Scientist Laureate

Great minds think alike, I guess. Like Razib and Stranger Fruit, my answer to this week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger ? “Who would you nominate for Scientist Laureate, if such a position existed?” ? was going to be E. O. Wilson.

His work on conservation alone would justify that status, if such a thing existed. His work on sociobiology is justifiably famous, and his early work on island biogeography. His work is iconic across the sciences.

But ?

In an episode of the West Wing, the incoming poet laureate gives a reading of poets who were never chosen to be a poet laureate because they were too rebellious and controversial. I wonder if the memory of Wilson getting hit with a pie wouldn’t spike him from being a scientist laureate.

The pie incident was a response to sociobiology, which some people interpreted as justifying sexism. We’ll set aside for the moment that it wasn’t, and just note that laureates are generally uncontroversial folks who don’t get pies thrown at them.

Alas, with the passing of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, there isn’t another late-career scientist with an established public persona who could fill that role. We need more.


  1. #1 freestate townie
    November 20, 2006

    It is ironic that you would nominate EO Wilson for this imaginary post after having written the “Cognitive Science of IDolatry” post. If you ask me, that sociobiology text played no insignificant role in the spreading of those misconceptions about human evolution you discussed in the earlier post.

    You wrote (and I agree with you) in that post:
    “Like a hammer, science has no moral implications, it just tells you what works. ”
    …This is not the sort of thing EO Wilson would utter, for sure.

    Why not nominate Richard Lewontin or Richard Levins instead?

  2. #2 freestate townie
    November 20, 2006


  3. #3 Josh
    November 20, 2006

    Are you suggesting Lewontin and Levins as less ideological options? The authors of “The Dialectical Biologist” seem like odd choices in that sense.

    Levins is a very good friend of the family, and as the inventor of metapopulations in ecology, very influential on me personally.

    I actually think that the reaction against Wilson and sociobiology supports my point about science and ideology. I haven’t followed the details of the exchanges surrounding that, so it may be that Wilson used sociobiology as a normative argument, but in principle, it actually shows how science isn’t normative or ideological. Applications of sociobiology are uncontroversial when applied to many non-human species (though Lewontin and Gould’s point about adaptationism and spandrels have to be borne in mind).

    For instance: it’s uncontroversial to ascribe evolutionary reasons for a male lion entering a new pride to kill any cubs, even those born some time after his entry. It is also uncontroversial to suggest that pregnant female lions’ repeated matings with the new male are evolved attempts to confuse paternity and protect future offspring.

    When we note that children with step-fathers are more likely to be hospitalized, things get tricky. On some level, it ought not to be controversial to suggest that the same dynamic is at play, either through intentional harm or unintentional neglect for the offspring of a different male in his new family. But if we offer that as either an excuse for abusive stepparents or as a criticism of step-parents in general, we get past what science is telling us.

    Noting that men might have an evolutionary tendency towards polygyny, while women might have evolutionary pressures favoring monogamy is not terribly surprising either, unless used as either an excuse for adultery or a basis for criticizing all men (or all women).

    Whether or not we have those pressures, the normative force of our intellect and of society also operates, and we make choices. Adulterers aren’t just acting out the selective pressures that worked on hairless apes in African savannas a few million years ago. They are making choices in the modern moral context, and awareness of countervailing evolutionary pressures ought to make it easier to resist that pressure.

    Saying that sociobiology justifies adultery is different than saying that it explains it. My sense is that people who accused Wilson of justifying sexism, racism, and xenophobia were committing the naturalistic fallacy: arguing that what is natural must be good. That fallacy turns non-ideological statements of hypotheses into ideological dogmas and attacks on other dogma.

    I take it that LI does not think sociobiology makes testable predictions, but that is simply false. What it shouldn’t be used to offer are dogmatic statements about what ought to be. That is the place of ideology, not of science.

  4. #4 freestate townie
    November 21, 2006

    I’m with you on most of that, JR. I mentioned Lewontin and Levins as counter-examples….no intention to imply that they are less polarizing. They’re not.

    Sociobiology certainly set forth numerous insights and has spawned whole fields of research. I wouldn’t say that Wilson himself committed errors based on the naturalistic fallacy–but I’ve seen TONS of people do it. It is an easy error to make in evolutionary psychology. I just think that Wilson, by emphasizing heritable factors and deemphasizing environmental factors and [importantly] developmental factors, contributed to the general laziness you encounter when people conjecture about the evolution of human traits. Didn’t take me long to find a good example in the blogosphere.

    A less controversial nomination for scientist laureate? How about Kansas’ own Wes Jackson?

  5. #5 Josh
    November 21, 2006

    Wes would definitely be a good choice. Not quite a scientific Robert Frost, but a strong voice for science in daily life.

    This is what’s awkward about the idea of a scientist laureate. Wilson would probably be knocked out of the running because other people interpret his work as political, while scientists with an actual agenda would be disqualified for that reason. The only people who would be uncontroversial enough might be too uninteresting to qualify.

  6. #6 Liz
    November 21, 2006

    What about Ernst Mayr? Isn’t he one of the scientists (at least evolutionary scientists) you would see on a Mount Rushmore of scientists (intelligently designed, of course)?

    Or how about Crick or Watson? One of them is still alive, I believe. Discovery of the structure of DNA surely has to be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

  7. #7 Josh
    November 22, 2006

    Mayr is dead, as is Crick. Watson is a nice guy, but has made statements that veer close to eugenics.

  8. #8 Mark
    November 23, 2006

    Are you really going to eliminate EO Wilson because of something that was said on a prime time TV show?