This world recently lost several luminaries – Alice von Hildebrand and Joan Didion, Terry Teachout and Sidney Poitier, John Madden and Betty White. Our world is a little poorer without them, and the next world – theologians of the Strict Observance, please allow a metaphysical license here – shines a little brighter. But amid those departed – people like ourselves with great gifts and human flaws – was one who has both fascinated and puzzled me for decades.
E.O. Wilson was for many years Professor of Science at Harvard and a significant figure not only in science but in public affairs. He became embroiled in cultural debates because he popularized the notion of “socio-biology” – put simply, the quite reasonable view that the biological characteristics of many living things are adapted to the external environment, but also to interactions with other members of the same species – wherever there was some sort of biological “society.”
Wilson grew up in Alabama and early on became fascinated with ant colonies, his academic specialty years later. Sociobiology has some utility; it may even provide some insights into human societies.
But to talk about biological structures that have social consequences is a postmodern No-No. Feminists were outraged. (“Biology is not destiny.”) Gays too. (“Born that way” is allowed to point in only one direction in our deeply confused time.) Harvard colleagues, of course, protested publicly.
Wilson, to his credit, stood his ground – scientific ground, meaning the pursuit of facts that could be investigated, proven or disproven, unconcerned about the political or ideological commissars who weren’t really interested in science at all. They already had all they needed in “The Science,” i.e., the one we’re all, always and everywhere, supposed to “follow.”
Recent mishaps with treating COVID have cast a little doubt on this Pied-Piperism. Where science and human life intersect, things get messier – fast.
Liberals generally didn’t like the possible implications of Wilson’s hypotheses; Conservatives generally thought they might provide some grounds for traditional views of male and female, and social order. So, as in other areas of our public life, the culture war raged on over sociobiology, even in the scientific community, for years.
Anyone interested in science and public affairs – I’m one of them – couldn’t help but be intrigued. I expected further research would eventually sort it all out – in Wilson’s favor.
But I began to have worries about Wilson himself for very different reasons. The very stubbornness that led him to defend fixed biological characteristics and their consequences within groups may have led him into a grave, unscientific error.
Wilson’s Alabama family appears to have practiced some form of fundamentalism, which – as a Darwinist in his scientific commitments – led him to believe there was a contradiction between science and religion. He softened a bit on this point when Christian and other religious groups started to talk about care for Creation, a bridge to his secular environmentalism. But the problem ran much deeper.
When his book Consilience appeared in 1998, it made a big splash. The title is a term Wilson coined to indicate how all knowledge worked together, in other words, a kind of Summa scientifica that brought together all then-known science.
I was invited to a symposium to discuss the book at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington and had an exchange with him that went something like this:
RR: “Professor Wilson, your book is ambitious and very interesting. But we’re here in the Jefferson Room. And if Thomas Jefferson were here, I think he’d want to know where human freedom comes into the picture.”
EOW: “Wait! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everything we do is dictated by our genes. I’m saying that about 60 percent is genes, and the other 40 percent is a complex algorithm of genes and environment.”
RR: “Complex algorithm? I don’t think Mr. Jefferson would be much impressed that the human difference is merely a ‘complex algorithm’ of genes and environment.”
Other questioners came forward and the point was never resolved. But for me, that exchange revealed a fault-line in our culture deeper than The Crack of Doom.
Bishop Robert Barron often points out that young people leave the Faith because they think science has refuted it. (This – adults may suspect – is a convenient justification for things young people always want to do anyway when they’re free of parents and birthplace.)
That error can be answered by direct arguments of the kind that St. JPII made in his encyclical “Faith and Reason.”
Far more dangerous, however, is the assumption in our culture that materialism is true. It’s not. If I had the chance, I would have liked to have been able to ask Wilson: which configuration of atoms could make us accept that Consilience was not only a brilliant compilation of facts but is actually true?
Truth is only something that can exist in a mind, a non-material existent that is not entirely dependent on material conditions.
At the same time, a mind is not just a free-floating thing that can do or be anything. Our freedom is limited by all sorts of factors – bodies, environment, ignorance. And perhaps we’re the least free when we make a mental construction of our own – however “scientific” – into a limiting ideology. Scientific materialism has become one such ideology for many in our society.
Which has serious consequences. The strange reduction of human beings to merely biological categories has the paradoxical effect of making it possible to think we are merely animals and unfree, and at the same time that since there are no universal truths, we can, any of us, “choose” to do whatever we want.
I’m all for following the science when we have questions that need direct factual input. But we also need a “science” of the spiritual, that recognizes the unique human characteristics of freedom and knowledge as demonstrable facts of human being.
Scientific truth itself depends for its existence on that other “science,” without which any attempt to “follow the science” will be self-defeating.
*Image: God Creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars in the Firmament by Jan Brueghel the Younger, c.1650 [private collection]
You may also enjoy:
Randall Smith’s A “War” between Science and Religion?
Francis J. Beckwith’s Faith, Reason, and Secular Ignorance