Nature, Nurture, Free Will and Edward O. Wilson

What is free will, and do we have it?

In February, 1978, members of the International Committee Against Racism interrupted a talk by biologist and Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson. They ran on stage, yelling “Racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” and threw water at him.

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E. O. Wilson (Painting — National Portrait Gallery)

Wilson is a naturalist and an entomologist, specializing in ants (technically a myrmecologist — considered the world’s leading expert). In 1975,  he published a book called Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. In it, he showed how natural selection influences not only the physical form of animal’s bodies, but also their behavior. No problems there.
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In the last chapter, however, he proposed that natural selection also shaped human behavior. He predicted that a new science, “sociobiology,” would connect physical sciences and social sciences, to help us finally understand ourselves. He was critical of some of his Harvard colleagues, including John Rawls, a revered philosopher, whose 600-page A Theory of Justice had sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

“We … look in vain at current academic philosophy for the answer to the great question, the great riddle. … Professional, secular philosophy long ago gave up trying to answer the overall question, what is the meaning of life? Most of the history of philosophy is strewn with the wreckage of theories of the conscious mind. [W]hat science promises, and has already supplied in part is that there is a real creation story of humanity, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out, and tested and strengthened, step by step.” April, 2012, lecture by Wilson, “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

Critics shot right back that Wilson didn’t know what he was talking about. His ideas flew in the face of much of what we thought about reason. It stank of the kind of thinking that brought us forced sterilization, concentration camps and other horrors (hence the protestors at Wilson’s speech). If our biology determines our actions, wasn’t that the same as saying that we do not have free will?

Wilson wasn’t, and isn’t, a proponent of eugenics, a mass murderer or a racist. He has written dozens of books and essays on human behavior, philosophy, natural science, and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. His work and theories deal with, as he readily admits, unsettled questions, and he also admits he might be wrong.

His theories are hotly debated to this day by writers, psychologists, geneticists, philosophers like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.

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E.O. Wilson and Bill Clinton, 2007. Photo Source: Class V on Flickr

His big idea, however, that science will help us understand ourselves — has held up. Every, day neurobiologists, geneticists and social psychologists learn more about how brains work, changing our perception of why we behave the way we do.

Even more important is Wilson’s certainty that understanding the biology of behavior will help us finally see how we depend on the physical world, on our environment. This, in turn, will help us reverse our part in the destruction of ecosystems all over the globe.

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But — do we have free will? The protestors at Wilson’s 1978 lecture probably felt that standing up for their beliefs was an exercise of free will. Probably the millions of protestors who marched in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack did too. But was it?

My reactions to the protestors holding up “Not Afraid” signs? Pride, inspiration, fervor, indignation — emotions. Here was something black and white, the murder of innocents, defense of free speech. YEAH!

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Photo source: Gwenael Piaser on Flickr

I’ve since learned that the French leaders who marched in those protests aren’t exactly proponents of free speech. My response changed to — what was I thinking?

That’s the thing. I wasn’t. My gut feelings hijacked my thoughts. But does that mean my thoughts are always dictated by emotions?

Reading Wilson’s work, and criticism of it, makes it clear that the question of free will is more complicated than most of us lay people can comprehend. There may not be a yes or no answer.

“[T]he … rules of moral reasoning will probably not prove to be aggregated into simple instincts such as bonding, cooperativeness, and altruism. Instead the rules will most probably turn out to be an ensemble of many algorithms, whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices.” (Atlantic Magazine, 1998, “The Biological Basis of Morality”)

But there is big lesson from Wilson, and his water-throwing detractors: we live in a time when we are going to have to hear a lot of difficult truths about ourselves, and make big changes we don’t want to make. We will have to fight the impulse to shut down the voices of people we don’t want to listen to. Whether that’s a decision we make of our own free will, or because we simply feel it’s right, doesn’t really matter.

“Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge. … Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments. … The eventual result … will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” April 1998, The Biological Basis of Morality.

Are you an E.O Wilson fan? What do you think about free will?

