The great biologist who died on Boxing Day did not like organized religion but was not an atheist, as evidenced by his history of believing ants and atheists.
by Massimo Introvigné
Edward Osborne Wilson, who died on December 26, 2021 at age 92, was the father of sociobiology. It may be of interest to readers of bitter winter for sociobiology has been used, particularly by the British scientist Richard Dawkins, as a tool to promote atheism and anti-religious sentiments. Wilson himself argued that it would be in the best interests of mankind if organized religions as we know them were to disappear. However, there is a misunderstanding. Wilson was not an atheist, nor was he against asking religious questions. Since his main interest was ants, it is to his interesting 2010 novel Anthill we should turn to better understand his ideas on religion.
The partly autobiographical novel features the young entomologist Raff, the son of a poor country father and a mother from an old Alabama family who seems straight out of the pages of carried away by the wind. The situation is not new, and the first part of the novel is quite conventional. Just as the third part is not new, where Raff has to face the opposition of fundamentalist Christians hostile to evolutionism, ready to resort even to kidnapping and murder, but who in turn will meet a bad end after having encountered in the primitive world of Alabama overwhelms villains more violent than them.
The interest of the novel lies entirely in the second part. Raff, like author Wilson, is fascinated by ants and anthills and tries to defend the shores of Lake Nokobee, where insects abound, from developers. Parallel to his struggle, there is another, invisible to those who are not entomologists, between three colonies of ants who are vying for hegemony in the region. The second part of the novel, presented as Raff’s dissertation, is the story of this struggle described from the point of view of the ants. Here, in novel form, Wilson re-presents the theses that made him famous as the father of modern sociobiology.
Wilson made a name for himself in 1971 with insect societies, a work in which he applied Hamilton’s equation to ants. This answered an objection that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) considered potentially fatal to the very idea, crucial to evolutionism, that useful acquired traits are passed on to descendants. The objection applies to worker ants, which are all sterile females.
These insects acquire useful characters, but since they are sterile, they cannot pass them on to their offspring. How does the transmission of acquired characters work in this case? The solution that Darwin had already sketched out was to assume that evolutionary progress can be transmitted not only directly to descendants but also indirectly to other members of the community. This explanation was formalized in an equation by the British biologist William Donald Hamilton (1936-2000), and was applied by Wilson to the empirical study of ants.
This is after the success of insect societies that Wilson launched a new science called “sociobiology”. The term had been around for decades, but was unknown to the general public. Sociobiology has generalized the results of Hamilton’s equation by extending them to humans and human societies. The undertaking was ambitious and provoked strong reactions. While some liberals accused sociobiology of racism, religious circles feared that by applying to man and his society ideas drawn from the world of insects, the unique dignity of the human being, free will, and even idea of God disappear.
However, we must distinguish between the positions of a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins and those of his mentor Wilson. The latter declared that the belief in God was not simply false but indeed “true in the Darwinian sense”, that is to say that it produces the social cohesion and altruism necessary for the survival of human societies.
For Wilson, it was also possible that religion had more than just functional utility. Wilson said he did not consider himself an atheist but a “provisional deist”, willing to consider the “possibility” of an ultimate cause. In the novel Anthill, Wilson draws a contrast between atheist ants and believing ants. The first deny, the others affirm the existence of gods in the form of “moving trees”, capricious deities who can either bring magnificent gifts to ants, or destroy them for no reason. The believing ants are right.
The “moving trees” exist: they are humans, benevolent deities who, when they leave the remains of their picnics on the shores of the lake, give the ants an unexpected abundance. The dynamic is reminiscent of the “cargo cults” of Oceania, where natives mistook European ships and planes carrying food aid for divine beings.
However, when, thanks to this abundance, the insects multiply in a way deemed troublesome, humans destroy them without warning with flamethrowers and insecticides. Atheist ants are wrong, since humans are not a myth. However, the believing ants aren’t quite right either, because “moving trees” aren’t supernatural entities. But the fact that humans are not gods does not prove that gods do not exist.
Even as a novelist, Wilson never allowed himself to be reduced to his epigones like Dawkins. With all his antipathy to organized religion, he wasn’t quite sure the ultimate cause didn’t exist.