There is no gentler and more humane exponent of the full-bore Darwinian understanding of nature than E.O. Wilson, and Harvard Magazine has published a precis of his philosophy, which also serves as an introduction to his latest book, From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Professor Wilson at a dinner event in his honor at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, just after the appearance of his book Consilience, and I thought him one of the most delightful and sweet-natured gentlemen I’ve ever met. If one were to take the measure of Darwinian orthodoxy strictly by his genial countenance, there would be no contest.
That said, though, he was not very persuasive that evening, to me or to anyone else in the room, nor is he very persuasive in this article, whenever he extends his net beyond his areas of unquestioned competence, into questions of religion and psychology and history. Among other odd things here, Wilson insists that the effort to achieve rapprochement between science and religion is not only futile, but wholly undesirable. Why? Because "there is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict," and only a frankly atheistic form of "scientific humanism" is compatible with the way we now live, and capable of providing an "antidote" to the "toxic mix of religion and tribalism."
Well, one can only say that such statements are as vast as they are unoriginal. You’d have thought such an intelligent man might have wondered whether the assertion that religions are uniquely productive of social division might be, at best, an example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, and that a man of science (particularly a sociobiologist, who believes in the biological functionality of cultural institutions) might have felt prompted to provide some empirical evidence for it. But this does not seem to cross his mind here. He does concede that the historical religions may have had some useful effects in giving rise to ideals of altruism and generosity. But the price has become too high, and the benefits too few. "Can scientific humanism do as well or better, at a lower cost?" asks Wilson. You expect to hear a ringing endorsement next. But instead, to his great credit, Wilson says this: "Surely that ranks as one of the great unanswered questions of philosophy."
And for this uncertainty, he expects the human race to sacrifice its chief sources of cohesion, of laws and mores, of altruistic behaviors, of rites lending solemnity to the passages of life, of comfort to the anxious and afflicted, of social identity and purpose–in short, to cut itself off from the chief source of its entire civilized past? That is a lot to ask, for the sake of an "unanswered question."
Which leads to another oddity about his exposition. He offers scientific humanism as the alternative to the two great fallacies: God-centered religion and atheistic communism. The interest, of course, is in the latter, because one might have thought that Marxism-Leninism’s scientific materialism and Wilson’s scientific materialism would be regarded as more alike than different. But Wilson chooses to distinguish them solely by the fact of Marxism-Leninism’s acceptance of a tabula rasa view of human nature, unlike the sociobiological view that we have a fully wired human nature, though one "self-assembled" through millions of years of natural selection.
But this differentiation, while it serves to separate Wilson from some admittedly nasty company, does not really go to the heart of what is most lacking in any materialist view of nature. The thing that the materialist cannot explain is where and how, in his vision of things, and absent the banished traditions of religion, we can find plausible ground for a belief in the dignity of the human person, and ground it in a sturdy enough way to resist the growing instrumentalization of life, and the frighteningly posthuman prospects that science now has brought within our reach.
The move of distinguishing "scientific humanism" from Marxian communism (and without quite mentioning Nazism, which certainly had a fully wired sociobiological view of human nature) is very clever, but it assumes a great deal. Above all, it takes for granted the possibility of liberal institutions that are founded upon respect for the dignity of the individual, a respect that in turn has never existed apart from the cultural presence of the religious traditions he now feels prepared to discard because their price has become "too high." And then he stares in wonder at the fact that half of Americans do not want to believe in evolution of any kind. This does not seem so hard to understand.
I am agnostic myself about whether "intelligent design" will prove to be as radical and transformative an innovation as some believe. (Just on a practical level, I think it will have a great deal of difficulty in ever generating a robust research program, which is the sine qua non of practical science.) But I am certain that Wilson’s brand of scientism will not be winning many more hearts and minds that it already has won. Science, by its very nature, does not tell us a thing about how to use rightly the powers it places in our hands. Indeed, the question as to whether science can provide us with such moral guidance, in and of itself, is not really an unanswered one.