Life in the Colonies

Steven Rose

  • Naturalist by Edward O.Wilson
    Allen Lane, 380 pp, £20.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 7139 9141 0
  • Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O.Wilson
    Harvard, 228 pp, £19.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 674 48525 4

Arriving at university from the shelter of a London suburban home, I was soon introduced to curry. Unaware that Indian cuisine is built around a wide range of spices, my ambition was simple: I would prove my sophistication by eating without flinching the hottest Madras or Vindaloo. Something of the same determinedly trivial desire to prove himself is revealed in Edward Wilson’s Naturalist. The great myrmecologist’s memoir is filled with references to scaling the highest mountains, collecting the most species, and above all to standing where no (white) man had ever stood before, finding organisms hitherto ‘unknown to science’ or hacking his way through trackless jungle.

Such a burning ambition to achieve glory, especially by testing himself physically to the limit, is not obvious from Wilson’s portrait, which is of a thin, somewhat stooped figure, blind in one eye since a childhood accident in which the spiked fin of a pinfish pierced his pupil. Nor is this shy impression belied on meeting him. ‘So you do really exist,’ he muttered, backing cautiously round the Xerox machine in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology when we were first introduced. At the time I was working, one floor below his, in collaboration with his formidable ideological critic Richard Lewontin – the second of the remarkable triumvirate who inhabit the Museum (the third, in the basement, is Stephen Jay Gould). Lewontin claims that when the conflict between them was at its most intense, Wilson wouldn’t even get into the lift between the museum floors if he (Lewontin) was already inside (an idiosyncrasy parodied by Lewontin in one of his most pungent critiques of reductionist biology, which he referred to as ‘the corpse in the elevator’).

The subject of Wilson’s chosen specialism is ants. Yet his best known book, the massive Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, was published in a blaze of publicity in 1975, and rapidly became a best-seller. Its contentions, concerning the applicability of a highly reductionist ‘gene’s-eye view’ of the world to human society, were the subject of bitter philosophical, academic and political conflict, the more intense perhaps because the main players among Wilson’s scientific and social critics held many of their meetings in Lewontin’s rooms just below Wilson’s at the Museum. Indeed, there are times in this book when Wilson manages to reduce the entire debate to a bickering between adjacent offices. The conflict over sociobiology reached its apotheosis when protesters against racist interpretations of Wilson’s thesis took over a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at which he was speaking and emptied a jug of water over his head. Wilson’s status as one of the best known and most controversial students of natural history since Darwin might thus seem to have been confirmed.

The major sociobiological claim is simply stated. Individual members of many species, humans and ants among them, often act in ways which moral philosophers would describe as self-sacrificing or altruistic, abandoning limb or even life itself seemingly for the benefit of others; or even, in the case of humans, for less tangible causes such as class, faith or nation. The dilemma for what has become known as orthodox Darwinism is how to explain such altruism which – it’s true – might benefit the group, but would disadvantage the individual. Any chance mutant which refused self-sacrifice would breed more successfully than the altruists; its genes would spread, and altruism would die out. (The fact that the group itself might not survive as a result of this selfishness is neither here nor there for natural selection mechanisms of this type: like British capitalists, they are myopically concerned with short-term profit.) The mathematical resolution of this paradox occurred to the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, in, I believe, the Forties. Recognising that any individual shares half its genes with its siblings, he pointed out that it was worth laying down one’s life for two brothers or four cousins. This insight was formalised by William Hamilton in Oxford in the Sixties under the name of ‘kin selection’. If seemingly self-sacrificial behaviour disproportionately benefits one’s genetic kin, it once again becomes worthwhile in narrow genetic terms.

In Wilson’s hands, Hamilton’s formalism became the key to understanding the remarkable behaviour of social insects like ants, for the workers in any given nest are not merely sisters: they are genetically identical. Reading Hamilton, Wilson might well have complained, as T.H Huxley did when he read Darwin: ‘How stupid not to have thought of that.’ But thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of the ant world, a mathematical syllogism became a science of life itself. In the UK, Richard Dawkins is often credited with Hamilton’s flash of sociobiological insight, but The Selfish Gene is an elegant book of advocacy with popular appeal: the scientific battles over the adequacy of sociobiological theory and observation must be fought with Wilson and his school, rather than with Dawkins.

