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Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.


Wright: First of all, thanks for taking the time. I wanted to start out by asking you how vindication feels... about 30 years ago you published "Sociobiology" and you proclaimed that you were going to see a revolution in the Darwinian understanding of behavior... animal behavior but including human behavior. You took a lot of heat for it, not just intellectual criticism but some really nasty ad hominim stuff and I know you've had some unpleasant times here at Harvard. Now, 30 years later, as far as I can tell, it looks like you were right. This whole worldview that you outline is much more widely accepted. It seems to be gaining momentum. I would think if you're the kind of animal that you say that humans are you would take some delight in vanquishing your foes.

Edward O. Wilson: I wouldn't put it that way today... I don't think so much in terms of vindication now as I do a full blooming of a scientific development that was actually made possible by thousands of researchers. 30 years ago I suggested, actually 34 years ago because I really laid out the whole idea in a book on social insects, ants and other insects of highly advanced societies... the idea of a discipline of sociobiology and I said if we take Darwinian principles and combine them with what we are learning about genetics, neurophysiology and the like, then we will have a well ordered new discipline of the study of the biological basis of social behavior and that was basically the idea. When I wrote a comprehensive volume, most people didn't pay too much attention to a book about ants and termites, or the comprehensive one... it was "Sociobology: The New Synthesis" which was published in 1975... I had most of the book devoted to animals, which was where it belonged I guess... particularly in those days because we didn't know much about the social behavior of humans but I had a chapter on human beings, just to be complete... the chapter on animals ... 23 or 24 chapters on animals, later voted by the member of the animal behavior society -- an international society -- as the most important book on animal behavior ever. I even beat out Darwins expressions of the emotions of animals and man... so it was not that the book itself was rejected, it was the last chapter in which I said that these same principles that apply to animal should in some way also already apply to human beings. In fact there already was a lot of evidence that that was the case. Unfortunately, that was proposed at the time when the academic radical left -- I think it's fair to call it that --- predominant in expressing views at least in relation to science and the human condition. It was a thoroughly blank slate universe of Freud and Skinner and Marxist interpretation that I plunged into somewhat unwittingly ... I didn't realize there would be any political feedback. The furor that was caused, particularly on the left ... mostly pretty far left for various reason that could be called into... mostly in interest of historian of science... it was a tumultuous time... Now, 30 years later... it's amazing. What happened was the psychologists and anthropologists lifted out that part of sociobology -- I don't mean necessarily my book but you know the thinking... the synthetic Darwinian thinking... they lifted it out and gave it a new name much to have their own identity which was justifiable as camoflague to protect themselves from the barage still going on in the 70s and early 80s from the left...

Wright: ...you're talking about the term "evolutionary psychology"?

Edward O. Wilson: I am.

Wright: I think it was partly camoflague... in other words, fairly or unfairly, and we would both say unfairly... the word "sociobiology" had aquired some stigma...

Edward O. Wilson: It did in the human realm...

Wright: Right and to some extent this was a stategic move on the part of evolutionary psychologists....

Edward O. Wilson: They went out and they went forward in a new manner but I think they acknowledge at least a spin off from the original sociobiology... in fact sociobiology combined with behavior ecology have flourished in biology, a fact not much noted by the intellectual community ... certainly by the scientific community... but now the strange thing is that with the collapse of the radical left in science -- in academia -- even here at Harvard a recent poll had a small majority of students classifying themselves as conservative. It's collapsed and people coming in now as graduate students at Harvard even in biology haven't even heard that there was a controversy, just accepted sociobiology including in the human realm... but now we seem to be developing the potential for heat out of the radical right in this country, the opposition of the religious right to evolution generally is in fact largely an expression of their dislike of human sociobiology... the idea that the mind and the traits of humanity and the actions and values and so on could evolve biologically as incidentally Darwin himself saw clearly in his book in 1872... that idea is in fact cause of religious rights continuing assault on the very idea of evolution...

0:07:22

Wright: So it's not just the conflict of Genesis, the creation story in the Bible...

Edward O. Wilson: That's the case when you push literalism ... interpretations of the Bible you get into some of the Protestant evangelist ... that is true. But the mainstream opposition is the idea that you have for example in the Roman Catholic church is to the whole idea of the human mind could have evolved...

Wright: That's an interesting way to look at it... It's partly a materialistic view of behavior, that there may not be a soul...

Edward O. Wilson: If you want to use that word... that is that there is only matter and energy in the universe.

Wright: And that's your view...

