Dawkins versus Wilson: The Descent of Science

In 2012, I issued a Call for Blog Posts (CFBP) on what I termed “The Descent of Science.”

As anthropologist Helga Vierich put it in a Facebook comment:

Okay, it has finally happened. Richard Dawkins has launched an all out attack on E.O. Wilson. It is currently being debated in two places at least, The descent of Edward Wilson (Prospect) and The descent of Edward Wilson (Dawkins Foundation). I’m on the second site, doing my best, but I happen to be really sick right now. . . . So could I ask some of you clever folks to come out in droves and do the thing right. I don’t want to beat up Dawkins, really. He seems sincere. But someone has to come out and finally EXPLAIN the scope for the super organic and its evolutionary properties (or capacity to adapt competitively or whatever you want to call the damn process) to him before this gets any uglier. Only an anthropologist with a holistic evolutionary, four-field background can get this done… Please try to rise to the occasion folks!

This is a great time for some four-field anthropology, and so I’m putting out a CFBP for something tentatively titled “The Descent of Science.” Rather than putting the critique in a comment stream, e-mailing it to department colleagues, or leaving it in a class lecture, write it up as an independent blog-post!

Some quick ideas about what could be included–starting points but not limited to:

1. Why this isn’t really a scientific debate–if it were, Wilson would have had to respond more extensively to the criticism of his 2010 paper, rather than write that paper into a book.

2. Alternatively, why Wilson doesn’t feel like he has to reply to those criticisms. After all, the famous scientist roll-call Dawkins cites–Alan Grafen, David Queller, Jerry Coyne, Richard Michod, Eric Charnov, Nick Barton, Alex Kacelnik, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Geoffrey Parker, Steven Pinker, Paul Sherman, Tim Clutton-Brock, Paul Harvey, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Stephen Emlen, Malte Andersson, Stuart West, Richard Wrangham, Bernard Crespi, Robert Trivers–rather reads like a roll-call of deterministic thinking, some of the biggest names anthropologists have been critiquing for years.

3. Taking off from a Tim Ingold style critique: “Two views that are diametrically opposed often turn out to be so because they are based on common premises” (The Perception of the Environment, 2000, 313), reveal the shared Dawkins-Wilson premises that enable this diametric opposition.

4. Speculate on what this kind of debate does for a public understanding of evolution.

5. Speculate on what this kind of debate does for a public appreciation of science. Does it help public discourse on science when one man who calls himself a scientist says to another man who calls himself a scientist that “this is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force”?

Fame and anthropological acclaim await. I’m holding down a url and a tentative title, with all the appropriate tags, links, and categories, search-engine optimized. As Jonathan Marks put it:

To be useful, and to have any kind of a shot at being accurate, any biocultural synthesis must incorporate anthropological knowledge, not colonize it or cherry-pick from it. In particular, the study of human social evolution must confront the realities of empirical diversity in human social forms, for the relationship between the familiar and the natural is a complicated one. That relationship is precisely what anthropological data illuminate and cannot be taken for granted. The bio-cultural model is also going to have to transcend the question of whether this is or isn’t science and confront the unique epistemologies in human evolutionary studies. It won’t do to call anthropologists creationists, or anti-science postmodernists, for it is actually no great embarrassment to reject crappy science. Indeed, the opposite–believing anyone who claims to speak for science–is far worse. It will probably also require some archeologists to put down those beers and get involved in building the intellectual bridges that will link the natural and the social studies of human evolution. (Recent Advances in Culturomics, 2011:42)

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Dawkins versus Wilson: The Descent of Science, a Call for Blog-Posts.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/dawkins-wilson-descent-of-science/. First posted 26 May 2012. Revised 6 June 2021.