Just as there are evolutionary bases in people’s sense of morality and in their behaviours as well as in their religiosity, so too are there ingrained features behind people’s propensity for being unduly influenced or manipulated by their emotions, as revealed by new understandings in multidisciplinary fields such as sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioural sciences, epigenetics, brain and cognitive sciences, gene-culture coevolution and the like, especially if those emotions are primal in origin, necessary for survival, conducive to surveillance, or associated with dread, anxiety, paranoia, uncertainty and doubt. For instance, fearmongering unequivocally manifests a potent appeal to fear to the extent that those who are capable of exploiting or attacking the psychological vulnerability of human beings can exert far-reaching control over people and place them under their reign or sway.
Insofar as emotionally laden words can trigger strong feelings, emotive arguments and loaded language are often particularly effective and persuasive in eliciting raw and quick reaction by exploiting the potential for emotional complication caused by the human predisposition for acting impulsively, spontaneously or passionately. However, such an emotive reaction based upon an emotional response without the rein of further considered judgement can ultimately be highly unconducive and even detrimental to situation, argument, discourse, writing or speech where fairness, impartiality and sagacity are required. One of the most important and defining measures of freedom, autonomy and civil liberties is the extent to which people can choose and perform their actions unencumbered by poor judgement, reasoning or circumstance. Unfortunately, their ability to do so is all too easily foiled or compromised when their actions are prone to being swayed by their thoughts and feelings, especially when they permit their emotions to be manipulated by what they encounter in everyday life. Supremely catalytic and intractable in worsening or complicating emotionally charged issues is the high prevalence of Infodemic causing widespread Media Landscape & Information Ecosystem Pollution via the surfeits of misquotation, misinformation and disinformation coupled with rampant politicization, biased media coverage and raw emotions pervading the (social) media and public arenas, all of which have resulted in the protracted impairment of people’s ability to learn sagaciously, think critically, judge sensibly, decide cogently and act astutely, as they (are increasingly liable to) face the noise and music of Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity.
Emotive rather than analytic delivery of a message is an age-old phenomenon. As highly interactive and social animals, human beings have long learnt to engineer or exploit many of their quotations and statements to efficaciously press the emotional buttons of their peers, readers and audiences for the purpose of eliciting emotive reactions, dramatic responses or reactive stances in order to deliver an idea, to drive home some issue, or to incite certain action via the emotional rapport or resonance in positive cases, or via the emotional disgust or agitation in negative cases, all the more so with respect to sensitive, controversial or provocative matters. Emotional reaction or emotive impulse can indeed get the better of those who either fail to recognize appeal to emotion as a formal fallacy (also called logical fallacy, deductive fallacy or non sequitur), or neglect to moderate their feelings, emotional states or reactions as a result of being persuaded or stimulated by some emotion-based claim or argument carried by a quotation or statement, especially if the claim or argument is fallacious (based on a mistaken belief), biased (unfairly prejudiced for or against someone or something), misleading (giving the wrong idea or impression), or misguided (having faulty judgement or reasoning). Accordingly, people are highly vulnerable to upholding flawed claims, statements or positions in the presence or service of partial truth, spurious claim, specious argument, fallacious thinking, fragmentary understanding, insular outlook, parochial attitude, hidebound culture, blinkered faction or bigoted practice, to the extent that anything can (seem to) be defensible or justifiable when people wilfully engage in any sort of reasoning or activity driven by subjective biases, misguided views, faulty beliefs or defective methodologies, particularly when emotions and feelings are so dominant or overwhelming that they cloud people’s judgements or undermine the better angels of their nature.
