Edward O. Wilson, one of my intellectual heroes, died last week. As I have said previously,
E. O. Wilson taught me that human behavior has biological roots; that nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution; that the biosphere is our only home; that most people would rather believe than know; that the evolutionary epic is the grandest narrative we will ever have; and that we must direct the course of our future evolution. He is both a great scientist and a man filled with a childlike wonder for the natural world.
And in my post, “4 More Memorable Books,” I wrote,
Late in my graduate school career, E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature was assigned for a graduate seminar in evolutionary ethics. It is the only one of my most memorable books that was assigned for a class. Wilson wasted no time advancing his thesis,
… if the brain is a machine of ten billion nerve cells and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, boundaries limit the human prospect—we are biological and our souls cannot fly free. If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species … However much we embellish that stark conclusion with metaphor and imagery, it remains the philosophical legacy of the last century of scientific research … It is the essential first hypothesis for any serious consideration of the human condition.1
Yes, I knew all this before I read Wilson, but his prose cemented these ideas within me. Evolutionary biology is the key to understanding mind and behavior, and to understanding morality and religion as well. Life and culture are thoroughly and self-evidently biological. Yet most people reject these truths, choosing ignorance and self-deception instead. They mistakenly believe that they are fallen angels, not the modified monkeys they really are. But why can’t they accept the truth? Because, as Wilson says, most people “would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”2
Yet, I didn’t find Wilson’s lessons depressing. Science liberates by giving us self-knowledge, while simultaneously placing within us the hope “that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.”3 Wilson’s book taught me who we are, the dilemmas we face, and how we must choose our future path. He is right, the evolutionary idea is the greatest and truest one that humans have ever discovered.
I would like to thank Professor Wilson for his lifelong service to the noble cause of science and reason. I would like to especially thank him for the deep and profound influence he has had on my intellectual development. Thank you Professor; you taught me so much.
For those interested, here are a few short essays I’ve previously written about Wilson.
1. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 1-2.
2. Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-171.
3. Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.
2 thoughts on “E.O. Wilson Has Died”
From an Eastern perspective one could accept that we are “animated dust”, but with the prospect of going beyond our biologically-encaged lives.
Because if we were truly pessimistic, why would we visit Reason and Meaning—why would we use computers at all, if we were convinced that there is no future? If we actually did think that the homo sapien is a biological cul de sac, then we would have better uses for our remaining years than computers.
We enlightened primates are the beneficiaries of the last major extinction. There will be further mass extinctions. The question is will we become part of the fossil record or evolve to the point of preventing the next mass dying? Do we have the time and will to do so? Or will our anger and ignorance bring about our own demise before Nature intervenes?