Edward O. Wilson: That is my view. I think it's the view of the majority of us scientists who are statured... actually gone deeply enough into science to have done original research, peer reviewed and generally accepted now in the textbook...

Wright: So are you at all mystified by consciousness? There are people who are materialists -- like Steve Pinker --- who would say that they would put themselves in the category called "mysterians" in the mind body kind of debate in the sense that they don't really understand why consciousness has to exist or they don't know how to characterize subjective experience, even if they believe that there is a one to one experience between subjective experience and physiological state... in other words you can pin it down to physiological... they are so puzzled by the existence of consciousness... something about it.... where do you fall in that debate?

Edward O. Wilson: I think that was an argument first put forward by Leibnitz wasn't it? He said that if you got inside the brain you could track every little part of the brain ... I don't think he knew about neurons .... you could understand every little thing that happened and yet you wouldn't understand the whole .... that's an argument that has a certain amount of logic to it but I think it also underestimates the power of science in synthesizing the mass of data accumulating from reductionistic approaches. In other words, I believe that a mysterian view ... saying "Maybe it'll always be a mystery," which was adopted by some philosophers... that it never will be grasped, that we will never understand why we think... I think that's premature. I believe that's just a statement of we do not yet know. I believe that we will come fully to understand what the mind is. I even had a go at it as an amateur in my book "Consillience"... the unity of knowledge... I couldn't pass by that subject and be claiming to talk about the unity of knowledge and the way I thought... what is happening in the mind is literally a recreation of a little world that what we are ... self at the center, the central actor... with different parts operating, some out of sight and coming in to that world of consciousness and that that is probably the way that we will eventually explain consciousness and thus the mind. It will be more than metaphor when we have brain activity fully mapped out ...

0:11:31

Wright: I want to ask you about the book "Consillience"... you mentioned the term reductionism and you mean reductionism in the kind of legitamate sense... some people use the term to mean the simplistic explanation of behavior or of any system...

Edward O. Wilson: ...reduction of analysis...

Wright: You mean that the ability to explain activity at one level but a higher level of organization in terms of laws at a lower level of organization... for example, human psychology explain it in terms of biochemisty, molecular biology, ultimately even in terms of the laws of physics. That's pure reductionism and, first of all, am I right in thinking to some extent "Consillience" is a polite term for reductionism? It's a nicer sounding word that doesn't come with any taint but you're talking about the reductionist project...

Edward O. Wilson: I am in part... as I emphasize in the book, science consists of two created activities... all successful scientists generally -- biologist assuredly -- take a complex system at some level of biological evolution, it can be an ecosystem, that they set out to explain in terms of the units of the next level down... species and interaction, elements of the environment which they are interacting... and then those who work on organisms, they are usually doing it initially in an attempt to crack complex systems at the level of the tissue or organ or a whole organism... and so on down. It's obvious that you do not you cannot take pure physics and chemistry and predict how an ecosystem is put together. That's the emerging property. But to say that is not to say that there is not a consistency of explanation from one level to the next and the way I put it is not explaining an organism or an ecosystem in terms of physics and chemistry but to say that one of the two great principles of biology is that all biological processes are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, by cracking complex systems sequentially down from ecosystems to macro-molecules, cracking them and going on down and you will find obedience at the lower levels to the laws of physics and chemistry. But then science is not just that kind of reduction. It is true that science right now is primarily reductionism because of a spectacular success of sub-atomic physics and molecular biology. But everyone recognizes that the next stage in science, including especially biologists, is to re-synthesize, to put it back together again... either literally, some day I think we will be able to create a simple procareotic order either literally or a mathematical model in lieu of experimental tests of our system so that we finally will begin -- at least in certain routes going from molecule to ecosystem -- be able to have a more or less if not complete...

Wright: You're kind of a principle reductionist, leaving aside the question of how soon if ever we'll actually realize the complete reductionist project.

Edward O. Wilson: I think we will come close within a few decades...

Wright: ...and in any event it's kind of in principle possible, that's the way the world was structured... there's no mysterious thing that enters from beyond the realm of physical causality...

Edward O. Wilson: Exactly. That's why I refer to myself as a physicalist, not just a materialist. In other words, I have no doubt that whatever the molecular biologist will, in the next decade or two, for simple cells at least like E. coli, identify every important element at every important stage in proteomic, that is the building up from DNA into a formed protein ensemble. But that's still a long way from putting the cells together and understanding how all the parts are working simultaneously. In theory that can be done and eventually will be done for the simplier systems but we may not be able to cover all of that terrain, you will however be able to cover I believe physicalism literally...

