The eminent biologist Professor
Edward O Wilson, the world's foremost authority on
ants, is still energetically considering their ways - and ours - at
the age of 83. Pete Moore got on the phone to 'the father of
You were brought up as a Christian, I understand. When
did you leave all that behind you?
I was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, which is
evangelical and also tends to fundamentalism. I went under the
water - that is, I was baptised - at the age of 14 and - how shall
I put it? - I was a faithful boy. But as I approached late
adolescence I became more and more familiar with science, including
evolution, and my faith just fell away - as happened to Darwin
himself, by his own testimony, after he graduated from Cambridge.
By the age of 17, 18, I really wasn't much interested in religion
anyway and it was exhilarating to me to learn that the subject that
I loved the most, which was natural history, was much more
congenial to a secular evolutionary approach. And that's how I
made the transition.
What was the appeal of science for you?
From an early age, I just was fascinated with exploring
for plants and animals. When I was a little boy, I dreamt of going
to the Amazon and other faraway places and finding wonderful
things. And I have never changed. I have just got back from a
five-week expedition to the South Pacific, taking a team of three
others to the same sites that I worked in 57 years ago on Vanuatu
and New Caledonia; and that was a wonderful experience.
I think that all inventive scientists who succeed in developing
new theories and conceptions are driven by a passion to go
somewhere and discover something of a virginal nature, of liminal
life, things unexpected and of constant surprise. But then you go
from a fascination to a scientific investigation and description of
phenomena. You develop a theory about what is going on and then you
find a way to test it. If it works, that's good - and if it
doesn't, you go back to work again.
Does it puzzle you that other biologists retain their
faith, and even say that it has been strengthened by their
research? I'm thinking, for example, of Francis
Well, actually Francis Collins, among notable scientists in
America, is the rare exception. A recent survey of members of the
National Academy of Sciences (which is our equivalent of the Royal
Society) found that fewer than 10 per cent believe in God or an
afterlife - and the figure is even lower for biologists.2
I think we recognise that you can be a very good scientist, you
can even be a great scientist - remember [Isaac] Newton - and
remain a religious believer; but in the present day, when so much
is known about the origin of humanity and the biological basis of
our behaviour, you would need to compartmentalise your mind. I
don't think that you could work in evolutionary biology as I do and
be a religious believer. You would have to choose projects that are
outside the domain of belief.
There are scientists such as Simon Conway Morris3 who
would argue that God so designed the mechanism of the universe that
it would lead inevitably to the evolution of intelligent creatures
that could know him.
Well, what that does is immediately drive the
conversation all the way back to astrophysics and the so-called
anthropic principle. That's one way to make some kind of an
accommodation - I can't think of any other way; I would do it if I
could, but I can't - but it moves God pretty far away from the
concerns of humanity.
I'd like to say, too, that scientists have an open mind - that's
what defines science, in part - but it's also a sceptical mind,
which means that we demand more and more proof as the subject
becomes more and more important. It's been said, very rightly,
that a supernatural intervention would be such an extraordinary
event that belief in it would require extraordinary proof. If
anyone could show conclusively that there was such a thing as the
operation of supernatural intelligence and its direct influence on
the real world as we understand it, it would be the greatest
career-maker in history!
I think there's a widespread feeling (if I could just expatiate
for a moment) that there is a permanent hostility between science
and religious belief. There is not. Good science always holds
itself open to any possibility, and even where physical laws and
the ubiquity of natural selection seem to have been thoroughly
established, still we think through all these ideas with an open
You have notably proved willing to change your mind, but
often we see scientists fighting hard to defend their own theories.
It all seems a long way sometimes from Karl Popper's principle
that, having come up with a hypothesis, one should do all one can
to falsify it and should accept it only when all such attempts have
Well, those two attitudes would be the extremes. What I
want to do is to find a better theory if one exists. So, in the
case of sociobiology,4 I originally thought, for example, back in
the Seventies that there was strong evidence for kin selection as
an explanation of the origin of altruism,5 but as time went on I
(and others) found that in general it was not working very well,
and so we gradually developed a theory that worked a lot
Which is multi-level selection.
Yes, which says that in the evolution of social systems,
especially advanced systems where you have tight, well-organised
groups, selection is operating at two levels. Darwin himself
proposed group selection in The Ascent of Man - he had a
pretty good insight into what was really happening, which is that
within the group individuals compete with one another - for status,
for mates and so on - but at the same time the group is compet-ing
with other groups. Defeating other groups is a very powerful force.
