Atheists and Agnostics Compendium
Conversation with Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson

INTERVIEWER: Professor Wilson, if it’s all right with you, let’s begin immediately with the controversy surrounding your book, Sociobiology. I understand there was much campus name-calling and there were disturbances that were nearly riots.

WILSON: There were some people who were upset about what they conceived was my message. But it was a misreading. They thought that I was advocating support for the social status quo to the detriment of the women’s rights movement. They thought I was putting down women by saying some human behaviors are genetically determined. It was, after all, the 70’s.

INTERVIEWER: But what exactly upset them?

WILSON: It could have been the idea I mentioned that men are genetically inclined to distribute their sperm as widely as possible, while women, by nature, are circumspect. You see, it is simply a matter of energy investment. It takes more energy to bare a child than to father one. The effort, speaking in evolutionary terms, is to push the individual’s genes into the next generation. But my message was much broader than the relationship between men and women.

INTERVIEWER: What was your message?

WILSON: I proposed that the same principles of population biology and comparative zoology that have worked so well in explaining systems of the social insects could be applied to vertebrate animals.

INTERVIEWER: (shocked) Do you mean to apply what you have learned from insect societies to human beings? I know that you are one of the world’s experts on ants, bees and termites but human societies are a wholly different field of study.

WILSON: Is it really? Aren’t we part of nature? Aren’t we social animals, just as elephants and wolves are? Isn’t it time we applied what we have learned there? Human societies are more complex but, nevertheless, they still natural developments. Bees make hives — we make cities. The more I studied animal societies the more I became convinced that the time had come to close the gap between the two cultures, science and the social sciences, and do this by applying evolutionary theory to human social organization and practices.

INTERVIEWER: By practices do you mean to include religion and ethics?

WILSON: Yes, of course.

INTERVIEWER: I can’t believe that evolutionary theory can explain religion. I can’t believe that there is a biological basis for morality.

WILSON: Look at it this way. There are two bands of Paleolithic people. In band A there is a genetic tendency among most of the members for cooperation. They hunt together and share the food resources. In band B there is a genetic tendency for individualistic behavior. The men hunt individually and permit others to eat the leftovers only when they have finished. Which band do you suppose would tend to increase and thrive? (pauses for an answer – there is none)

Now suppose that human propensities to cooperate or go-it-alone are inheritable. We know, from separated identical twin studies that many behavioral traits, just like physical ones, are inherited. Some people are innately more cooperative, others less so. And we know that individuals in cooperative groups generally survive longer and leave more offspring. This leads inevitably to the conclusion that genes predisposing people toward cooperative behavior would come to predominate in the human population as a whole. This feeling for cooperation and empathy is the basis of moral behavior.

INTERVIEWER: I must admit you make a good case. But still there is something to be said for the morality that comes from religion. It has been the guiding force of civilization for centuries.

WILSON: The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature. It certainly is one of the universals of social behavior, taking recognizable form in every society from bunter-gatherer bands to socialist republics. Its rudiments go back at least to the bone altars and funerary rites of Neanderthal man. At Shanidar, Iraq, sixty thousand years ago, Neanderthal people decorated a grave with flowers. Since that time, according to the anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, mankind has produced on the order of 100 thousand religions.

INTERVIEWER: But I am speaking about the “true” religion, the Judeo-Christian religion.

WILSON: Ah, “true” religion. The enduring paradox of religion is that so much of its substance is demonstrably false, yet it remains a driving force in all societies. Men would rather believe than know.

It is instructive to study the origin of religions. Successful religions typically begin as cults, At the core of each religion is a creation myth, which explains how the world began and how the chosen people -- those subscribing to the belief system -- arrived at its center. Sacred places are designated, where the gods can be importuned, rites observed, and miracles witnessed. The devotees of the religion compete with those of other religions. They harshly resist the dismissal of their beliefs by rivals. They venerate self-sacrifice in defense of the religion.

