2016-07-27
Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, famous for his groundbreaking work with ants, is considered the father of sociobiology--the study of how evolution has shaped animals' social behavior. He spoke recently with the Templeton Foundation about his religious background and the future of his science.

This interview first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology.


What role did religion play in your life growing up?

In my early life, it played a profound part. In some ways, I had a traditional "old South" upbringing, meaning that I spent some time in a military school, and acquired an inoculum of the military ethic that is still with me today: honor, duty, loyalty. Also, I was raised as a Southern Baptist and experienced the evangelical teaching and indoctrination of the Southern Baptist religion, the most common Southern Baptist version of evangelical Christianity. I was born again. I made the choice when I was 14. I went literally under the water with a full-scale baptism. I had deep religious feelings of the most traditional kind. Of course the Judeo-Christian worldview just does not include nature. All three of the Abrahamic religions were born and nurtured in arid, disturbed environments. Their founders were nomadic people who were trying to build, particularly in the case of Judaism and early Islam, kingdoms and even empires out of a desert tribal existence. It has to be appreciated that with certain exceptions of imagery of the beauty of streams and fern groves and fruit orchards there is not an awful lot of ecology in the sacred texts of Abrahamic religions. Jehovah had nothing to say to Moses and the others about the care of the planet. He had plenty to say about tribal loyalty and conquest.
You can draw out of parts of sacred Scripture the implication, if you wish, that humanity is the steward of nature. You can also draw out the other interpretation that has often been applied: that humanity is commissioned and commanded to control and make full use of the living world. So there is an ambiguity in doctrine that cannot be settled by sacred Scripture. The founding literature and beliefs of the Abrahamic religions lack the essential insight. The ambiguity does not exist in science. The scientific perception explains how the world works and that humanity is related to the natural world due to evolutionary history, the millions of years through which we have passed. It continually assesses, tests and corrects. In your book The Future of Life, you mention that if humans need a creation myth none is more solid and unifying than evolutionary history. Can you elaborate on that idea? At the age of 17 and 18, when I began to move away from my traditional Baptist and broader Christian beliefs, I began searching for a replacement for the satisfying mythic explanations for human existence, something that can be added to the bare bones knowledge that science produces concerning evolutionary origins of humanity and the human mind. Indeed I have been searching for this all my life.On the other hand, that doesn't mean that I have abandoned my Christian upbringing. I'm very much a Christian in ideals and ethics, especially in terms of belief in fairness, a deep set obligation to others, and the virtues of charity, tolerance and generosity that we associate with traditional Christian teaching. It also doesn't mean I'm toying with New Age ideas. It simply means what I have expressed in books like Biophilia, Naturalist and most recently The Future of Life: that here is to be sought, although perhaps never truly found through a secular understanding of the real world, a full substitute for those spiritual satisfactions that come to us through the easier routes of traditional religious experience.
So you don't see the need to invoke a traditional Judeo-Christian God to give purpose to these religious experiences?

I don't see any such need. In fact, I think it's a waste of time, in the sense that we could be doing so many more interesting and valuable things with our minds. What traditional religion gives you is a fixed set of statements about the world and the origin and the meaning of humanity. These statements are easily learned, and in the context of personal relations or in tribal ceremonies, they evoke a deep sense of satisfaction. Those responses of the brain have been programmed by millennia of evolution because of their survival value. There should be more to the human experience. So long as we are bound by loyalties to a particular religion's dogmatic beliefs, we are not free in many sectors of human thought and experience to explore afield and more deeply. I find it far more interesting and satisfying to explore beyond, within the constraints of what we find out ourselves about how the real world works, the fuller explanation of what humanity is, where it comes from and its meaning. This freedom is not open to believers in traditional religions. That search, which may never be fully satisfied or found with success, is one of the best intellectual and spiritual endeavors of which the human mind is capable. That is essentially, if you would like to call it that, my religion. What about ultimate origins? Is the natural world able to give us answers about that?