Some sociologists of science claim that the stories that scientists tell about the natural world reflect their own social and psychological interests, and for them Wilson’s memoir will make happy reading. Here is a life-story which seems to fly arrow-like to its target. The introverted youth, driven out of his home by squabbling and soon-to-be-divorced parents, finds solace in hunting and catching anything that moves, from fish to flies; as he grows older, his limited eyesight and relative poverty makes the close, ground-level observation of the abundant ants the easiest of the choices available. Sent briefly at age eight to a military academy, Wilson relished the discipline of a life organised around a 6.05 morning reveille, through a 6.40 police inspection, to a final evening tattoo at 9.15, and for much of the next half-century seems to have regretted his early departure from these fixed rituals. Later he compensated by becoming an Eagle Scout, and the book proudly displays his photo in full scout regalia. What he enjoyed was both the discipline and the striving to be top.

Such was Wilson’s drive to succeed as a young man that he trained as a runner, hoping to break a world record. He reasoned that he would improve his performance if he exercised wearing heavy boots, only to fail disastrouslyin – in is eyes – when it came to the final trials. He would, he realised, never be a champion. ‘Heredity is destiny,’ he concludes. Even though as a result he turned his attention elsewhere, this failure to transcend his genes, and the lesson it taught him, has remained with him throughout his scientific life. Always a hunter, he extols the joys of the chase in the manner of a 19th-century squire, except that for Wilson the prey are ants and the race is won by the first to identify a species, or to discover a nest in a locale not previously known, or to explain the cause of some piece of ant behaviour.

In her remarkable book Primate Visions, Donna Haraway describes how the hunting and collecting passions of the early American safarists like Teddy Roosevelt were sublimated, among later generations of primatologists, in observation and filming. Puzzlingly, for someone whose later passion has been the protection of biodiversity and whose recent publications include the oddly-titled Biophilia, Wilson never shows any urge here to sublimate his collecting drive; he snaffles and etherises his rare ant specimens with unselfconscious enthusiasm. But identification with his research subjects clearly has its price. Forced to move from his Harvard office by the onward march of one of his more hated species of biologists – the new molecular geneticists led by James Watson – he wasn’t sorry to hear that the room had become infested with a seemingly ineradicable colony of Pharaoh’s ants.

Wilson was born in 1929 and brought up in Alabama, in the fundamentalist Christian tradition of the Deep South. His passion and talent for observing and interpreting nature offered an escape route from his provincial, lower middle-class origins. But there was more to it than social mobility. ‘Science became the new light and the way’ for him as an adolescent. ‘But what of religion?’ he asked. ‘What of the Grail? There must be a scientific explanation... Religion had to be explained as a material process, from the bottom up, atoms to genes to the human spirit.’ Reductionism of this order has characterised his life’s work ever since. It is most clearly captured in the opening pages of Sociobiology, with their brash announcement that sociology, economics and psychology are about to become redundant, engulfed by the progress of neurobiology and evolutionary biology. His account of the controversy that followed the publication of that book shows that he still believes his only mistake was this somewhat premature claim, because it drew the fire of his political critics. Had he confined himself to non-human animals, he says, the problem would not have arisen. He is partly right in this: his intellectual imperialism angered many, and the reactionary political extrapolations of his thesis, especially as set out in his subsequent book, On Human Nature, confirmed their worst fears. Hence the eagerness with which extreme rightwing and neo-Fascist groups seized on his arguments, and the concern of many of his critics in the Sociobiology Study Group that convened at Harvard, which led them to publish their rebuttal, Biology as a Social Weapon.

What Wilson still fails to see is that the reductionist argument is not invalid for human animals alone, although it is especially inappropriate in our own case. It is not only religion which cannot be explained exclusively in terms of atoms or genes: the dynamic ecosystems of coral reefs, the sinuous play of a pair of kittens, the flight of a gull in a wind-current, the beat of a heart, or even the self-organising properties of a single cell – none of these can be explained merely in terms of atoms or genes. Each level of complexity of living systems requires study in its own terms: what needs to be understood is the relation of one level to the other – nothing is elucidated by the collapsing of ‘higher’ into ‘lower’.