Religion arose on a foundation of primitive elements of moral behavior, and it has probably always been used in one manner or another to justify moral codes. The formidable influence of the religious drive is based on far more, however, than just the validation of morals. Foremost among them is the survival instinct. "Fear," as the Roman poet Lucretius said, "was the first thing on earth to make the gods." Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence. If we cannot have everlasting life of the body, then absorption into some immortal whole will serve. Anything will serve, as long as it gives the individual meaning and somehow stretches into eternity.

INTERVIEWER: This is a radical point of view of religion and a departure from previous work in biology and sociology.

WILSON: Exactly. (pause) But the uncompromising application of evolutionary theory to all of human existence is going too far. However, there is a great deal of existing evidence that biological inquiry can help us understand a great deal of animal behavior. Perhaps the graph on the right can help.

INTERVIEWER: It’s all well and good to say that genes partially determine human behavior but can you give any definite examples?

WILSON: Certainly, they are all around us, everyday. They are manifest in the love we feel toward our children, the affection we feel for our kin, the closeness we feel to members of our special group, altruism and xenophobia, the wariness, even antagonism, we feel at the sudden appearance of strangers. By the way, do you like riding on the roller coaster at an amusement park?

INTERVIEWER: I… I used to, when I was younger.

WILSON: Why did you enjoy it?

INTERVIEWER: I don’t know… I suppose it was because it was exciting.

WILSON: Why do you suppose people go to horror movies? Sometimes risk their lives at extreme sports, like mountain climbing? Even senior citizens long to go on trips to unknown places, thrill to new experiences, go out of their way seeking novelty. Why is it that we say one can die of boredom?

INTERVIEWER: I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.

WILSON: Of course, The need for mental stimulation or excitement is universal in our species. When a behavior is species wide, crossing time and cultures it is pretty certain it is in the genes. The need to experience new environments is biologically adaptive, that is, in the long run it’s an aid to survival. If our ancestors stayed in one place, never yearning to see what’s on the other side of the hill they would never discover new sources of food. When their nearby food supply was exhausted they would die. Nature has eliminated the stay-at-homes leaving those who crave the new, even at the possible risk of their individual lives, and so the species lives on. The genetic drive to investigate the unknown, also know as the tendency to be curious, is behind much of human behavior.

INTERVIEWER: That’s an interesting idea.

WILSON: There are many such species preserving drives or, to use that old fashioned word, instincts. For thousands of years we knew that there was something in the union of male and female that passed on bodily structure and even tendencies of behavior. But we chose to believe the fable that we were above animal instincts. Today we know that we are not. Much of our behavior, as well as all of physical structure, is encoded in the sequences of our DNA. Sociobiology is the systematic study of that genetic basis of our social behavior.

INTERVIEWER: What confuses me is how these genes, parts of my DNA that are only chemical molecules — how can they tell me what or who to love, lead me to seek mental stimulation, control my social behavior as you say they can? What happened to my free will?

WILSON: Remember the philosopher Schopenhauer’s saying, “A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills.” I personally think that’s an exaggeration. We certainly learn a great deal from our environment and those experiences influence our thinking and subsequent actions. But it points up the fact that we are not as free as we think we are. Sometimes, with an effort, we can break free of our inherited influences; as when a devoutly religious person begins to doubt.

INTERVIEWER: I want to talk with you about religion. From what you just said it appears you think religion is inherited. But you haven’t answered my previous question. How do the genes act to be such an influence on me? In other words what’s the connection between the genes in my cells and how I behave?

WILSON: Much remains to be discovered. These ideas are new. But we know that genes program the functioning of the nervous system, also the sensory and the hormonal systems of the body, and thereby surely influence the processes of the brain. For example, genes control the hormones that turn a boy who hates girls into a teenager who can’t stop thinking about them. Genes constrain the maturation of some behaviors and the learning rules of other behaviors. Kinship favoritism, incest taboos, xenophobia, tribal loyalties, intense attention toward leaders are gene-governed behaviors. They are some of the behaviors that make for social cohesion and increase the survivability of the group. They also make for the creation of religious groups.