0:16:46

Wright: If you're an in principle reductionist, can you still believe in free will in a meaningful sense or don't you have to be a determinist in principle?

Edward O. Wilson: Before we enter that feverish swamp of philosophy, let me just go back for a moment and tell you why I have some confidence in the program. Synthesis is so terrible difficult that some people don't realize or even conceive it can be done. But I would say that it can be done and as it is done better and better, what we call emergence -- that is properties that are unique to a certain level, ecosystem, organism and on down -- will become better known. We will understand them in cause and effect. That's the core of the "Consillience" concept. It's not just reductionism, it's the likelyhood of eventually a fairly successful and complete reduction synthesis cycle.

Wright: But it's not inconsistent with reductionism. In other words, to say something has an emergent property at some level of organization -- say the human social level --- is just to say that the most efficient way to describe the behavior at that level is to use the language of these emergent principles... it's the most parsimonious way of talking about it...

Edward O. Wilson: That's exactly right. One reason why I have faith ... it's been outside the main developments but most people are aware of science and biology know ... and that is the tremendous progress toward explaining the super organism, to explain emergent properties, for example especially in social insects. My collegue Bert Holldobler and I who published a work together some 20 years ago here at Harvard ... published a summary book of everything know on the ants...

Wright: Which won the Pultzer prize.

Edward O. Wilson: Yes. We are now just finishing up a book called "The Superorganism" which makes that point that says, "Look, organism we can understand well enough. We can understand the interaction of whole organism because we can see them and we can do experiments in the labratory and move it along so quickly and furthermore the processes themselves are relatively simple ... feramone, chemical language by which the ants and bees communicate, relatively easy to understand... Entomologists who have worked on social insects have been able to go from the level of organism up to properties that are only exhibited by whole colonies, by superorganisms and understand it and synthesize it and really understand it...emergent properties and cause and effect explanation... so I realize this is a very simple system compared to a cell but none the less the success of the work on the social insect in the past 40 years has given me that personal faith.

0:20:17

Wright: That brings us back to religion. I wanted to first quickly give you the opportunity to finish, if you were going to finish, on the subject of free will. I mean I asked you about free will and whether you can reconcile it with reductionism and you asked me to propone the free will question persay ... do you have free will, for example?

Edward O. Wilson: You and I do, I guess everyone watching this does... I almost, just at this point, try to cop out and say I'll refer you to Daniel Dennett whose finishing a work on this...

Wright: Incompatiablist...

Edward O. Wilson: ...but I'll just give you my take on it... in terms of our ability to make personal decisions independently and combined with our own inability to predict what, except in narrow categories of behavior, can predict what we're going to be doing from one day to the next... recognizing that any event, small or large, can change the direction of our thinking, even the way we think... means that we have what is thought of intuitively at the level of consciousness -- full consciousness --- intuitively, as free will. But if you go down to the level of brain physiology and hereditary propensities and individual history... if you knew reliably what their environment was going to be then you could probably predict a lot of what their behavior would be in a contingency analysis... given certain circumstances... so you start taking it away and little bit and once you get down to the level of those tens of billions of neurons and how they're going to wink on and wink out and decay and so on, you can see this maybe becomes maybe a philosophers dream of determinism but even then there is random element almost down to the quantum level... the fact that if you could fill the universe with super computers maybe -- and fill the brain of Robert Wright with nanomoniters... but then of course you'd be violating one of the most basic principles of causation in science, but if you could do that, maybe you could say what Robert Wright was going to be doing for the next 24 hours and therefore you could tell, oh, you're determined.

Wright: You could just ask me.

Edward O. Wilson: But you can see what an impossibility it is.

Wright: A practical impossibility but if it's in principle ... this is what people worry about. If determinism is in principle true regardless of whether you could actually do the prediction and people say ...

Edward O. Wilson: You're right... in other words, in that sense, I was making it all in terms of predictability ... and it's unpredictable and beyond that, I suppose that we have to stop counting those random changes on a pinhead and come back to the real world which is the intuitive conception of free will that we started with which is we know so little of how our brain works and how the world is changing that we have to make so many personal decisions along the way that we are exercising, independent of other free wills around us, our own free will. In practical terms, if not ultimate terms satisfactory to a philosopher, we have free will.

Wright: So you recommend people thinking of themselves as if they had free will and getting on with their lives... that's what I'll do then. I was waiting for your guidance.