On the whole, people’s thoughts and judgements have been at greater risk of being clouded or compromised by countless shared news and media contents harbouring one or more forms of appeal to emotion, which is a logical fallacy or literary device characterized by the manipulation of the recipient’s emotions in order to manoeuvre certain situation(s) or to win some argument(s), especially in the absence of factual evidence or logical reasoning. Accordingly, the manipulative, emotive nature of appeal to emotion in achieving a seemingly plausible though ultimately irrelevant aim or outcome to persuade with emotion(al diversion) is a type of red herring waiting to exploit people’s emotional vulnerability and to prey on their lack of reasoned judgement, particularly when people fail to scale their views, beliefs, claims or assertions to the evidence, all the more so amidst the obstreperous clamours of the latest gossips, social fads, trendy factoids, propaganda machines and partisan conflicts, all of which have been intensified by tabloid journalism, lying press, fake news websites and social media accounts as well as biased broadcasting stations parading inaccurate news and revelling in the misrepresentation of individuals and situations, as they compete for people’s attention with bombardment techniques, tendentious claims, invidious judgements, inflammatory comments, sensational headlines, ridiculous storylines and explosive revelations involving misquotations, disinformation, ad hominem attacks and even outright fabrications or malicious hoaxes. Such news tends to spread much more than regular news due to the confluence of confirmation biases, sensationalism, bandwagon effect, grievance politics, media hypes, social media algorithms, and the lack of readers able or willing to fact-check, to exercise their reasoning, to read full articles rather than just headings before opining, recommending or sharing, and to prompt themselves and their friends to deliberate on (the accuracy of) what they read and share.
The empirical evidence and experiential recognition of the susceptibilities of the human mind in conjunction with the weighty social and psychological influences of emotions and feelings have long prompted the search for and formulation of guidelines and mediations that are truly effective and even consistently enforceable to foster or improve empirical accuracy and ethical integrity. For instance, one would hope that fact-checking is a dependable means by which the prevalence of misquotations, misinformation and disinformation as well as misrepresentation, sensationalism, fake news, alternative facts, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience can be curtailed, and people can be discouraged from believing, spreading or acting on false or misleading claims. Nevertheless, the appeal to fact-checking is problematic because subjectivity seeding fallibility and disunity persistently looms large in the truth-seeking business of fact-checking, as much as it is indispensable for verifying information, authenticating claims or substantiating allegations. When there is significant divergence, scant correspondence or little collaboration amongst fact-checkers regarding not only what issues warrant and receive examination but also what answers and interpretations are prioritized and eventually produced, the usefulness of fact-checking for citizens in making sense of the disparate findings and deciding on their relative merits based on the validity and veracity of contested claims can be rendered tenuous. Simply put, determining which version of disputed realities to believe becomes much harder and less viable if there is little or no consensus in the topics, purposes and results of fact-checking, even more so when fact-checkers overwhelmingly disagree on their evaluations of claims, and when citizens are themselves divergent in their views and are saddled with their own motives and biases, all of which can significantly affect how discerning citizens are regarding the factual accuracy of content, including the published findings of relevant fact-checking endeavours.
Subjectivity aside, to the extent that fact-checkers are humans, it is inevitable that during the act of checking factual information in non-fictional sources, their emotions and experiences can be evoked, recalled or massaged, along with their existing biases, extant viewpoints and prevailing expectations, not to mention their longstanding propensities and eccentricities, and to say nothing of their outstanding passions, desires, urges, impulses, feelings and sentiments as well as their established habits, motives, beliefs and affiliations, plus their past traumas, unhealed wounds, emotional attachments, well-guarded blindspots, clever egos and mental traps, all of which can have some bearing on not only how they feel about the factual information concerned, but also how, what, why, when and with whom they relate to the information. Consequently, fallacious, biased, misleading or misguided claims and arguments can often persist even in the presence of fact-checking.
Moreover, one can indeed be humbled by the sobering realization that in the highly methodical milieu of science, competent professionals and accomplished academics are tacitly assumed to be fallible rather than wise and noble human beings whose nature and mind have been purged by edification or purified by erudition, for the overtly recognizable signatures of science — those systematic practices ranging from scholarly discourse, open debate, data sharing and peer review to hypothesis, double-blind trial, falsifiability and replicability — have been meticulously formulated to safeguard research and development against not merely a plethora of confounding factors, errors, temptations and transgressions but also emotional biases in cognition due to the effects of dispositional emotionality, emotional reasoning and motivated reasoning, all of which can affect or even nullify the validity and reliability of scientific analyses, experimental results and research outcomes.