Further reading:
Consilience, E.O. Wilson
The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson
“Some potential contributions of sociobiology to moral psychology and moral education” 

21 comments

  • That’s too heavy of a question for me to answer after my twelve-hour drive to New Hampshire today, the last bit of which was through an ice storm. I look kind of like this now: :/ But as always, your post enlightens and teaches me something new. Very interesting man to read about.

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  • We all have the power to choose – however iut chooces are based on where we are and where we are is determined by who we are and who we are is deteined by our biology and our experiences. So I agree, but never thought of it that way. Interesting thoughts – have a wonderful week.

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    • Behavior, genetics and experience loop in on themselves. The idea that we cooly reason things out, however, is getting some heat. Apparently our choices are heavily dictated by emotion and subconscious processing that go far deeper, and long before, the actual choice. It’s mostly beyond me, in more ways than one.

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  • What a meaty topic. I guess I am an E.O. Wilson fan. I discovered him in college. My husband spends a lot of time listening to lectures by people like Sam Harris… and believe it or not, the question of whether humans have free will is one that we often discuss with the kids around the dinner table 🙂

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    • Too meaty for a blog post. Deserves a lot more words, but I couldn’t let it go.

      I would love to be a mouse in the corner during one of your dinner conversations. Cheers.

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  • Very timely and thought provoking. We still have so much to learn about the meaning of life and about our behavior. I am always interested in the science behind our behavior and actions. Why do we do what we do? What shapes us? What makes some people snap? How tolerant can we truly be of others?

    Just this past weekend Mr. B and I went to see the movie, American Sniper (with the rest of the world). I sat at the theater before the movie began observing the ugly behavior of people around me. There was a frenzy about getting the best seat in the theater. I witnessed pushing, shoving, fighting, arguing and more. I sat there realizing that when it comes down to it, “we are one for ONE and all for ONE.” I kept staring at the Exit in the event that things escalated and violence ensued. And the movie hadn’t even started!

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    • Yikes. Might have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

      We all, given certain circumstances, become wrapped up in the sacredness of our groups, and expect at least some of our young men and women to be willing to give everything for the group. We aren’t 100% ant-like, of course, but there is an element of all for one and one for all in us. Nicely put.

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  • Geez, Julie, can’t you just stick to posting pretty travel pictures instead of making us think?

    As a nature lover and bug guy I have long been a fan of E.O. Wilson. I soak up his views into the ant world, but I am not enough of a philosopher to invest the energy to ponder deeply into his works on sociobiology, free will, and the like. I read books like Consilience and finish with a foggy notion of what he is getting at, but am content to slip back into my Neanderthal ways and not pursue too deep of thoughts. (of course recent research suggests that the Neanderthals were more thoughtful than we give them credit for, but you get the point)

    I like the concept of free will, but on the other hand one of my stock sayings has always been that “we are nothing but a big bag of chemicals”. Our health, both mental and physical, is so deeply influenced by our chemical balances. Hormones (or more precisely the sex steroids androgens, progestogens, and estrogens) have a huge influence on our behaviors, more than most want to know. Where is the free will for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the like? Do old folks choose dementia? In these extreme cases most everyone agrees that chemicals influence the brain in ways that the individual cannot do anything about. But no doubt we are all influenced in more subtle ways by less obvious chemical influences, but as long as our behaviors are not too whacky we can pretend we operate under free will.

    Thanks for pushing us all into a bit of deep thinking.

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    • On the same page with you about free will. There are many obvious examples of people contemplating things they know are wrong, don’t even want to do, and doing anyway. Think consumption of french fries and Ho Ho’s. If we have so much free choice, how come every human social group on earth develops a religion — each certain that theirs is the only true religion? How come all babies smile at about three weeks, even blind babies?

      Click on the link with the first quote, the “Social Conquest of Earth,” and watch at least some of the video. Wilson is much more entertaining and penetrable when he talks than when he writes. He gives me hope that we aren’t going to run ourselves into the ground.