Edward O. Wilson: I hope it's not the wrong direction... in a sense, I think the way we're talking about it helps to solve one of the great theological problems, if you want to do that, which is how can we think of ourselves as independent beings and be responsible if God knows everything we're going to do? Being omniscient, He must...

Wright: That was the first appearance, I think, of the determinism question in intellectual history... I'm not sure but I think...

Edward O. Wilson: I think that must be right and of course it's one of the insoluable dilemmas created by semanics and by fuzzy thinking... fuzzy subjective and metaphorical thinking... so I think that recognizing that the existence of a problem does not presuppose the existence of a solution. There are just certain problems which are not valid ... they are so subject to sloppy metaphorical thinking and the unknowns of the world and so on that they're not worth thinking about. But in practical terms that's really what we're interested in. We're really interested in do we have free will as we intuitively understand, whether God knows what we're going to do or not is what counts.

0:26:17

Wright: Speaking of God, you've just finished a book that I think has religion and science in the subtitle, an aliance of religion and science or something like that?

Edward O. Wilson: Well I'm just finishing it now and it's about to go off to the publisher and I'll talk a little bit about it because I think that it addresses an important issue. Actually the title of it is would be, as I have it now, "Ascending to Nature," subtitle: "An aliance of science and religion"... which may sound kind of strange coming from a scientist whose often pointed out to be an atheistic materialist secular humanist of the worst kind ... in that category I can always say I'm to the right of Richard Dawkins... anyway, how can I be talking about alliance of science and religion? Well, I do it in falling on the religious community and one long essay to join the scientist to save the creation. I point out at the beginning that here is an area where we can differ absolutely in how we think the world works and the meaning of humanity, the meaning of life...which is what the cultural war is all about. And we do differ drastically and, I think, insoluably... that is, it is not soluable... so you can take that for what it's worth and I'm not going to be one of these scientists who keep wafling and saying "oh well, science has it's role, religion has it's role... science has it's own kind or truth and religion has it's own kind of truth... somehow, as we work more and more they will somehow come together." I don't believe that for a minute. I don't think that Darwin would have believed it and...

Wright: You know, I think you used to make noises kind of like that, didn't you? Correct me if I'm wrong but this has two parts to it... first of all, I think you're among those who think that the evolution of human intelligence is not all inprobable... nuts and bolts natural selection encourages -- through competetve dynamics -- the growth of intelligence and so on... I thought I recall you saying in principle you can imagine a kind of deism or something... that natural selection was set in motion, is the unfolding of divine plan even though it's a surely materialistic system... did you not say that?

Edward O. Wilson: The first part of what you said was correct... Whenever I'm cornered ... ok I'll call myself a provisional deist. A provisional deist I'll strictly define as someone considers at least the possibility that the ultimate laws of the universe were set by some kind of intelligence whether it was Satanic, benevolently, Judeo-Christian or some unseen meta-intelligence... the point is that it's premature to say that becuase we can define the laws of the universe we also can define their origin. I won't go that far but I would leave open, I consider this a problem in astrophysics, but I would leave this open to the astrophysicists mainly... deism or not... but I absolutely believe that the evidence shows, I think now conclusively, that it's unrealistic, it's false reasoning to believe in a biological God... meaning a God that oversaw and directed the creation and evolution of life.

0:30:45

Wright: ... you can imagine one that created the first speck of DNA or something and then let it go from there but you're saying a guiding hand is not plausable.

Edward O. Wilson: I think that the parsimony demands that we go with the assumption that life can originate on it's own because I think we'll do it in the lab before too long from basic materials.

Wright: Right.

Edward O. Wilson: ... and show the conditions under which this could occur autonomously; that is, on it's own.

Wright: So maybe our creator God was an advanced civilization... Francis Crick drew that out ...

Edward O. Wilson: You may know what I think about religion... I think religion is an extremely adaptive phenomenon and it's one of the powerful propensities of the human mind. The human mind is guided by just a small number of extraordinarily intense instinctive drives...they include mother-infant bonding, they include tribalism, they include quick, hateful response to cheaters, a number of things...and I think that religion was one of them. This has always enormous Darwinian benefit. The tribes that could believe that they were superior that were bound together by all the rituals and myth and the symbols of solidarity and the rewards of heroism. But, above all, their innate superiority as a tribe...the ones that have the confidence and the willingness to go through personal sacrfice in order to prevail over the other tribe. That's history, an almost undeniable principle of history. We don't need to think that there is a -- how should I put it ...

Wright: The religious impulse is not evidence of a God because you can explain the impulse itself in biological terms you think.

