Randall Honold attacks E.O. Wilson as Epistemologist

” I think what you wrote is an exclamation of triumph. You had lived out your passion to travel far, to discover and embrace novel styles of visual art, to ask the questions in a new way, and from all that create an authentically original work. In this sense your career is one for the ages; it was not paid out in vain. In our own time, by bringing rational analysis and art together and joining science and humanities in partnership, we have drawn closer to the answers you sought…

              – Wilson, Edward O.. The Social Conquest of Earth – On Paul Gauguin

“What would an OOO critique of Wilson look like, then? What alternative, maybe better, understandings of evolution and climate change could OOO give us?”

              – Randall Honold, E.O. Wilson, Climate Change, and OOO (Part One)

In a post on environmental critique Randall Honold related an outburst he’d made in a recent meeting in which E.O. Wilson’s new work, The Social Conquest of Earth, was discussed, saying: “The problem with Wilson is he’s an unrepentant epistemologist!” Is he? When Wilson says this about consciousness and it’s pretensions: “Consciousness, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival and reproduction. Conscious thought is driven by emotion; to the purpose of survival and reproduction, it is ultimately and wholly committed” (SCE 203-207 KL*). Yes, I will agree that Wilson is an affirmer of Science above other forms of knowledge, and Wilson is no lover of philosophy and sees in it part of the problem not the solution. That Wilson supports a unrepentant form of scienctific humanism, and sponsors a return to the purity of Reason and a New Enlightenment does this lead us to his underlying epistemology? If not then what does? Let’s find out….

Wilson’s approach is to bring together the best we have in both science and the humanities. A sort of Sellarsian move of bringing the manifest and scientific images together in a unified picture of the universe and our place in it. He believes we are tottering on the edge of economic, climatic, social, and planetary collapse. To solve the problems we face he tells us we will need to bring together information from multiple disciplines, ranging from molecular genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology to archaeology, ecology, social psychology, and history (SCE 230-231). I would only add art and philosophy, and even, love, into the mix. For Wilson the Church of Science holds the Truth, and is the keeper of Knowledge. Yet, for many of us Science has no corner on truth, it is no monlithic tower of knowledge dictating to the rest of the world the one true version of the Gospel of Truth. Science is only one of many conditions of philosophy as Badiou has stated over and over.

Scientists are not guileless observers, patiently recording the facts that nature places before them, but crafty cultural operators, manipulating vast technical resources to precipitate artificial new phenomena, and then networking like mad, through the production, distribution and exchange of masses of words, diagrams and statistics. They negotiate, in short, not with the objective world but with each other. As Johnathan Ree remarked recently “the norms of science, like those of morality or politics, are ideals rather than realities, and pointing out that we do not always live up to them is not the same as telling us to stop trying.” (Johnathan Ree: The Cult of Science) Paul Feyerbend in his book, The Tyranny of Science, once argued that science refers not to a single entity, but rather to a complex and ever-changing array of practice, theories, values and institutions. Therefore to speak of science in the singular, let alone to describe it as tyrannous is a category error. 2 In other words there is no monlithic substance or object we can call science, there are instead an interrelated set of disciplines and practices, a network of programs, institutions, and learning processes and methods that are all related within an epistemic framework of knowledge we call the sciences.

At the heart of Wilson’s project is two key questions: the first is why advanced social life exists at all, and has occurred so rarely in the history of life. The second is what is the identity of the driving forces that brought it into existence (SCE 228-229).

Next Honald went on to say:

“I then blabbed on for a good minute about how object-oriented ontology offers a better framework for understanding evolution and the challenges of climate change. As soon as I stopped yakking and went back to nibbling my cookie two questions arose from the vapors in my skull: Come on, who are you to say anything at all about Wilson’s work? And, are you drunk on OOO Kool-Aid?”

As he pondered this he began wondering what this might mean for any critique that puts the ‘human condition’ and ‘knowledge’ above all else:

“He states straightaway that knowledge is his game and knowing the human condition is its object. So, what’s the problem? Hasn’t self-knowledge been, in some sense, the project of Western culture since Plato reported on the Oracle at Delphi? Isn’t coming to know ourselves once and for all an admirable goal for Homo sapiens? And why not take on climate change while we’re at it? I have some thoughts about why Wilson’s – or any other – epistemologically-oriented project can’t deliver these aims, based on my understanding of object-oriented ontology, or OOO.”