Unlike computers, machines, robots, automata and artificial intelligence, we as humans are hardly ever equipped with a clear default, tidy reset, handy reboot or even expedient reprogramming for recalibrating our minds to a neutral position to free us from (the costs and effects incurred by) our emotional baggage and aftermath, not to mention each of us being the lifelong captive of our subconscious and its subliminal perception and processing. Throughout the waking hours, we are continually carried along by many psychological processes, mental habits and internal states, which can influence our judgements and decisions by stealth. After all, people are responsive beings whose current emotions (such as love, joy, pleasure, empathy, trust, pride, confidence, surprise, anticipation, hope, fear, anger, hatred, contempt, disgust, anxiety, boredom, shame, embarrassment, sadness, grief, guilt, regret, remorse, disappointment and other conscious experience) habitually influence their decisions and behaviours. People have been perpetually motivated and activated by emotions, the major drivers of human behaviours in prioritizing what is (un)important and in shaping the value system comprising a sizeable hierarchy of emotionally engendered sensations that rank or validate what matters more or most to them in everyday life. Largely instinctual in nature, deeply (en)coded in genes, greatly affected by hormones, highly influenced by the environment, strongly bound to the fight-flight-faint-or-freeze response, innately honed for social bonding and group dynamics, easily prone to conformity and peer pressure, and readily swayed by situational antecedents and outcomes, emotions operate at both conscious and unconscious levels and hold the key to unveiling the mysteries of human nature, insofar as people’s habits, routines, rituals, attitudes and perceptions are all influenced by emotions to such an extent that they have (enjoyed) the illusion of free will, and that they have been largely oblivious of their own existence being dictated and (pre)programmed by their emotional apparatus or affective framework, especially when people are so emotionally overwhelmed as to perceive life and experience the present moment through the lens of emotion, or when people’s minds are so fixated on or saturated by certain emotions that they can hardly feel, think or speak about anything else, not to mention that emotional eating (also known as stress eating), mania (also called manic syndrome), anxiety, depression, loneliness, phobias, addictions and other mental and neuropsychological disorders have already reached epidemic proportions in many modern societies. In essence, human beings are, by their very nature, emotional creatures that habitually gravitate to being cognitive misers and lazy thinkers who are, under most circumstances, neither innately inclined to nor particularly adept at expending additional cognitive effort to assimilate information and evaluate its veracity simultaneously, as they are usually content to rely on decision-making shortcuts based on emotions and memories instead of taking the time and effort to reach a rational decision or outcome.
Hence, people are unlikely to conduct themselves rationally and to consider all available information in the decision-making process, given that they are invariably influenced by behavioural biases caused by their cognitive biases or cognitive errors (resulting from memory errors, faulty reasoning or flawed information-processing) and their emotional biases (stemming from reasoning or decision-making influenced by feelings, impulses, intuitions, desires, fears and the like, instead of or as opposed to facts, concepts, logic, evidence or research). Cognitive biases or cognitive errors occur as a result of erroneous thinking, faulty reasoning, incorrect estimation, flawed assessment or unsound judgement as people process and interpret information. They are much more amenable to rectification, reduction or eradication via the provision of better information, advice and education, since they originate from problematic reasoning rather than emotional predisposition. In contrast, emotional biases are far more intractable and difficult to remedy because they are (bound to an emotional framework) predicated on individual feelings, affects, moods, temperament and (pre)disposition, all of which are not just largely spontaneous, unpremeditated, instinctive and ingrained, but also far more personal and entangled with self-esteem, self-control, emotional self-regulation, emotional attachments, emotional insecurities, previous traumas, unresolved hurts, lingering resentments, recurring blindspots, clever defences, cunning egos and mental traps, and thus altogether much harder to alter or (re)solve than the counterparts pertaining to cognitive biases or errors. Experimental studies in neuroscience have demonstated how distinct regions of the human brain respectively responsible for emotions and cognition interfere with each other in the decision-making process, frequently resulting in the primacy and dominance of emotions over reasoning. In short, emotional biases are emotional factors contributing to recurrent distortions in cognition, decision-making and information processing.