Edward O. Wilson: Easily.

Wright: You've talked about the role of religious impulses in other contexts including scientific inquiry and in terms of your own motivation as I recall...

Edward O. Wilson: That's right. Before we get to that, let me finish about the alliance because anyone listening to this is going to wonder ...

Wright: I'm glad somebody is keeping track of this interview...

Edward O. Wilson: How is this arch-secularist ... if he says that he doesn't believe there ever will be resolution, how's he going to form an alliance? Well you can form an alliance between people of different tribes and of completely different worldviews and that's essentially what I'm proposing. I'm using this "let's get together" but on the near-side of metaphyiscs, leave that a little bit toward the horizon. Let's get together...

Wright: On specific issues?

Edward O. Wilson: On specific isssues and because science and religion combined are today the two most powerful forces in the world and if you can combine them to address particular issues -- one is obviously world poverty but another is saving the creation -- this is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian religion. I don't care about interpretations that say "Conquering the world" or being put in charge of the world in Genesis which happened... I don't believe that that meant -- and this is the way of Billy Graham correctly put it --- that does not mean trashing the world, it means taking care of it. That is fundamental Judeo-Christian, Abrahamic religious belief and I think it's probably at the heart of most of the Eastern religions as well. Since most people are devoutly religious, around the world and in the United States most are religious to a strong degree... it therefore follows that if we combine our effort to save the creation, save biodiversity, save the world's ecosystems, the world in which we were born, then we would actually see some action on a subject that's very dear to my heart which is saving the rest of the life.

0:35:43

Wright: You'd like an alliance between science and religion for policy purposes, for pragmatic purposes... as far as reconciling their metaphysical worldviews I gather the only two possibilities you see are a kind of deism that we talked about and a pantheism... like if you want to view the whole universe as, in some sense, God then fine or ... do you even go that far?

Edward O. Wilson: No ... I leave deism open.

Wright: That's the only one you see, that's the only potential reconciliation?

Edward O. Wilson: If new evidence came in tomorrow say for intelligent design -- that that could be devised -- noone can figure out how to devise it but if it were, I would be quick to change my mind or start reconsidering everything.

Wright: The theory of intelligent design... I don't really understand the sense in which it's a theory ... what is the intelligent design movement as far as you can tell?

Edward O. Wilson: That's a difficult arguement. All is says is that biologists haven't explained some of the most complex phenomenon in terms of evolution... they can't understand how evolution could create it and therefore there must be somebody who put it together. If it can't come autonomously from mutation and natural selection -- which is the heart of Darwinian or modern biological thinking let's say --- then there must be something else and that has to be an intelligent designer. That's it.

Wright: So it's not a testable alternative theory.

Edward O. Wilson: No, it's default argument. Default arguments are sometimes stimulating in real science for getting research started....that works as a strategy in creative science but it never becomes a theory to say that we don't understand that yet therefore God must be doing it or somebody outside and also I want to point out two things to the intelligent designers or those who have hopes of this approach. It's not science, there's not a shred of evidence for it, that's no way, no mechanism, no way it could happen that we could ever understand.. it depends almost entirely pointing to the areas that the proponents claimining to be insoluable but that is very dangerous. First of all, from their point of view, particularly from the fundamentalist point of view, and particularly the literalist point of view, one: it conceeds that evolution occurs. That's a big concession. Two: it depends, for it's authentication, on the continued existence of unsolved problems in evolution. But if you look at the history of evolutionary biology and molecular biology ... they're like shooting balloons at a state fair... if creationists state everything and make it pivotal on the default argument, then they're going to find themselves in a very poor position. Therefore, the whole religious approach... there's another issue here that needs to be dispelled.... a claim on the side of the defenders of religious orthodox in explaining or explaining away evolution and that is there is some kind of conspiracy about scientists... evolution is a religions of it's own, it's an ideology... there has to be some kind of conspiracy that calls virtually all statured biologists -- people who've established themselves, who are important, influential, peer-reviewed ... some sort of conspiracy among these people... not a one of which incidentally accepts intelligent design, of my knowledge. There are no statured scientists who accepts this or takes it seriously but is there a conspiracy? Can there be a conspiracy in science, among scientists? No way and I'll tell you why ... which you personally I know you would understand it ... the entire culture of science is based on verifiable discovery. Making an original discovery is the gold and silver of science. You make an important discovery and then you are an important scientist. You can be any kind of a jerk otherwise and never make another discovery and you've made it as an important scientist. You're going into the textbooks and, if it's important enough, into the history books. You are richly rewarded with prizes with presige with all sorts of other Roman values that give you small triumph... it's what every young scientist wants. Any young scientist... any scientist any age who could be a first to demonstrate intelligent design or even show how to test it and prove it, would immediately become one of the greatest scientists in the world, you would make history. You'd get the Nobel. You'd get the Templeton prize, which is set up to encourage the getting together of religion and science and there's nothing that a young scientist would want to do more than to achieve something like that... science, it's value system is totally different from that of most processes or organizations or institutions, activities of Western civilzation...

