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A reply to Bert Hölldobler on the Matter of Edward O. Wilson, Race, Racism, and Race Science

I read with great interest and appreciation your defense of Ed Wilson published on on April 5, 2022, “Self-Righteous Vigilantism in Science: The Case of Edward O. Wilson,” and I just have a few comments. I thank you for your account of my interaction with Dick Lewontin; you have gotten my question right. I think I protested on behalf of the voluminous evidence (Eibl-Eibesfeldt etc.) for the universality of human social smiling, to which Dick replied, “Yes, but a human can smile and smile and be a villain.” If memory serves me right, Sarah Hrdy called out from behind me, “So can a chimp!”

Editor’s note: here is the passage under discussion:

At an evening debate held at Boston University in 1976, the noted Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin leveled unsubstantiated charges of genetic determinism that leads to racism against Wilson. Melvin Konner, then a graduate student (today a well-known anthropologist, medical doctor, and successful author), asked Lewontin whether he denied that the basic facial expressions of human infants could be considered innately produced. Dick Lewontin reflexively and emphatically replied that there was not a shred of evidence to support this. I was amazed and raised my hand. At this moment, Dick saw me in the audience and before I could finish recounting all the literature providing hard evidence for Mel’s statement, Dick waved his arms and shouted, “OK, OK, you obviously know more about this, so let’s move on.” Unfortunately, that was the point then, and is the point today, as these same unsubstantiated and unfortunate charges have resurfaced and have been picked up on the blogosphere and elsewhere, by people who obviously know little about Ed Wilson.

I am proud to say there were many occasions in those years when I defended Ed and Sociobiology against the self-identified Marxist organization “Science for the People,” replying to their critique of his magisterial work, especially the quite reasonable last chapter on humans, in detail. Being a young leftist myself, but a few years away from student activism, I always thought it droll that the serious protests of the 1960s had degenerated into these oh-so-safe academic attacks, when just beyond the Harvard campus were dreadful ongoing real injustices that the activists at “Science for the People” ignored.

Although one could say that Ed should have recognized Rushton’s grave misapplication of the r-K model for what it was, I think you are right to say that he reacted as someone very seriously but quite unfairly persecuted himself by the same people. In some ways I think Ed was always naive about some things, ever the brilliant, curious little boy wandering the Southeastern forests with a keen eye and mind.

I have to say that Ed’s relentless assault on kin selection was very damaging and a huge disappointment to me among many others. You hint in your excellent bio that it’s difficult empirically to separate kin from group selection in the social insects, but (as more than a hundred critics writing to Nature pointed out after his article with Nowak and Tarnita), there is no doubt that Hamiltonian models work, perhaps as well or better for vertebrates than insects.

Ed visited Emory not long before that article was published, and I wrangled a seat next to him at dinner. He declared roundly, “Kin selection is dead, Mel.” I was baffled but was soon to understand. His commitment to killing it was I think as religious as Dick’s Marxism. In fact, Nowak really did always have his models of group selection tied up with a theological view of evolution, something I learned from an Anglican bishop who spent her sabbatical year with him.

For what it’s worth, I’m attaching a recent effort of mine to synthesize and defend human and nonhuman ethology, published last fall in Human Nature. Sarah helped me greatly with it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I began teaching “Human Behavioral Biology” right around the time that I had that exchange with Dick. It includes early on another defense of Ed’s views against a rather obtuse recent critic named Mari Ruti. In her book The Age of Scientific Sexism, she relates how she used to share students with Ed Wilson, and they came to her saying that sex is reproduction (I doubt very much that Ed was that simplistic.) She says, “So when you’re having your 3am hookup at Winthrop House, are you trying to produce a baby?” After several such examples she declares, “I rest my case” (p. 90). But of course there is no case, only an elementary error: conflation of the levels of explanation that Tinbergen pioneered and that Ed and so many others adopted. Namely, that producing babies is an ultimate evolutionary level of explanation, whereas the pleasure of sex is a proximate psychological level of explanation.

Editor’s note: The aforementioned article in Human Nature is behind a paywall. We append a screenshot of the abstract below. Konner provided a link to another article that covers a more specific aspect of human behavioral biology, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology and titled “Is History the Same as Evolution? No. Is it Independent of Evolution? Certainly Not” which is free to read.

Nine Levels of Explanation (Abstract) by Melvin Konner

Alas, in some ways we have come full circle back to outrageous accusations against behavioral biology, and yet I see it as more of an upward spiral. Behavioral biology and sociobiology have long since been established as normal science, and we are defending ourselves and Ed from a much higher peak of attainment and acceptance.

Thanks to you Bert for writing this, thanks to Michael for publishing it, and thanks to Sarah for calling my attention to it. With admiration and warm wishes to you all, Mel. END

About the Author

Melvin Konner, MD, is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. He is the author Women After All, Becoming a Doctor, The Tangled Wing, and, most recently, of Believers, which he discussed on The Michael Shermer Show Episode # 90. You can read more of his work on, and Follow him on Twitter: @TangledWing

This article was published on April 12, 2022.

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