Propelled by increasingly powerful telecommunications technology, and accelerated by even greater network, data and digital bandwidths, the roles of social media in supercharging, polarizing or even radicalizing the media landscape, information ecosystem, public discourse, social issues, social debates, advertising power and political impact are so significant that they can hardly be ignored or overstated. In such a complex, fast-paced, consumerist, hyperconnected and information-laden world, the spread of misquotations and misinformation typically rides on people’s emotional drives, biased attitudes, cardinal urges, primal impulses and tribal instincts, and often hinges on people’s ignorance, credulity, volatility, grievance, perceived injustice, prejudice, fear, rumour and even paranoia. Emotions fuelling biases and flaring opinions can be seen as a major, volatile contributor to innumerable social flashpoints, cultural minefields and ideological infernos, where truths become victims and martyrs. On the one hand, numerous expert findings, commentaries, discussions, (meta-)analyses and recommendations about social, cultural, political, economic and environmental issues and policies have often been disparaged, denigrated, sidelined, disregarded, perverted, hijacked or even suppressed by partisan tirades, illiberal ideologies, corporate hegemony, power struggle, political opportunism, autocratic management, discriminitory practice, obfuscating manoeuvre, gross misrepresentation, brash sensationalism, fake news, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, yellow journalism, historical negationism, anti-intellectualism, Machiavellianism, populism, the cult of anti-expertise sentiment, and the politicization of science. On the other hand, the quality of news, information, journalism, public discourse and social life as well as politics and governance have been adversely impacted by Hype, Bias and Affect, thus negatively affecting democracy, civil society, civic activism, legitimate journalism and the world at large. In particular, the ease and frequency with which countless people from all walks of life readily or unreservedly slip into the cacophony of opinions and partialities in flagrant disregard for factuality and fairness have indubitably pointed to a deep-seated aspect of Homo sapiens. The perennial predilection for drama and the persistent preoccupation with emotion are part and parcel of (the (eu)social world inhabited by) the human species, simultaneously constituting the defining strength and the Achilles’ heel of the naked ape, insofar as large swathes of the human population have been held captive by biologically-based psychological states — the neurophysiological edifices that have been holding sway over much of humanity and showing no sign of abatement through the ages, whilst being magnified by institutional and technological advancements. As a recipient of many fellowships, awards and honours (including two Pulitzer prizes), and as an American entomologist, biologist, naturalist and writer who has specialized for many decades in ecology, evolution and sociobiology, who has been known as the father of “sociobiology” and “biodiversity”, and who coined the term “biophilia”, Edward Osborne Wilson summed up during a public discussion between himself and James Dewey Watson (an American molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist) moderated by NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich on 9 September 2009 in a sold-out event at Sanders Theatre of the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts with the following sobering words to serve as a stark warning for humanity still entrenched in and enslaved by the primitive nature and shackling influence of emotions, the vulnerability of which has been rendered even more acute by the ascents of institutional power and technological prowess that are contributing to worsening existential crisis, unless successfully (re)mediated by philosophical reflections of and rational inquiries into the origin, identity and destination of humankind:
Will we solve the crises of next hundred years? asked Krulwich. “Yes, if we are honest and smart,” said Wilson. “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.” Until we understand ourselves, concluded the Pulitzer-prize winning author of On Human Nature, “until we answer those huge questions of philosophy that the philosophers abandoned a couple of generations ago—Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?—rationally,” we’re on very thin ground.
