Editor’s note: When I was a graduate student in the 1970’s, the big names in ecology, evolution, and behavior included Robert MacArthur, Larry Slobodkin, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, and E.O. Wilson. Their books and articles commanded attention because they were trying to place ecological and evolutionary theory on a mathematical foundation. Little did I know that these giants in the eyes of someone just entering the field were deliberately trying to construct their disciplines, although not always in agreement with each other.
In this installment of Barry X. Kuhle’s interview with E.O. Wilson, Wilson recounts his role in initiating the fields of Chemical Ecology, Sociobiology, and Evolutionary Psychology. Khule requested the interview for the “Pioneers of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES)” series that he organized with Catherine Salmon, which has been featured on TVOL. Wilson took the opportunity to recollect the arc of his career at length, from his boyhood in Alabama to the series of scientific disciplines that he helped to form. Go here for Part I of the interview.
EW: Now I come back to the little group that met. The only meeting we had was at MacArthur’s summer place in Vermont. The group I listed sort of talked around. Another, incidentally, was Richard Levins, who was a colleague of Richard Lewontin, and I started thinking. By this time I had been thoroughly converted by the appearance here at Harvard in the 50’s of [Niko]Tinbergen, [Konrad] Lorenz, and [Karl] Von Frisch. I met these giants of Ethology and had become completely convinced that where they had worked on releasers and sign stimuli so successfully in birds and mammals, that the ants with their complex social behavior that I knew thoroughly were also doing that, so they must be communicating with chemical releasers. So calling them that, in 1959, I had just gone after searching for the source of a—in this case a trail substance—and I succeeded. I helped start [the field of chemical ecology] with a natural products chemist, using newfangled technologies such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, which could identify a millionth of a gram. This revolutionized the whole thing because up to then you could only identify a hormone or a pheromone with milligram quantities, which required sacrificing large numbers of individuals. At any rate, now we were off and running. We started finding the glandular sources of pheromones. The entomologists became engaged in this. The natural product chemists found it rich ground to work on.
While I was working out the theory of Island Biogeography with MacArthur, I was thinking, what we wanted to accomplish vis-à-vis our rivals in molecular biology, a David and Goliath competition if there ever was one, might be accomplished in the study of social behavior. So it was then that I decided I would write something that was badly needed because there was nothing like it. That was a thorough review of what was known about the social insects. Then I would do more than that: namely, I would recognize that every field has to have a foundational discipline and this would have to be population biology if you’re going to work on social behavior. Because a society is a population and populational phenomena are rife in the study of any animal society. I had written already a textbook on population biology with a brilliant young graduate student named Bill Bossert, who was one of my students and later became a tenured professor in applied mathematics. I realized that this was the way to go, to work out the principles of social behavior on a foundation of population biology, that the components would be population ecology, the ecology of whole populations, the genetics of populations—population genetics—and that’s the way I built it. So, I wrote and published in 1971 The Insect Societies. If you want to the book that tells you all the basic things, about the life cycle of a stingless bee, for example, or the classification of the termites—that’s where you go. It was a success among [my social insect biology] colleagues, but it is forgotten, maybe widely, that the final chapter—1971—was titled “The Prospects of Unified Sociobiology”. I decided that was what we should call the whole field. Then I argued, in that chapter, that the foundation would be population biology, for reasons that I have just mentioned. That was fairly successful. It did have quite an impact on the study of social insects. But now I realized that most of the action and the attention of people, partly psyched to the European trio, at least Lorenz and Tinbergen, was on vertebrates—on birds, fish and so on, and that nobody was going to pay any attention to the social insects outside of the entomologists working on them, unless I included the vertebrates.
So I set out to redo the insect societies and now to include the vertebrate animals, with trepidation, because I expected ridicule and laughter. What could you possibly tell us about vertebrates? I had the opposite reaction. I discovered then, and I recommend it to others, although now the connectivity of the net probably makes it unnecessary, but I went about it writing humble letters to all the people I could find working on social behavior of vertebrates. Ethology, it was called in those days. Humbly requesting sets of their papers, saying that I wanted to include them in a general synthesis I was hoping to write on social behavior. And the response to that was not laughter, but to be buried in reprints, because when someone wants to use your work to help build a new field or synthesis, you’re going to make damn sure that even the most obscure of your work [is made available]. But through that I put together the book Sociobiology. It came out in 1975. The reaction to it became a chapter that we can discuss separately. But to complete this little introduction of what happened and why it happened, there was a Vesuvian explosion of responses from my former friends and colleagues—[Richard] Lewontin and [Stephen Jay] Gould and a few others at Harvard, and from leftists generally. Remember that in the United States in the middle 70’s we were pulling out of Vietnam and it was understandable that the left dominated thinking in universities. That included a prohibition on any arguments on the genetic basis of behavior. It was taken to an extreme by the anti-sociobiology people, including those here at Harvard. Even to mention it for animals opens the door to racism, sexism, and I guess—God forbid—capitalism and therefore it should be forbidden. After taking rough treatment for a couple of years, I said that the only way I’m going to get out of this mess is to—because I wrote a chapter on humans to close Sociobiology. A very mild mannered chapter. I believed foolishly that the social sciences would snap this up: “Ah! Good! Finally, the biologists have given us something to use and think about social behavior! Now these biologists, their minds have been on hormones and DNA and unpronounceable names. Now they’re going to say something intelligent to us on behavior!”