INTERVIEWER: I am particularly interested in your views on religion and morality. How can you say that religion is inherited? That would mean religion is in our genes.

WILSON: We have to be careful about this. I do not mean that any particular religious beliefs or practices are embedded in our DNA. But certain tendencies that manifest themselves in social group formation surely are. We are, after all, social animals and sometimes we behave in ways that can only be described as herd-like. The same tendencies that help social group formation lend themselves to religious group formation.

INTERVIEWER: If that is true then religion has survival value for human beings.

WILSON: Yes, exactly. The highest forms of religious practice confers biological advantage. Above all they help form a person’s identity. In the midst of chaotic and potentially disorienting experiences that each person undergoes daily, religion classifies him, provides him with unquestioned membership in a group. The group claims great powers, and by this means gives him a driving purpose in life that is compatible with his own self-interest. His strength is the strength of the group, his guide and security - the sacred covenant.

Commitment is also a part of the process of religion-making. The faithful consecrate their lives to the ideas of the group and to the welfare of those that do the same. Commitment is pure tribalism. It is the emotional surrender of the self to the welfare of others – in an other word, altruism.

INTERVIEWER: Why does sociobiology spend so much time on religion?

WILSON: I don’t think that it does. But it certainly stirs a lot of controversy among religionists.

INTERVIEWER: Perhaps they see your atheism as a threat to their most cherished beliefs.

WILSON: But am not an atheist. I am an empiricist. On religion I lean toward deism, but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics. The existence of a God who created the universe (as envisioned by deism) is possible, and the question may eventually be settled, perhaps by forms of material evidence not yet imagined. Or the matter may be forever beyond human reach. In contrast, and of far greater importance to humanity, the idea of a biological God, one who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs (as envisioned by theism), is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences.

INTERVIEWER: What do you mean when you say you are an empiricist?

WILSON: An empiricist believes that all knowledge comes from the experience of the senses. In contrast, traditional religion relies transcendentalism. It asserts that an ideal spiritual reality exists that transcends the scientific and is knowable through intuition or divine inspiration. The choice between transcendentalism and empiricism will be the coming century's version of the struggle for men's souls. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to science that is a product of the modern age. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are incompatible. As a result, those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth face disquieting choices.

INTERVIEWER: But for many, the urge to believe in a spiritual world, in divine inspiration and possible personal immortality is overpowering. By comparison, the scientific world-view seems sterile and inadequate.

WILSON: I agree. Even as empiricism is winning the mind, transcendentalism continues to win the heart. In the United States 16 million people belong to the Southern Baptist denomination, favoring a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, but the American Humanist Association, the leading organization devoted to secular and deistic humanism, has only 5,000 members. Our country, technologically and sci-entifically the most sophisticated nation in history, is also the second most religious—after India.

INTERVIEWER: How will the scientific world-view prevail when, as you say, the spiritual world-view wins the heart?

WILSON: Change will come slowly, across generations, because old beliefs die hard. But make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism. It presents the human mind with a logical point of view that has always defeated traditional religion point for point.. The true evolutionary epic, retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic. Material reality discovered by science already possesses more content and grandeur than all religious cosmologies combined. Every part of existence is obedient to physi-cal laws requiring no external control. The scientist’s description of the universe excludes the divine spirit and other extraneous agents. Most im-portantly, we have come to the crucial stage in the history of biology when religion itself is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences.

(concluding slowly) The continuity of the human line has been traced by science through a period of deep history a thousand times as old as that conceived by the Western religions. Its study has brought new revelations of great moral importance. It has made us realize that Homo sapiens is far more than an assortment of tribes and races. We are a single gene pool forever united as a species by heritage and a common future. Such are the conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.



This simulated interview uses the words and ideas taken from three books by E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology (1975), On Human Nature (1978), and Consilience- the unity of knowledge (1998).