E. O. Wilson and the Cult of Climate

Renowned ant specialist and social biologist E.O. Wilson died on December 26 at the age of ninety-two. It came to national attention in 1975 with the publication Sociobiology: the new synthesisAnd It is one of those books that smashed into the public consciousness. Maybe he wasn’t as revolutionary as Darwin On the origin of species by natural selection, but not for not trying. Wilson had something new to say about how evolution worked and elicited reactions just as harsh as those Darwin faced a century earlier. He was particularly vilified by fellow Harvard University colleague Richard Leonten, one of the founders of the theory of molecular evolution, who saw absolutely no validity in Wilson’s interpretation of social structures as embodying evolutionary strategies.

Along with other notable figures such as Stephen Jay Gould, Leontine has dedicated a seemingly endless series of disdainful published lectures to Wilson. Behind this lies Leontine’s thinly veiled Marxism that portrays humans as freed from the troubles of biology to invent society according to their dreams, rather than being trapped by their genes. The attacks on Wilson, which broadened into a blanket attack on social biology, stirred up a wing of advanced feminism, which was fervent in its disgust at the idea that innate sexual differences could have anything to do with the order of human society.

Wilson was himself in these debates as he eventually published his memoirs, the world of nature (1994) in which he dismisses his critics as people who have allowed their politics and ideology to improve their science. He complained that early on he received only lukewarm support from colleagues who knew better. “Most of what I got was silence, even as the internal discord at Harvard became national news.” Perhaps the silence was better than the famous incident at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science when a Progressive Labor Party member poured a jar of water over his head. Wilson was astonished and shocked by the severity of the Marxist attacks. He wrote that his “anger replaced anxiety” and devoted himself to studying his new enemies.

The result was his Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 1979, On human nature, where he moved from ants (and other social species) directly to matter how Humans are subject to the dictates of biology. In Wilson’s view, “Society is nothing but a manifestation of the characteristics of the individual human being.” This “reductionism” – which Wilson has for his term Leontin – poses some problems even for those of us who have no affinity for Marxism.

For example, it leaves little or no room for those forms of social order in which the individual has no word. Only to a very limited degree do we invent the languages ​​we speak, the customs we obey, or the laws we follow. We exist within communities of shared beliefs, kinship and tribe that are much more than a “manifestation of characteristics” of individuals. Of course, I’ve met social biologists and liberals who speak of our conviction that, when all is said and done, we are just ants that follow wherever pheromones lead us.

EO Wilson, as it happened, was a founding member of the organization I now chair, the National Association of Scientists. He served on his board of advisors beginning in 1987 and gave a keynote address in 1994 at one of the first national NAS conferences. But I only crossed with him once, and it wasn’t a happy occasion. I will say it in my own way.

In the spring of 2008, a University of Delaware faculty alerted me that the university’s accommodation office had imposed a strange form of ideological indoctrination based on student housing. It involved all kinds of arm-twisting to get students to loudly support various racial claims, gay marriage, and socialist goals. At first the university denied it was doing anything of the sort, but we had documents as well as witnesses, and management eventually backed down. However, those documents seemed even more bizarre as we began to read them more carefully. What jumped up was that the entire indoctrination program was presented as a “sustainability” initiative.

And so began what became a seven-year project by NAS to track down exactly what this means, culminating in the 2015 study we called Sustainability: the new fundamentalism of higher education. What does “sustainability” mean and what does it mean? The answers are not so simple, although one of the places to start is the 1987 report of the United Nations Our common futureKnown as the Brundtland Commission Report. Sustainability is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That sounds nice, but if you stop to think about it, how are we supposed to know what future generations will need? Could past generations have predicted the need for coal, oil, uranium, or rare earths? Obviously we can foresee some future needs. People will need breathable air and potable water, and we’d better not use all of these things. But the concept of sustainability, which was launched in the UN report, still has something fishy in it.

Part of what is suspicious is that its proponents were in a hurry to take a concept around “development” and “environment” and quickly pass it on to seemingly unrelated areas. “Sustainability,” according to the Mandarin at the University of Delaware in 2008, was only a third in relation to the environment. The other third was about “economic justice” and the last third was about “social justice.” In short, sustainability was a key concept that held together an entirely new utopian Marxist view of society.

By 2008, this included the idea that the planet was in the midst of catastrophic man-made global warming. But do not lose sight of the chronology. The sustainability movement was launched in 1987, a year before NASA scientist James Hansen lit a fire that turned into global warming hysteria. However, the two movements quickly found each other and became the major quasi-religious pantheism of our time.

I’ve done my best for a decade to move away from the “global warming” theory as a topic that won’t help the NAS. Apparently a lot of academics, including members of the NAS, were ardent voters at that shrine. Apocalyptic thinking had ensured a deep emotional control over the modern mind. But the more you read, the more “climate deniers” you will come across and find that they are superficial people, and the more difficult these killer carbon cult pronouncements become, the more difficult you will find it to dodge the topic. The strange pseudoscience whose adherents insisted they supported “real science” against a horde of fossil fools was on the rise.

And so I started steering the NAS into the dangerous waters of skepticism, not just toward “sustainability” but toward the whole idea that carbon dioxide, the gas that makes up four percent of one percent of Earth’s atmosphere, was melting glaciers, melting Arctic ice, Stirring hurricanes, flooding coasts, and turning farmland into deserts. We now know that the Atlantic Ocean was warming the Arctic long before Exxon and Mobil got started; Glaciers grow in Greenland. And increases in carbon dioxide are so marginal that they mean nothing.

Not that I expect that mere facts will stop anyone’s enthusiasm for an exciting theory. We have invested so much in dismantling a modern, energy-intensive economy that we cannot stop now. No matter that wind and solar energy are technological failures.

One of the early teachers of the environmental movement was Barry Commoner, who in 1971 laid out his Four Laws of Ecology, including the first, “Everything is related to everything else.” It would be difficult to find another vulgarity that caused so much trouble. Sure, with an infinite number of degrees, my shoelace is somehow connected to the Great Wall of China, but not the connection that needs our interception. Everything connected is in fact an assumption of New Age religion and an invitation to descend into irrationality. So it follows if we can’t Proof A connection between an internal combustion engine and a tornado in Kentucky, we can assume only one. This is what global warming advocates call the “precautionary principle.”

Sometime in the summer of 2015, I picked up the phone and called my NAS advisory board member EO Wilson to tell him where to go on this topic. I freaked out. In his view, global warming is real and catastrophic and puts the entire web of life on our fragile planet at risk. After twenty-eight years on the NAS board, he abruptly quit and ended my call.

Of course, I knew that he had often expressed his deep concern for the extinction of species and the loss of diversity in the plant and animal kingdoms, but I also knew him as someone with a steely commitment to rigorous scientific investigation and a disdain for science who had embroiled herself in political and ideological issues. It was impressive to see how he settled into Al Gore’s concept of our blue spot in the vast universe.

Whether social biology is an important contribution to human understanding of the living world and will prove sustainable to meet the intellectual needs of ‘future generations’, I have no clear idea. It’s a model that works well with ants, and that’s one thing. To what degree are we like ants? I’d say not much, but we have tremendous line-up, and it’s good throwing behaviour. If compatibility is our central feature, then yes, we are boring. But I think we can do better.

Leave a Comment