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.
What, Wilson asks, counts as universally human? Strip away the ornamentation of any specific culture, mix and sift the residues, and what is left? In the book, Wilson tells us that human nature seems to be characterized (at least) by various taboos (often but not exclusively related to reproduction), language use, aggression, and patterns of sexual behavior, as well as distinctively human phenomena such as altruism and religious belief. Most of the book is a long-form examination of the evidence—from anthropology, psychology, and ethology—describing and explaining the biology underpinning these facets of human nature. Cultural objects, Wilson argues, are mind objects, manifold and diverse expressions of something universally human. The mind and the brain are intimates, which implies that human cultural possibilities must be at least constrained by our biology. And because the brain is biological, a good place to start thinking about the universals of human nature is the evolutionary path our species has taken. Voila! Human sociobiology.
The book is also notable for Wilson’s novel take on the rancorous “is/ought” question. Sociobiology and On Human Nature—and indeed the entire notion that scientific inquiry into human nature can be useful—is frequently criticized on the grounds that while it might yield facts and models concerning what is the case, science can be no guide at all to answering moral questions about what ought to be the case. Fair enough, Wilson seems to acknowledge. But not all oughts are feasible; they sometimes clash with what is. To illustrate with an example not in his books, “Go forth and multiply” is a well-formed ought; it is one consistent with an observed is of biology. Yet nature holds all the cards. Scientific reason tells us that too much multiplication adds up to more individuals than the environment can sustain, leading to an abrupt and catastrophic subtraction—a clear division between is and ought.
What can we make of this? Wilson points out that human beings follow a mammalian plan of reproductive priorities: the individual first, the survival of close relatives second, and the endurance of the broader gene pool third. Such an is suggests an accommodating modification to the ought, a shift away from an individual mandate to something more collective. Indeed, many human societies recognize the peril of unconstrained individual reproduction. Not all oughts are created equal, and the insights of human sociobiology can help us reason about their trade-offs.
Sometimes, however, is and ought come into stark conflict. The crux of the problem is that given the apparent intractable nature of the is and the desirability of the ought, many people’s reaction is to argue that the is isn’t relevant. Wilson disagrees. He argues, instead, that we might need to modify the is: “Human emotional responses and the more general ethical practices based on them have been programmed to a substantial degree by natural selection over thousands of generations. … Which of the censors and motivators should be obeyed and which ones might better be curtailed or sublimated?” Further, he suggests that we might even engineer the abandonment of certain aspects of our biologically constrained human nature to attain the desirable outcome of a well-reasoned ought. He goes so far as to say that doing so implies a program of “democratic eugenics.”
Even forty years after publication (with one significant new edition in 2004), On Human Nature is still brimful with ideas and insights about who we are, how we got here, and how to get wherever we want to go. In fact, the theses of Wilson’s writing on sociobiology were so challenging that they provoked others to write responses of similar quality. No reader of On Human Nature will have completed their journey without also reading Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. The latter book leavens and complicates the former, using lessons drawn from the history of science to re-entangle is and ought—beginning an ongoing conversation that continues to enrich us all.