0:42:54

Wright: The thing that puzzles me about intelligent design -- one of a number of things -- some of it's adherance, they conceed that natural selection can do some things so they conceed that in principle natural selection can create things that look as if they were consciously designed because they're so functionally adapting but then they'll just point to some things and go "Oh no that looks too much like it's designed"... once you conceed to the point in principle I don't see how they think they can draw a clear line. Natural selection can build on complexity and build on complexity in principle ad infinitum.

Edward O. Wilson: Well it could and as I say, one complex system after another that seems almost impossible to explain by evolutionary process -- step-wise -- has been explained that way and then more and more evidence deduced to show that in fact that's probably the way it did happen. Intelligent designers and very vulnerable not only from the growing corpus of scientific knowledge but also in the weakness that they give to the fundamentalist. They could be the fundamentalists worst enemy...

Wright: Because they're conceeding natural selection...

Edward O. Wilson: Because they're conceeding evolution and they're conceeding natural selection for a lot of phenomenon. But they're making a strong point ... seemingly scientific foundation of modern fundamentalist belief and by doing that and if they draw these allies, these literalists and members of the religious community into it then they're going to be putting all of them in a vulnerable position.

0:44:55

Wright: We started to talk about ways that religious impulse can manifest itself in other contexts like science and actually has in your own life I think right? ... in your scientific life...

Edward O. Wilson: Sure.

Wright: You were conventionally religious as a teenage Southern Baptist and Darwinism displaced your Christian faith fairly straightforwardly I think in your college years but you've carried some aspects of religious experience or emotion or motivation in your science right?

Edward O. Wilson: Oh yes. One writer recently refered to the baptist within ... me... and I'll grant it readily because many of the traditions on Southern Baptism linger and that includes independence of thought ... you know there are no priests or ministers in a convention as such ... a pastor who looks over the flock who are working on understanding the Bible and interpreting it on their own. Of course Southern Baptism has evolved as any strong religion would into a very tradition bound set of beliefs and many have refered to Southern Baptism -- with 15 million members strong last count I heard --- as the Roman Catholicism of the South or just a dominant religion. It does have it's star pastors and so on but that sense of independence was bread into me and you have to learn it on your own and you have to decide to come to the altar on your own. That's so strong that I'm surprised that so few former Southern Baptists I know of -- as opposed to Presbiterians and so on... the other thing about Southern Baptism was the passion. Evangelism is a passionate expression of self and belief and I often tune into one of the evangelical sermons ... star quality, one of the star evangelist... and enjoy it, listening to it and watching it unfold. I watch it the way an Italian watches opera. I enjoy the performance...

Wright: You may have offended some Italian opera buffs there...

Edward O. Wilson: I could not because of course opera is one of the great achievements... but you know a well deleived evangelical sermon is a considerable cultural acheivement. The point is, these people and I in my origin, address subjects with passion and to me that is what scientific research is all about: passion, the great excitement of discovery and what it all means. I always thought that all scientists felt like that but maybe they don't.

0:48:35

Wright: To read books like "Sociobology" or "On Human Nature," one would get the impression that you're very conscious of being an animal yourself, right? You're conscious that human beings are animals. I'm wondering if that is a burden in everyday life or a blessing or what? Does it enter your consciousness often or effect the way you approach life or...?

Edward O. Wilson: That's a very interesting question. I never was asked that question before but it's a very important one too and I'd say that my response can immediately be: it enriches my life, it's helped me enormously. When you realize that you are an animal then you understand the imperfection of your body, you understand your longevity and you understand your place in the real world so much better that it gives peace and having peace having a sense that you belong here that you were raised here so to speak that the species was raised here you are more inclined to be engaged with it. The real world to a lot of people -- most people nowadays I suppose -- really means social, their community of other human beings and nature is just incidental and their bodies are just waste stations to another life and that has some pretty severe restrictions. The full poetry ... understanding of your existence gets richer for me as time goes on and I know more about myself and the species. While many people might think that, realizing our animal nature and our animal origins precludes eternal existence and suppose that that must disturb the peace of the non-believers... it is, I think if anything, the opposite... it makes peace...

