A former grad student of mine sent me a text a couple of days ago — “E.O. Wilson passed”. I guess it’s no surprise — he was 92 — but still it’s a sad day for science, and especially for science in Alabama. Every semester Prof. Wilson’s name comes up in my classes and I make sure my students know that he is, perhaps, the most famous native Alabaman scientist — George Washington Carver and Werner von Braun lived and worked here but weren’t born here — and more than that, the fact that he was both Southern and one of the world’s most prominent evolutionary biologists should tell folks a thing or two about their prejudices toward the South.
I have been an admirer of Wilson’s work since my first attempt at getting a biology degree back in the 90’s, when I took a seminar class ostensibly on sociobiology — but really mostly focused on the recently-released and bizarrely controversial The Bell Curve. While my classmates were attacking straw men from Herrnstein and Murray’s magnum opus, I was discovering Bill Hamilton and Ed Wilson, and I guess the rest is history, as they say. I never looked at human behavior, or my own thought processes, feelings, and beliefs, the same way again.
Right up until starting my postdoc I have to admit I never paid much attention to the personal stories of the scientists I read. I’m a little bit of a sperg — a great example of my basic “human blindness” is that, without thinking about it, I wait for all the humans to get out of the way before I take pictures on vacation, even when I’m in a city, such that there are vanishingly few human faces (other than my kids) in my photo collection. I guess the first time I really became aware of “scientists as people” was the first time I read about James Watson getting “cancelled” over some incautiously worded speculation about race differences. Shortly after, on the advice of my PhD advisor, I read The Double Helix, Watson’s personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, followed by Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which documents the lives of the 19th century pioneers of microbiology. This would have been circa 2011, so quite a bit before the Great Awokening when the personal struggles of dissident scientists really came to the fore, but even then I was somewhat surprised by how personally vicious the struggles between these people could be.
Anyway all of that is to lead up to the point that I have identified with Wilson as sort of a role-model since deciding to try out the academic life myself, mostly because of his heritage as a “smart country boy” like me, but also because we seemed to share at least a similar scientific worldview, and as the years progressed, it seemed we also shared similar enemies. Wilson spent most of his career at Harvard, where he worked in the same building with the famously Communist Richard Lewontin, who despised him so much he wouldn’t even look at him. Here’s a first-hand account of the tension from one of Lewontin’s graduate students, blogger Jerry Coyne:
Ed’s lab occupied the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) Laboratories at Harvard, while Lewontin’s lab, where I worked, was one floor below. But they might as well have been light years apart, for Lewontin intensely disliked Ed, and the feeling was mutual. (Ed had less rancor, he was more or less blindsided when Lewontin and Steve Gould—who worked in the adjacent main MCZ—began attacking him as a reactionary biological determinist after Ed published his landmark book, Sociobiology.)In fact, Ed originally helped recruit Dick to Harvard from the University of Chicago; but that didn’t make Lewontin temper his reaction when the Great Sociobiology Wars began.
But I did not share Dick’s dislike of Ed. If you knew Ed as a person—and I knew him as an acquaintance—you simply could not dislike him. (Dick and Steve’s animus was based purely on politics.). Ed was mild-mannered, gentle, and helpful: I’ve written before about how he got me into Harvard as a graduate student in a single day, an act of generosity I’ll never forget. I also taught two semesters of Bio 1 (introductory biology) under Ed, and was great friends with some of the people in his lab. The result was that I spent a fair amount of time on the fourth floor, but never in my six years at Harvard did I see Ed on the third floor—our floor.
Only one time I know of was he even near Lewontin. That’s when I was waiting with Dick for the elevator to the third floor, and Ed strode into the building and joined us in the elevator. The tension immediately became thick and palpable. It was a silent and uncomfortable ride up three floors; not a word was exchanged between the two Harvard professors, not even “hello”.
Emphasis mine — because yeah, there are people who would probably use the term “reactionary biological determinist” to describe me, and it would likely be less wrong than a lot of other things I get called. There’s apparently a whole strain of political thought that views any suggestion that variations in human behavior have biological roots as “eugenics”, which just seems weird to me. Basically, you have communist atheists stanning for “free will” against “reactionaries” and conservatives who believe in biology…. I expect it would baffle philosophers of previous generations.
So anyway, yeah, Wilson was a Harvard professor and I am a lowly state school flunky, so comparing myself to him is obviously like comparing my modest guitar chops to Joe Satriani. But the fact that he survived in the business for nearly 50 years with commies sniping at him about his work gives me some hope for the future — both my own future and the future of academic biology in general. I’ll do my part to keep carrying the torch forward for him.