Friday, January 16, 2009

E.O.Wilson on science & religion and ants

Here is an interview with E.O. Wilson where he talks about his beliefs, how he sees science and religion interaction, and of course, ants. But, lets start with ants:

Q. Your first passion was ants. Over many decades, your research on ants has taken you all over the world and has led to the discovery of hundreds of other species. How has your work helped form your views about how animals and humans evolve, and what has it taught you about human nature?

E.O. Wilson: The work on ants has profoundly affected the way I think about humans. Not that ants are in any sense much like humans, or any kind of a model for them; how could they be if all the colonies are females, and if they constantly are at war with one other? But the study of ants has informed science a great deal about the origins of altruistic behavior – that's what binds the colony together – and about the impact of a dominant animal group on the environment.

Ants are the dominant insects of the world, and they've had a great impact on habitats almost all over the land surface of the world for more than 50-million years. So they're very interesting as subjects for ecological study, particularly about how abundant creatures affect the globe – which of course is something that we're doing – and therefore anything we can learn from that might shed light on the general principle.

On his personal beliefs:

Q. You were brought up Southern Baptist but now consider yourself a secular humanist. Can you explain your religious beliefs, how they evolved, and how they've influenced your work?

E.O. Wilson: It's very simple. The biological evolutionary perception of life and of human qualities is radically different from that of traditional religion, whether it's Southern Baptist or Islam or any religion that believes in a supernatural supervalance over humanity. In the case of fundamentalism, that also includes the view that humanity was specifically designed by God in his own image and that we are here sort of at his service.

The evolutionary viewpoint introduced by Darwin in 1859 was genuinely revolutionary because it contradicted that in every important respect. It showed that organic systems can build – and do build – by themselves through a process of change and natural selection.

Q. And where do you stand personally on the God question?

E.O. Wilson: I tend to believe that religious dogma is a consequence of evolution. Religious belief and the firm adherence to it – and the intense dislike of apostates, people who abandon it – has a very important biologic origin, probably through natural selection, namely the cohesion of the group and the persuasion of people to be more altruistic. So in my view, most dogmas concerning the creation are myths of creation and are not believable. They're just different from one religion to another.

When the question comes up, "If it's not true, why does practically everybody believe in God?" the answer is that it's true in a Darwinian sense. That is, it provides cohesion, it provides personal peace and rites of passage, and it promotes altruism, which are all invaluable and necessary for the survival of human societies.

This is in line with the work of David Sloan Wilson. In fact they recently wrote an article together for New Scientist on Survival of the Selfless (pdf). Back to E.O. Wilson and his beliefs:

Q. And so is it correct that you consider yourself neither atheist nor agnostic?

E.O. Wilson: That's correct. I'm not an atheist, because who am I to say there is no such thing as a supervalance? I just think that most of what we think about God is something we've invented for the benefit of humanity. I'm not agnostic, someone who believes the truth is unknowable. Who am I to say we will never know the truth? I have called myself a provisional deist. That is to say I'm willing to consider the possibility of an ultimate cause. But we haven't really come close to grasping what that might be.

Judging from his above answers, it is not too surprising that he departs from Dawkins on how to approach religion. But he goes a bit further - and wants to forge an alliance with the Evangelicals to save the planet:

Q. You've also said that the only way Earth can be saved is if science and religion join forces. Can you explain what you mean by that?

E.O. Wilson: Unlike some authors who are extremely strident – I call them the military wing – I don't think the way for scientists, for secular humanists like myself, is to approach religion with that spirit. I believe that Dawkins, and those who adhere to what I call the Dawkins school of thought, underestimate the power of religion, the power of its social function.

Even as we may disbelieve the creation myth, it's better to recognize that most of the world is religious, and in fact highly religious, and that people in these religions are by and large wonderful people. That's certainly true in the Evangelical society, which has been the focus of so much controversy. I know so many of those people. I grew up Evangelical. It just seems to me inordinately sloppy and selfish to just assault them and their beliefs frontally. Much better it is to do what I've done, which is the classic step in conflict resolution: finding common ground and putting aside for the moment fundamental disagreements. Put them aside for a while and then ask for help.

Scientists better than anyone have understood what's happening to the Earth. Religious believers in the country, 75 percent of Americans at least, are beginning to understand what's happening, and they're increasingly concerned. So this is a common ground on which we can meet. There have been meetings between scientific leaders and Evangelical leaders. I was invited for a meeting with the leaders of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City.

I've given talks on the whole subject at Sanford University at Birmingham, which is called the Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference. I've discovered that these wonderful people mean to do well, they mean to solve the problems as much as scientists and secularists. We can put aside our differences for a while because we do have a crisis situation on our hands.

I think this is important. He doesn't agree with Evangelicals - but he can still work with them for achieving a common goal. It helps that he doesn't insult them or believe that they have an inherently low I.Q. It is possible that his approach is different because he grew up as a Southern Baptist - and he can recognize the myriad of reasons why people cling to religion. But this is a great example of science & religion cooperation without sacrificing any principles of science.

Read the full interview here (there is lot more on the controversy over sociobiology and on his biodiversity project).


questionsaboutfaithetc said...

Extremely interesting interview. Thanks for sharing :)

Atif said...

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Salman Hameed said...

Thanks - I appreciate your encouraging comments.

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