In the tone of a skilfully appointed gloom and the tenor of a fatefully apportioned doom, interspersed with a dreamlike fascination with scientific triumph and technological prowess, a similar view regarding humanity is expressed in the second paragraph of Chapter 1 named “The Human Condition” in Wilson’s 27th book entitled The Social Conquest of Earth and published in 2012. The tone and tenor swing dramatically from wide-eyed wonder at the advancements of science, technology and civilization to world-weariness at the current state of the human condition still incapable of fathoming let alone solving the great riddle of life, worsened all the more by humanity’s wayward violence, aggressive expansion and scant apprehension of its own existential mess, pernicious strain and destructive streak:
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
Those possessing an astute observation or acute recognition of the potency of Wilson’s striking statement, a mnemonic tricolon pithily juxtaposing three disparate domains — “Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology” — may indeed construe the quoted passage as both a sweeping indictment and a looming predicament of humanity woefully lost in and troubled by antiquated instincts, outworn customs and formidable contrivances. When carefully understood and appreciated, the messages conveyed in Wilson’s concluding statements can indeed be simultaneously pessimistic, prophetic, profound and poignant. There are serious reasons and implications for their being construed by the most thoughtful and perceptive amongst our fellow human beings as such, at least to the extent that emotion, the most intimate aspect about human existence, has been brought to deep reckoning by the unflattering realization or blunt revelation that although emotions and heuristics have facilitated adaptive responses to environmental challenges and provided advantageous solutions to ancient and recurring problems facing our ancestors living in prehistory, they can readily become overwhelmed by and ill-suited to the hectic pace, facile trend, incessant change, fast consumption, vast complexity and heightened interconnectedness of modern life coupled with its global nature and ecological impact, insofar as the scale and speed of anthropological and ecological transformation driven by the interaction between evolutionary factors of the social, cultural, economic and technological domains have no historical precedents, substantially affecting people’s material (work, income, house), psychological (personal relationships) and sociocultural (continuous updating of knowledge and professional skills) lives.
Undoubtedly, the emotional realm and journey of humanity have been fraught with recurring problems, many of which are being exacerbated by escalating issues confronting present-day societies and the contemporary world. Two contrasting dilemmas continue to exist and defy foreseeable solutions. On the one hand, “answer[ing] those huge questions of philosophy that the philosophers abandoned a couple of generations ago—Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?—rationally” will remain exceedingly difficult and persistently problematic when emotion continues to be as intrinsically difficult and fuzzy a subject to fathom as consciousness itself. Despite wide-ranging contributions from physiology, psychology, evolutionary science, (affective) neuroscience, endocrinology, medicine, history, sociology and computer science, there is still no scientific consensus on a concept or definition of emotion that is universal or all-inclusive, let alone what emotional states have in common and how they can be distinguished from nonemotional states. On the other hand, emotional experience has always been the wellspring of ideas and creative genres in songs, music, art, literature and drama (including play, opera, comedy, mime, ballet and narrative (semi)fiction performed in a theatre or on radio, film and television), especially those possessing enduring qualities that are enriching, uplifting, inspiring, informative or beneficial to humankind whilst communicating and reverberating to us important matters such as sentiments, values and ethics. Yet, regardless of how great and prodigious such human achievements have been, that “we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology” is a succinct, sombre and down-to-earth reminder that genetic evolution endowing humans with their emotional faculty — the fundamental vehicle and defining source of their expressive humanity and social intelligence — has hardly kept pace with the speeds and magnitudes of cultural evolution and technological (r)evolution, whose unprecedented scope and power for transforming the material, ideological, sociocultural, political, economic and environmental conditions of human existence are significantly impinging on the very survival of Homo sapiens as well as numerous nonhuman species and habitats around the world, even more so when emotions — the root of feelings, desires and empathy as well as the valenced reactions routinely intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, creativity and motivation — cannot be consistently counted on to recognize and rein in the excesses and repercussions of Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic causing Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity, and in turn stressing or degrading the integrity, resilience and social responsibility of individuals, institutions and technology.
