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E.O. Wilson’s Semi-Closeted Social Conservatism

Some Darwinians, such as Francis Fukuyama, Larry Arnhart, Jonathan Haidt and the late James Q. Wilson, openly and proudly acknowledge that the results of their research point in a moderately socially conservative direction.  It seems obvious to me that the Darwinian emphasis on what’s best for the social animal serving his or her family, tribe, and ultimately his or her species is a wonderful—if incomplete—antidote for the self-absorbed and socially apathetic illusions of our creeping and often creepy libertarianism. 

The Darwinians remind us, after all, that our true significance is in being somewhat self-sacrificing parts of wholes greater than ourselves.  They also remind us that naturally we’re far more like the gregarious chimps than the solitary and emotionally challenged natural individual described by Rousseau and mocked on Seinfeld.

Still, most evolutionary scientists, not surprisingly, regard such conservatives as too fundamentalist and often too indecent to deserve their support. They—such as E.O. Wilson, Arnhart, and Sheldon Cooper from TV’s The Big Bang Theory—often seem traumatized by their fundamentalist upbringing and imagine all religion is pretty much on the level of what they learned in Baptist Sunday School.  Still, the support for social conservatism is often there in their work, if rather stealthily.

Consider, for example, E.O. Wilson’s criticism in his new and magisterial The Social Conquest of Earth of the dogmatic, unscientific ignorance of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical explaining the church’s ban of artificial contraception. Wilson appears to emphasize his criticism of Humanae Vitae in order not to make too unfashionably obvious the ways in which he actually agrees with it.

The pope, according to Wilson, holds that God intended sexual intercourse to be only for the purpose for conceiving children.  He made it clear, Wilson should have added, that he also thought natural law was also on his side.  The pope seems very Darwinian here, after all.  The purpose of members of our species is to pair bond, reproduce, and raise their young.  Sex is deformed when detached from those natural, social functions.

There is, Wilson observes, an opposition genetically present in each member of our species between the two levels of natural selection—one that produces cooperative social behavior and the other that produces self-serving behavior.  That opposition, in Wilson’s words, “renders each of us part saint and part sinner.”  Human beings through all their religions have, he explains, characteristically praised action according social instinct virtue, and blamed preferring one’s own good over the good of the various groups of which he or she is a part as sin.

Neither the pope nor Wilson deny that members of our species have the biological capacity to choose for themselves over the good of their groups, beginning with the family.  But they also can agree to call such choices sin because our natural flourishing depends on group selection—driven by social instinct—prevailing over individual selection.  Although they differ in many ways on personal details, the pope and Wilson agree that each of us is most fundamentally a social or relational being.  For Wilson, organized religion has been pretty much “an expression of tribalism” and nothing more.  For the pope, the Christian religion is much more, but it, like other religions, does support our social and relational duties.

The pope missed, Wilson explains, another purpose for sexual intercourse discovered lately by scientists.  Human females differ from those of the other primate species in not advertising “estrus” or being in heat.  That means a woman bonded with a man invites “continuous and frequent intercourse.”  The cycle-based Natural Family Planning—or a kind of natural contraception—practiced by some Catholics, Wilson could have added, gets in the way of what nature intends a husband and wife to be always doing.

Wilson explains that the evolutionary or “adapative” function here is that women use sexual pleasure to make sure the father is always around to help raise the children.  Human children, because of their “high intelligence,” are helpless and then need lots of help for a much longer period of development than the young of other species.  It could hardly be called an evolutionary intention for a social animal that is the natural mother be stuck with raising those kids alone.  It’s clearly better for the children for their parents to stay bonded—sharing both parental responsibilities and sexual pleasure—until they’re raised.

So nature encourages the woman to use her constant ability to give and receive sexual pleasure to sustain her existing family, and her intention is sometimes not to add to that family.  Reproduction and raising the young are equally indispensable functions of the social animal, and Wilson suggests, of course, that the social instinct of a woman that supports putting her children first is stronger than the comparable instinct in men. It seems women are somewhat more about using sexual pleasure, and men about receiving it. From this view, some use of artificial contraception within marriage or at least parenthood can be compatible with natural family values.

