This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of E.O. Wilson’s book On Human Nature. The book remains, even for modern readers of a skeptical or humanist mindset, a touchstone in the debate about whether human nature is innate, and therefore universal, or imprinted, and therefore cultural and necessarily local in space and time. Spoiler alert! On Human Nature argues that it’s both. But along the way the book assembles compelling scientific evidence demonstrating the impact of evolutionary biology in at least constraining the many forms, often bizarre and sometimes not particularly beautiful, that human cultures take on.
E.O. Wilson is one of the most storied scientists of the past hundred years. For starters, he’s an absolute authority on ants and social insects. Ever wonder how a few scouts stealing crumbs convert so rapidly to serried ranks of organized warriors and workers ruining your sandwich break? He figured that out. Briefly, it’s pheromones. Why do worker bees routinely kill themselves in defense of the hive? Because they share more genes with their sisters than they would with any offspring, making such altruism highly pro-adaptive—at least from their genes’ point of view. From there, it was a short step to a study of collective and socially collaborative animals: invertebrate corals, social insects (ants, bees, wasps), certain birds, a majority of mammal species, and (if distinctions must be made) human beings. All of this culminated in Wilson’s 1971 publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.
That book made a lot of people really mad. Wilson, they charged, was arguing for a kind of biological determinism. Remember, this was the end of the 1960s. “We cannot be the monsters we appear to be—sexually hypocritical, colonialist warmongers and capitalists with gender-specific color preferences, inconsistent empathic responses, not to mention flared pants and discotheques—simply because that’s what our genes dictate!,” they demurred. This reaction was probably Wilson’s fault. He devoted only a relatively brief section of Sociobiology to human beings. He felt obliged to return to the question of what evolutionary biology can teach us about ourselves in On Human Nature.