Mar. 21, 2006 | For a man who's obsessed with tiny critters, Edward O. Wilson has a strange knack for stirring up controversy about life's biggest questions. The Harvard biologist is a renowned expert on insects, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Ants." But it was his seminal 1975 book "Sociobiology," which laid the groundwork for the new field of evolutionary psychology, that made Wilson a scientific luminary -- and a major intellectual force in America. That book, along with its Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, "On Human Nature," argued that many human behaviors -- including aggression, altruism and hypocrisy -- are shaped by evolution. Wilson's tilt toward nature in the age-old nature/nurture debate may have put him on the map, but it also made plenty of enemies. Fellow Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin denounced sociobiology, saying it provided a genetic justification for racism and Nazi ideology. Wilson's classes were picketed. In one famous incident, demonstrators at a scientific meeting stormed the stage where he was speaking and dumped a pitcher of water over his head, chanting, "Wilson, you're all wet!"
Over the years, sociobiology -- once so controversial -- became a widely accepted branch of science. Ultimately, Wilson won the National Medal of Science for his scholarship. And his own popularity soared when he emerged as a champion of biodiversity and a passionate advocate for endangered species. His 1992 book "The Diversity of Life" became a bestseller. But he stirred up more trouble in the late '90s with another book, "Consilience." This was his attempt to outline a unified theory of knowledge, which had the effect of elevating science at the expense of religion and the arts. In his view, knowledge of the world ultimately comes down to chemistry, biology and -- above all -- physics; people are just extremely complicated machines. Wendell Berry, among other critics, railed against Wilson's scientific reductionism, calling it a "modern superstition."
Wilson is now retired, though -- at 76 -- he still spends plenty of time at his Harvard lab. And he continues to write and lecture. He recently edited a collection of Charles Darwin's books titled "From So Simple a Beginning" (W.W. Norton). In person, Wilson is a courtly Southerner. He's an affable man who laughs easily and -- unlike many scientists -- is quite willing to speculate on the most cosmic questions. This was evident when he stopped by my radio studio before giving a sold-out lecture at the University of Wisconsin. We talked about Darwin and the growing rift between science and religion, as well as Wilson's own take on religion -- his "provisional deism" and his personal horror of an eternal afterlife in heaven.
What were the personal and intellectual qualities that made Darwin such a great scientist?
A relentlessly inquiring mind, a love of natural history acquired as a child, the extraordinary opportunity presented by the voyage of the Beagle to travel around the world at exactly the right age when the mind is opening, the opportunity in the scientific world to make a major discovery, and -- I should not overlook -- being a country squire with no economic pressures.
Did he have any particular agenda when he set out on his voyage on the Beagle?
I don't think so. He was a deeply religious man. He hadn't thought about evolution at all. What he was was an all-purpose observer, with a particular interest in natural history, and of course in beetles, which were the love of his life.
And it's worth pointing out that when Darwin first set out on the Beagle, he brought his own Bible. He had to overturn his whole upbringing to come up with this revolutionary idea.
Darwin departed England a devout Bible literalist. After failing his effort to become a doctor, he had in fact trained as a minister at Cambridge University. As he says in his autobiography, he would even pull out the Bible to settle some argument with other members of the ship's crew. But then as the trip went on, for reasons Darwin really never disclosed but I don't think had to do with the idea of evolution, he gradually dropped his Christian beliefs. Becoming a man of the world and much more aware of other cultures and religious beliefs, he realized that the stories of the Bible were basically no different than the stories of these other religions.
But what really turned him against religion was the doctrine of damnation. He said if the Bible is true, you must be redeemed in Christ and be a believer in order to go to heaven. And others will be condemned. And that includes my brothers and all my best friends. And he said that is a damnable doctrine. Those are his words.
Darwin's own transformation from devout Christian to non-believer obviously raises significant questions in our own time. It raises a very provocative question: If you fully accept the theory of evolution by natural selection, does that logically lead you to atheism?
Well, it does up to the origin of the mind and spirit. And one of the Vatican's scientific spokesmen, incidentally, just recently turned thumbs down on intelligent design. John Paul II took the position that evolution's been pretty well proved, and certainly was acceptable as God's way of creating the diversity of life. But the human soul was injected by God. So that's a kind of compromise position that a lot of devoutly religious people have taken.
By Steve Paulson