Wilson even adds that there’s no reliable alternative to raising children to two “sexually and emotionally bonded mates.”  The mother, even “in tightly-knit hunter-gather societies” can’t count on the broader community or tribe. So the superiority of the two-parent heterosexual family with children is both natural and enduring.  Other kinds of families less natural or adaptive, which is not to say that they aren’t better than nothing.  It may take a village to raise a kid too, but not in place of parents.  This conclusion, it should go without saying, should fill us with supportive empathy for the lonely struggle of single moms, and it shouldn’t diminish our admiration for gay couples with the generosity to choose to raise kids.

On the basis of Wilson’s analysis, we can say that the pope has too narrow a view of the function of sex in pair-bonding and raising the young.  More impressive, however, are their broader areas of agreement.  Marriage is for having and raising children.  The capacity of our women to be constantly available to give and receive sexual pleasure must be understood in the context of the stable, enduring marriages our young require to be raised well.  So women “sin” and are unhappy when they give and receive sexual pleasure as free individuals mistakenly believing that they are “autonomous” enough to be unguided by social instinct.  Society, the family, and the species suffer when too many women are deceived by that mistaken judgment about who they are.

 Wilson and the pope appear to agree that women sin and are unhappy when they make sexual pleasure too readily available to men who are sinfully unwilling to accept the responsibilities of sexual and emotional mating.  The use of contraception to avoid having kids altogether—and especially the casual use of contraception outside of marriage—must be viewed as sinful or as undermining the social or group cooperation that’s the natural fuel responsible for the singular success of what Wilson calls by far the most intelligent of the “eusocial” species.

That’s not to say Wilson, by himself, would necessarily lead us to always be against the use of contraception—or the woman’s calculated use of sexual pleasure—outside of marriage.  The single mom might use both to bond with a mate to help raise her children, for example.  Studies show that little is tougher these days than those moms inducing men to be the responsible social mammals that nature intends them to be. Still, it would surely be better still if the single moms were to withhold constant sex until the male accepts the responsibilities of marriage and her child or children.

There’s no need to say more to show that Catholics—in their appeal to natural law—have quite the ally in Wilson.  He would say that you need the Bible—and its judgmental God who demands blind obedience—to believe that contraception is always wrong or that married people have any obligation to stay together after the children are raised.

Catholics—at least those who accept the version of natural law taught by Thomas Aquinas—would say that Wilson misses the more personal dimensions of marital love, because he misses the foundation in nature of irreducible personal identity.  Because he doesn’t understand fully who free persons are (and so what they long for), Wilson is unrealistically unerotic or weak on polymorphous personal love.  Let’s agree that there’s plenty of room for skepticism on Wilson’s “consilient” claim that he does or will, through his science, know everything about who each of us is. I will even assert without explaining for now that natural-law Catholics would agree with some of the characteristically feminist criticism of evolutionary psychology.

From a public-policy view, however, the big news is that Wilson shows that social conservatism is more about what we can see with our eyes about our own natures than merely some discredited “fundamentalist” dogma.

Wilson, of course, wouldn’t outlaw contraception, but neither would Catholics these days.  He talks about the unnatural futility of using government to somehow suppress the natural tension experienced by highly intelligent social animals between what’s best for oneself and what’s best for the group.  Socrates’ “city in speech” in the Republic is a despotic and surely futile attempt to eradicate the free and intelligent differences that separate our species from the completely instinct-driven bees and ants.

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Those differences, of course, explain why we dominate at much higher level than the social insects. We can know quite consciously that the future of our species and even life on our planet is in our hands.  It’s usually counterproductive—we say it’s Puritanical—to criminalize sin. But that doesn’t mean the Puritans were wrong to care so much about the quality of our social or relational lives.  Religion, Wilson observes, has had the evolutionary function of being against sin, of curbing personal obsession by attaching us all—meaning, for him, members of our group or tribe—to a divinely ordained common moral code that supports the social life we share.

If he really thinks through the political implications of his scientific discoveries, Wilson surely wouldn’t want to the tension between the individual and the devotion to groups—beginning with the family—be solved in a wholly individualistic direction by our courts or bureaucrats. 

The right balance should be the prudential product of social intelligence that privileges what’s required for a social species to flourish over the shortsighted selfishness.  The latter is always a threat to our singular capacity for the intelligent social cooperation that produced our planetary domination. Surely evolutionary scientists should be pretty worried about the health of the family these days, and he should want our experts and especially our people to pay more attention to that root cause of our excessive social detachment. The result is inequality in opportunities, socialization, and personal disorientation—not to mention unhappiness.


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