Indubitably, human emotion and temperament in affectively synthesizing the flavour and substance of experiential reality have very significant roles and influences in everyday life with respect to how they readily and regularly engender in people (or render them more susceptible to) various biases, fallacies and blindspots, all of which can be much stronger and far more problematic than those engendered by people’s more objective beliefs and considered premises, especially when Hype, Bias and Affect that Appeal to Emotion and Lazy Thinking are not proportionately modulated by demonstrable evidence, judiciously tested with empirical data, or sufficiently tempered with universal reason. In this regard, human emotion and temperament may no longer be deemed to be valid, admissible or justifiable as a trustworthy source or wellspring from which the core standards or ultimate yardsticks of humanity, let alone the definitive reflections of truth, can be dependably derived. Whilst the diversity of human consciousness requires the ongoing recognition that different experiences and behavioural features exhibited or elicited in the realm of human emotion and temperament all have their meanings and places in life, the validity and reliability of human emotion, even in the light of scientific exploration of human psychology as a way of understanding how individuals and cultures systematically construct and interpret experiences, have been called into serious question on the basis of the perennial inclination or parti pris that manifestly drives people to steadfastly resist even the fiercest onslaught of undeniable facts, sobering veracities, confronting realities, climacteric shifts or paradigmatic changeovers against their misguided beliefs, deplorable (in)actions or execrable (mal)practices, so long as humans are destined to be intractably shackled by their internal “paleolithic emotions”, even if humans can come to their own defence and be fortunate or inventive enough to be morally absolved, materialistically enriched, existentially emancipated, circuitously redeemed or gratuitously aggrandized by their external “medieval institutions; and god-like technology”.
|Wilson in February 2003|
|Born||10 June 1929 at Birmingham, Alabama, USA|
|Died||26 December 2021 (aged 92) at Burlington, Massachusetts, USA|
|Education||University of Alabama (BS in 1949, MS in 1950)
Harvard University (PhD in 1955)
|Known for||Popularizing Sociobiology
Epic of Evolution
|Acknowledged as||The creator of two scientific disciplines (island biogeography and sociobiology), three unifying concepts for science and the humanities jointly (biophilia, biodiversity studies and consilience), and two major advances in global biodiversity conservation (the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) and Half-Earth).|
|Fields||Biology (specialized in myrmecology, a branch of entomology)|
|Subjects||Animal Behaviour, Ants, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Conservation, Biology, Biophilia, Biotic Communities, Cognition and Culture, Conservation Biology, Consilience, Evolutionary Biology, Gene-Culture Coevolution, Genetic Psychology, Group Selection, Human Evolution, Insect Ecology, Insect Evolution, Insect Societies, Insects, Island Biogeography, Multilevel Selection, Myrmecology, Natural History, Nature and Nurture, Nature Conservation, Restoration Ecology, Social Evolution, Sociobiology|
|Thesis||A Monographic Revision of the Ant Genus Lasius (1955)|
|Doctoral Advisor||Frank M Carpenter|
|Doctoral Students||Daniel Simberloff (1969)
Donald J Farish (1970)
James D Weinrich (1976)
Mark W Moffett (1987)
|Influences||William Morton Wheeler|
|Books for which Wilson has written a Foreword||
|Book for which Wilson has been interviewed and consulted|
|Organizations and Websites|
The significance of this portrait can be gauged by reading the following extract from Lisa Thatcher Kresl’s 1995 account published in South Florida Sun-Sentinel (20 August) and Orlando Sentinel (15 October):
The history of the 280-acre islet is sketchy, but it’s believed [that] the now-extinct Calusa Indians used it as a burial ground. It also was a haven for pirates who didn’t mind battling the large supply of bugs, lack of fresh water and unfriendly Indians.