The reaction was the opposite because we were in the extreme environmentalist non-genetic period of thinking. So after taking this punishment for two years I said the only way to get out of this is to explain the whole thing as I see it and without picking up on any particular ideology—heaven forbid that I might say that there are racial differences in intelligence or some crazy suicidal thing like that. I would write about all of it, and explain it, and why there is no reason to fear sociobiology and why it might have some value for others.
So I wrote On Human Nature. This I will claim sitting here, is the true origin of Evolutionary Psychology, because I paid close attention to the psychological literature. It was not an obscure book. It won the Pulitzer Prize and received a tremendous amount of attention. In the Washington Post review, for the first time in its history, they devoted two chapters to the review over two weeks. That’s attention. In any rate, as they say in a football game, when the visiting team scores a touchdown in the midst of eardrum bursting noise coming from the home crowd, that silences the crowd. I think On Human Nature and the recognition it got was the beginning of the end of the more vituperous and dishonest and ideological opposition to Sociobiology. But that didn’t satisfy me and I quickly went to what I thought and I still think to be one of the great remaining problems of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and that is gene-culture coevolution. We know that the phenotype of social behavior insofar as they have heritability, are influenced by genes to some extent—genetic evolution to some extent. Cultural evolution is influenced to some, probably measurable extent, by genetic evolution. And conversely, genetic evolution certainly is influenced to some degree by cultural evolution. And this is one of the great problems of modern biology and the social sciences. So I gathered up another very bright postdoc named Charles Lumsden, a Canadian, and we set out in 1980 to develop a theory of gene-culture coevolution. We published a book on it, and having it met with thunderous silence we decided to write another book for a middle-brow audience called Promethean Fire and that was ignored. So I’ve always wondered why so little interest to this day has come from evolutionary psychologists or population biologists on this subject. It’s a gold mine and it’s still relatively unvisited.
Now that brings me back quickly to the early divorce of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. I am aware that the original name of the society—of HBES–was something like Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology—something like that.
BK: The Journal was initially called Ethology and Sociobiology.
EOW: That was it.
BK: In 1996 they changed.
EOW: We didn’t really need that because those of us in sociobiology had already founded with the help of Von Frisch, the Journal of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, of which my colleague Bert Holldobler and I were founding editors. Well, there we had evolutionary psychology forming and I’m willing to be briefed by evolutionary psychologists who would like to think that they created the field and listen carefully to their arguments. But I will argue that the book On Human Nature presented some key central ideas that were to be part of what is called Evolutionary Psychology. I just reread portions of David Buss’s Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, wondering about this. Of course, having been the one who took the punishment in the late 70’s for Sociobiology, then like an old fighter with a flattened nose and mushroom ears, I assumed that nobody would really like to be called a sociobiologist. I just assumed when my colleagues in HBES went their own way, that they dropped the word sociobiology because they would just as soon not want to be engaged in a warfare of this kind, particularly because it would affect grants and their promotion and everything else. I could scarcely doubt that. But to my surprise, the few times that I have spoken with evolutionary psychologists of the new mold—one was Randolf Nesse—they claimed that they never even thought it would not be politically expeditious to use the word Sociobiology. They decided that this was primarily a psychological field and that’s the way it should go. I’ve read the one footnote by David Buss, which stressed —if you can stress anything in a footnote—that oh no this was not anything that we were afraid of, it never crossed our minds when we brought up the name sociobiology. We just decided that we wanted to be identified as psychologists for career purposes. And that makes sense to me. But poor little sociobiology—I’m talking about the word now—was suddenly orphaned. The people in psychology, and anthropology too, the ones that were at the same time crucifying Nap Chagnon would have none of it, as long as it was infected by ambience of racism and all the things that America needs to get rid of. It was orphaned and so it has been. It’s not often used, the word Sociobiology. And now, since I can speak on the record that may be listened to by, generously, one percent of my colleagues right away at HBES, and I hope later by historians, I’m going to point out a fundamental strategic mistake that evolutionary psychologists made. And that is not to do with terminology. It was to ally themselves primarily with psychology and a level of biological organization without a foundational field. The foundational field at the outset should have been population biology. The purpose of a foundational field is to suggest explanations at the next level of biology down and by kind of wandering away from that and maintaining their independence in name and technology and data gathering, I think they made a serious mistake. Thumbing through David Buss’s compendium I find that no matter what they say, they seem to be drifting back to genetic reasoning and they furthermore have enthusiastically embraced neurobiology like a wealthy lover. They realize that’s a winner and furthermore, legitimately, they realize that the understanding of the circuitry and processes of the brain, which is foundational, truly, in a proximate way, whereas population biology allows it to be foundational in an ultimate explanatory level. It is time for some of them to come back home and start openly looking at population biology as a discipline because that’s foundational and they will certainly draw strength from doing it without fear of condemnation and lowering of their status—quite the contrary. Population biology is a very sophisticated and powerful field and a discipline that’s working very well. Evolutionary psychologists should remember the story of Antaeus, the giant, who could defeat all earthly champions–but they could defeat him, if only they grabbed him and lifted him above his mother earth and held him there until he grew weak and surrendered. It was Antaeus’s custom to find a way to get down to earth again, gather strength and rise, so the Antaeus myth is appropriate in this case. So that concludes my history.
