Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ed Wilson's Naturalist - a great biography of a fascinating environmentalist & scientist

I finished reading E.O. Wilson's biography 'Naturalist' yesterday. It took me a few pages to get into it, but it provided a fascinating glimpse into the life and philosophy of one of the most outstanding biologists and scientists still alive. He created some of the greatest controversies in science in modern times (the sociobiology debate), popularized the term 'evolutionary biology' and has made a huge impact on the environmental movement the world over (with helping to coin the term biodiversity and advancing the biophilia hypothesis - well, in the book he makes it clear that he did not invent the term biodiversity and initially even objected to it).

It is the self-portray of a highly introvert, but extremely ambitious individual, obsessed with understanding biological diversity (especially of ants), often plagued by insecurity and self-doubt, but also extreme boldness, political naivety and self-assurance that have landed him in a few hot spots.
I really appreciated his explanations of how he got to the intellectual positions that he was arguing for, his willingness to listen and change perspective if proven wrong and his very honest style of writing. The book provides quite a few back stories about the politics and history of a particular era of modern science and interesting perspectives on a number of major scientists. I was certainly not aware of the importance that Watson and the molecular revolution had on biology and the major debates (Wilson called them the molecular wars) that it created. But looking across the buildings to my biology colleagues, it explains a few of the ongoing debates and peculiarities.
I came across a reference to this autobiography in Sense and Nonsense, Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown's great summary of evolutionary approaches to human behaviour. Ed Wilson is a central and controversial figure in this whole approach and since I am going to teach a session on evolutionary approaches to culture, I thought I might as well have a look what Wilson had to say about his own life and work. It was a rewarding read and provided many insights to an important era of biology. Nearly every second page had quotes worth noting down, a true gem with good explanations and interesting advice to young and experienced scientists. I may not always agree with him, but he certainly has achieved a lot with his style, approach and determination. Since I may use some of them for my own writing and teaching, I am going to share some of these quotes as well as some longer summaries of key ideas here.

Over to Wilson himself....

His three big truths (all page numbers refer to the 1994 Island Press edition):
First, humanity is ultimately the product of biological evolution; second, the diversity of life is the cradle and greatest natural heritage of the human species; and third, philosophy and religion make little sense without taking into account these first two conceptions (p.363)
On his ambitions as a young scientist and the social nature of science (p.210):
... I was still obsessed by an elemental self-image: hunter in the magical forest, searching not just for animals now but also for ideas to bring home as trophies. A naturalist, real and then more metaphorical, a civilized hunter. I was destined to be more of an opportunist than a problem solver. The boy inside me still made my career decisions: I just wanted to be the first to find something, anything, the more important the better, but something as often as possible, to own it a little while before relinquishing it to others. I confess that to the degree I was insecure, I was also ambitious. I hungered for the recognition and support that discovery in science brings. To make this admission does not embarrass me now as it would have when I was young. All the scientists I know share a desire for fair recognition of their work. Acknowledgements is their silver and gold, and why they are usually very careful to grant deserved authority priority to others while so jealously guarding their own. New knowledge is not science until it is made social. The scientific culture can be defined as new verifiable knowledge secured and distributed with fair credit meticulously given [note: I really like this phrase]. 
On the ideal conditions for developing as a scientist - or as a political revolutionary (I love the analogy) (p. 108):
Start with a circle of ambitious students who talk and work together and conspire against their elders in order to make their way into a particular discipline. They can be as few as two or as many as five; more than five makes the unit unstable. Given them an exciting new idea tha can transform the discipline and with which they can advance their ambitions: let them believe that they own a central truth shared by a few others and therefore a piece of the future. Add a distant authority figure, in this case a scientist who has written a revolutionary test, or at least a circle of older revolutionaries who have generated the accepted canon.... Bring on a local role model, an older man or woman who promotes The Idea and embodies in his character and working habits the ideals of the youthful discipline. 
Another quote that shows his ambition (p. 232):
By this time I had been radicalized in my views about the future of biology [here he refers to what was called the molecular wars, the discovery of the double helix by Watson - one of his colleagues and how this led to a major split in biology]. I wanted more than a sanctuary across the street, complete with green eyeshades, Cornell drawers of pinned specimens, and round-trip air tickets for field work in Panama. I wanted a revolution in the ranks of the young evolutionary biologists. I felt driven to go beyond the old guard of Modern Synthesizers and help start something new. That might be accomplished, I thought, by the best effort of men my age (men, I say, because women were still rare in the discipline) who were as capable and ambitious as the best molecular biologists. I did not know how such an enterprise might be started, but clearly the first requirement was a fresh vision from the young and ambitious. I began to pay close attention to those in other universities who seemed like-minded. 
On different types of scientists (p.210):
 Scientists, I believe, are divided into two categories: those who do science in order to be a success a life, and those who become a success in life in order to do science. It is the latter who stay active in research for a lifetime. 
On paradigm shifts in science (p. 220):
When one culture sets out to erase another, the first thing its rulers banish is the official use of the native tongue (referring to the bad meaning that 'ecology' had taken on after the molecular revolution). 
On the importance of enemies (p. 218):
Without a trace of irony I can say I have been blessed with brilliant enemies. The made me suffer (after all, they were enemies), but I owe them a great debt, because they redoubled my energies and drove me in new directions. We need such people in our creative lives. As John Stuart Mill once put it, both teachers and learners fall asleep at their posts when there is no enemy in the field.  
An observation of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a science guru who inspired large number of young scientists and how he managed to do this (p. 237):
He did nothing, except welcome into his office every graduate student who wished to see him, praise everything they did, and with insight and marginal scholarly disgressions, find at least some merit in the most inchoate of research proposals. He soared above us sometimes, and at others he wandered alone in a distant terrain, lover of the surprising metaphor and the esoteric example. He resisted successfully the indignity of being completely understood. He encouraged his acolytes to launch their own voyages. 
Wilson's advise for young scientists to develop their own field of research (p.123, after having discussed his failings to become a champion runner):
I have evolved a rule that has proved useful for myself and might be for others not born with championship potential: for every level of mathematical ability there exists a field of science poorly enough developed to support original theory. The advice I give to students in science is to move laterally and up and down and peer all around. If you have the will, there is a discipline in which you can succeed. Look for the ones still thinly populated, where fine differences in raw ability matter less. Be a hunter and explorer, not a problem solver. Perhaps the strategy can never work for track (running), with one distance and one clock. But it serves wonderfully well at the shifting frontiers of science. 