You don't have to defeat them in war; it can just be a simple
matter of using the environment more thoroughly and building up a
The effect of this you would expect is that within groups
behaviour evolves that could be called 'selfish' - it favours
individuals within the group, which often is at the expense of the
group - whereas competition between groups feeds on those
gene-determined traits that actually [promote] altruism within the
group. An awful lot of this fits the known cases of advanced social
behaviour in the social insects - and, in my judgement, it also
fits humanity. That is, in essence, what all the recent controversy
has been about.6
In The Social Conquest of Earth,7 I showed that there
are only about two dozen known cases throughout the entire history
of life of [the development of] advanced social behaviour based
upon what you would call 'altruism' in the division of labour in
producing and raising young. So, a rare event. And then I showed
that of those we can track genetically - that is, really see where
they came from, in what circumstances they became social - without
exception they came from species that mated as solitary individuals
up to a particular adaptation: the building of a defended nest,
and foraging away from that nest to bring food home to raise the
And I then fitted it to the human story, as best we understand
it. I went through the paleontological evidence very carefully and
it seems (to oversimplify the matter a bit) that that is what
happened in humans, too. About two million years ago, Homo habilis
began to shift heavily to meat and it's very likely that they also
then started occupying campsites. And all their immediate
descendants - certainly Homo erectus - not only were hunting or
scavenging and bringing in meat but were also certainly in
campsites - and by that time were able to control fire. That was
the big turning-point in the origins of humanity.
So, altruistic behaviour emerges out of the benefit that
comes from clustering together in defended nests?
Exactly. It creates a social environment.
Chimpanzees, our close cousins, get only 3 per cent of their
calories from meat, whereas humans, when you average out all the
existing hunter-gatherer societies, get 30 per cent. And when you
come together - which is the best arrangement when you're
gathering meat, which is an extremely rich resource but is hard to
get - [and] you're not wandering around like the chimps looking for
fruit trees, tubers and so on, in bands but breaking up and not
living in the same spot for a long time, then you can see what most
And here I've brought in the social psychologists. Their
research emphasises the amazing intensity of the interest we have
in other people - we read intentions like geniuses. And that kind
of social intelligence is not there in the chimpanzees at all. And
this, I think, is what you would expect to have going on from Homo
habilis times. Lots of what we think of as basic human nature,
which includes group formation and competition and the intense
interest people have in each other, within groups and between
groups, is what happened next in evolution. And when you have
that, you can explain the almost exponential increase in brain
size from [Homo] habilis to [Homo] erectus. The greatest growth was
in the cortex and had to do with memory. Our memory is
exquisitely good when it has to do with other humans and our
relations with each other.
So, I think we're onto something there. In general, I would say
that increasingly we can understand the story of where humanity
came from and it is consistent with biological principles.
Some of the language you use in The Social
Conquest seems to imply design - you talk about 'hands and
feet built for grasping', for example, and a pelvis 'reformed … to
support the viscera'. Do you have any sympathy with people who look
at such progressive developments and think they can see a Designer
behind it all?
No, I haven't, to tell you the truth. I do say in the
book: Well, maybe there's a God or a supernatural divine force that
guided this evolution - that's always something we could think
about. But if our view of evolution is correct - and I think it's
coming pretty close to a certainty that the broad idea of
evolution, with mutation generating variation on which natural
selection acts, is correct - then God would have to engineer random
mutations, and changes in the environment such as sunspots and so
on, many of which are extremely complex and due (to the human mind,
anyway) to chance events. All of that would have to be
And the amount of prescription required would be so
great that it would preclude any kind of free will?
That's a good way of putting it. You know, either God
would have to be almost infinitely remote from what is actually
happening - the original designer of the physical laws who then
dropped out, maybe to observe from a distance - or you'd have to go
to the other extreme and he's guiding evolution and everything is
determined by him. And neither is very appealing, I think, to
either scientists or the religious faithful.
Even so, having written God out as unnecessary, at the
end of the book you do seem to allow that he might exist after all.
Do you find yourself still leaving space for him?
Actually, yes. I couldn't believe personally in a God but
I see how deeply faith in the divine is rooted in my own people and
how much it is part of American culture, and all the services that
religious organisations perform. I think that eventually we will
evolve toward where Europe is right now - you know, a steady
progression toward secularism - but we could not make that leap in
a generation or two in America.
As for turning a scientific view of reality, what really
happened and what we really are - which is what I'm all about -
into a weapon to wipe out religion, it doesn't make a lot of sense
to me. I'm simply not a militant atheist, one who thinks other
people should believe the way I do, and I don't find that people
respond well to being insulted and threatened.
What do you want this book to achieve?
Now, that's interesting. I would say I wanted to report
the best that science has to offer us in self-understanding, and I
would like to see this become part of the public discourse. If I
could stir things up… Nothing is more important to think about, in
science and just in our daily reflection, than the origin and
meaning of humanity, the questions I ask: Where do we come from,
and what are we? I find it amazing that so little serious attention
is given to them. There are not many scientists around who ask
those questions, and there are very few people who would even think
about thinking about them.
One of your other passions has been the environment and
the effect that humans are having on it…
I was so fascinated by nature from my early boyhood that
it was natural that I would grow up as a strong conservationist,
and that was intensified by the fact that I ended up studying
biodiversity - in fact, I helped to introduce the very word
'biodiversity'. It seemed to me that, whether you believe in God or
not, to save all the life we can, the diversity of it, should be a
moral imperative for both the religious and the non-religious.
