Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.