BK: On the relationship between sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Much as sociobiology really got its start here [at Harvard], with you and your collaborators, what I have learned from this project is that evolutionary psychology also largely got its start here. So people like David Buss, who you mentioned earlier, says he met you in 1982 when he was an assistant professor here.
EOW: Well, I have forgotten that if I ever knew it. Let me exchange admiration and warm remarks to David. He’s been a real warrior and synthesizer and spokesman for EP.
BK: He emailed me yesterday and said, “Please tell Ed how much sociobiology meant to me, how much it influenced me”, and he has had conversations over the years that he has cherished. When he was here as an assistant professor, in 1985 or so, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby were also here as graduate students. My take from them on how Evolutionary Psychology came to be was in light of everyone talking about evolution and social behavior here. I put to Leda, in the interview that we had with her, why she and others focused on this term evolutionary psychology. My sense on their answer was that there is a much greater emphasis in EP than in Sociobiology on the cognitive mechanisms, the information processing mechanisms that mediate and give rise to behavior. So it’s not so much a focus on social behavior than the mechanisms that give rise to it. That’s the sense that I get from David, Leda and John about why they called it EP. They did found it, as far as I can tell, on evolutionary biology, not necessarily population biology and so much of it came out of the Simian Seminars that Irv Devore, your long time colleague has run. There are so many evolutionary biologists and sociobiologists that went through the Simian Seminars. So that’s my take , they believe they called it Evolutionary Psychology because of this focus on what’s going on between the ears as opposed to what’s going on the world.
EOW: That is certainly helpful to me and I appreciate it. I admit I haven’t really given it much thought on exactly what happened and why. It seems to me, and this is taking almost the form of a very good seminar, or conference on the subject, not just a review of the history, that at this point we should all appreciate the distinction made between ultimate and proximate causation. And we should bear in mind that cognition and then machinery of neurobiology underlying cognition and eventually conscious thought is to be explained in a proximate manner, but if we look to the origin, as we would like to do particularly when we ally ourselves with physical anthropology and cultural anthropology and paleontology and straightforward evolutionary biology. The emphasis shifts to ultimate causation. In other words, we have a brain of such and so, we have these propensities that I call epigenetic rules, the propensity to do one thing as opposed to the other, which is genetic in origin. That these things are there, to be discovered, to be understood in order to understand exactly the nature of the phenomenon that we are studying. But if we are to explain their history, what they mean, how it all came about, why it didn’t come out differently then we must turn to the next level down in biological organization and ultimate causation. So I’m going to point out to you that evolutionary psychology in a very real sense awaits those persons who can actually pull off a full ultimate and proximate causative explanation of human social behavior. If only I were not going on 85. I am reminded of a famous story about Justice Holmes, who was on his 90th birthday sitting with a friend on a park bench in Washington and an attractive young woman walked by. He said “Oh, to be 80 again!” I wish I could be 60 or 70 again. I think you would find me in action trying this myself. But I have now gotten too much involved in the biodiversity conversation, and that’s where I believe my best effort in the remaining time that I have is best spent. So I won’t be annoying too many of my colleagues working in behavior. I do have one more. I came out with the Social Conquest of Earth…
BK: Which annoyed a few.
EOW: Oh, good! There ought to be an annoyance meter. I do have another coming out titled The Meaning of Human Existence.
EOW: Heavily laden with ultimate explanations. So you haven’t heard the last of me yet.