Edward Wilson, a prominent biologist at Harvard University, died last month at the age of 92. His groundbreaking ideas can help us understand the divisions in our society, the division in our relationships and what can be done.
Wilson showed us that we are monkeys with feet in the mud, not angels on wings. We have a distinct human nature based on biology. As much as we might like it, we can’t change that by urging others to do the right thing.
But crucially, Wilson believed that if we could better understand our biological scheme, we could create the conditions that would make people more likely to do the right thing themselves.
Wilson cautioned that because 99% of our evolutionary development occurred in small groups in the African savannah, human nature was shaped by intense contact with a small number of clan members in a rich natural environment. We imagine we should all cooperate, but in collective industrial societies, we’re like half-sister feet trying to squeeze into glass slippers.
Most scholars now accept that genetic evolution has produced an unambiguous human nature. We want to stick to the myth that humans make rational choices out of an infinite range of possible behaviour, but we’d be better off looking at how humans actually act.
Want to increase vaccination rates? Stop citing statistics about the reduced likelihood of serious illness or death. Start showing videos of COVID patients saying goodbye to their loved ones as they embark on a potentially one-way journey using a ventilator. There was no need to learn statistics in the African savannah. What matters is to pay attention to what happened to the unlucky clan clan that ate a bad mushroom or stunned a tiger.
Do you want to reduce the polarization in Congress? Stop fighting just over legislation. Instead, start providing individual legislators opportunities to talk with opponents about their family, hobbies, and upbringing. Invite them to chat about a campfire. We designed our small group history to collaborate with those we know personally; Unfortunately, we’ve also had us draw an arrow through those we don’t.
It stands to reason that Wilson was the world’s first expert on ants. In the final chapter of “Social Biology: The New Synthesis,” published in 1975, he made an unprecedented scientific leap – he extended the principles used to understand ants and other social animals to humans.
Wilson theorized that the human mind is not a blank slate on which learning, culture, and the environment can be written with impunity, but that it does come engraved with instincts, emotions, and inclinations. He has sought to investigate this human nature without emotion as does the animal world of Mars.
As our current policy shows, Wilson concluded that we are creatures in deep turmoil. Virtuous motives fight evil desires. There is always an inner conflict between the genes that promote altruism that help the group survive and the genes that thrive through individual selfishness.
There are often no ideal evolutionary options available to us. No wonder we suffer from painful and confused feelings, when any action that benefits the individual harms the family or group and vice versa.
Our social behavior is just as complex. Humans can cooperate closely but often compete. Indoctrination of humans is “ridiculously easy” – they are looking for it. People are good at getting along with groups, but we have a hard time with people who aren’t in our crowd. We instinctively measure each other when we meet, and frankly, lie and pause easily to put ourselves in the best possible light.
Wilson’s image may not be pretty, but it is useful, offering ample opportunities to reinforce good behavior. We need to unleash the instincts of cooperation rather than competition. Make people feel like they are members of the same group. Let people show themselves in good shape by doing good things.
Yes, human nature is stubborn and tough. Just look at how lurking behind our greatest challenges – an Internet full of lies and hate, violent political conflict in even the world’s most successful democracies, and selfish nation-states that refuse to cooperate to combat climate change.
In all of these destructive situations, our job is to try to create the conditions that elicit cooperation, interest, and altruism that are as much as part of our genetics as selfishness. We want to water the flowers in our nature, not the thorns.
Sadly, Wilson has been the target of vicious criticism and harassment because people don’t want to hear that we’re just another type of social animal. In particular, his ideas threatened the utopian vision. We cannot rearrange institutions and culture just to create nirvana. Surely human nature stands in our way. Just think of the bloodbaths lit by the French, Russian, and Chinese utopian revolutionaries. Deviations were not.
After the publication of “Social Biology,” Wilson’s critics demonstrated in his speeches, disrupted his lessons, published, and issued an open letter of condemnation. At a scientific meeting, demonstrators stormed the podium and one of them threw a pitcher of water on his head.
But Wilson doubled down. In 1979, he expanded his only chapter on the biological basis of human behavior into an entire book, On Human Nature, for which he received his first Pulitzer Prize. He went on to disseminate good ideas on many topics over the next forty years, eventually producing dozens of books and more than 430 scientific papers and championing large-scale conservation efforts.
Long, Edward Osborne Wilson. It wasn’t an easy ride, but you left us with ideas that we really need right now.
Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge and teaches a class on attorneys as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.