Thursday, May 17, 2012

Catching up to Stephen Jay Gould

First E.O. Wilson found even more reasons to conclude that selfishness and murder are not the only natural human traits. It turns out, said Wilson, that altruism and cooperation are important natural human traits, and in fact are essential for cultural and indirectly physical evolution. See this interview with Wilson in The Smithsonian.

Now comes Christopher Boehm's new book, "Moral Origins," to take this insight into even deeper biological territory.

Gould was writing about this way back in the 1970s, and for this, he was ridiculed in some scientific corners for his "leftist" political views overwhelming his scientific objectivity. This was back when scientists were considered more politically "conservative" and apt to find "selfish" genes...

Back then, Gould's original essays that were critical of the early overconfidence in Sociobiology were also making the point that "(b)asic human kindness may be as 'animal' as human nastiness." See: Gould's essay, "So Cleverly Kind an Animal" reprinted in "Ever Since Darwin" (1977), page 266.

As for Wilson, I am happy to say I have grown very fond of Wilson in the past decade. I've really enjoyed reading "Consilience" and have begun to give him a closer reading in his other earlier and later works. Wilson truly possesses a great and subtle mind. He too saw early on that altruism can be a human trait that is also "natural." What separated him from Gould is that Wilson was a bit too willing back in the 1970s and early 1980s to connect dots that were not connected at the time, such that Gould had to remind him not to be falling into a new version of eugenics.

Still, on the personal side, Wilson seems like an overall nicer fella than Gould--as Gould could be very tough on other people in personal interactions when such other people did not measure up (pun intended) to Gould's standards. It was said of Gould, as opposed to Wilson: "He does not suffer fools gladly" with a weariness that was less than friendly. Such are the personalities and gossip that also exist within the scientific community....


At May 20, 2012 at 9:08:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

on a related note . . . here is a link to a recent E.O. Wilson talk on Eusocial Evolution.

it might be of interest.


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