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 on the Facebook site,

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 20 September 2017.

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  • I’m confused. What is the issue here? I definitely agree with Dawkins, not Wilson. Also, scientists disagree with each other, vehemently, all the time. Dawkins is correct that Wilson’s failure to address the criticisms of his (Wilson’s) Nature article is a huge problem with Wilson’s book. As for Vierich, I am not sure what the point of her comments was. Cultures are an outgrowth of evolution, and they adapt and change. But they are not a source of group selection. If they were, would that not mean that a Korean baby adopted by American parents would be somehow truly Korean rather than American?

  • Helga Vierich

    You can read what i said so far on the nature of culture (which is the object of Wilson’s “group” selection, here http://richarddawkins.net/articles/646009-the-descent-of-edward-wilson/comments?page=3#comment_943738

    • Helga,

      When you are feeling better, could you provide a synopsis (maybe 100 – 200 words) of your main point? I got lost trying to follow what you were saying in the link you attached.


      • Jason Antrosio

        Hi Helga, Hi Kathleen,
        Thank you for the comments. I haven’t had time to work through this, but my feeling is Dawkins’ all-out attack brings back all of the problems from Selfish Gene. My colleague in biology put it:

        At last! It’s as if Dawkins has wakened out of a collective stupor that we’ve all been in, including him (as he explored all kinds of softer, popular themes). He has gone back to the “selfish gene” fundamentals and is blowing the cobwebs away (from his perspective).

        I know many anthropologists find Dawkins congenial, and perhaps that’s OK, but something seems problematic here.

        The central missing piece (which is why I’m bringing in Ingold) is how organisms are themselves active participants in evolutionary processes, which cannot be reduced to genetics alone. Wilson seems to be reaching more for this perspective, but the criticisms of a fuzzy and misplaced group selection or multi-level selection are warranted.

        I think that is also what Helga is reaching for by invoking culture, but the problem with the culture term is that it has been as reified and used as deterministically as genetics. A niche construction perspective may be a way to talk through these issues without invoking culture, although that has led to new problems…

  • kittylu

    As much as I love E.O., I didn’t like the way he kept characterizing neanderthals as some sort of useless dead end when they left Africa a lot earlier than homo sapiens and outside of Africa managed to work their way into all emerging sapiens populations.

    • Thank you for this–I agree that characterizations of creatures as dead ends is usually pretty short-sighted.