When I read Wilson I see not only a scientist but a naturalist as well, and above all an old school empiricist. Wilson has spent years studying those most social of beings ants. Against the reading put forward by Randall Honald that Wilson’s work searching for an answer to the question of the human condition. I would offer a contrary view, one that fits well with the final paragraph of Wilson’s opening paragraph: “The painting is not an answer. It is a question.” The painting was one of Gauguin’s last masterpieces, and his own comment on it is revealing:

“The Idol is there not as a literary explanation, but as a statue, less statue perhaps than the animal figures; less animal too, becoming one in my dream, in front of my hut, with the whole of nature, dominating our primitive soul, the imaginary consolation of our sufferings and what they contain of the value and the uncomprehending before the mystery of our origins and our future.”1

What’s interesting here is Gauguin’s clinamen away from any episteming (literary) reading of the Idol, instead he offers us the material reality of a ‘statue’, or maybe something ‘less a statue’ and more of ‘animal figures’, or even the presence of an abolute materiality and living energy that overwhelms us and dominates us and offers us the only consolation possible: the mystery of our origins and our future – the truth and aesthetic of the absolute materiality of the universe before us, of which we are just one creature among the many and not the master but the fragile accomplice of an ongoing catastrophe that may one day entail the destruction of all life on earth including our own.

Wilson comes to a point in his questioning that after a short paean to human ingenuity he unloads his anger and resentment, saying:

“But we are not unique in our emotions. There are to be found, as in our anatomy and facial expressions, what Darwin called the indelible stamp of our animal ancestry. We are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. This is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and, with it, our own prospects for permanent existence”(247-250).

This is the voice of a moralist, a naturalist, not an epistemologist spouting normative statements and propositional analytics. This is not about the study of knowledge and justified beliefs, this is an impassioned paean by an old naturalist who happens to be a working scientist. Is he a humanist, sure, he proclaims himself to be a scientific humanist. Should we suddenly overthrow his efforts, castigate him as a philsophical enemy for not being on this side of the great wave of new materialist, object-oriented, transcendental realist, or any other johnny come lately overthrower of the old Kantian correlationist paradigm… etc. etc.

What I agree with in Honold is when he broaches Wilson’s impassioned plea for a return to the rational yoke, this is pointed and correct:

“I want to sidestep the question of whether or not Wilson’s is a good or bad theory of knowledge. Instead I want to focus on what happens to the force of Wilson’s arguments insofar as they rest on an epistemology. I want to suggest that his one-way street of epistemology becomes a cul-de-sac, always taking him back to the frustrating place he’s trying to escape from – the world of individual objects that resist being brought under one rational yoke.”

Is this what Wilson is doing in his book? Trying to bring world of objects (OOO) resistant to his mental or epistemic therories under the yoke of his rational dictums? Wilson’s polemic is a recounting of his preocupations with ‘eusociality’, not theories of knowledge:

“The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit” (310-312).

This from a man who has made his life one of observing and documenting the life of social insects, and of qualifying his observations on the human social animal. And, I emphasize, animal… In a chapter titled, The Emergence of a New Theory of Eusociality, Wilson offers five aspects of this emergence: first, is the tightening of group cohesion and persistence, which is built on the observation of both insects and human live in colonies and build or occupy defensible nests/structures; second, the protective and stable core of relations within a community offer a reinforcement of eusociality; third, is the biogenetic aspects that reinforce group selection as part of social cohesion; fourth, is the phase is identification of the environmental forces driving group selection, which is the logical subject of combined investigations in population genetics and behavioral ecology; and, fifth, is group (between-colony) selection shapes the life cycle and caste systems of the more advanced eusocial species (SCE 2855-2856 KL).

The base theory of Wilson provides is a theory of eusocial evolution that consists of a series of stages, subject to experimental verification, of which the following may be recognized:

1. The formation of groups.
2. The occurrence of a minimum and necessary combination of preadaptive traits in the groups, causing the groups to be tightly formed. In animals at least, the combination includes a valuable and defensible nest. The nest-dependent condition predetermines the likelihood that primitively eusocial groups will be a family— parent and offspring in insects and other invertebrates, and extended families in vertebrates.
3. The appearance of mutations that prescribe the persistence of the group, most likely by the knockout of dispersal behavior. Evidently, a durable nest remains the key element in maintaining the prevalence. Primitive eusociality may emerge immediately due to spring-loaded preadaptations— those evolved in earlier stages that by chance cause groups to behave in a eusocial manner.
4. In the insects, emergent traits caused by either the genesis of robot-like workers or the interaction of group members are shaped through group-level selection by environmental forces.
5. Group-level selection drives changes in the insect colony life cycle and social structures, often to bizarre extremes, producing elaborate superorganisms.

