A UNITED BIOLOGY: E.O. WILSON (p2)
(E.O. WILSON:) The sociobiology wars that began in the '70s are over. The biological approach has prevailed. Yet, I totally misjudged the ignorance of the reaction that I was going to get from social scientists and political ideologues on the left on the publication of my book Sociobiology in 1975. It started a real controversy and revealed the very widespread—in fact, in places almost universal—belief in the blank slate mind: that is, a mind unaffected by genetic factors or biological processes that might predispose social behavior, especially, to develop in one direction or another. That view, that the mind was fully developed by learning, by experience, and by the contingencies of history was virtual dogma in the social sciences.
It was also dogma among the far left, who held the position taken by the Marxists and by the late Soviet Union. In the 1920s the Soviet Union dropped eugenics, a kind of prerunner of sociobiology, and switched to blank slate dogma. That was a formidable political and academic establishment on American campuses and among American intelligentsia in the 1950s, but it seems amazing to me now, looking back on the past quarter of a century, that what I wrote could be regarded as heresy. When you read Sociobiology now it looks like a fairly mild foreshadowing of what was to come.
Whatever elements of the blank slate there were in evolutionary biology and psychology vanished, or began to shrink substantially, and that's been the tendency ever since. If there are blank slaters in the social sciences and humanities today—and I suppose there still are—it's very hard to see how they could hold a discussion that would include anything that we actually know about how the brain works, and how child development proceeds. We've had a fair amount of success in many areas of interpreting human nature in evolutionary terms. They would just have to reject the science outright in the manner of religious dogmatists.
My interest is ants began when I was about nine years old I had a bug period, and I just loved the idea of going on expeditions. I grew up in Alabama and North Florida, but at the time—1939-1940—my father was a government employee in Washington D.C. We lived within walking distance of the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, and I read National Geographic, and thought that there could be no better life in this world than going on expeditions and seeing all the wonderful things I saw and heard about in that magazine.
At the age of 9 I was running my own little expeditions with jars to preserve insects in Rock Creek Park and I was hooked. Pretty soon I was concentrating on ants and butterflies. Then we went back to southern Alabama, the Gulf coast, with its magnificent fauna and flora. This was like letting me into a candy store and I never looked back.
I went to the University of Alabama and they pretty much let me do what I wanted to do. I got into the Department of Biology and had some very good, attentive professors. It was the late '40s and they paid close attention to me. I was a gangly 17-year-old when I first went and graduated at 19. They were used to dealing almost entirely with preparing students to go on to medical school. Here they had an authentic embryonic biologist, so I got all sorts of special attention, including my own lab space when I was a freshman—it was great.
I'm not sure you could reproduce that experience today. Science has changed a lot. For parents thinking of encouraging their children to become scientists, and especially biologists and naturalists—if the student has that inclination to start with—I would recommend liberal arts colleges, not major research institutes. Go to a major research university after you've had four years of a liberal arts college that believes in generalized training in biology, including natural history, with heavy emphasis on ecology. In the last several years I've visited a number of really outstanding ones and the difference between them and major research universities, including my own Harvard, is striking, in terms of what it can mean to an individual student.
Most science education takes a boot camp approach or is set up to train acolytes. That's because most scientists are journeymen—they're not masters. That is to say, they're well-versed and if it's a major research university they probably have some accomplishments on a narrow segment of scientific research, but basically they think like journeymen and are there to train journeymen. They don't think particularly laterally about what their field means. There are, of course, in every university and college striking exceptions, but most scientists are recognized for and advanced by the discoveries they make. The gold and silver of science is original discovery. They know they have to be involved in making an original discovery, and to do that you move along a very narrow front.