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  • Quite a diverse and interesting character Julia. Just don’t talk to me about ants right now. They have been on a constant rampage. It has been a huge battle here. But I think we’ve won this time. Although who knows if we’ll win the war. lol. 🙂

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  • Ha ha. Those ants. When they show up, I wait until there are a bunch with a strong trail, and then tape down some Terro, on a piece of paper to contain the mess. Fortunately, the ants here aren’t too insistent, and Terro, so far, keeps them down to a trickle. Our friends in California have much bigger battles.

    We got a huge infestation of moisture ants once at our prior house, which was next to twelve acres of forest. There was a hatch — thousands of ants flying around the family room — minutes before the first grade teacher was due for a visit. We were batting down ants and vacuuming them up, right up until the door bell rang.

    Probably can’t win, sorry to say — ants are more adaptive than humans — but you can keep ahead of them. With persistence. Good wishes —

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  • I see this post is from several months ago, but it was interesting reading. My boyfriend and I often discuss such topics as free will, the meaning of life, the consequences of thought, and other debatable topics.

    We both feel that, no matter what the ‘right and wrong’ of each topic is, the contributions that discussion of them make to expansion of our naturally self-centered inward-facing human survival thought processes to take in and understand more of the world outside ourselves and how every aspect of it affects our personal issues is well worth the time and energy invested.

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  • I reread your article and was intrigued. A few questions and comments that might seem bizarre:

    (1) If we inspect an ant colony we will readily observe a close knit, limiting social structure that has survived just about forever. The individual’s role in this society is extremely limited and biologically defined. Deviation from one’s assigned role in the colony are rare if at all. Expulsion from the group is a natural conclusion to disobedience. Human structures are a bit more tolerant of their members aberrant behaviors. Prisons are filled with these asocial characters. Human “colonies” on Mars for example will be forced to adopt the social structure of the ant to survive in hostile environments.

    (2) Homosexuality is not a part of the natural order of things. Scientists created a behavioral sink a number of decades ago. They reduced the number of females in one controlled study and discovered that with the absence of females the males did revert to homosexual activities part of the natural order of urges. However the study did point out that over time the colony ceased to exist because males no matter how genetically modified cannot bear children. In human societies this type of behavior is grudgingly accepted and protected by constitutional laws amendments. Defying the laws of nature does have dire consequences. No human emotionalism there to be sure.

    (3) Through the many theories of psychology we discover that nature may have made a terrible mistake and inadvertently erred about the developing embryo’s sexual identity. In less enlightened times this person would have suffered due to the fact that their psyche was geared for a member of the opposite sex. Mistakes do happen we tell ourselves as we rationalize our need for expensive operations to transform our outer bodies into the correct prototype for the way we feel. Science obliges the human condition and long time males can now grace the covers of popular women’s magazines. We have come a long way baby!

    (4) A number of theologians state that there is no conflict between the liberal-minded church and dogmatic science. The only problem they face may be the fact that scientists are attempting to proclaim themselves to be god right down to the notion that they are striving to create another Big Bang. One was enough. It brought us to our current mess. I know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but really let’s get a grip on the reality we now know and try to preserve what little dignity we have allowed this ecosystem to enjoy without our technical interference. Deus ex machine is the rally of the times.

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    • Thank you for the thoughtful response. (1) Thinking about ant colonies in relation to human civilizations does get one thinking. Makes me wish I was a biologist. (2) I suspect that there is an evolutionary advantage to having a certain proportion of the population be homosexual — as soldiers? Caretakers of children? Career or art-focused rather than family-centered? As such, I believe that homosexual probably is in the natural order of things. (3) Our ability to surgically change appearance — both straights and gays — is a reflection of our affluence. Only members of a very wealthy society can afford to experiment in this way. I don’t know what the long-term effects will be, but I suspect that transgender people will be among the most vulnerable when tragedies strike — war, famine, drought. (4) I cannot lump all scientists as dogmatic. Many believe in God. Any scientist worth his salt will be in awe of our very existence. It is science which confirms and highlights the hard truth: the more we learn, the more unanswered questions we discover. We certainly did not create ourselves, and we can barely conceive of how our bodies work. I am with you on the importance of an ecosystem that we allow to function, so that we can learn not just from our tinkering, but from the earth as it is, without our digging things up and moving them around. Cheers —

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