Wilson’s own favoured organisms, the ants, abundantly demonstrate the truth of this. Journey to the Ants, written with his long-time collaborator Bert Hölldobler, is a popular version of their major treatise, called simply The Ants, which deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize when it appeared in 1990. It is beautifully illustrated, with spectacular photographs and paintings of ants both as individuals and as communities, whose global biomass roughly equals that of the world’s human population and whose number is estimated at the almost inconceivable 1018. For Hölldobler and Wilson, ant colonies are ‘super-organisms’, whose collective behaviour is determined by their genetic homogeneity, the closest approximation on earth to Dawkins’s lumbering robots driven by their genes. Even so, these ant-lovers can’t resist anthropomorphising the objects of their study; ants, divided into soldier, worker and ‘royal’ castes, behave ‘recklessly’ or ‘cautiously’; they organise ‘bucket brigades’, are ‘fanatic’, ‘loyal’ or ‘forlorn’: the adjectives spill across every page.

The trouble with such anthropomorphising is that, as any animal behaviourist will tell you, it encourages blinkered observation of what is specific to the species you are studying, and is strongly shaped by your ideological presuppositions about whatever human behaviour it is that you are discovering analogies for among the ants. Furthermore, it works both ways, and the authors here find it hard to resist the tendency to, shall we say, formicomorphise humans: ‘It would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances. Karl Marx just had the wrong species.’ Analogy does not imply homology, however, and it is just such smart-arsery which got Sociobiology into trouble. Adjectives derived from descriptions of the richly social, highly conscious and historically specific actions and thoughts of human beings cannot be applied meaningfully to gene-driven robots: or vice versa. In fact, even ant behaviour need not be understood solely in this way. Deborah Gordon and Brian Goodwin have shown, for instance, how it is possible to model the behaviour of ant colonies using field mathematics specifically not reducible to individual organisms or their genes.

What is odd about Wilson’s commitment to reductionism is the hostility he displays towards those one might expect to be his natural allies: the molecular biologists. Molecular biologists share with Wilson a gene’s-eye view of the world; for them, reductionism is not second but first nature. (To see the ideology in action you only needed to read some of the pronouncements in the press in February of this year in the wake of the Ciba Foundation symposium on the genetic ‘causes’ of criminality and violence.) Yet one of the more surprising passages in his autobiography is Wilson’s account of the arrival at Harvard in 1956 of James Watson, aged 28 and already famous as the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. ‘I found him the most unpleasant human being I had ever met,’ says Wilson, before giving a graphic account of the academic battles in which the lumbering robot containing Watson’s genes triumphed and Wilson was exiled to the humbler quarters of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, leaving only his Pharaoh’s ants to wreak their revenge.

Wilson was not alone in the dislike he felt for Lucky Jim, whose contempt for old-fashioned biological scholarship was notorious – the veteran biochemist Erwin Chargaff dismissed Watson as ‘practising biochemistry without a licence’. Watson gives the impression of enjoying the opprobrium; he even quoted Wilson’s comment in a debate at last October’s Cheltenham Book Festival as a way of saying that if Wilson thought that of him, then he, Watson, couldn’t be all bad. But Wilson gives the impression that, necessary though his ideological alliance with the molecular biologists may be, he is uncomfortable with their disregard for the richness and biodiversity of the living world. Molecular biologists after all only recognise the existence of five species out of the ten million or so that inhabit the globe: rats, fruit flies, nematode worms, E. coli and bacteriophage. None of these are ants. Wilson is much more generous to the population geneticist Lewontin, for whose arrival at Harvard from Chicago in the early Seventies he takes some personal credit.

A brilliant scholar fallen among Marxists is how Wilson sees himself, which enables him to dismiss virtually all his critics as Marxists or New Left. No need therefore for him to consider any aspect of their criticism on its theoretical or empirical merits. Furthermore, despite being careful to chronicle his own liberal attitude to Black Americans even when he was a child in the Deep South, he finds it unnecessary to dissociate himself from, or even to comment on, the pseudoscientific use of sociobiological claims by racists on the far right.

Of their nature autobiographies are self-serving: indeed, they may even be regarded as lumbering robots designed for the preservation and replication of their authors’ intellectual genes – or memes, as Dawkins has regrettably called them. Edward Wilson’s autobiography is no exception; that its Whiggish account of his life is quite free of introspection does not diminish its surface polish, however, nor its intrinsic interest for those who, rather than hunt ants, wish instead to track down the social and psychological roots of scientific theory-making.