Out of high respect to this great biologist, who died yesterday at the age of 92, I am breaking the rule to only document Christian scientists here on my blog. Yes, Wilson was not a Christian believer: we cannot say he never was because he was raised a Southern Baptist, but he said of himself that he could not see or feel any transcendence.
His specific field was myrmecology, the study of ants. My admiration comes from this angle: I did my PhD on honey bees and my latest article was on Erich Wasmann, another myrmecologist whose memory Wilson (and his co-writer Bert Hölldobler) kept carefully.
Wilson deeply delved into evolutionary biology, and was sometimes called the ‘Darwin of the 20th century’. His view was rather gene-centered, and also in his views on sociobiology, he followed the view that nature – rather than nurture – determines human behavior. In my notes, I keep the following words of Wilson:
“Human behavior – like the deepest capacities for emotional response which derive and guide it – is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function”E.O.Wilson, On Human Nature, 1978
I am not following Wilson in his views. My notes continue with my own reflection: “If moral norms were the sole product of genetic determinism or cultural evolution, there would be no universally valid and timeless ethical principles.” But there are universally valid principles, as beautifully expressed here:
“Above himself and yet in the intimacy of his own conscience, man discovers the existence of a law which the tradition calls the “natural law.” This law is of divine origin, and man’s awareness of it is itself a participation in the divine law. It refers man to the true origins of the universe as well as to his own (Veritatis Splendor, 20). This natural law drives the rational creature to search for the truth and the good in his sovereignty of the universe. Created in the image of God, man exercises this sovereignty over visible creation only in virtue of the privilege conferred upon him by God. He imitates the divine rule, but he cannot displace it.”Vatican Theological Commision, Communion and Stewardship, 60, 2004
Wilson was also an advocate of maintaining biodiversity and encouraging humankind to be “stewards, not conquerors” of the earth. And here comes another interface with religion: Wison did understand the power of religion and in his book on the Creation he addressed an imaginary Southern Baptist minister:
“Pastor, we need your help. The Creation is the glory of the earth. Let’s see if we can’t get together on saving it, because science and religion are the most powerful social forces on Earth. We could do it.”E.O.Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to save life on earth (2006)
In the section “Religion and Ethics”, PBS explores this in the following interview:
A giant among scientists. Requiescat in pace! May he rest in peace!