The island was surveyed in 1873, and William Matheson bought it in 1919 for $1. A prominent Florida financier, Matheson cleared about 20 acres, built a limestone house, grew exotic plants and brought in white-tailed deer, hogs, peacocks and horses.
Son Hugh inherited the island, and when he died in 1954, it was sold to three Miami residents who planned to develop a resort. They lobbied for a causeway to be built to the island, but taxpayers voted against it.
When Dr. Wilson, “the father of biodiversity,” came to the Keys in the 1960s for research, he determined to preserve Lignumvitae’s undeveloped beauty. He teamed up with Russell and Charlotte Niedhauk, the island’s late caretakers, and they persuaded the owners to sell it for $1.95 million – about $3 million less than the original asking price. The stipulation: that the island be used for research and education.
Conservation groups joined the crusade, and Lignumvitae became the property of the state in March 1971. It is now a state botanical site. The animals and some of the plants brought by the financier have been removed and his house turned into a visitors center.
Because of the research and education stipulation, Lignumvitae is a restricted area. Only 50 people can be on the island at a time – 25 in the clearing and 25 on the trail accompanied by a ranger.
Upon the invitation of SoundEagle🦅ೋღஜஇ, Dr Craig Eisemann, a scientist, naturalist, writer, biologist, entomologist, environmentalist, vegan and bush walker, has kindly provided the following comment as an overview of the most distinguishing features of Edward O Wilson’s career:
This post ably celebrates the career of one of the most influential biologists of the past century, who was also a powerful advocate for the integration of knowledge derived from disparate fields of study.
A feature of Wilson’s professional career was his attempt to extend the scope and application of his work as widely as possible, without abandoning his original research interests. Beginning as a specialist in the taxonomy and general biology of ants, he expanded his research to involve investigations of the use of pheromones for communication in ants, the principles of island biogeography, including the species-area relationship, which was to become important in conservation biology, and the organizing principles of full sociality in animals, including humans.
An interest in the innate behavioural concomitants of eusociality that have evolved in our species led in turn to a preoccupation with the often problematic human psychological and behavioural traits that are dealt with in this post. It was characteristic of Wilson that he emphasized the importance of combining knowledge derived from the humanities as well as from the biological sciences in developing an understanding of such matters as human nature, values and purpose.
A brilliant writer and popularizer of biology as it pertains to whole organisms and their inter-relationships, Wilson increased his output of books that were intended for a wider readership following his retirement from Harvard in 1996, and was reportedly working on another such publication at the time of his death. In many of these books, his strong affinity with the natural world is clearly evident; it is significant that among his proposed concepts was that of “biophilia”, a putatively genetically-programmed tendency of humans to affiliate with nature.
It is also significant that an increasingly important facet of his work during the last three decades or so of his life was his campaigning for the preservation of biodiversity, to the extent of advocating that fifty percent of the earth’s land surface be reserved for substantially natural ecosystems.
Wilson’s readiness to change his views in the light of what he saw as convincing new evidence was illustrated within the last twenty years of his life, when he abandoned the concept of kin selection as a major driver of the development of full sociality in animals in favour of multi-level natural selection of individuals within the social groups in which they live and of whole groups among other groups with which they are in competition. Whatever the fate of this proposal in the light of further investigation, his willingness to abandon a paradigm within which he had worked for many years in response to accumulating research and modelling data is a tribute to the intellectual flexibility and openness to new evidence that he maintained into old age.
Especially in this era of increasing academic specialization, more scholars of Wilson’s stature, adaptability and receptivity to other branches of learning are sorely needed.