Wright: So the fact that you anticipate death being the end does not bother you.

Edward O. Wilson: Not at all. I saw a recent poll of members of the National Academy of Science, two thousand or so who are supposed to be the science elite of the country, elected by peer voting and something like 90% registered no concern about an afterlife.

Wright: And you, it's actually enriching in some ways you're saying to know there's no afterlife, it actually enriches your life or your approach to it?

Edward O. Wilson: Well you know I'm not going to take Pascal's argument ... join a church just to be safe but sure, I'm perfectly happy with mortality and the limited number of years I have left as was I think most scientists and major philosophers in the past. In fact, eternity is something that the beliefs ought to take more seriously and calculating how this is going to effect them particularly after the first trillion trillion years shall we say of "bliss" when enough time has passed so that this universe will evolve and pass away and new ones by the million one after the other will come and pass away and what it meant that they are in that existence, eternal existence. And that's just the beginning of eternity. They are in that existence and heaven or hell for all that amount of time incomprehensible to the human mind and more to come because of some decision they made about a particular religion at an infanticemal segment of time. And when you look at it that way and realize that the human mind cannot exist in bliss, it's not the way the mind works, it needs time scale to exist... then you begin to think, well maybe it isn't so bad to lose eternity afterall.

0:53:18

Wright: ...in exchange for having a sense of the texture of time?

Edward O. Wilson: That's right.

Wright: So you think they may find themselves unhappy in heaven ...

Edward O. Wilson: They're going to find themselves bored and wish that they had more people like Darwin to talk to who, I presume, is not going to be there.

Wright: Depends on the criterior...

Edward O. Wilson: ... I'm speaking now of fundamentalists who hopefully few in number who believe in a sharp destinction between heaven and hell.

Wright: It's interesting you said Darwinian ... gives you a sense of belonging because of course some conventionally religious people would say they have a sense of belonging because they think that there is a God that intended them to be here.

Edward O. Wilson: That's how they get their sense of belonging.

Wright: And yours derives? How would you characterize exactly what your sense of belonging derives from?

Edward O. Wilson: It derives from a realistic science-based view of what individual human beings are and where they came from and their species. You belong to the species and you belong to this world that created the species.

Wright: So you're part of a family of organic life in a literal sense? You can actually trace the family tree?

Edward O. Wilson: That, f anything, is an essential statement of what could be called a philosophy of naturalism.

0:54:47

Wright: But some people say they don't like about thinking about themselves as animals in light of sociobology or evolutionary psychology or whatever... some of the things they say are that to think of love or altruism as being ultimately in some sense self-interested, even though it may be a remote sense, it may just be that the altruism was in the interest of your genes in the environment of our evolution and it may or may not serve your interest or your genes interest...but still, the very idea that these thing originated for self-interested reasons and sometimes are still deployed in a covertly selfish way, a lot of people say this devalues love or somehow unsettles them...

Edward O. Wilson: I don't think so. I don't think it does devalue it, I imagine that some feel that it might but it's somewhat comparable to the truth that would come from thinking of the brain as the instrument ... musical instrument that has been developed over millions of years and of the playing out of human nature ...evolving culture as a beautiful melody and the emotions felt as part of it and when you look at it that way and you realize there is almost infinite beauty possible from the instrument from the premutations and creations of the melodies then an organic origin who seem quite... does not become debasing at all. What's debasing in my mind is the thought that we're just creatures that are almost like puppets put on earth by a superior being who we really can't quite understand and whose dicta that we are to follow are laid down appropriate to dessert partiarchal tribes some three millenium ago and do not apply easily to most of humanity so that is what's restricting and also when seen as a source of unending tribal conflict -- my God is superior to your idol -- my purity of thought and belief is high above your corruption of error -- I think then that the naturalistic view which allows adaptation of the mind and a much broader seeking of truth in the natural world from Interviewerard examination is the much better way to go.

Wright: It's funny that you use the word puppets in describing what bothers you about a religious world view because, I don't know if you remember, but the Time magazine cover in the mid-1970s about a sociobiology controversy had marionettes...actual people but rigged up as marionettes so clearly the view from the other side was that yours is the worldview that would have us as puppets...