That's why I published my book The Creation,8 which in
part is addressed to the religious and says to them: Let's stop
fighting over other issues and combine - science and religion, the
two most powerful forces on the globe - on one thing we both
consider a moral imperative (or I sure hope you do, I would say to
them) and save what you call 'creation' and I call 'global
In the past you have said that you don't think it would be
wrong to speak of our species as in some sense evil - at least now
that we know the damage we are doing…
I'd put it that way. I think that future generations will
say that what we did was an evil - and they will be able to find
villains, too, all over the place: those who made decisions, on
every continent, to go ahead with destroying a large part of life
We seem to be slowly applying the brake, but we haven't made the
protection of the rest of life - I would put it that strongly - an
important focus of our lives, and we certainly have not made it a
moral imperative that would unite global action.
Why is this such a difficult issue in the United States?
Many people there are reluctant even to acknowledge the reality of
the damage we are doing to the earth.
And half of the American people deny evolution - and some
of the Republican far-right is even taking an anti-science
Why are we passing the razor across our throats? I think it's
because the United States was so recently an authentic frontier
country. As recently as a century ago, most Americans were rural,
scattered in small pioneer settlements that were starting to
congeal into villages and small towns - and these were the
great-grandparents of people living today. You know, when I was a
boy I once met a veteran of the Civil War! Anyway, these people had
to find something that could unite their local communities. They
didn't have what Europeans had - cities, cathedrals, traditions of
government that were based on alliances of religion and the
secular; they had only one thing that they could turn to as an
absolute authority and that was the Holy Bible.
And that is where fundamentalism came from. You doubt things in
the Bible, you preach evolution as an explanation of where we came
from in the first place, you are not just messing with religious
belief - they don't say it, but this is what they really feel - you
are messing with my identity, what makes me the person I am and
what gives me strength (as it has done since the pioneer
And the reluctance to accept the evidence on climate
change fits into that picture as well?
Yes. I think Americans still have this religious feeling
that the earth is theirs to take. In other words: Who are you to
tell us we can't cut down our forests or remove our mountaintops
for the coal? This is God's will that we be using the earth for the
good of humanity.
And you then have to explain to them, as I tried to do in my
book with only minor effect, that in the long term you really would
not be doing God's will.
You have had some fruitful meetings with religious leaders
in Britain, haven't you?
And Sweden. But religious leaders in Britain and Sweden
are very different from Mormons and religious fundamentalists in
the United States. Very different. Actually, when I published
The Creation I met with a lot of religious leaders in the
United States and I also met with the Mormon leadership -
'apostles', they call them - in the president's room - a really
rare privilege. I don't think I made a great deal of progress,
though I know for a fact I helped speed up some of the
environmental movements that were starting up among
If the biosphere, and indeed the whole universe, merely
happens to exist and is purposeless, why does it matter if some
species are eradicated?
That's a question which I've been fighting for these many
decades, spelling out why we should care. It's just manifest that
it's the diversity which we're destroying that gives us
environmental stability, that gives us - well, one account has it,
free ecological services (if you want to be economic) in terms of
creating soil, purifying water and on and on, which if they were
converted to dollars are equal to the total world domestic
And then there are all the things that we will learn and that
future generations can enjoy for as long as we are on this earth
that come from the co-existence of the many species of plants and
animals and even micro-organisms that have been generated by
evolution. I'm always awestruck by what human art and the human
imagination can create, but it is nothing compared with the wonder
and potential for surprise of a single ecosystem and its
structures and operations and processes, which are the product,
bear in mind, of over three billion years of evolution.
We know now that the complexity of even a very simple ecosystem
- a pond or a marsh - is beyond anything that we can hope to
imitate. How can we justify, in one lifetime, recklessly throwing
it all away?
E O Wilson was talking to Pete Moore
1 The US geneticist (and author of The Language of
God [Free Press, 2006]), interviewed in Third Way in
2 A 1998 survey of members of the NAS found that only 7%
believed in God. Of the biologists, 5.5% believed in God and 7.1%
in an afterlife, whereas 65.2% and 69% respectively
did not. Belief was most prevalent among the mathematicians: 14.3%
and 15% respectively (see http://bit.ly/dT1pVA).
3 Professor of evolutionary paleobiology at Cambridge, and
the author of The Crucible of Creation (OUP, 1998)
4 The systematic study of the biological basis of all forms
of social behaviour in all kinds of organisms, including
5 Kin selection theory would suggest that a gene that
encouraged an individual to act in the interests of her/his
relatives even at her/his own expense might prosper because it
helped those relatives to survive and they possessed and passed on
the same gene.
6 See especially http://bit.ly/LulZrs (including the
7 Published by W W Norton & Co in May 2012 and reviewed
in Third Way in September
8 The Creation: An appeal to save life on Earth (W
W Norton & Co, 2006)
All photographs by Gabriel A. Miller (www.gabrielmillerphoto.com)