Before submitting his comment as quoted above, Dr Craig Eisemann has purchased and perused Richard Rhodes’ seminal biographical account of 2021 entitled Scientist: E. O. Wilson: A Life in Nature and published by Doubleday. The 268-page monograph’s dust jacket provides the following summary about the undisputable prominence of Edward O Wilson’s contributions to science, humanity and biodiversity conservation in relation to his sustained exploration and profound embrace of the natural world, which has been facing mounting risk, severity and frequency of anthropogenic hazards and environmental disasters — challenges increasingly affecting the health, viability and sustainability of ecosystems, ultimately putting the very future of human existence in peril:
Few biologists in the history of natural science have been as groundbreaking, controversial, and productive as Edward Osborne Wilson, long hailed as “Darwin’s successor”. Throughout Wilson’s seven-decade career, his revolutionary research has confirmed his standing among the most eminent American scientists in any field. Captivated from an early age by the natural world, he came to focus his scientific fieldwork on ants, vastly expanding our knowledge of their complex social lives. Wilson eventually extended his research from social insects through the animal kingdom to human society. His masterpiece, Sociobiology, which was published in 1975, set off an intellectual firestorm, demonstrating how Darwinian evolution shapes all animal behaviour, including that of humans.
By the 1990s, Wilson had recognized the increasing destruction of wilderness throughout the world and the resulting loss of plants and animals. Moved to action, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of thirty-four books has become a leading voice on the crucial importance of biodiversity and conservation, fighting to save threatened species from extinction. Even as he campaigns to reserve half of the Earth for wilderness, Wilson continues to break new scientific ground.
In writing Scientist, Richard Rhode — himself a towering figure in the field of science history — has had complete and unfettered access to Wilson, his fellow scientists, and his work. The result is one of the most anticipated and accomplished scientific biographies in years — an important work that arrives just as we seem intent on destroying the nature that Edward O. Wilson so magisterially studies and defends.
Due to the accelerating pace of anthropogenic changes and the unprecedented levels of institutional and technological complexities impinging aggressively on both the human and natural worlds, the consistent and effectual attainment of enhanced emotional profile and superior cognitive mode is urgently required to prevent humanity from sliding even more inexorably into a dystopian end, an ultimate demise of no return. Whether or not humanity, saddled with “paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology”, has already been accelerating inexorably towards some eventual calamities or runaway cataclysms, being well on track in facilitating a wholesale and terminal decline of Homo sapiens — a species unable to transcend its own fate, incapable of fathoming let alone solving the great riddle of life, and succumbing in due course to not merely a surfeit of wayward violence and aggressive expansion but also exiguous comprehension of its own existential mess, pernicious strain and destructive streak — Edward O Wilson, a fervent biologist, an avid naturalist, a dedicated conservationist and a supreme humanist, as well as a liberal scholar, an indefatigable synthesizer and unifier of knowledge, a veritable polymath who had aimed far beyond expertise and specialization, and who ended up becoming a peerless academic species, a celebrated outlier and a profound thinker, conceded on Big Think (as transcribed from the video below) with well-mannered confidence and seasoned wisdom that the ultimate answers to such Gauguinesque questions as “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” and the most satisfactory response to the search for existential meaning lie prospectively in the efficacious collaborations and cross-fertilizations of scientific endeavours such that
[a]ll those five disciplines [Paleontology, Anthropology, Psychology, Evolutionary biology and Neural biology (PAPEN)] together making bridges here and there are beginning to tell us what the meaning of humanity is. It’s the product of a grand epic. And it’s the full story of humanity. And we’re just beginning to draw it in clarity. And let me just add to that why leaving out history of the whole human species, genetic as well as cultural, you have no chance whatsoever in defining the meaning of human existence because history, that goes back essentially to the origin of literacy, history makes no sense without prehistory. That is to say the biological evolution that’s led up to the human condition at the beginning of history. And prehistory in turn, is a study of our ancestors going right back into the animal kingdom, makes no sense without biology. So we have to have a constant building of concatenation of ideas and information discipline to discipline across scales of the totality of the human population and scales of time going back actually millions of years to our early pre-human ancestors and then forward it to the era of cultural evolution. And then we will have the story of humanity. And then we will not ask in a quizzical manner, “What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of human existence?” We will have our answers.