Now Wilson goes on from insect eusociality of which he is an expert to the supposed human condition and a description of human nature of which he is neither an expert nor an adequate explainer. It is here that people like Honold can unload their critiques, for in this last section I do think Wilson goes beyond his on expertise and begins to walk on trechourous ground relying on speculation and yet trying to affirm it as scientific theory and truth. Here is where he begins by telling us first what human nature is not:

“I believe that ample evidence, arising from multiple branches of learning in the sciences and humanities, allows a clear definition of human nature. But before suggesting it, let me first explain what it is not. Human nature is not the genes underlying it. They prescribe the developmental rules of the brain, sensory system, and behavior that produce human nature. Nor can the universals of culture discovered by anthropologists be defined collectively as human nature” (SCE 2899-2902 KL).

After telling us human nature is not, he goes on to describe what it is in detail:

“Human nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the “epigenetic rules,” which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory. These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we automatically open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make. In ways that are beginning to come into focus at the physiological level and, even in a few cases, genetic level, epigenetic rules alter the way we see and linguistically classify color. They cause us to evaluate the aesthetics of artistic design according to elementary abstract shapes and the degree of complexity. They determine the individuals we as a rule find sexually most attractive. They lead us differentially to acquire fears and phobias concerning dangers in the environment, as from snakes and heights; to communicate with certain facial expressions and forms of body language; to bond with infants; to bond conjugally; and so on across a wide range of other categories in behavior and thought. Most epigenetic rules are evidently very ancient, dating back millions of years in our mammalian ancestry. Others, like the stages of linguistic development, are only hundreds of thousands of years old. At least one, adult tolerance to lactose in milk and from that the potential for a dairy-based culture in some populations, dates back only a few thousand years” (SCE 2902-2930).

Now we hit the heart of E.O. Wilson’s epistemic grounding and the place we should actually take a careful look at and begin to critique the underpinning philosophical framework that supports it. I do not see such a critique going on as of yet within Randall Honold’s preamble. That is my problem with Honold’s opening gamit, that he attacks Wilson without really telling us what it is he is attacking. Maybe in the second part of his forthcoming critique we’ll see the fledging out of such ideas. Yet, as we find below Wilson grounds his philosophy within the  “hereditary regularities of mental development”. It is to that we must go to approach Wilson’s epistemic quagmire if there is one.

Even the earliest taxonomies of Linnaeus and his predecessors were based largely on the categories and groupings of the people with the most intimate knowledge of the subject. While Aristotle’s great chain of being provided a top-down hierarchy that included gods, demons, and humans, the bottom-up folk taxonomies proved most useful in practice. Wilson’s concept of epigenetic rules that hold together biological networks can be seen to influence humans and our tendency to group and classify. It’s only natural. Networks, from bacteria to bees, to human beings and our computers, are deeply rooted in biology. Networks are part of what we are. Wright goes on to introduce the nonbiologists among us to the concepts of epigenetic rules and stigmergy. Epigenetic rules combine genetic predispositions with cultural tendencies to carry common ways of classifying and coding across generations. Wilson defines epigenetic rules as “hereditary regularities of mental development” that “animate and channel the acquisition of culture.” The notable coincidence of similar taxonomic systems across different peoples and times suggests an epigenetic rule that supports such universal classification. Stigmergy, in turn, “allows social groups to harness the physical world as a memetic storehouse.” Think ultimately of documents, books, libraries, and the power arising from the mere existence of such collections of information, regardless of content. For Wilson these epigenetic rules can be seen as a force that has given rise to the capacity for culture, as well as coevolutionary processes:

“Over the past half century, large numbers of other such intertwined coevolutionary processes have been uncovered by anthropologists and psychologists. Put together, they form a class of genetic changes different in kind from the local acquisition of lactose tolerance. They are universal in modern humanity and also ancient, their origins predating the emergence of modern Homo sapiens and at least in some cases even the human-chimpanzee split of more than six million years ago. Working at the level of cognition and emotion, their effect on the evolution of language and culture has been both deep and wide. They make up much of what is intuitively called “human nature.”(SCE 2999-3004)

