The great biologist who died the day after Christmas disliked organized religion but was not an atheist, as his tale of believing and atheistic ants demonstrates.
by Massimo Introvigne
Edward Osborne Wilson, who died on December 26, 2021 at age 92, was the father of sociobiology. He may be of interest to readers of Bitter Winter as sociobiology has been used, particularly by British scientist Richard Dawkins, as a tool to promote atheism and anti-religious feelings. Wilson himself argued that it would be in the best interest of humanity if organized religions as we know them would disappear. There is, however, a misunderstanding. Wilson was not an atheist, nor was he against asking religious questions. Since his main interest were ants, it is to his interesting 2010 novel Anthill we should turn to understand more about his ideas on religion.
The novel, partially autobiographical, portrays the young entomologist Raff, son of a poor, country father and a mother from an old Alabama family that seems to have come straight out of the pages of Gone with the Wind. The situation is not new, and the first part of the novel is quite conventional. Just as the third part is not new, where Raff has to face the opposition of fundamentalist Christians hostile to evolutionism, ready to resort even to kidnapping and murder, but who will in turn come to a bad end after encountering in the primitive world of the Alabama swamps bad guys more violent than themselves.
The interest of the novel lies entirely in the second part. Raff—just like author Wilson—is fascinated by ants and anthills, and tries to defend the shores of Lake Nokobee, where the insects abound, from developers. Parallel to his struggle there is another, invisible to the eyes of those who are not entomologists, between three colonies of ants that compete for hegemony in the area. The second part of the novel, presented as Raff’s dissertation, is the story of this struggle described from the ants’ point of view. Here, in novel form, Wilson re-presents the theses that made him famous as the father of modern sociobiology.
Wilson made his name in 1971 with The Insect Societies, a work in which he applied Hamilton’s equation to ants. This answered an objection that Charles Darwin (1809–1882) considered potentially fatal to the very idea, crucial to evolutionism, that useful acquired traits are passed on to descendants. The objection applies to worker ants, which are all sterile females.
These insects acquire useful characters, but since they are sterile, they cannot pass them on to their offspring. How does the transmission of acquired characters work in this case? The solution that Darwin had already sketched was to assume that evolutionary progress can be transmitted not only directly to descendants but also indirectly to other members of the community. This explanation was formalized in an equation by the British biologist William Donald Hamilton (1936–2000), and was applied by Wilson to the empirical study of ants.
It was after the success of The Insect Societies that Wilson launched a new science called “sociobiology.” The term had existed for decades, but was unknown to the general public. Sociobiology generalized the results of Hamilton’s equation extending them to humans and human societies. The undertaking was ambitious, and provoked strong reactions. If some liberals accused sociobiology of racism, religious circles were afraid that, by applying ideas taken from the world of insects to humans and their society, the unique dignity of human beings, free will, and even the idea of God will disappear.
However, one must distinguish between the positions of a militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins and those of his mentor Wilson. The latter declared that belief in God was not simply false but was indeed “true in a Darwinian sense,” meaning that it produces social cohesion and the altruism that is necessary for the survival of human societies.
For Wilson, it was also possible that religion had more than just functional utility. Wilson stated that he considers himself not an atheist but “a provisional deist,” willing to consider the “possibility” of an Ultimate Cause. In the novel Anthill, Wilson sets up a contrast between atheistic and believing ants. The former deny, the other affirm the existence of gods in the form of “moving trees,” capricious deities who can either bring the ants magnificent gifts or destroy them for no reason. The believing ants are right.
The “moving trees” do exist: they are the humans, benevolent deities who, when they leave the remains of their picnics on the shores of the lake, give the ants an unexpected abundance. The dynamic is reminiscent of those of the “cargo cults” of Oceania, where the natives mistook the European ships and airplanes that carried food aid for divine beings.
However, when, thanks to this abundance, the insects multiply in a way considered annoying, humans destroy them without warning with flamethrowers and insecticides. Atheist ants are wrong, since humans are not a myth. However, the believing ants are not completely right either, because the “moving trees” are not supernatural entities. But the fact that humans are not gods does not prove that gods do not exist.
Even as a novelist, Wilson never allowed himself to be reduced to his epigones like Dawkins. With all his antipathy toward organized religion, he was not quite sure that the Ultimate Cause did not exist.