Yes, the natural sciences are telling us a great deal about human origins, the origins of our species the origins of our minds; we're on our way to explaining a large part of it. I'll accept an answer provided only by such means as obtaining and exploring, analyzing and arguing over the evidence--not because of a scribe's myopic view of the subject written 500 years before the birth of Christ! A lot of your writing seems to lead down the road to genetic determinism. How do you reconcile that with your belief in the free will of individuals?

That's a canard that was promoted some 20 to 25 years ago, to be blunt about it, by critics of sociobiology. Those critics were blank-slaters; that is, believers that the human mind is a blank slate, completely unprogammed so that all we know, all that we do, all that our culture consists of, is that which is acquired by learning. That view has turned up to be completely false, as Stephen Pinker and his recent book The Blank Slate has so eloquently and thoroughly demonstrated.

We are a combination of instincts that have a great deal to do with controlling our passions, but obviously we are also creatures of learning and of the constantly cumulating traditions of culture. That was never disputed by me or by anyone else. The only extreme idea in the recent history of the so-called controversy over sociobiology is the part of biology that deals with instinct. The only real distinction was between the blank-slaters on the one side, who gave no credence to a biological influence, and the vast majority of scientists who worked in this subject and other subjects who recognized almost as a common sense observation that the human mind develops as a combination of genetic influence and genetic impulse and learning and culture. I don't want to get into the subject of free will because it is so complex. I'm not trying to avoid it. I've treated it, for example, in Consilience, but I don't want to get into it here because it's one of the most difficult subjects to get into using plain language. But what is understood about it is not contradicted by what I've just said.

What effect do you think the completion of the Human Genome Project will have on the field of sociobiology?

Ultimately a profound effect, because even as we speak, some scientists are developing a new discipline called sociogenomics. So far this has been directed primarily at honeybees and other social insects, and for a good reason: We understand their instincts and can analyze them more quickly than you can humans or even other, simpler vertebrates. But eventually the whole genomic studies of humans and the follow up work now going on in proteomics, the study of the full history and trajectory of individual protein production and their interactions, are going to give us a much clearer picture of the evolution and ultimate basis of human instincts. Of course we will never be able to jump directly from gene to social behavior, even in a honeybee. We have to go through the steps leading up to behavior, moving from genes to proteins, to cells, to nerve cells, to the action of entire brains, to the behavior pattern itself. Even then we have to study the organism in different environments, where learning and reactions occur, so we can make comparisons. Having the genome of humans is certainly an important step in that sequence. So with sociogenomics, you're looking for these large patterns that lead to certain behaviors? Exactly, and in a way that will eventually tell us why the nervous system developed this way instead of that way and why certain instincts are present but other instincts are not.

That leads nicely into this final question. What do you see as the big questions that remain to be answered in your field? For sociobiology, that's it. What are the origins of evolutionary history? When I speak of sociobiology, I don't just mean humans but all organisms and their social behaviors, including insects and even social bacteria. There are basically two key questions. One is: What are the forces of natural selection, particularly coming from the environment, that have molded the brains of organisms to make them social? Why did they adopt certain forms of social organization as opposed to others? The second will be the tracking of the few key instincts in humans. These are the major passions and the major tendencies in behavior that guide our lives, whether we admit it or not, from sexual bonding to tribal aggressions, to the avoidance of incest, and more.

For humans at least, the goal will be to get the full understanding of these genetic prescriptions. It is important to gain an understanding of those programs of development that lead to brains receptive to the types of learning. These programs entail strong tendencies, called prepared learning, that cause us to pick up certain attitudes, to have certain emotions and which lead human beings everywhere to do things that a Martian would consider very strange. The way we sexually bond, the way we take care of our children, the way we conduct tribal wars, and so on, through the full repertoire of the human behavior. People on another planet would look on us as very advanced but highly peculiar organisms. So we need to get E.T.'s view of what we are as a species, by understanding what puts us together and what makes us work with the environment the way we do.

more from beliefnet and our partners