Vertical Knowledge and Its Problems: E. O. Wilson

Those of us interested in evolution are familiar with the writings and theories of E. O. Wilson, the renowned entomologist and author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, among other books and articles in which he attempts to apply to human beings the lessons of evolution and genetics as learned from his decades of research into social insects.  In this he accompanies a great many other scientists who claim that human characteristics can be explained in purely Darwinist terms, i.e., by natural selection (working on the individual, the kin group, or the social group, depending on the biases of the particular scientist in question).  Many go further and declare that science is now at the point of permanently displacing the social sciences and humanities as the best explainer of human nature, and even that if the social sciences and humanities hope to retain any legitimacy, they must bow to the sciences in their own disciplines.  Philosophy must curtsey to physics, and literary criticism must grovel before Darwinism.  Such scientists are not unwilling to cross into the territories of the historian and anthropologists to substitute their own explanations for those already put in place by the historians and anthropologists themselves.

In his latest book The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson continues this boundary crossing by again drawing comparisons between the “eusocial” insects and human societies, in the process intruding on territory well outside the realm of the biologist, including anthropology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, and history.  Wilson is caught in the act by Steven Mithen’s review in the June 21, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books; Mithen is an admirer of Wilson, but also an historian, a professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading, and so is in a position to know whereof Wilson dares to speak.  After passing on the debate over inclusive fitness theory, Mithen zeroes in on Wilson’s characterization of early man and notes, as he puts it, that it is “marred by a succession of factual errors” and by “elementary errors that could have been avoided by consulting any undergraduate textbook” on prehistoric humans, including those species that preceded homo sapiens.

What Mithen has done is demonstrate the dangers involved in transposing the theories and methods of one discipline into another.  Wilson has, as Mithen happily acknowledges, unmatched expertise in the field of entomology, particularly in the study of social insects, and deep knowledge of biology in general.  Like many scientists with similar, and often of lesser, knowledge in their own fields, Wilson imagines that knowledge can be applied to other, quite unrelated fields–such as human history.  But because Wilson simply does not have the knowledge base of a professional historian or archaeologist, he makes do with potted and highly selective factual data to make his theories (again, legitimate in his own field) explanatory in these others.  As Mithen says, has taken on “too much,” though it is unlikely that Wilson is aware of that.  Shelves of books have been written on  each of the big topics of human evolution that Wilson attempts to in a few short chapters, including culture, language, morality, religion, and art.

As I see it, Wilson’s problem (aside from a hefty dosage of science hubris) is one can choose to be a verticalist or a horizontalist, by which I mean one can go deep into the knowledge and research of a particularly discipline or aspect thereof, such as Wilson has done in the study of social insects, or one can go shallower and broad in a bid to synthesize major theories across a range of disciplines–but one can rarely do both.  There is too much work involved in either to allow for soundness in both.  The evolutionary biologist simply is not equipped to develop a sweeping theory of human history (as Mithen puts it, “long after the major work of human evolution had been completed”), anymore than an historian is equipped to develop a sweeping theory of Darwinian evolution since the origin of life.

But the status of science is such that even those who should know better fall into this trap.  Witness the many books which attempt to explain religion in terms of a “god gene,” or Renaissance art in terms of sexual selection.  And the errors occur even in literary criticism, aka Darwinist literary criticism; consider the example of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature (I kid you not, it’s an actual title!)  Literature professors are jumping on the bandwagon because, as a New York Times article of March 30, 2010, put it:

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

Ah! A fad!  A money-making fad as well!   But despite their imaginations, these (not) literary critics have not and cannot explain literature any better than traditional critics have done; explaining the shimmering effect of Impressionist paintings by activation of the visual cortex still does not explain Impressionist art–for example, why it arose when it did (i.e., why someone didn’t exploit that visual cortex stimulation before).  This foolishness comes from a problem opposite to that illustrated by Wilson, that is people with vertical knowledge in one field (in this case, the harassed and challenged field of literary studies) getting an amateur’s knowledge of another unrelated field (evolutionary biology) and thinking, eureka!, I have found the Theory of Everything that explains my own field.  Hm, should I note that these enthusiasts seem limited to literature in English, occasionally also in French or some other modern Western European language?  I.e., that they may be suffering from Eurocentrism (just as certain scientists who attempt to cross from biology to history and social science also do)?

These are examples that caution us to be wary of the expert who presumes to pronounce on subjects about which he or she has no better knowledge than the average educated person, and equally to be wary of our own tendencies to do so.

(Note:  The New York Review article referred to in this article is available online only to subscribers of the New York Review of Books.)

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