Edward O. Wilson: Seen from the left, that's true.. isn't that interesting? But that was due to a misconception about what human nature is. It was a view of human genetic determinism that no one believe, sociobiologists or anyone else believed that could easily see that that was not true and it was never anything I proposed.

0:58:40

Wright: Do you think believing in God would make it easier to be a moral person or -- in other words -- do you find it harder to be good without God?

Edward O. Wilson: I find it easier to be good.

Wright: What's the secret?

Edward O. Wilson: Internalization ... a sense of responsibility and understand of the necessity of moral beliefs. Furthermore, and I think you've even published a book on the subject, that we are --- whether we evolved by kin selection primarily or group selection --- that we are hard-wired to make moral decision or operate for the good of others and that is not overthrown by rejecting particular mythology involving the divine creation of the species.

Wright: So understanding the utility of the moral impulses, the fact that they had to earn their way into our lineage by being useful in some sense and possibly useful on a social level...

Edward O. Wilson: Certainly that but also you just feel good when you do something that is right.... when you do something brave, when you take care of others, when you are honest.... you feel good whether you are a devout Christian or secular humanist, it's because your brain is wired that way.

Wright: Do you get a great feeling when somebody stops and asks you directions and you know and you can give them directions? Does that make you feel really good?

Edward O. Wilson: Sure it does.

Wright: That's interesting because there are people you don't know and they will never return the favor. So it's not ultimately self-interested behavior, a lot of people would argue that it was in the environment of evolution you would've seen people again and again but anyway it's just interesting... it's one of the most gratifying parts of my life...

Edward O. Wilson: I think of both persons lives. A recent poll --- that is in the last few years anyway -- has shown that believes and non-believers, the latter would include I guess what you call secular humanists, do not differ in their crime-rate, divorce-rate, and other outward signs of moral-based behavior, except one... I think fundamentalists scored higher in volunteering in public service...

Wright: Which is a good thing.

Edward O. Wilson: Absolutely. Secular humanists ought to do more.

1:01:40

Wright: You're a kind of phenomenally productive person. I have to assume you don't have much in the way of vices which is interesting because vices by enlarge are succcumming to animal appetites... that's what a lot of what we call vice is, various kinds of addictions to various bad habits. Am I right?

Edward O. Wilson: No.

Wright: Can you think of any vices that you A: have and B: what to share with the world?

Edward O. Wilson: ... that's a disturbing question and I guess I don't have vices to speak of except pride... maybe over-reading... I enjoy excelling and I enjoy getting credit for it and I enjoy dreaming of glorious deeds glorious rewarded but I think I'm completely normal in that. Maybe I do more of it than the average person and that would be by definition a vice but I don't drink except the occassional glass of wine, I don't smoke... I never strayed in my marriage and you can say "Oh you're a virtuous person" but also one way I look at it is it allowed me to write more books.

Wright: Was that the reason you didn't stray...?

Edward O. Wilson: That's one reason... no I had a very good marriage. The point is that these other things I didn't fall into because I was driven, I wanted to achieve just as much as my life would allow it...

1:03:48

Wright: That leads to one other question... in your book "The Insect Societies" --- it's dedicated to your wife -- and as I recall it says something like "To Irene who understands." Maybe I'm wrong. I thought that that meant that she understood something about you or about your behavior or was tolerant of something about you or your behavior...

Edward O. Wilson: That's right.

Wright: What is it?

Edward O. Wilson: Single-mindedness I think. That is, putting more time into that work that might have been spent with family, I'll admit it. But on the other hand, a writer or a person who can work at home and as I did a lot of my work was theoretical and compositional and I even did experiments, I built a labratory at home and did experiments at home... I did much of my systematic work with ants at home and more and more as the years wore on. So, even though I probably had working hours much longer than the average person -- at one point I was working eighty or ninety hours a week -- pushing through a book that was very complex, even so I saw more of my family than most people do... people who are coming in from 9-5 or having to go on business trips and so on so it was a little lessening of the guilt. You're writing a book, I'm sure it must be your case also. You can stop anytime you want. You get tired of doing something and take a 30 minute break and chat with your wife, partner, friend, whoever and then you go back to it. So they see more of you than would be the case if you were engaged in conventional work.

Wright: You've been able to reconcile two great conflicting forces in many people lives: career and family.

Edward O. Wilson: By the luck of the choice of my devotion. I suppose that if I were a diplomat or a professional soldier or a business man, not so...

Wright: Well congratulations and thanks a lot for taking the time. It's been a lot of fun.

Edward O. Wilson: Thank you. It's been great having yet another conversation with you.





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