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date: 20 August 2019

Wilson, Edward O.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

Evan Berry

Wilson, Edward O. (1929–) 

An entomologist by training, E. O. Wilson's hypotheses have had far-reaching influence not only in the biological sciences, but in the humanities and social sciences as well. Wilson's ideas connect religion and nature on two levels. First, he argues that religion, like social behavior in general, is subject to natural selection. Second, Wilson's primary intellectual endeavor has been to demonstrate the religiosity implicit in the natural sciences. His litany of publications includes several well-respected contributions to the field of ecology, but he is most widely known for his theory of sociobiology, and for his championship of environmental issues. This hypothesis established a scientific field devoted to finding the biological origins of animal social behavior at both the genetic and the environmental levels. Sociobiology presents challenges to current conceptualizations in the biological sciences as well as the social sciences. Sociobiological studies seek to understand the evolutionary foundations of social behaviors in animals, and to apply an ecological model to the social sciences. At the heart of E. O. Wilson's ideas is the assertion that scientific investigation can radically improve the production of knowledge, and can be synthesized with other disciplinary systems.

Due to a boyhood fishing accident, Wilson's vision is good in only one eye; and he has subsequently trained himself for close observation. His career in insect biology supplied him with many resources for the extension of scientific study into other fields. He is renowned for his work on the behavior of social insects, but has branched out tremendously into studies of ecology, gene-culture co-evolution, sociobiology, biogeography, environmental ethics, environmentalism, and environmental policy. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer prizes: one for his work in On Human Nature, and the other for his co-authorship of the definitive entomological work The Ants. Following his fieldwork in Cuba and New Guinea, Wilson joined the Harvard faculty of biology. He remains active there as a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and as the honorary curator in entomology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

As a part of his larger project to understand human social life scientifically, Wilson has argued that religion is a product of natural selection. Beyond Wilson's sentiments that religion is biological in origin, he also believes that traditional religions are ill-equipped to deal with the environmental and social problems of the modern world. In Consilience, one of his most accessible works, Wilson seeks to renew the enlightenment project of finding ultimate meaning through science. As a voice of twentieth-century biology, Wilson presents a continued call for an empirically grounded metaphysics, a religion based in fact, sounded a century earlier by such thinkers as Auguste Comte. Such a worldview would invalidate anthropo-centric conceptualizations of the universe, and seek to create social harmony based on a coordinated effort between biology and the social sciences. His quest is lofty; not only does he advocate a massive research endeavor to establish scientific consensus on moral issues, he further believes that this new faith in facts needs to be created in poetic form, as an epic cultural narrative. He is a board member of the Epic of Evolution Society, and collaborates with those engaged in the consecration of scientific narratives in this way. His call for such a scientific undertaking has, however, been refuted directly by Wendell Berry in Life is a Miracle, and many non-scientists look at sociobiology as a highly controversial theory. Feminists, cultural anthropologists, and many religious leaders present serious challenges to the legitimacy of Wilson's scientific ideology, arguing respectively that such a position reinforces a patriarchal, scientistic, and one-sided view of moral and cultural issues.

Wilson's call for a scientific ethic in relation to environmental issues, specifically biodiversity, is espoused in Biophilia. His call for a conservation ethic grounded in scientific understanding parallels Aldo Leopold's ideology, and harkens back to Thoreau's idea of nature as the refuge of the spirit. Wilson's version of environmental ethics adds a new dimension to these older ones: he situates it amid the knowledge of a more mature ecology, and focuses on the complex dynamics of both genetic coevolution and biodiversity. Wilson shares the straightforward understanding of humanity as dependent upon nature for survival with his predecessors, but comes armed with a more sophisticated understanding of the fundamentally inter-twined existence of humans and their environment. Biophilia is the innate human tendency to affiliate with other organisms. From a biological point of view, humanity is an interdependent member of the complex energy cycles of the world ecosystem. To study this system, and to further our understanding of ourselves as a part of it, is for Wilson, the central task not only of the sciences, but also of human moral and religious activity. Biophilia posits that true meaning can only come from science. This is not an epistemological claim for the superiority of scientific knowledge. Wilson is setting forth the idea that as humans are biological organisms, what they find meaningful should itself be biological. This suggestion is at the core of Wilson's thinking; scientific understanding of the biological world allows humanity to renew its entire mode of being, in essence to invent a new religion.

Evan Berry

Further Reading

Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000.Find this resource:

Hunter, Anne E., ed. On Peace, War, and Gender: A Challenge to Genetic Explanations. New York: Feminist Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Lumsden, Charles. Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf, distributed by Random House, 1998.Find this resource:

Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

See also: Berry, Wendell; Biocentric Religion – A Call for; Biodiversity; Biophilia; Conservation Biology; Ecology and Religion; Environmental Ethics; Epic of Evolution (and adjacent, Epic Ritual); Evolutionary Biology, Religion, and Stewardship; Geophilia; Natural History as Natural Religion.