Scientific summaries and comments on sociobiology

On genetic determinism (p.332-333):

Genetic determinism, the central objection raised against book two (the chapter on humans), is the bugbear of the social sciences. So what I said that can be indeed called genetic determinism needs saying again here. My argument ran essentially as follows. Human being inherit a propensity to acquire behavior and social structure, a propensity that is shaped by enough people to be called human nature. The defining traits include division of labor between the sexes, bonding between parents and children, heightened altruism toward closest kin, incest avoidance, other forms of ethical behavior, suspicion of strangers, tribalism, dominance orders within groups, male dominance overall, and territorial aggression over limiting resources. Although people have free will and the choice to turn in many directions, the channels of their psychological development are nevertheless - however much we might wish otherwise - cut more deeply by the genes in certain directions than in others. So while cultures vary greatly, the inevitably converge toward these traits. The Manhattanite and the New Guinea highlander have been separated by 50,000 years of history but still understand each other, for the elementary reason that their common humanity is preserved in the genes they share from their common ancestry. 
... the important point is that heredity interacts with environment to create a gravitational pull toward a fixed mean. It gathers people in all societies into the narrow statistical circle that we define as human nature.
Page 335-336:
What made Sociobiology notorious then was its hybrid nature. Had the two parts of the book been published separately, the biological core would have been well received by specialists in animal behavior and ecology, while the writings on human behavior might easily have been dismissed or ignored. Placed between the same two covers, however, the whole was greater than the sum of its part. The human chapters were rendered creditable by the massive animal documentation, while the biology gained added significance from the human implications. The conjunction created a  syllogism that proved unpalatable to many: Sociobiology is part of biology, biology is reliable; therefore human sociobiology is reliable.

In fact, I would love to quote large sections of chapters 16 and 17, because they contain so much rich material on the history and dynamics of the debate and how Wilson saw himself in the middle of this political mix.

Here is another important development, one that is often ignored. Having being challenged extensively for his application of sociobiology to humans, in particular the challenge of ignoring culture, he developed the concept of gene-culture-coevolution together with Charles Lumsden. Here is a longer quote with a summary of the basic premises (p.350-352).
We reasoned as follows. Everyone knows that human social behavior is transmitted by culture, but culture is a product of the brain. The brain in turn is a highly structure organ and a product of genetic evolution. It possesses a host of biases programmed through sensory reception and the propensity to learn certain things and not others. These biases guide culture to a still unknown degree. In the reverse direction, the genetic evolution of the most distinctive properties of the brain occurred in an environment dominated by culture. Changes in culture therefore must have affected those properties. So the problem can be more clearly cast in these terms: how have genetic evolution and cultural evolution interacted to created the development of the human mind? ... We were looking for the basic process that directed the evolution of the human mind. We concluded that it is a particular form of interaction of genes and culture. This "gene-culture coevolution", as we called it, is an eternal cycle of change in heredity and culture. Over the course of a lifetime, the mind of the individual person creates itself by picking among countless fragments of information, value judgement, and available courses of action within the context of a particular culture. More concretely, the individual comes to select certain marital customs, creation myths, ethical precepts, modes of analysis, and so forth, from those available. We called these competing behaviours and mental abstractions "culturgens". They are close to what our fellow reductionist Richard Dawkins conceived as "memes". ... Each time an individual modifies his memories or makes decisions, he entrains intricate sequences of physiological events that run frist from the perception of visual images, sounds, and other stimuli, then to the storage and recall of information from long-term memory, and finally to the emotional assessment of perceived objects and ideas. Not all culturgenes are treated equally; cognition has not evolved as a wholly neutral filter. The mind incorporates and uses some far more readily than others. ... All are diagnostic of the human species, all part of what must reasonably be called human nature. Such physiologically based preferences, called "epigenetic rules", channel cultural transmission in one direction instead of another. By this means they influence the outcome of cultural evolution. It is here, through the physical events of cognition, that the genes act to shape mental development and culture. The full cycle of gene-culture coevolution as we conceived it is the following. Some choices confer greater survival and reproductive rate. As a consequence, certain epigenetic rules, those that predispose the mmind toward the selection of successful culturgens, are favored during the course of genetic evolution. Over many generations, the human population as a whole has moved toward one particular "human nature" out of a vast number of natures possible. It has fashioned certain patterns of cultural diversity from an even greater number of patterns possible.  
 This book has helped me appreciate and re-evaluate his work on a different level. I hope this is reflected in my teaching ;)

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