Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 985:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 985.

Today, a gentle entomologist raises some knobby questions. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Edward O. Wilson, a leading entomologist, is also a fine writer. In his recent autobiography, Naturalist, he joins a parade of Southern writers who were shaped by tough childhoods.

He reminds me of Walker Percy or Pat Conroy. He tells about his early years: a broken home, a loving but alcohol-damaged father. Wilson became a self-sufficient introvert. He's lyrical in telling his love of the outdoors he escaped into -- the swamps and forests of the coastal South. That world nurtured him and made him a scientist --that world of ants, jellyfish and lizards.

Adults [he says] forget the depths of languor into which the adolescent mind descends with ease. They are prone to undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming.
As a child, fishing on a dock, he yanked a spiny fish from the water. It landed in his right eye and blinded it. His left eye was very good. But without depth perception, he couldn't spot moving animals. He was a lousy bird watcher but very good at studying insects close up. So he took up entomology.

He tells of his student days and his mentoring. His undergraduate study at the University of Alabama served him as well as Harvard could have, he says. An education depends on the student. Alabama simply gave him moral support and freedom.

He tells of his career at Harvard. He leads us through his work on ants. Wilson became the world's leading student of ants. At length he coathored such a beautiful study of those highly organized little creatures that it won a Pulitzer Prize.

Wilson has had an uncanny talent for taxonomy -- for classifying species. That talent expanded his perspective. By the 1970s he was organizing not just insect species but studies of the relation between biology and society. His first Pulitzer Prize was for his 1979 book, On Human Nature. By organizing the field of sociobiology, he opened a huge can of worms. The field suggests that heredity may be more important than most of us want it to be. Wilson realized, too late, what he'd done. He says,

Mine was an exceptionally strong hereditarian position for the 1970's. It helped to revive the long-standing nature-nurture debate at a time when nurture had seemingly won.

He'd refueled an old ideological war. If culture and ability have genetic origins, that becomes a weapon in the wrong hands.

He was accused of pushing a racist agenda. He suffered verbal and physical abuse. His surprising and gentle response was to study opponents' arguments and modify his position where it needed modifying. For Wilson remains the curious child, sorting out life in a Southern swamp. And, in the end, that honest curiosity is what will save us from political agendas.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wilson, E.O., Naturalist, Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1994.

Wilson, E.O., Sociobiology, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975.

Holldobler, B., and Wilson, E.O., The Ants, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990.

Wilson, E.O., On Human Nature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Gould, S.J., An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1987. Gould is critical of sociobiology, and of Wilson as its apostle, in Chapters 2 (Cardboard Darwinism) and 7 (Genes on the Brain.)

For more on a later book by Wilson, see the website


I am very grateful to Professor Blaine Cole, UH entomologist, for his extensive and helpful counsel on this episode.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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