So what have we learned so far. Wilson centers his description of human nature on the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species, and the intertwined coevolutionary processes that are universal in both modern and ancient humans and even earlier within the emergent species from which we ourselves emerged. So inherited regularities of mental development and intertwined coevolutionary processes: the universal in the human. Is this really about epistemology, about knowledge and justified beliefs? That Wilson speculates on the various sciences supporting such ideas is obvious, that he even brackets “human nature” is to call into question the very concept of a human nature. Wilson is not a philosopher so to attack him on philosophical grounds is to miss the mark, instead one must see what his science is up too. Once he leaves his base of expertise he becomes like the rest of us, an amateur. I think that as a moral philosopher of a natural kind he is not as interesting as reading the actual scientists that support his arguments. I’d rather go to them. Yet, as another human curious about what is going on around him and willing to offer tribute to it I admire his efforts.

What I disagree with is Wilson’s moralist persopective and naturalism in essentialising “human nature” as if it could be universalised, become a final truth to rest in… Is this science or moral philosophy? Maybe he sees himself as a new and radicalised philosophe proposing a New Enlightenment. Will knowing what human nature is help us survive our own collective catastrophe of civilization? Is this in the end what Randall Honald is really attacking? This need at the heart of Wilson and humanists alike to search for a ground in our origins, to search for some ultimate meaning to existence, to explain finitude? Do we still need such knowledge? Isn’t this what Honald is getting at? Are we not ready for the great outdoors again? Ready to wander into the material or object based universe and explore it free of our human wants and needs?

In his final chapter of the book Wilson offers his hopes of a new enlightenment, a little utopian perhaps but like most rhetoric it espouses hope rather than defeat:

“AND AS FOR YOU, PAUL GAUGUIN, why did you write those lines on your painting? Of course, the ready answer I suppose is that you wanted to be very clear about the symbolization of the great range of human activity depicted in your Tahitian panorama, just in case someone might miss the point. But I sense there was something more. Perhaps you asked the three questions in such a way to imply that no answers exist, either in the civilized world you rejected and left behind or in the primitive world you adopted in order to find peace. Or again, perhaps you meant that art can go no further than what you have done; and all that was left for you to do personally was express the troubling questions in script. Let me suggest yet another reason for the mystery you left us, one not necessarily in conflict with these other conjectures. I think what you wrote is an exclamation of triumph. You had lived out your passion to travel far, to discover and embrace novel styles of visual art, to ask the questions in a new way, and from all that create an authentically original work. In this sense your career is one for the ages; it was not paid out in vain. In our own time, by bringing rational analysis and art together and joining science and humanities in partnership, we have drawn closer to the answers you sought [my emphasis] (SCE 4486-4485).

I think Randall Honald and I would agree that such statements need to be attacked for their pressuppositions as epistemic rhetoric. Yet, Wilson’s philosophical naturalism is grounded not in epistemology but in a deeply moralist scientific humanism which offers a fantasy, a utopian vision of harmony that strives to bring the arts and sciences within an overarching program based upon an epistemic framework of knowledge. We no longer agree that bringing rational analysis and art together and joining science and the humanities within a rationally yoked univocity or vision will provide a substantive or materialist answer to our present problematique.  Maybe the problem of such a scientific humanism is that we “never were human” to begin (Graham Harman). Maybe we should seek a way through the plight of Kant and the humanist world by deepening its problematic worldview. Maybe we need a new beginning… but, as we already know, even the first beginning was already belated repetition. But as Manuel DeLanda reminds us, “Any materialist philosophy must take as its point of departure the existence of a material world that is independent of our minds.”

Since there seems to be a second part to Randall Honold’s post coming down the pipe we’ll let this rest for the moment and wait to see what kind of epistimelogical critique he offers. I believe his first foray was but a preamble…

1. Wilson, Edward O.. The Social Conquest of Earth. Norton. Kindle Edition.

2. Paul Feyerabend, The Tyrianny of Science. Polity Press, 2011.


3 thoughts on “Randall Honold attacks E.O. Wilson as Epistemologist

  1. Pingback: E.O. Wilson as Epistemologist (Part Two) | environmental critique

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