, 192.
[v] Wilson, On Human Nature, 2.
[vi] Wilson, On Human Nature 4-5.
[vii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[viii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[ix] Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.

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9 thoughts on “E. O. Wilson and the Evolutionary Epic

  1. What is an “advanced” religion? Does that mean “religion with which I am familiar” or “religion which is part of my cultural tradition, broadly speaking”? Or perhaps, “religion with at least a hundred million adherents”? Or “religion with an organized system of religious institutes that authorize the leaders of that religion”?

    If we’re speaking purely of the intellectual content of a religion–though whether that means official traditional dogma, unofficial common dogma as the populace has traditionally seen it, “reformed” dogma, that portion of dogma which is common to 90% of the professed adherents, or what, may be unclear–then I don’t know what metric to apply to dissimilar religions by which one can judge one more “advanced” than another. Were the ancient Greeks less “advanced” than modern thinkers? Socrates has my vote over nearly everyone since him–and he claimed he was an orthodox follower of the Greek religion. Is the Bhagavad Gita less “advanced” than the Torah or the Christian Bible? One might reasonably expect a divergence of opinion on that, world-wide, and I don’t know of a convincing argument for why a European perspective would be more objective and an Indian one.

    But perhaps it’s not of much import, and “advanced religion” is just a stand-in for “your favored religion”.

  2. “Ethical tendencies are hard-wired”… So humans all know cannibalism is wrong? Incest? Touching pigs? Killing others? Using technology? Stealing? Polygamy? Eating shellfish? Slavery? Wearing different fabrics? Child marriages? We’ve all got a hard-wired consensus on any of these?

  3. Didn’t mean to imply that “nothing but” ethical tendencies are hard-wired. Obviously nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Just that ethical behaviors have a biological basis–reciprocal altruism, kin selection, etc.–otherwise they wouldn’t survive. Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and Robert Wright have all written popular books on this

  4. I agree with you that there is growing evidence that some “nice” features like reciprocal altruism have a biological basis. However if that soft thesis is all you meant meant then it may empty the concern you express from that in your next sentence (“so how do we choose between them?”). There is also growing evidence that we choose before we are consciously aware of it and that our subsequent awareness of making a choice is really a rationalization. So perhaps we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we choose anything — in the strongest sense, what if the universe and every event in it is already preordained deterministically? See:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vuW4lOLEpU&t=142 (watch to at last 4:55)

    If I may respond to Steve Harris. You seems to be extracting a word from its very definition in the post and asking what the definition is. The first time “advanced religion” is mentioned is in this passage: “advanced religions make more grandiose promises”. It’s meant as a contrast to the previous sentence: “Elementary religion sought the supernatural for mundane rewards”. Perhaps the phrase conjured up some historical notions, but a plain reading seems unambiguous: there’s a contrast made between elementary and advanced, the former dealing with simple day-to-day concerns the latter making grand promises about things beyond the day-to-day concerns, like eternal lives beyond this one. As such it has nothing to do with any particular baggage you brought with your comment.

  5. Austin Stiller makes an excellent point. The phrase “Ethical tendencies are hard-wired…” is slightly misstated. Here’s Wilson’s description of the dilemma: “the conscious choices that must be made among our innate mental properties.” (On Human Nature p. 196) These mental properties are elements of human nature, and our nature itself is comprised of genetic adaptations to an Ice-Age hunter-gatherer environment. Thus “we are forced to choose among the elements of human nature by reference to value systems which these same elements created in an evolutionary age now long vanished.” (On Human Nature p. 196) This is the essence of the second dilemma. Surprisingly Wilson thinks we can solve this dilemma through an act of will. Of course Austin Stiller and free will may be an illusion. That is a question for another day.

  6. My comment is addressed to what I see as an unfortunate tendency towards valorizing the familiar while demoting the unfamiliar. I am unconvinced there is any “natural” metric by which to measure the “advancement” of religions. In particular, I see the main emotive content of religions–absolutely all of them, equally so–as connection of the self with larger ideas; these ideas typically take the form of a community of adherents–mediated through a practice of rituals or exchange of affirmations of belief–and some allusion to outer forces as responsible for or guiding (or perhaps just appreciating) the life of the community.

    If, as I suggest, the importance to the individual lies in this connection to larger ideas, then even just a connection with the community of adherents is “what counts”. So I see no point in ascribing a scale of advanced/elementary to religions. One could decide that an important datum is whether or not a religion inspires or requires a belief in life beyond death; but I don’t know that that datum has any relevance to the points being discussed here.

    But I wasn’t being snarky in suggesting that this point is perhaps not relevant to the discussion; the elementary/advanced passage could be omitted without changing any essentials.

  7. I am most certainly a figment of your imagination. Of course I _like_ the idea that an act of will can form our destiny. The null hypothesis however is that it’s all mechanical and I have not been able to convince myself logically that there’s such a thing as free will. Whose act of would count and would it manifest itself in deviations from natural, testable, observable laws? Straying too far into astrology. But as you say, a question for another day or another thread.

  8. Steve: one of my pet peeves is the assumption that humans are “more advanced” than other species that almost everyone seems to have in their mind. I think that parallels your pet peeve. The reality is that all species are equally old and advanced. There is nothing universally objective that makes a human life worth more than that of a bug or a tree. I think it’s unfortunate when terminology that means to connote some historical change instead end up tracking an implicit argument that the newer is better (ie the two types of religion could have been called the practical and the grandiose, or the local and the universal).

  9. Austin: I agree to a fair extent, with this important exception: For humans, humans are more important than other species. More than that: I want to live in a world in which unjustified killing or injuring of another human is more severely castigated (punished, denounced) than unjustified killing or injuring of a non-human. Indeed, I prefer a rough hierarchy: insects don’t deserve much protection (and plants even less), mammals deserve a fair degree of protection, and animals which are individually valued (pets, etc.) deserve more protection than mere mammalian protection–but still less than human protection.

    This is a humano-centric moral imperative that I espouse. I make no apologies for that. But it can’t be justified except in human terms.

    We can make an estimate of ages of species; but I see no connection between that and valuation of species. In particular, all species are equally evolved: We’re all several billion years evolved from proto-life.

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