On Human Nature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Edward O. Wilson’s latest book has something to offend nearly everyone who is not a convinced sociobiologist; essentially, the author claims a biological basis for all human institutions and social customs, “deviant” or not. As Wilson puts it, “The genes have culture on a leash.” Hence, religion, morality, and other cultural manifestations are ultimately reducible, and despite their wide variety of expression in all human cultures, they are not uniquely social but are firmly rooted in biological process. Such is the controversial thesis of sociobiology. Wilson reopened the nature-nurture controversy in the first and last chapters of his Sociobiology in 1975, and in this latest volume, he has expanded his treatment of humanity and sociobiological terms.

It is Wilson’s claim that biological principles which explain animal behavior are explanatory in the realm of the human psychosocial sciences as well. It is his view that an understanding of the sociobiological underpinnings of human social behavior is essential in dealing with the two great dilemmas of our time: that there is no general purpose for humanity beyond the nonteleological genetic determination of our social behavior—that, in other words, “we have no place to go”; and that choices must be made among the ethical premises inherent in human nature, which is rooted in the genetically determined anatomy and physiology of the brain and central nervous system. The question here is, what nativistic censors and motivators should be obeyed and which curtailed? Since Wilson holds that biology is the key to human nature, a substantial part of On Human Nature is devoted to an analysis of those factors with which we must deal if, indeed, we are to survive as a species. Hence, chapters on heredity, development, sex, aggression, altruism, and religion deal with those factors which are held to be relatively constant in human nature. The degree to which they can be altered, repressed, or sublimated is assessed.

One of Wilson’s central assumptions is that evolutionary natural selection has not operated upon structure and function alone, but upon behavior as well. And because the brain evolved through natural selection, those behavioral functions rooted in the brain also evolved—including, it would seem, the selection of religious, moral, and aesthetic attitudes. When human beings were hunter-gatherers, the choosing of religious, moral, and aesthetic beliefs could well have had survival value for the social group. Such beliefs constituted a means of coping with the environment, both human and nonhuman. In a way, then, human nonmaterial culture affected human evolution to the extent that certain genes or gene complexes favoring certain social behaviors became fixed in the human gene pool. Thus Wilson finds that certain religious and moral forms are found in all human cultures with variations detectable only within limits “permitted” by the genes, and that extreme deviations from the fairly wide degree of permitted cultural forms are doomed to eventual extinction. Religious and moral functions are thus not supernaturally inspired, nor are they unique cultural artifacts; rather, they are deeply rooted in human nature, which is to say, in the human genetic material. They have become biological artifacts or “hypertrophies” through continuing cultural evolution.

Are these biologically conditioned cultural manifestations conducive to survival in the complexity of our contemporary high-technology societies? The answer is that they are not; and the key to human survival lies in the choice of which of the primordial urges should be encouraged and which repressed. A case in point is violent aggression. Suitable perhaps to an earlier period in human prehistory, the programmed or “hard-wired” tendency towards violence is a hypertrophy that is obsolete in modern society. Or, as Wilson puts it:The learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete. We are no longer hunger-gatherers who settle disputes with spears, arrows, and stone axes. But to acknowledge the obsolescence of rules is not to banish them. We can only work our way around them. To let them rest latent and unsummoned, we must consciously undertake those difficult and rarely travelled pathways in psychological development that lead to mastery over and reduction of the profound tendency to learn violence.

Wilson’s perspective can thus be seen...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

America. CXXXIX, December 2, 1978, p. 412.

Atlantic. CCXLII, December, 1978, p. 96.

Economist. CCLXIX, October 28, 1978, p. 126.

New Republic. CLXXIX, November 11, 1978, p. 34.

New Yorker. LIV, October 2, 1978, p. 147.

Saturday Review. V, October 14, 1978, p. 62.