Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Of mollusks and ants

If a guy my age can have heroes, here are two of them. Give the guy on the right some mutton-chop whiskers and you have the guy on the left. Two brilliantly original, socially progressive, agnostic, contrarian biologists.

Thomas Huxley and E. O. Wilson.

I didn't say so in my post yesterday, but in the brewing controversy about kin selection, I wouldn't bet against Wilson. The leading lights of evolutionary biology may be arrayed against him, and I certainly don't have the expertise to evaluate the respective arguments, but all you have to do is look at that mischievous smile in the pic above and you know that in the game of life (and science) he's pretty confident he holds the winning cards. It may be a long shot, but he's is my sentimental favorite.

I like these guys -- Huxley and Wilson -- because of the breadth of their culture and interests. They are first-rate scientists, but they are also deeply concerned to interpret the scientific enterprise to the larger culture, and especially to draw out the philosophical implications of empirical knowing. Neither man hesitates to tip over sacred cows, but they do it with a gentlemanly wink and sly grin rather than dynamite.

In his biography of Huxley, Adrian Desmond says that in the increasingly specialized world of the late-19th century, his subject was "the last to view Art, Literature and Science as a whole." Well, maybe not. Ed Wilson does a pretty good job of seeing the whole in his book Consilience. Too bad the two men were not able to meet; I suspect they would have gotten on famously.

I spent some time with Wilson on one occasion -- a writers' gathering on Martha's Vineyard many years ago -- and was enamored of his modesty and charm. At my publisher's request, he subsequently provided an exceedingly generous blurb for the back cover of Skeptics and True Believers, for which I was grateful. Go, Ed.